Learner Identities in Early Education: An Introduction to Four Themes
In the Learning Story Design Inspiration we can see Kyah’s willingness to be flexible with the goals she sets herself. Kyah could see that the picture [in a book] of wearable art was made up of old pairs of jeans and recognised that in order to make her own rendition she was not going to be able to use the same materials as the original artist but instead had to make alternative choices with the resources that she had available to her. ... Kyah’s view of herself as a learner comes directly from her family’s and her teachers’ attitudes to learning and intelligence. A paper entitled Learning is Learnable (Claxton, 2004: 3) documents how much people unintentionally ‘pick up’ not just their physical but mental habits and values from those around them. We are deeply immersed in a community of learners, and teachers have a vital role, particularly for children who spend large parts of their days in an early learning, group setting. (Karen H., early childhood teacher, commenting on a Learning Story during a research project)
This quote from a teacher, writing about an episode of learning for 4-year-old Kyah, introduces four themes about the ways that Kyah views herself as a learner. These themes are about young learners who construct their own opportunities to learn, make learning connections from one place to another, recognise the learning journey that they are on, and explore their understandings in a range of increasingly complex ways.
This book will also consider these themes as consequences for assessment practice
. Assessment for learning plays a powerful role in this early construction of a learner identity. It is the Learning Story and its portfolio – revisited with others – that enables Kyah to recognise the learning journey that is valued
here. We are particularly interested in the role of narrative assessments: adults and children telling and re-telling stories of learning and competence, reflecting on the past and planning for the future. As Kyah’s teacher points out, significant numbers of young people now spend substantial periods of time each week in early years education group settings – early childhood and school. So we must pay close attention to these themes and consequences.
The teacher’s comment at the beginning of this chapter highlights the way in which the valued adults in Kyah’s life view learning and how this makes a difference to Kyah’s view of herself as a learner. It also points out that early childhood settings and families can be described as ‘communities of learners’ in which habits and values to do with learning (as well as many other domains of life) are intentionally, and unintentionally, ‘picked up’ by participants. Pierre Bourdieu (1990) has had much to say about this, arguing that these values and ways of being are handed down from generation to generation as habitus: ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions’ that inscribe ‘things to do or not to do, things to say or not to say, in relation to a “probable” upcoming future’ (p. 53). In the twenty-first century this intergenerational or vertical development has become complicated by the growth of early childhood provision and by the international migration of people and ideas. Learning communities extend across the globe now, and the World Wide Web and its social and information networking has a powerful influence on our views about a ‘probable’ upcoming future. One of our responses to this is to argue that we must now, as well, do more to strengthen the horizontal and intersecting circles of influence on learner identity in early childhood provision: connecting the cultures’ values, goals and visions across early years educational communities – families, early childhood settings outside the home and schools. Martin Packer and David Greco-Brooks (1999) are two of many writers who have argued that school classrooms are not just places where knowledge and skills are taught (an epistemological project); they include ontological work (p. 135). Ontological work includes the construction and editing of learner identities and the offering of new possibilities for durable, relocatable dispositions that inscribe things to do or not to do, things to say or not to say and our expectations for the future.
This is true, too, of any places that provide early childhood care and education outside the home. Analysing narratives of three recently arrived immigrant mothers attending child care centres in Belgium during the weeks prior to their young children’s entry to school, Michel Vandenbroeck, Griet Roets and Aïsji Snoeck (2009) have commented that ‘the child care centre may be considered as a place where a shared repertoire of cultural patterns is constructed and jointly reconfigured’ (p. 209) and one that can challenge the idea of fixed national identities and unitary selves. They acknowledge the writing of Rosi Braidotti (1994) to refer to ‘the nomadic subject’ (p. 158), ‘a hybrid and interconnected identity that occupies a variety of possible subject positions’ (Vandenbroeck et al., 2009: 211). Kyah’s story, too, implies at least two possible subject positions: a learner who improvises and a fabric designer. Jenelle, a teacher at this centre, had written a Learning Story
about Kyah’s design work on this occasion. The centre had been given a book on ‘wearable art’ from a recent exhibition, and one of the designs was created using 10 metres of denim: it looked like a ball gown made out of children’s denim jeans. Kyah constructed her own version, bringing some old clothes from home.
Many of the ideas in this book are encapsulated in the following quote from Jerome Bruner (2002):
It is through narrative that we create and re-create selfhood, and self is a product of our telling and re-telling. We are, from the start, expressions of our culture. Culture is replete with alternative narratives about what self is or might be. (p. 86)
The notion that culture is replete with ‘alternative narratives about what self is or might be’ is exactly the place where we would like this book to be heading: that children develop repertoires of shared cultural patterns and valued possible learner selves, a product, in part, of learning-story telling and retelling. We argue that teachers, children and families can become co-authors of this telling and re-telling, and that these repertoires are made up of a complex intermingling of stores of knowledge with stores of disposition.
