Learning Stories: The Power of Narrative Inquiry

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have been thinking about pedagogical documentation and specifically learning stories. Learning stories are based on the work of Dr. Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee of New Zealand. I first heard about learning stories about ten years ago at a conference that featured Margie Carter and Deb Curtis from Harvest Resources who spoke of the work of Tom Drummond. Reading learning stories was a wonderful opportunity to get a snapshot of a child’s learning and development and I could imagine how powerful it would be for families to receive this memento of their child and appreciated that they were invited to comment. I enjoyed reading learning stories over the years but it was documentation that focused on group learning that I found to be more compelling and intriguing. Even though it has been ten years since hearing about learning stories, I hadn’t really thought deeply about them until recently. As I have been asked to offer workshop participants the experience of creating documentation, I have used learning stories because they provided a structure for the participants. Buttons as loose parts  have become a recent passion (obsession) and after experiencing the potential of buttons, I provided a learning story template to support the creation of documentation to share and interpret.

It is always my quest to improve and while the experience was well received, one group said that they were lost; having never documented. They did not share their documentation with others. In our province, pedagogical documentation is new to many educators. Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years was published in 2014. How Does Learning Happen? speaks to pedagogical documentation but not learning stories. Pedagogical documentation is, according to the document,”more than recording events – it is a means to learning about how children think and learn” (p.21). Learning stories are a viable way of making thinking/learning visible and giving voice to children.

Pedagogical Documentation

In searching for a definition of learning stories, I have come across the word “assessment” frequently. They have been described as both an assessment tool and a reporting method. In Ontario, learning stories as a form of assessment were recommended in the province’s early learning framework Early Learning for Every Child Today (ELECT) when it was first published in 2007 but in the more recently released “Excerpts from the ELECT” (2014) they are not included. In Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years; How Does Learning Happen? the section on the ELECT states that the “continuum of development is not a lock step, universal pattern that should be achieved according to a specific timetable, nor is it intended to be used as an assessment tool or checklist of tasks to be completed” (p. 18). Formal assessment and reporting are not things that I am comfortable with for early childhood education. I am learning that learning stories are about so much more. They are about listening to children, telling their story and welcoming their perspectives and the perspectives of their families. According to Carlina Rinaldi in The Relationship between Documentation and Assessment documentation is about giving meaning and value through listening.

Listening is an active verb that involves giving meaning and value to the perspective of others, a form of assessment. This kind of listening is a way of welcoming the others and their differences, and a way of welcoming different theories and perspectives. (Rinaldi, 2004, p. 3)

Documenting learning and sharing the documentation with children is a way for teachers to show children that they are valued. When children see and hear learning stories where they are the featured main character it must be a validating experience. Sharing with families adds more opportunity for added perspectives. Typically, learning stories seem to be about that one main character or protagonist. They don’t often depict group learning. Susan Stacey, the author of Pedagogical Documentation in Early Childhood has a webinar on pedagogical documentation and in it she describes learning stories as written for and to the child and his/her family. She has included a learning story example as well as so many other examples of documentation, making it an wonderful resource.

Learning Stories

When I used a learning story template in my work with adults to provide an opportunity to document experience it was with the intent to capture group learning. Even though it appears that learning stories are more about one child, they can be used to capture the learning of a group. It is a means to engage in research. It is narrative inquiry. Narrative inquiry as a research methodology shares the philosophy and epistemological assumptions of constructivism. Narrative inquiry is the process of gathering information for the purpose of research through storytelling. Narrative inquiry focuses on meaning making. According to Connelly and Clandinin (1990), “humans are storytelling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives. The study of narrative therefore is the study of the ways humans experience the world. This general notion translates into the view that education is the construction and reconstruction of personal and social stories; teachers and learners are storytellers, characters in their own and other’s stories” (p. 2). To make meaning requires the researcher to seek multiple perspectives to give the story shape and dimension. The perspective of the teacher as researcher is part of the story. Learning stories provide a platform to hear the voice of the teacher. There is an opportunity to go beyond identifying a skill or indicator from a developmental continuum. What is required is “active, engaged early childhood educators who are not external, passive observers of children and objective producers of knowledge about children” (Pacini-Ketchabaw, Nxumalo, Kocher, Elliot & Sanchez, 2014, p. 15).

