Learning Stories: Part I

Cross-Posted to GETIdeas.org A few years ago, after facilitating a session on assessment in the 21st-century classroom, I was approached by one of the workshop participants and asked what initially prompted me to start reconfiguring my classroom practice and my approach to classroom assessment. I said: “I asked myself a few basic questions: What do I want my students to be now and when they’re older? What skills do I want them to have? Who do I want them to be as human beings?”

“What was your answer?” She asked.

I found the answer to my questions in an early childhood education curriculum and policy document, titled Te Whariki, developed by the government of New Zealand. It’s a bicultural and bilingual document (English and Maori) founded on the following aspirations for children:

… to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.

That sentence captures what I hope my students will and have become. It drives my classroom practice, my approach to student engagement, and my assessment practices. It now also powers my understanding of teacher development and my research in this field. Why? Because it focuses on things that are important to me as an educator:

  • Competent and confident learners and communicators
  • Healthy in mind, body and spirit
  • Sense of belonging
  • Valued contribution to society

These are key to my understanding of education – its role in our lives and its transformative power. The passage from Te Whariki is a maxim I use regularly to guide my classroom practice and my work with teachers around the world. It is the lens through which I view education and teacher development. I believe every teacher needs to have such a set of guiding principles that helps us overcome challenges, stay focused and committed, and steer clear of distractions. Above all, that passage from Te Whariki that I selected as my professional mantra guides my views on assessment – once I defined the purpose of education in my classroom I was able to best decide on the tools and activities needed to ensure that the children get there.

And that is where another element of the Te Whariki approach comes in, an element that I have found to be key in helping me re-think assessment and student engagement and support strategies: It is known as Learning Stories (Carr, 2001). Although used almost exclusively in early childhood education, it has played an important role in my professional development and in helping me learn how to best support young learners in middle school and high school classrooms. Learning Stories is an alternative approach that

… involves observations in everyday settings aimed at providing a cumulative series of qualitative snapshots or written vignettes of individual children displaying one or more of the five target domains of learning dispositions. These learning dispositions are based on the [curriculum] strands of Te Whariki: Mana Atua (well-being); Mana Whenua (belonging); Mana Reo (communication); Mana Tangata (contribution); and Mana Aoturoa (exploration) (Rameka, 2007, p.132).

Learning stories are about documenting, through narratives, what children can do and what they are learning. They represent learning as essentially a dynamic, evolving, and ongoing process. They do not reduce learning to a score that children get at the end of the unit or semester … or a level that defines them as they start a new school year, with a new teacher. As opposed to our well-established modernist approaches to assessment, Learning Stories do not highlight deficiencies, weaknesses, or mistakes. They recognize that each child is a unique individual who interacts with the world around her and learns differently, through a process that is uniquely her own. Learning Stories view learning as a holistic endeavour, not a collection of subjects or skills that the child must master, and they therefore focus on learning as exploration and a process of inquiry. Teachers who use this approach are also well aware of the fact that learning takes place all the time, not just in the classroom, and they involve parents and other family members in documenting the child’s development and commenting on narratives written by the teacher.

Even though Learning Stories is an approach used in early childhood education settings, I have always been very interested in how the key principles behind Learning Stories could be used to revolutionize how we assess and evaluate students when they’re older. Over the past few years, I have had a number of opportunities to build on the Learning Stories approach in middle school and in high school settings. I’ve worked with teachers who were open to experimentation and whose assessment narratives – often co-constructed with parents and the students themselves – made an impact on student motivation. I’ll share some of them in my next post.

Below, you will find a number of Learning Stories exemplars that inspired me to modify this approach for use with older students. As you look through some of the exemplars below, think about how this approach could be used in your context, be it middle school, high school, or even post-secondary. Imagine documenting – with your students and for them – their learning and development as learners, thinkers, creators, contributors, and communicators through narratives and “qualitative snapshots.” What would these stories look like? Would they involve parents? Other teachers? Could they be multimedia texts? How would they fit into your assessment and evaluation practice?

“Oh, no! That’s not right!” “I’m getting better and better.” A Budding Archeologist Teaching Others The artists Mahdia’s Story



Carr, M. (2001). Assessment in early childhood settings. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Rameka, L. (2007). Mäori approaches to assessment. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 30(1), 126-144.