by Dr Sarah Alexander
What is a Learning Story?
A 'Learning Story' is a record of what a teacher (or parent) has seen a child (or group of children) doing in an early childhood programme.
The written story may be as short as one paragraph or one page or longer. It is usually focused on a specific incident or episode but it may also be a snapshot of a child's activities over a specific amount of time (e.g. 10 minutes). It may focus on a group activity, and be a learning story about an activity that the children did together such as visiting a fire station or going on a walk.
It becomes a 'learning' story when the adult adds his/her interpretation of the child's competencies and dispositions toward learning (such as courage and curiosity, and perseverance). The Learning Story generally is formulated by the adult to highlight what the child can do and is doing rather than what they can't do.
Also, it is common for the adult to match up the strands of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki to the story to try to explain what the child (or group of children) have learnt.
Almost always the adult will take photographs or video to include with the written story, and the written story along with the images will be shared with the child and the child's family.
A collection of learning stories is commonly called a 'portfolio'. A portfolio is similar to the traditional photograph album but it is more than an album as it includes the written story behind the the images and may include comments and reflections from the child, family, and ECE service participants.
The physical form of the portfolio may be a book or folder. Alternatively, the video, voice, and images may be loaded directly into an on-line e-portfolio.
Learning Stories are said to be suitable for children of all ages, and can become longer and more complicated as the children grow and their skills develop. They can also be reviewed at a later date in order to help future planning to further develop a child's skills.
Usually because they take time to write, Learning Stories are written up after the event has actually happened and when the teacher is not working with the children (during a teacher's non-contact time).
So teachers need to have a good memory! And an accurate memory! (Also as explained more below, they need to have had time to get to know very well the individual child they are writing a learning story on, otherwise the risk increases of incorrect assumptions and meanings being ascribed to the child's behaviour, language and learning.)
How good is the Learning Story method for assessing children's learning?
While children in early childhood education are not assessed with end of year tests or other formal assessments, the Ministry of Education does require early childhood programmes to be ''informed by assessment, planning and evaluation ... that demonstrates an understanding of children's learning, their interests, whanau and life contexts''.
Supporters of the Learning Story method of assessing children's learning praise the ease of access for parents and teachers because the assessments are written like a story and usually include photos which make them attractive to read, share and keep.
While they are praised for collecting interesting examples of children's activities it has been said that Learning Stories are not necessarily the best way of assessing development over time and in a wider context.
The quality of the Learning Story depends on the adult writing it and her/his own subjectivity (views, values and feelings).
Without the use of other methods of child assessment, Learning Stories can provide only a small snapshot of a child's learning.
The amount of development the Learning Stories approach can cover depends on how often they are written and how long each observation is. As it takes time to write a story, critics argue that Learning Stories are not written often enough to provide a proper record of a child's development, sometimes as little as once a month.
There are still few official guidelines on how often Learning Stories should be written and what exactly they should focus on.
Children's portfolios do not always tell the whole story and do not always include enough involvement from children and their parents.
To properly assess a child's learning, the adult must know the child well.
Often the adult writing the Learning Story to provide an assessment of the child's learning, knows little about the child's behaviour, well-being and experiences outside of the context of the early childhood programme. Home-visits are rarely carried out by teachers.
Learning Stories are still generally the assessment form of choice for most ECE services although some have expanded or adapted the Learning Story concept to better suit their own needs.
There is no standard way of writing a Learning Story and the adults at your child's early childhood service will have their own way of doing Learning Stories.
Catching on now are e-portfolios. Digital technology is enabling faster documentation of children's activities, faster and increased communication between parents and teachers, and greater attention to understanding children's interests and strengths.
Here is an example from a Storypark demo page
The vast majority of ECE services that use an e-portfolio system do this through the Storypark platform. (this is not a paid advertisement)
However, while there has been a big swing toward online portfolios we are seeing a trend back to paper portfolios, with early childhood services providing both the online and a hard copy version which may also include samples of children's works such as drawings instead of only photographs of drawings, etc.
A paper portfolio is something that children can look at any time without need to turn on a computer or device. When they leave and start school, their ECE paper portfolios can go home with them and stay on their bookshelf as a lovely reminder and memory refresher of their time in ECE.
If your ECE service would like to explore the use of Storypark, Storypark provides a discount to ECE services through the ChildForum Early Childhood National Organisation to make access more affordable - ChildForum's website to learn more is www.childforum.com