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Sociocultural Perspectives on Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Assessment to Support Inclusive Education

Summary and Keywords

Sociocultural perspectives on curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment support teachers in developing and implementing inclusive pedagogies. Sociocultural assessment approaches disregard impairment as an identity in itself, privileging the strengths and knowledge evident in observed interactions. A sociocultural approach to assessment recognizes the dynamic interaction between teaching, learning, and assessment, spread across people, places, and time. Where traditional forms of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment focus on a decontextualized individual, a sociocultural perspective pays close attention to contexts. Teachers’ practices, expectations, and understandings of learning and diversity form a key part of the contexts.

In culturally responsive paradigms, learning is recognized as sociocultural—being informed through interactions with others. All students are recognized and valued as people who gain experiences and knowledge across many contexts. Multiple perspectives are valued as shared understandings and constructions of learning are developed in response to observations and interactions in a community of learners—where students and teachers learn with and from each other. Teachers who recognize themselves as capable of teaching everyone in the class are more likely to recognize everyone as a learner, to think critically about their positioning and understanding of disability, and to plan teaching, learning, and assessment in inclusive ways of working.

Keywords: inclusive education, inclusive assessment, inclusive curriculum, inclusive pedagogies, sociocultural theory, disability studies in education, culturally responsive pedagogies


This article investigates how sociocultural approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment can support educators in making sense of inclusive practices. Traditional models of assessment are discussed and their impact on the recognition and construction of all students as learners is considered. The use of an alternative iterative approach, narrative assessment, is discussed. Key themes from work in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment are discussed, with a focus on the purposes and consequences of practice for students who are most commonly marginalized in education (e.g., students with special education needs). The article concludes with recommendations for further inquiry into sociocultural approaches in educator work.

The Aotearoa (New Zealand) context

Traditional teaching and assessment approaches in Aotearoa (New Zealand) have embraced Western epistemologies and assumptions that reinforce deficit views of certain groups of students (Guerin, 2015; Guerin & Morton, 2015; Macartney, 2009; Macfarlane, 2012). In line with current global trends, student progress and achievement are recognized through standards-based measures. Feedback to students and their families is through a grading system that recognizes the progress and achievement of individual students as being below, at, above, or well above those of their peers.

Education agencies responsible for monitoring school practices recognize a continuing disparity between specific groups of students in accessing learning opportunities and experiencing success at school (Education Review Office, 2012a, 2013). The Ministry of Education has identified four specific groups of students as being the most at risk of not achieving as well as their peers in Aotearoa schools (Ministry of Education, n.d.). The term priority learners is used to identify these students. Māori students (students from the indigenous people of Aotearoa), Pacifica students, students with special education needs, and students from low socieconomic backgrounds are identified as being at high risk of not achieving well within the education system. The ongoing overrepresentation of “minority” students within national and international statistics of failure is not unique to Aotearoa (see Curcic, Gabel, Zeitlin, Cribaro‐DiFatta, & Glarner, 2011).

The introduction of the New Zealand Curriculum in 2007 recognized schools as being responsible for developing their own curriculum in response to the diverse characteristics of their own communities (Ministry of Education, 2007). The curriculum document provided a framework, including a scheme of hierarchal learning progressions, that schools would need to use. The progressions were identified within specified learning areas. The new curriculum also introduced five key competencies, lifelong skills and learning that draw on knowledge, attitudes, and values. The five competencies are thinking, managing self, participating and contributing, using language symbols and texts, and relating to others. The placement of the key competencies at the heart of the curriculum can be recognized as an opportunity to rethink traditional assessment approaches and to focus on future-based teaching and learning for all students (Hipkins, 2009; Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd, & McDowall, 2014). The New Zealand Curriculum recognized the importance of schools’ working in partnership with their communities to design a responsive curriculum that could meet their specific needs. Recent education reviews (Education Review Office, 2012a, 2012b) suggest that many schools have continued to use historical approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, with little change to more transformative ways of working that the New Zealand Curriculum envisioned.

