Part 2: Getting started with learning stories


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    This week you are going make a start on observing and documenting a learning event in your own setting, and so we’re going to spend a little bit of time this week thinking about how we are going to observe learning. We will then guide you through transforming this observation into the description of children’s activity that begins a learning story.

    This week we are aiming to 

    • Understand the features of effective learning stories,
    • Learn about and implement effective observation practices, and
    • Learn how to write useful descriptions of observed learning as part of the learning story format

    This will involve:

    1. Reading about what and how to observe for effective assessment practice
    2. Observing a learning event in your own setting
    3. Watching a video about writing the description section of a learning story
    4. Putting your learning into practice by writing your description of learning 

    As usual, you will also have the opportunity to respond to an online discussion prompt, and as further reading, you might like to explore further exemplar learning stories in the Ministry of Education resource, Kei tua o te pae (link provided below).

    What are the strengths of using learning stories as assessment tools in early childhood education?

    Strengths of using a learning story approach to assessment include:

      • Encouraging involvement
      • Accounting for complex learning
      • Generating multiple interpretations and perspectives
      • Enabling children’s voices
      • Enabling continuity
      • Constructing competence
      • Supporting transitions

    Our assessments depend on focussed and detailed observations, and are going to be more relevant and accurate when the observations underpinning them have been carefully and thoughtfully recorded. Read the following information on what and how to observe for effective assessment, thinking about what and how you might observe in your setting.

    What and how to observe for effective assessment practice  

    The first choice in assessment practice is determining what to document for assessment purposes. Teachers are constantly assessing children’s interests, skills and understanding as they play and talk with children. The choice of what to formally document depends on your interests. You will select what is most meaningful for you, but also some learning activity that you think might have potential for extension. You want to document something that can provoke discussions with other teachers, as well as children and their families, that will help them to get to know children and their learning, and help them to plan ways to further learning. 

    It can be useful to have a discussion with colleagues about important priorities for individual children, or to develop a shared sense of curriculum priorities in your setting with parents, whānau and teachers, to focus your observation. You might observe children’s participation in a teacher-led experience which has been intentionally planned to extend a child or group’s interests, and here you might have specific aspects that you want to observe, or specific questions about children’s learning to guide your observation, such as “how do the children tackle collaborative activity?” or “what strategies do the children use for exploration?” or “what do Daniel and Tzipora understand about looking after animals?”. 

    Another option is to look at when children are intensely engaged and absorbed in an activity or project, or a new or sustained interest, which indicates that this learning is meaningful to them. You might also observe aspects of play that parents and whānau have indicated are important. Finally, it is also useful to write stories about larger projects that include several children, which enables you to explore social relationships and the different roles children take in the development of group interests.

    One of the easiest ways to observe children is with a digital camera – you can take photos of the children in action and then use these photos later to reconstruct the event. Photos can provide a lot of detail about context and perhaps the finer detail of things like children’s hand positions as they mould clay and so on, but there is also a lot that they miss. One important element is the dialogue and speech that accompany a learning event, or the subtle non-verbal communication offered by an infant or toddler. This can give great insight into what children perceive to be important about the task at hand. If you’re taking photos, also grab a clipboard and paper or a pad of post-it notes and note down what you can of the dialogue and action. You might also add some of your immediate thinking about what you’re observing at the time. 

    You could make a voice recording of the dialogue while you are taking photos, and transcribe some of the children’s dialogue and speech later, but this will take time, and may not be all that clear because of background noise. 

    A simple way to record both action and dialogue or the finer detail of non-verbal communication is to use a video camera. Video recordings capture a lot of the context of the learning event (although not all, as sometimes crucial aspects of the context are off-screen) but they can be time-consuming to view. With this in mind, keep video recordings short but focused, and you are bound to get lots of assessment information from them.

    Relate our learning to practice

    Choose a learning event to observe in your early childhood setting– this will be the focus for the learning story you will write during this course.

    Look for and select something that is meaningful, for example, something that reflects your setting’s curriculum priorities, or something in which a child shows new, sustained or intense interest, or something that is important to parent and whānau aspirations for the child. It should also be learning that you would like to understand more about in order to better support, expand and extend it.

    How to observe and document – tips

    • Using a notebook or clipboard or a pack of post-it notes, jot down key words and phrases that children utter, or note down the order of the actions they use to complete a task, or the different stages of their activity, such as, for example, the way they tackle making a clay house, or explore a new object. Write notes or draw sketches, according to your preference. Don’t rely on photographs – an effective observation cannot consist purely of photographs.
    • Pay attention to non-verbal gestures and actions. With infants, look at small details, such as the direction of an infants’ gaze, or the pattern of their hand and feet movements. 
    • Use video or audio recording sparingly: a minute or two will give lots of detail for your assessment.
    • Spend a couple of moments thinking about the significance and meaning of what you have observed (either immediately after or as soon as you have time – at the end of the day is fine). What seemed most interesting or important to you in the moment of observing? You might highlight or circle some of your notes, annotate them with questions to yourself (such as “is N drawing on home experience here?”) that help you to make some provisional meaning from what you observe.

