Monday, January 25, 2010

From Berlin: Dealing with difficulties and uncertainties!

Another fabulous colleague from Germany joins our blog! Hartmut has been deeply involved in learning stories for several years and brings to the blog some very interesting insights into current early childhood practices in Germany. I would have to say that we would also find these practices in NZ as well. Hartmut came to NZ and spent many days participating in three early childhood settings in NZ, engaging with the teachers, the children and sharing his insights with us. He, like us, is working as a Facilitator of professional learning in settings in Berlin. 

Greetings from Hartmut … I’ve been trying to work with the fascinating learning story framework for almost five years, and I am still convinced that narrative assessments, as you do them in NZ, can and surely will make our communication about learning richer and deeper. What fascinates me most is the idea of socially “distributed” learning, leading to communities of learners as most important agents in early childhood education… You see this on every level, not only in children’s learning, but also in this blog that shows the benefits of a strong group of learners – the ELP team – sharing experiences and “making meaning” together… 

However, everyday life is sometimes a little embarrassing… For instance, in our learning culture the idea of communities of learners that involve adults (teachers, parents) who join into children’s learning journeys is not so very popular. Adults often prefer to stay outside the learning processes, and don’t want their world to be changed by the changing world of children…  Looking at the way “Learning stories” are put into practice in German Kindergartens, it can be noticed that they often turn into an observation-based assessment procedure that goes back to knowledge and skills and fails to meet learning dispositions in action. 

The last two years I’ve spent much time in thinking about these processes. Drawing on Bruner’s distinction of “narrative” and “paradigmatic” cultures (he put Germany on the “paradigmatic” side) the difficulty might lie in implementing a culture of narrative practice into an environment that is quite far from valuing this kind of practice. I experienced, that a mother hearing a learning story about her son struggling to join a peers’ play group and finally succeeding did not at all enjoy the story but rather searched for a “hidden message” – why does the teacher tell me this? What’s the point of it? Maybe her feeling was a little like “if my son would do well then the teachers would not tell me such stories…” On the other hand, there are already teachers successfully implementing stories (not accounts) about learning into our children’s portfolios… 

So I learned that storytelling and narrative assessment are not just pedagogical techniques one can implement in any environment. “Good” learning stories have – as I believe – always a touch of “internal evaluation”, their authority comes from a feeling that the person telling the story was there and was involved in a deep transactional process, not only looking at an event from the outside. Looking at some examples from Germany I feel that the narration is turning into “external evaluation” (Some kind of “Dear Clara, as I watched you carefully last Friday I saw that you enjoyed doing …, and I was very impressed by …), and with that change in position the stories lose much of their power. This is not to say that external evaluation has no value - outsiders can see a lot and make valuable contributions, but stories must be told by insiders. 

So these were some thoughts about my “half-full” glass - from some processes of “dealing with difficulties and uncertainties” I’m involved in at the moment. I’m looking forward to further 2010 discussions about examples of narrative assessment, with colleagues here in Berlin and with you, ELP colleagues (welcome in Berlin in July!!!), as well. 

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