In my last entry I wrote about Learning Stories, an assessment strategy used in early childhood education in New Zealand. Ever since I first learned about this approach, I’ve been interested in how it would translate to middle school or high school. As I wrote in my previous entry:
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.
There is no question that this approach can be of tremendous value to any learner, young or not. But, as I continued to research Learning Stories and started working with colleagues to implement them in classrooms (including — many years ago — my own), it became increasingly clear that writing narratives about student progress requires the following:
1. Time in class to observe students as they work individually and with peers
2. Time in class (or after) to compose narratives about student work.
3. Time in class to sit down with individual students and discuss Learning Stories
After a few weeks, the teachers I worked with to implement this approach provided excellent feedback. I summarized it below in three key bullet points:
1. This approach forces me to find the time to observe all my students as individual learners, pay careful attention to their work, behaviour, attitudes, dispositions, and progress.
2. This approach forces me to find the time to talk with my students, one-on-one, about their work and about learning.
3. This approach is too time-consuming. Lengthy narratives are not always needed. They are also not always the best way of recording student learning. I cannot write narratives very frequently – I just don’t have enough time. However, my observations can be captured through other means.
The first two observations resulted in wonderful changes in my colleagues’ classrooms, and in my own. The classrooms became much more student-centred and focused on formative assessment. More conversations started taking place with the students about their own learning.
The third observation made it clear that Learning Stories can be implemented as an approach that’s used only occasionally. It’s just too time-consuming to be used on a weekly basis, for example. My colleagues and I saw value in doing this frequently but had to acknowledge that teachers just don’t have the time to compose narratives in response to all – or even just the most valuable – examples of student progress. What’s more, there are many instances of student learning and success that do not require lengthy narratives. It became clear that we needed a modified approach.
We found that approach in 2010 in the work of Ken E. Blaiklock, who recommends an alternative strategy he calls Learning Notes. Learning Notes, he writes,
…include a description of an event and optional sections that interpret the learning that occurred and suggest ideas for future learning […] Because Learning Notes may be easier to record than Learning Stories, they can be produced more frequently. (2010, p. 5)
Blaiklock also emphasizes the flexibility of Learning Notes:
… a common practice in early childhood centres is to produce just one Learning Story per child per month. Each Learning Story is specific to a particular event and is only a small sample of a child’s experiences at the centre […] Because Learning Notes do not have to follow a story format, they can be recorded far more frequently than is possible with Learning Stories; teachers may find that they can record several brief Learning Notes for each child every week. Teachers can write short Learning Notes while they are working with children and can therefore capture a wider range of experiences. (2010, p. 7)
He goes on to add that this flexibility allows teachers to generate a more “comprehensive record of a child’s learning and development,” make quick spontaneous observations, and abandon the restrictive story format. Learning Notes also make it easier to engage the child in the process of composing, discussing, or responding to recorded observations.
In short, the Learning Notes approach seemed to offer the solution we were looking for after experimenting with Learning Stories in middle school classrooms.
Based on Blaiklock’s work, we created Learning Notes templates that included the three recommended sections: Describe, Interpret, and What Next? We placed stacks of these blank forms on our desks and … began using them on a daily basis! Since the approach was implemented in a one-to-one laptop school, we also created both .doc templates and online forms (built using Google Docs):
Since the requirement to compose a narrative was no longer in place, our small team found it much easier to record observations. Once filled out, the forms also provided opportunities to discuss learning with individual students. Below you will find a few examples of the Learning Notes created as part of this project:
Grade 6 Social Studies
Tomas, you were very focused today during independent work time. I know this isn’t easy for you and that you prefer working with a partner or in groups. Today you focused, and you got a lot done, much more than ever before. This is a big milestone.
Staying focused in class is very important. This year we will be doing a lot of independent work, so you will have many opportunities to practice and get better at it.
Grade 7 Language Arts
I can see that you took the time to proofread your first draft and think about your main examples after we talked about this assignment on Tuesday. You didn’t rush through this part like you used to. This will help bring up your process mark. It will also make it easier to write the final draft.
I can see that you now understand how important it is to plan your work and proofread it carefully before handing it in. Have you noticed how many mistakes you caught? Good writers plan and go over their work. I can see you are starting to do that more and more.
Let’s work on adding more “meat” to your ideas.
As you can see, these Learning Notes did not take long to compose. In fact, both were written during class while the students were working. Both were given to the students before the class ended, allowing them to share the notes with their parents that same day.
The fact that the students started receiving this kind of feedback on a regular basis (each day the teachers composed notes for 2-5 students) led to three interesting developments:
1. Students started expecting and even asking for their Learning Notes on a regular basis.
2. Many students started paying attention to their own work and asking for notes on specific tasks they had done, or whenever they thought they had done something well.
3. Some parents started writing short comments on the Learning Notes.
We saw these developments as an opportunity to engage both the students and their parents in the process of either composing or responding to Learning Notes. We modified the template to include an opportunity for students to co-create the notes and for parents to respond:
Here’s one of my favourite examples of teacher, student, and parent engagement after we modified the Learning Note template:
Grade 7 Language Arts
The blog entry you wrote today (the one on abuses of power in Animal Farm) included detailed support from the novel. We talked about how important it is to support your ideas with quotes or examples from the novel many times before, but your writing didn’t always have this much detail. This is a big step forward, Jonathan. You used three excellent examples.
I also noticed many more sticky notes poking out of your book. I see that you’re reading and thinking about what you’re reading.
You are becoming a more careful and critical reader.
You are beginning to use many “Good Reader” strategies we talked about in class this month.
You are thinking more about how to communicate your ideas and back them up.
Use this blog post as an example of good writing.
Thank you for giving us the sticky notes. They are very good for tracking important stuff in the book.
We’re very proud, Jon! Looks like you are ready to tackle that Independent Reading Assignment next month!
Learning Notes proved to be quite successful as a formative assessment strategy because they helped the teachers make student progress and development visible. They made it easier to document, respond to, and also – over time – revisit episodes of competence and growth. As a result, the students started paying attention to learning, and to notice, recognize, respond to, and build on their successes and challenges.
Blaiklock, K. (2010). Assessment in New Zealand early childhood settings: A proposal to change from Learning Stories to Learning Notes. Early Education, 48(2), 5-10.