Thursday, January 26, 2017

This review by Alex Gunn, University of Otago, is published in Assessment Matters 5: 2013 (pages 143-145)

Learning Stories: Constructing Learner Identities in Early Education, by Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee is available for sale through the ELP website.


Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee. (2012). Learning stories: Constructing learner identities in early education. London: Sage. 168 pp. ISBN: 9780857020932 (pbk); ISBN: 9780857020925 (hbk); ISBN: 9781446258194 (ebk).

Alex Gunn, University of Otago 

This book works to illustrate how narrative assessment practices in general, and learning stories in particular, address a major claim of Aotearoa New Zealand early childhood education: that participation in high-quality early childhood education should lead to children viewing themselves as competent and confident learners. Its major themes, framed as consequences of quality formative assessment, centre on learner agency and dialogue, the transfer of learning between social contexts, recognising oneself as a learner, and exploring understandings in a range of ways. The contribution that documented assessments make to these assessment consequences is a major consideration of the book. Its pages are brimming with real-life examples of practices illustrating complex theoretical ideas from a range of New Zealand early childhood settings and schools.

As Carr and Lee explain, this book brings together and draws from over a decade's worth of collaborative practitioner research and scholarship in New Zealand. It brings to the fore teachers' formative assessment practices in collaboration with others.

In my view, the book will be of interest to a wide audience and it seems to work on many levels. It illustrates the ways in which narrative assessments ( as learning stories) contribute to learner identity, and it illustrates now they form part of the cultural practices of education settings and learning communities. The many individual and collective learning stories contained in the book build a complex picture of teaching, learning, and quality formative assessment practice.

Readers new to narrative assessment and to how it has been taken up in New Zealand education will likely find the book of interest. It is especially useful for illustrating how, in different school and early education settings, narrative assessment practices can support children to develop strongsenses of identity and assist teachers towards the practising of responsive and relevant curriculum.

Those who work with narrative assessment already and who are interested to expand their conceptual and practical understandings of methods will find a good balance of theoretical and practice accounts in the book's chapters. Jerome Bruner's ideas regarding the storying of actual and potential selves serve as a major theoretical touchstone; Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus is made relevant to the theorising of community (and learning); James Gee's explanation of social/situated views of learning and knowledge construction locate the book and its focus as reflective of the milieu of social constructionist and sociocultural thinking. Assessment scholars and policy makers will find plenty of evidence in this book for how narrative assessment practices can show learners' engagement with curriculum both in schools and in early childhood education.

The first two chapters of the book describe the authors' positions on learner identity and provide an account of why storying is a useful means for mobilising formative assessment practices in the early years context. These chapters bring together a great deal of the research and scholarship that Carr, Lee and others have drawn on in their advancement of narrative assessment practices (as learning stories) in Aotearoa_ New Zealand. In this sense the book acts as an encyclopedia of sorts, making explicit the research and scholarship that has directly informed how narrative assessment is emerging in this country. This dimension of the book marks it as a key reference for me, alongside Kei Tua o te Pae Assessment For Learning: Early Childhood Exemplars, when locating key research and scholarship in the domain.

Concepts, research findings, and conclusions are interwoven in the text. Printed mostly in full colour the exemplar assessments are as varied as the children, contexts, and learning trajectories that are documented within them. On their own, these exemplars stand up, I think, as illustrative of the range of current teacher and learner assessment practices. From my teacher education standpoint, this makes the book very useful for prompting discussion about a range of formative and narrative assessments. But Margaret and Wendy also reinterpret the assessments for how they attest to the ideas being advanced in the book. I find the connection betweenthe theory, research, and practice-as well as the explanations-useful for my own thinking. I can appreciate the interpretations as written, yet there is room also to read the assessment texts from my own standpoint and make different meanings possible. Herein lies a significant lesson of the book: no single authoring and interpretation of actions or events should be allowed to stand as the truth of the learner for all time. Building learning identity is about recognising and reinterpreting over time one's preferences, desires, cap_abilities, and inclinations as a learner. The temporal aspect of this highlights the importance of continually re­evaluating what we think we know about others and ourselves as learners. It also recognises that meaning making about learning between teachers, learners, and others, involves a high degree of subjective yet systematic negotiation and decision making about what we think is going on in classrooms and early childhood settings day-to-day.

The chapters that follow each address one of the four major consequences of quality formative assessment. Again, content is well theorised with exemplar assessments providing the glue between theoretical concept and practice. By now, Carr and Lee's narrative style has really brought some of the main characters of the book to life. We have met individual teachers, teaching teams, children, and scholars on multiple occasions, and it is possible to begin appreciating both the extensive body of work that has contributed to the book, as well as how key ideas have articulated from one project to the next, over time. Perhaps just as importantly, we can see too how narrative assessment practices ( as learning stories) are evolving in New Zealand from one context to another-that is, early childhood education to early years schooling.

This book attests that narrative assessment (as learning stories) has emerged from a rigorous research base as a highly dependable assessment method in early years education settings in Aotearoa. In this context­where learning is constituted as disposition, as working theory, as key competency, and as supportive of children's mana and learning identity­narrative assessment is, as it is said, fit for purpose. This volume, in a multitude of ways, illustrates how.