We highlight the teachers’ views here, and we have long admired the ways in which teachers of young children are prepared to struggle with and puzzle over the dilemmas and the tensions of the profession. Perhaps because the
impetus for much of our thinking has been our work with teachers implementing a bicultural and bilingual curriculum, our ideas resonate with the notion of learning as a cultural process. A chapter in the Handbook of the learning sciences
by Na’ilah Suad Nasir, Ann Rosebery, Beth Warren and Carol Lee (2006) entitled ‘Learning as a cultural process: Achieving equity through diversity’ discusses the ways in which culture is central to learning:
By ‘culture’, we mean the constellation of practices historically developed and dynamically shaped by communities in order to accomplish the purposes they value. Such practices are constituted by the tools they use, the social networks with which they are connected, the ways they organize joint activity, the discourses they use and value (i.e., specific ways of conceptualizing, representing, evaluating and engaging with the world). On this view, learning and development can be seen as the acquisition throughout the life course of diverse repertoires of overlapping, complementary, or even conflicting cultural practices. (p. 489)
Our aim in the book is to explore the contribution that narrative assessment as Learning Stories can make towards the construction of a repertoire of cultural practices and learner identities. Our perspective on learner identity and this construction process centrally includes: agency and dialogue (the ways in which joint activity is organised), making connections across boundaries between places (the social networks with which the practice is connected), recognising and re-cognising learning continuities, and appropriating knowledges and learning dispositions in a range of increasingly complex ways (the discourses that are used and valued). Nasir et al. (2006) wrote that cultural practices are constituted, in part, by the tools that communities use. The tools that we will primarily focus on here are the assessment practices, and we will conclude that the tools that assess the learning can also sustain the learning by influencing the other parts of the cultural constellation – the social networks, the way that ‘joint activity’ is organised and the discourses that are used and valued.
Agency and Dialogue
In Karen’s account of Kyah’s sense of self that introduced this chapter she comments on the role of ‘her family’s and her teachers’ attitudes to learning and intelligence’. Kyah is positioned in the early childhood centre as a powerful learner, a participant with agency, someone who is disposed to take on an authoring role. Karen was reminded of Guy Claxton’s insistence that ‘learning is learnable’ (Claxton, 2004) and James Greeno (2006) has argued that learning will be more likely to be sustained if learners are positioned as authoritative and accountable. Finding opportunities for this can be a challenge for teachers. In Iram Siraj-Blatchford’s (2010: 157) discussion of case studies of effective practice from the longitudinal Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) project in England she comments that the ‘excellent’ settings were found to encourage ‘sustained shared thinking’. She describes sustained shared thinking as ‘any episode in which two or more individuals “worked together” in an intellectual way to solve
a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc.’, and she added that ‘The research found that this did not happen very frequently’.
Genuine dialogue requires the deliberate creation of opportunity for initiative-sharing and collaboration, and, as Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) commentary on social roles as contexts of human development suggests:
The greater the degree of power socially sanctioned for a given role, the greater the tendency for the role occupant to exercise and exploit the power and for those in a subordinate position to respond by increased submission, dependency, and lack of initiative. (p. 92)
Here is Naomi, a teacher who has been revisiting the stories of their learning with three- and four-year-old children, reflecting on the quality of her conversations with Rose:
I have instigated many of these revisiting conversations and sometimes I have not chosen my timing well and the conversation has reflected this; the child doesn’t seem too interested and so I am having to lead the discussion; this often leads to my asking too many questions and the child does not say much. Today my timing was different in that I could see Rose was looking for someone to share her portfolio with and I seized the moment, offering to be that person for her. What a difference between this conversation and the first one I initiated with Rose. For the most part she led the conversation and I followed; I think this shows in comparing the length of my first conversation with Rose [18 verbal turns] and this one [six weeks later: 74 verbal turns]. (Naomi, teacher)
Naomi comments that ‘for the most part she led the conversation and I followed’; this describes a dialogue in which Rose has a degree of power or agency.
Learning ‘in the Middle’
The references to ‘self’ in the quote from Jerome Bruner earlier in this chapter, and elsewhere in this chapter to ‘identities’ and to ‘possible selves’ provide a glimpse into the contested theoretical territory inhabited by ‘selves’, ‘identities’, possible selves and ‘subject positions’. We have settled on ‘identity’, a common word in the sociocultural literature. There is a strong resonance between Nasir’s view of learning as a cultural process and James Gee’s sociocultural notion of a Discourse, interesting to us here because he goes on to write about ‘a sociocultural perspective on opportunities to learn’ in a book about assessment. Gee (2008) compares a traditional view with a situated/sociocultural viewpoint:
A situated/sociocultural viewpoint looks at knowledge and learning not primarily in terms of representation in the head, although there is no need to deny that such representations exist and play an important role. Rather, it looks at knowledge and learning in terms of a relationship between an individual with both a mind and a body and an environment in which the individual thinks, feels and interacts. Both the body and the environment tend to be backgrounded in traditional views of knowledg...