By Dr Christina Egan Marnell
As teachers and educators, we see amazing experiences happen for children all day, every day. We watch as they figure out how to use equipment, or how to navigate an interaction with their friends. We see and understand the learning that is happening in that exact moment. But the challenge can be, how do we find a way of making it visible? How do we share this learning with children, parents and families? How do we communicate it?
One answer can be through learning stories. My experience with learning stories comes from my time in New Zealand where learning stories were the main form of documentation and assessment in Early Childhood Education (ECE). I’d like to share a little bit about what I’ve learnt.
Understand your why
If you were talking to a friend about learning stories, what would you say? Are they a record of activities children participated in? Do they describe the daily routine? Or are they more…? Do they promote the incredible benefits of a play-based curriculum? Do they form a record of a child’s lifelong learning journey?
I worked with many teachers and young adults who still had their own learning stories book and treasured them. They see them as a keepsake, a portal back into the world of their early childhood.
Be proud of what you write and share. It really is important to the child.
Don’t let a fear of not being a ‘good writer’ deter you
As someone who cares for and teaches children, you are a natural storyteller. There are many ways to write learning stories, and no one is a pro the first time they do it. We all have to learn how to write a quality story; each time you write a story you will tweak it from the last time.
You can also be creative, letting your unique writing style come out. Remember a learning story is only possible because the teacher is writing it.
The most important tool you have for writing learning stories is your relationship with the child. Draw on all the knowledge you already have- their interests, needs, strengths, cultural background, family and wider community. This is what makes up who a child is and what influences their learning. You know this child really well already. You know what is important to them at this time. Let that shine through in your story.
Start with considering who your audience is: parents/ family or the child? Once you have decided, think about the language you use, can they understand it? Stories should be engaging and interesting to read.
I use the Notice-Recognise-Respond framework (Carr, 2001) to structure my learning stories:
Notice: This is where you will describe your observation(s) in detail. Either a significant, single moment or key points from a series of observations that all relate to the same disposition/skill/ interest. Think about: what did you see the individual child doing or saying? What was happening around them? The child is the main character and the heart of this story. Ask your colleagues for their input too, as it will strengthen the observation. Just as much as we value a strength-based narrative, you can also include the challenges children encounter.
Recognise: This is where you will analyse the learning related to your ‘notice’ section. Think about: what specific learning outcomes has the child achieved (The aims and goals of Aistear can help guide you). What disposition has been strengthened? Does it connect to previous learning? You can also draw on the insights of your colleagues here to help interpret the learning.
Respond: Drawing on what you know already about the child- their strengths, their interests, their family and culture etc, how can you extend their learning? What are the opportunities and possibilities for what comes next in the child’s learning journey? Your role as the child’s teacher should be clear here; what activities and/or learning opportunities are you going to offer them and why?
How to make it a little easier:
- Have Post-its and a pen in your pocket – always. You observe and hear children’s unique moments each day, but it can be hard to remember them in detail when it comes time for writing. So, write a brief note on the post it of what you’ve seen and date it including the child’s actual words spoken. If you’ve taken a photo of the moment, note that too- photos are easier to find when you know the date to look under.
- When it comes to photos- less is more. Choose only three to four meaningful, quality photos that enhance your story. While photos are emotionally appealing, what you write about in your observation is just as important.
- Learning stories don’t need to have a strict word count, but it does need to be long enough for someone else to understand what happened by reading it.
Learning stories are more than just an assessment tool
They can be a relationship builder with families as they offer a conversation starter. Families might be interested in the activities that occurred and want to find out more. This can lead to more conversations about their child’s learning, strengthening the learning partnership with parents.
They highlight professional practice. As a teacher, you draw on your skills and knowledge, built over many years, to emphasis the complexity of the child’s learning and your teaching strategies. You use the learning stories as a basis for planning for the individual’s child’s educational needs. They also offer a window into the daily hum of a service and as such, can be used in evaluating teaching practices.
Whatever you write, make it meaningful to the individual child. Their time in early childhood is precious. Your knowledge as their teacher is irreplaceable.
Carr, M. (2001). Assessment in early childhood settings: Learning stories. London: Paul Chapman
Dr Christina Egan Marnell is an Early Childhood Specialist at Early Childhood Ireland. She is a qualified Early Childhood teacher, completing a BA Honours in Early Childhood Care and Education at the Institute of Technology, Sligo and a Doctorate of Education at Victoria University, Wellington. Christina is passionate about advocating for the power of play-based learning and the vital role of early childhood education in society. She sees herself as a lifelong learner, with every interaction providing a new perspective.