Instead they are immersed in experiences with children. They have an ethical responsibility not to “know” the child, but to participate with the child in meaning making, to live alongside children. (Pacini-Ketchabaw, Nxumalo, Kocher, Elliot & Sanchez, 2014, p. 15)

This blog is my attempt at making meaning. It offers a platform to engage in narrative inquiry. My story is about my practice. I hope to engage readers to offer their perspectives and I welcome comments. Often times the feedback causes me to stop and reflect. Should I be offering a learning story template in my workshops? I have looked for ways to create opportunities for experiencing the elements of pedagogical documentation within limited timeframes to those who have limited experience. I am left questioning myself about the use of the template and wondering whether I leapt too quickly in the learning story pool. Perhaps I needed to learn more about learning stories first. I know that learning stories help children to see themselves as powerful learners but did not realize that they are meant to focus on competencies and dispositions. The learning story generally is formulated by the educator to highlight what the child can do and is doing rather than what they can’t do. Learning stories are about competent children. Dispositions are ways in which a person is inclined to behave. In a particular circumstance a child can show a disposition, for example, to persevere, to be curious, or to be brave. Carr (2001) described learning dispositions as ‘situated learning strategies plus motivation–participation repertoires from which a learner recognises, selects, edits, responds to, resists, searches for and constructs learning opportunities’ (p. 21). Blaiklock (2013) critiques the idea of dispositions in learning stories as it is unclear how they manifest for different children at different times. The lack of clarity and understanding about dispositions is problematic because “important areas of knowledge and skill development” can be overlooked. Blaiklock (2013) addresses other concerns about learning stories that include the lack of evidence on validity or credibility, whether they are useful for planning, and how difficult it can be for these stories to show changes in children’s learning over time. Learning stories as narrative inquiry though offer much benefit.

The Learning Story approach serves as a pedagogical tool, prompting teachers to become more reflective, to consider other perspectives and what else they need to learn to be responsive to the children ~ Margie Carter

I have appreciated the wisdom of Margie Carter for many years. Margie suggests learning stories can be a powerful way to strengthen relationships with children. Her suggestion of finding your own voice in your learning story resonated with me and I recalled a quote that I included in my doctoral dissertation about the overlapping stories of those researched with the researcher.

The struggle for research voice is captured by the analogy of living on a knife edge as one struggles to express ones’ own voice in the midst of an inquiry designed to capture the participants’ experience and represent their voices, all the while attempting to create a research text that will speak to and reflect upon the audience’s voice. (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994, p. 29)

Margie recommends that when you write a learning story that you begin with your own interest in seeing what children are exploring to “discover your own perspective and give voice to the storyteller”. Being present in your heart and listen closely to reflect on what you want the child and his or her family to consider. Included in your story should be a paragraph on “what it means”; what is significant? “This meaning making process deepens reflection and is best done in a dialogue with other teachers and the children’s families”. Another paragraph to write would be “Opportunities and Possibilities” and here you describe what you might do next and the reasons for your choices. Inviting families to respond to the story by providing a blank page that could have a prompt or question is the final step before giving the story a title “that captures its essence” (Carter, 2010, p. 41).

Learning Stories by Judi Pack

In an article written by Judi Pack the suggestion is made to read the learning story to the child and to listen for comments and feedback. Inviting the perspectives of others helps to create authentic curriculum directions; making the documentation pedagogical. For me the “aha” moment about learning stories has been that all documentation is a narrative of learning. Using learning stories is one way to document but seeing all documentation as narrative inquiry encourages meaning making and multiple perspectives with the teacher assuming the role of researcher. The choices that are made and the efforts to engage others gives value and meaning. As Rinaldi (2004) states, “you cannot document without assessing. Assessment becomes part of the learning process as you become aware of your choices and your values, as you come to understand your ethics” (p.4). I am beginning to understand that assessment is more involving that I have initially thought. I am beginning to understand that learning stories are more complex that I had originally thought. The challenge will be to communicate this complexity to others.

