Learning notes improve engagement

Issue: Volume 100, Number 2

Posted: 25 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAHG9

A Lower Hutt kindergarten is finding that learning notes are helping teachers carry out a range of assessment across Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa/Early childhood curriculum strands, goals and learning outcomes – with immediate benefits for kaiako, whānau and tamariki.

Maungaraki Kindergarten sits in the Lower Hutt hills behind a strip of local shops, overlooked by homes, with views across to Wellington Harbour; it’s in the heart of its community.

Anna Stratford is head teacher at the kindergarten, where learning notes were introduced in May 2020. Like learning stories, learning notes are used to help communicate children’s early learning experiences. Learning notes are short observations with associated learning outcomes which are e.posted to whānau in
the moment.

“Ultimately we wanted to develop a system that promoted and empowered tamariki to view themselves as successful learners, to allow them opportunities and choices to guide their own learning, direct the programme and experience an environment where kaiako support them meaningfully and authentically in their growth and development,” explains Anna. 

Reflection and evaluation

A strategic internal evaluation was undertaken early in 2020 and an article(external link) became a provocational tool for kaiako to research, reflect and evaluate. Assessment in New Zealand early childhood settings by Ken Blaiklock suggested using learning notes to assess for children’s learning.

There is no hard and fast number of how many learning notes are written for each child, but Anna says they are a good, holistic tool for capturing all learning equitably.

“We use Storypark as an online platform for our assessment. Learning notes are short, which is what parents have asked for: fewer words, more pictures. I feel they can relate to them better and have time to read those short snippets. Whānau are getting updates more regularly and it means they can see a thread of learning.

“Sometimes we get responses from whānau instantly and we’re able to share that with the children too. This is really reassuring for them because they know their whānau are involved in their early childhood education experience. It makes those links between kindergarten and home so much stronger,” explains Anna.

“Learning notes have been a really good tool for us to capture different learning, because all learning is valuable,” she says.

Learning notes: an alternative to learning stories(external link)

Robust process

Kaiako Lucy Ainsworth says research into the new assessment process was robust.

“We came at it from every angle and it’s a never-ending process as well. Like any of our evaluations we each take a different angle. That could be family voice, so we do a survey or get their thoughts. We did an assessment on ourselves and how much time we were spending doing work at home, which ended up being an average of three hours per week in our own time.

“There was also research into the assessment of children, what works best and how to authentically represent them and their learning journey. It all pointed to ‘right there in the moment’ stuff,” explains Lucy.

“With the new assessment process, we have decided that as a team we write for all children for all learning that we feel is valuable. 

Now we are getting a wider range of identified learning because each teacher will identify something different. Whānau are developing relationships with all the teachers and their work is getting acknowledged as well,” adds Anna.

Rich engagement

Learning notes have resulted in benefits to teaching practices, whānau engagement and outcomes for tamariki at Maungaraki Kindergarten, explains Anna.

“In the comments section of Storypark, we are able to write additional relevant learning notes, which show a continuous thread of learning. Because documented learning is authentic and relevant, it’s a natural progression because we’re in tune and we’re listening to what the children are saying and we are responding to them.

“While we are on the iPads [writing a learning note] for a short amount of the time, our teaching team is more engaged than ever before – our minds are with the children and we are responding to their wants, needs and interests, as well as suggestions that whānau are making.

“We’re so present, because we are trying to capture these moments; we are identifying the learning that’s occurring as a result of the rich genuine engagement we are having with the children. We can show children the photos we’ve taken and incorporate their voices from the engagement we’ve had with them,” explains Anna.

Building confidence

Graduate teacher Lucy says the learning notes practice has opened her eyes and made her more confident when writing assessments.

“I think it has changed my teaching practice because the engagement I get with children has changed. Instead of thinking I only need to focus on this child because I really need to get a story for them, now I have a much broader focus. Your blinkers have opened and you are actually recognising all the learning happening in all the areas for all children as well.

“I feel I know the children better. I especially feel I know the families better – that’s a huge benefit,” says Lucy. 

Connecting with home

Whānau are developing better relationships with all the teachers, which is closing the gap between kindergarten and whānau.

“We value whānau as experts of their culture, skill, occupation, and their child. We can ask them questions and provide a platform where they can share. When we use that information, it shows we value their contribution and that they are involved in their child’s learning as well,” explains Anna.

When four-year-old Amal told Anna what she had learned about microbes and viruses, a learning note was sent to Amal’s mother, Natasha Ismail.

“Amal likes StoryBots on Netflix – there was an episode about viruses and she really got into it. She’s been going around saying: ‘This is how you get sick, when you get sick the virus attacks your body’.

“She came to kindy and told everyone about things like A-cells and B-cells. Anna sent a video to me of Amal talking about viruses. It gave her so much pride and mana,” says Natasha.

“We have a lovely video of her explaining what it all meant and she was able to be an expert in that area and share that with the tamariki. Had we not captured that moment and shared that with whānau, we would have never known that she had all that additional knowledge to share with us,” adds Anna.

“Learning notes have provided an opportunity to identify, scaffold and progress her learning. Without the use of learning notes, the opportunity to identify this learning, aided by conversation with whānau, may have been missed. Holistic opportunities are offered to all of our children – they are all learning from each other as well,” she says. 

Learner agency

Learning Notes have increased the agency and confidence of tamariki at Maungaraki Kindergarten says Anna.