    Things to discuss on the Module 2 forum this week:

    • How did you go with the observation task?
    • What did you find worked (or didn’t work) for you for observing children’s learning?

    You are going to write a learning story about the event of children’s learning that you have observed and planned to document in your early childhood setting. The first step in a learning story is to describe the events that occurred, in an engaging narrative.

    Watch a video

    Describing and narrating learning in a learning story

    The notes (or video/audio recording) you’ve taken about a significant learning event for a child will contain a lot of detail. How do you decide what to include? You don’t want to include so much detail that your story is long, boring or otherwise hard to read. So what’s important?

    The description of the learning that occurred is going to fulfil two functions: setting the scene and narrating the action. Let’s start with setting the scene.

    The aim of the description is to give information about the context of the learning that might be important or relevant to understanding why the learning occurred and in what contexts it might be repeated. Contexts include activities, resources and relationships with adults and peers. For this part you are already undertaking some analysis. What part of the context is significant to the learning that occurred? Was it because certain people or certain resources were involved, or was it something about the time of day? If not, then it might not be necessary to include these details. A sociocultural theoretical perspective on learning suggests that children’s abilities and skills are entwined with their relationships with people, places and things, so including these in your description is very important for understanding what supports children’s learning.

    Now it is time to narrate the action, that is, describe what the child did and said that formed part of the significant learning. Again, some analysis is needed when deciding how much of what happened during the event needs to be recorded in the story. Look at your notes or video / audio and decide which parts really show what was going on for the child (what they were thinking or what they were motivated by) or aspects of their behaviour, action and language that show change and therefore reflect learning and development. You don’t need to write a complete script: Repeated actions can be lumped together (so you might say “over and over again you returned to get more water in your bucket”) and long sections of speech can be paraphrased. Sometimes it might be useful to detail the dialogue script-style. All of this will depend on what you are trying to demonstrate about a child’s learning in this particular story. Try to be as succinct as possible without losing anything meaningful as readers of your story will want to get the meaning quickly. The aim is to provide enough information for readers to understand what occurred and reflect on its meaning

    Learning stories that are written by one teacher and include only that teacher’s interpretation of the learning event also raise issues of validity. This is because we write and make judgements from our own perspective shaped by our context, history and culture. Seeking other perspectives and being open to alternative perspectives and vocabularies for describing children’s learning can help us to open up our thinking beyond our own situated perspectives.

    In order to develop a more robust and reliable analysis of the learning, it is important to integrate different voices in the assessment process. This means asking other people for their opinions and interpretations! Getting these other perspectives not only help you in assessing children’s learning, but they also make assessment and planning a more inclusive and democratic process that can be more responsive to the individuals involved. It is important to gain the perspectives of other teachers in your teaching team, as well as those of the family and the child themselves, by sharing partially written learning stories without analysis. This is because it is much harder to invite shared thinking with others when the analysis is already complete. Our next few tasks focus on getting feedback on your story from each of these groups. 

    Relate our learning to practice

    Write the description part of your learning story. Use the following pointers to help you:

    • Be clear and concise – what information is really relevant and meaningful to understanding the learning?
    • Offer a sense of incompleteness and limitation to show that there is much you do not and cannot know about what you observed – this invites others’ interpretations – and that the learning is a work in progress rather than a finite event. For example, “I’m not sure how you knew when you had enough water, but after six trips to the tap you picked up your spade and continued digging”.
    • Include information about the context, including the relationships with adults, peers, and materials.
    • Make links to children’s interests, capabilities and culture when describing what happened. For example, “Perhaps because you have watched your dad playing the drums in church, you felt confident to continue playing the drums with the other children and teachers watching”.
    • Ensure you are using a positive tone to describe children’s learning processes and that overall you present children as competent and confident in their learning.

    Find more exemplar stories within the Ministry of Education resouce, Kei tua o te pae.

    This week we’ve focused on understanding and practicing effective observation of learning, and on translating that observation into a meaningful and engaging narrative within a learning story. The main points we’ve covered are:


    • Relevant and accurate assessments depend on focussed and detailed observations that have been carefully and thoughtfully recorded.
    • Observations can be focused on a curriculum priority area or area of interest to parents, an activity that might have potential for extension or provoke discussion, teachers’ inquiry questions and larger projects, or anything that provokes children’s intense interest or absorption.
    • Observations can be recorded in writing, through a series of photographs, and video or audio recordings.

    Writing descriptions of learning

    • The description of the learning in a learning story assessment serves both to set the scene and narrate the action. 
    • Providing information about the context of the learning can be important to understanding why the learning occurred and in what contexts it might be repeated.
    • Writing a description of the learning involves decisions about what aspects of the event need to be recorded in the story. These will be parts that really show what was going on for the child (what they were thinking or what they were motivated by) or aspects of their behaviour, action and language that show change and therefore reflect learning and development.