7 thoughts on “Learning Stories: The Power of Narrative Inquiry

  1. I too have been inspired by Carter and Curtis throughout the years and it was probably the same time as you that I first learned about the power and intentionality of this form of pedagogical documentation. I was teaching 4th semester curriculum in the School of ECE at the community college and immediately shared Carter, Curtis and Drummond ‘ s interpretation inspired by Carr and Lee of NZ. At the time I was actively engaged in presenting numerous professional learning workshops (and still am now that I am “retired”) for early learning educators and families.
    Learning Stories were/are a focus and interest in our community and throughout the years, I have learned that the components of a learning story can shape and enrich any form of documentation whether it be panels, classroom journals, children’s portfolios or daily observational notes.
    I have played around with writing them to the child and in the 3rd person encompassing a group. Yes I have given my voice and my style. Whatever form the documentation ends up in I feel it is pedagogically complete with the following 4 components; what led up to the experience that is being written about? , the narrative describing what children and educators are doing and saying, what it all means in terms of the interpretation of learning (from the teacher’s own thinking prior to an external reference such as the ELECT and HDLH?) And finally, what might be some future directions where the curriculum could emerge next?
    Ahh, to template or not to template, ca c’est le question! For those learning how to document going beyond “the children enjoyed. …” the template guides them to include all components BUT I don’t like to be boxed in so why do I invite others to box in their thinking? On the continuum of template or no template can we meet in the middle somehow? What could that look like? Presently I am leaning towards sharing the expectations (the 4 components) and then asking educators what their piece of documentation will look like.


  2. Loved reading your article. You might be interested that it was Margaret Carr and Val Podmore, Helen May (Carr, Margaret; May, Helen; Podmore, Val. TITLE. Learning and Teaching Stories: New Approaches to Assessment. ‘and Evaluation in Relation to Te Whariki) who were instrumental in bringing the learning framework to NZ teachers by undertaking a Ministry of Education contract, and then to the world stage.
    Wendy Lee has been a catalyst alongside Margaret to share the work internationally.

    One of the things I love about their work is the following assessment questions they posed and are “closely connected to the strands of Te Whāriki, and starts with the “child’s questions”—one for each strand. In their simplified form, the questions are: Do you know me? (Belonging); Can I trust you? (Well-being); Do you let me fly? (Exploration); Do you hear me? (Communication); Is this place fair for us? (Contribution)”: ref from the internet!

    Diane I love the way you bring your uncertainties to the table in this article. Much like we are invited to do in pedagogical assessment. I do worry that we have made a ‘rod for our own backs’ as parents do enjoy reading their children’s stories and the more they get the happier they are. Lack of time becomes a serious issue! A question asked is ‘how many are we supposed to do a month?’ Kind of feels like the question defeats the thinking behind the work.

    On another note. I would like to add a huge salute to Margie Carter. She is right up there with people who have made a significant impact on how children are viewed and treated throughout the world. Margie for President!!!! She arrived in NZ this morning and will be joined by 30 USA educationalists for her fourth NZ study tour. We are so very, very humbled to call her our friend and welcome our new USA friends with open arms. Kia Kaha as we say here. Stay strong – you’ll need to if your pre Presidential elections news coverages are anything to go by. Warm Regards, Chris


  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful post as always.

    I have used group learning stories in the past and often explain documentation as the collaborative story of the groups learning, which I suppose it’s more of a project story. I’m thinking of trying doing individual learning stories by recording my story and images of what the child is doing and then showing/telling it to the child in terms of what I noticed and then asking.”what were you thinking about while you were doing this?” To get their perspective.


    Sent from my iPhone



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