“They have such great views of themselves as competent learners.

“Whānau tell us that their children are very happy to come to kindy; they’re excited, they share their interests with us and have opportunities to participate in the re-setting of the environment. You can tell they are willing to share with us because they know they are going to be listened to,” says Anna. 

Building bridges

Natasha Ismail has two children at Maungaraki Kindergarten: Amal (4) and Adha (3). Amal started at the kindergarten a few days after the Christchurch Mosque shooting in 2019.

“That was really bad – I was even afraid to come out,” says Natasha, who came to New Zealand from Malaysia as a student in 2009.

She appreciates the frequency of the learning notes and the opportunity to communicate with kaiako through the Storypark platform.

“I didn’t know that we were supposed to respond to the stories before!” she acknowledges.

“I feel it’s easier for me because sometimes I remember something in the middle of the night and I will just type it out and the teachers will read it the next day.”

Kaiako at the kindergarten say learning notes are an effective tool to document learning and support whānau to identify the ways in which their child can be supported.

“Adha has special needs. When he is working with his SLT [speech language therapist] and they introduce new strategies, straightaway I can tell the kindy teachers what he’s working on. His speech has improved being with other kids,” says Natasha.

Little things matter

Amal is bubbly, bright and creative, but Natasha says for a while she was struggling with being Malaysian and Muslim.

“Last term we were working really hard on her connection to our culture: we were trying really hard to say, ‘Different is okay, everybody doesn’t need to be the same, your culture is valid’.

“With Storypark [through learning notes], I could just send links through which showed the children songs in my language – Malay. That was so lovely for Amal to see it’s celebrated. It made a difference to how she felt about herself and she’s more willing to speak Malay. She used to scold me when I spoke Malay in kindy!”

For Christmas 2020, the kindergarten’s Christmas baubles included the words ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas’, notes Natasha.

“It’s the little things that make you feel you’re here, you’re present. This year we’re going to share some of our Ramadan,” she says.

Benefits outweigh challenges 

Kaiako Lucy Ainsworth graduated two years ago, has worked at Maungaraki  Kindergarten for one year and is working towards registration. She’s a livewire who is passionate about her chosen career, and an enthusiast for learning notes. 

“I love the immediacy! The passion in seeing children’s learning is coming back because at uni you learn about all these amazing things you can do with children and then you become a teacher and a lot of that is put on hold because you have so much to do and no time to take note of all the children’s learning moments. 

On the day Education Gazette visited the kindergarten, Lucy was thrilled to see an impact of learning notes – in the form of a cob of corn. 

“I was really excited this morning – one boy is really interested in gardening. Last night I commented back to his Mum, saying, ‘Hey this is all still keeping up, let us know if you’ve got ideas what we can do’.  

“This morning she arrived with a corn on the cob that had sprouted everywhere and she brought a book in and so this morning we planted the corn. That’s what excites me – the immediacy and the family engagement. His big brother came in and helped him plant it – there’s a sense of community!” she says. 

Authentic assessment 

Cim Gatherer has been a kindergarten kaiako for 12 years and has taught at Maungaraki Kindergarten for five years. She agrees that learning notes allow kaiako to capture a more holistic picture of a child’s learning. 

“Implementing learning notes was exciting because I think with a lot of teachers, the workload balance and writing learning stories can be tricky. Sometimes by the time you get a chance to finish a nice long learning story, it feels like it already happened. You do feel that there are all these moments that you miss,” she says. 

Cim notes there’s a lot more engagement with parents. “They are feeling a lot more comfortable. The increase in whānau input has been amazing. It’s fantastic for me as a teacher.  

“We do little snapshots, you would think that doesn’t have everything in it, but by the time the parents comment and you comment back, you have a little conversation with them. The next story picks up, you find it all comes through but just in a different way. It’s actually more authentic,” she says. 

Learning curve 

Lucy says the first learning notes were challenging to write. 

“The learning note is very strict: what happened, the learning and then the next step. Being succinct was hard!  

“As we go, we’re finding things we need to figure out... like individual plans and goals and how that fits into them. We have to have something guiding the assessment whether it’s an individual learning goal like writing their name, or a family aspiration – what they would like for their children,” she says. 

Cim says learning to use new technology was initially challenging. 

“I think sometimes we can be a bit afraid of it but pushing yourself has been good.  There are interesting things like taking the photos, uploading them –- it doesn’t always go smoothly – so it provides little learning opportunities. For example, I might take a photo that’s relevant to something Anna is working on so I can walk past and airdrop it to her,” she says. 

Benefits for all 

Anna says the spinoffs outweigh any challenges kaiako may have come across in developing the learning note system at the kindergarten. 

Previously the kindergarten had rosters with teachers writing learning stories for different children.  

“With the new assessment process, we have decided that as a team we write for all children for all learning that we feel is valuable. Now we are getting a wider range of identified learning because each teacher will identify something different. Whānau are developing relationships with all the teachers and their work is getting acknowledged as well,” says Anna. 

Parents surveyed gave good feedback about the new system. 

“We find that because parents aren’t feeling so overwhelmed by the length of learning stories and the use of academic language, they are responding more.  

“Whānau have been so great at driving our programme as well – they are saying that children are doing similar activities at home; or they’re making suggestions. It’s excellent – we're just having so much more engagement,” says Anna. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:35 am, 25 February 2021

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