Sociocultural Approaches to Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Assessment

The authors work within a Disability Studies in Education paradigm, which has a strong focus on making sense of constructions of disability and competence in inclusive education practice, and on recognizing that the social construction of disability and competence may be challenged by sociocultural forms of teaching, learning, and assessment (Macartney, 2009; Macartney & Morton, 2013; McIlroy & Guerin, 2014; Morton & McMenamin, 2011; Morton, Rietveld, Guerin, McIlroy, & Duke, 2012). Sociocultural approaches to teaching and learning identify the importance of context for noticing children’s learning. Teachers are part of this context, as are the opportunities they create for children to show their understanding and competence (Guerin & Morton, 2015; Valle & Connor, 2011; Wansart, 1995). Teachers’ frameworks for interpreting children’s actions also form part of the context. Sociocultural forms of assessment privilege interactions within and between social and cultural contexts, rejecting fixed notions of medical abnormality or deficit that traditional assessment approaches are based on (Biklen & Kliewer, 2006; Gipps, 2002; Macartney, 2009). Sociocultural assessment disregards impairment as an identity in itself, privileging the strengths and knowledge evident in observed interactions (Guerin, 2015).

The authors’ understandings of sociocultural approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment have been informed by teaching and academic careers. In 2008 and 2009, we worked together on a Ministry of Education funded project “Curriculum exemplars for students with special education needs” (Ministry of Education, 2009a, 2009b). The project focused on developing assessment exemplars that could identify learning and progress for students who were recognized as having long-term special education needs. The project was established in response to educator concerns that teachers did not feel confident or capable of assessing some students within the New Zealand Curriculum framework (Morton & McMenamin, 2011). The project introduced narrative assessment to a group of teachers, parents, and academic staff who worked in a collaborative learning community over 2 years as they made sense of this approach to informing inclusive practice.

Narrative assessment is an iterative approach that uses narratives or learning stories about a student’s learning from a variety of people, including the students themselves, across a range of contexts (Guerin & Morton, 2015; McIlroy & Guerin, 2014). The stories may be presented in a string that documents progress over time. Learning is recognized as occurring both within and outside of the classroom. The stories are linked to curriculum goals and effective pedagogy. Narrative assessment can be recognized as an “identity-referenced” approach (Carr, 2005, p. 46) that identifies students’ strengths, skills, and current learning support needs with a focus on new learning and teaching. In this assessment approach, learning challenges are recognized as opportunities, rather than deficits. Teachers using narrative assessment can use the information in the learning stories to reflect on their own practice. In this way, narratives can inform curriculum and pedagogy (Morton, McMenamin, Moore, & Molloy, 2012).

Teachers in the project stated that using narrative assessment was like “seeing children through different eyes.” The 70 exemplars developed by teacher-writers and families are produced on the website

Following the project’s completion, the authors have had the opportunity to introduce and to evaluate the use of narrative assessment in collaborative learning communities in both primary (elementary) and secondary school (middle and high school) settings. The work has included repositioning students as learning partners in response to an evolving understanding of uses of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

A further influence has been research into culturally responsive pedagogies. This research challenges historical teaching and learning processes that privilege Western epistemologies and assumptions (Berryman & Woller, 2013; Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Bishop, Berryman, & O’Sullivan, 2010; Macfarlane, 2012; Macfarlane & Macfarlane, 2013). In culturally responsive paradigms, learning is recognized as sociocultural—as being informed through interactions with others. All students are recognized and valued as people who gain experiences and knowledge across many contexts. Shared family/whānau and school knowledge is recognized as pivotal to understandings of how best to respond to the diversity of communities. Authentic partnerships are central to developing connections between student knowledge and future learning (Macfarlane, Macfarlane, Savage, & Glynn, 2012; Wearmouth, Berryman, & Glynn, 2009). In this way, the multiple perspectives of people who know and care for the students (and the students themselves) inform a more holistic approach to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Macfarlane et al. (2012) noted that culturally responsive teachers are “skilled at connecting with culture while focusing on the elements of dialogic teaching and learning pedagogy” (p. 169). Understanding respectful relationships, developing relevant and responsive curriculum, and the need to continually challenge personal biases inform culturally responsive practices.

The authors have recognized links between the work on narrative assessment and the understanding of culturally responsive pedagogies. Diversity is recognized as an opportunity for learning. Collaboration is recognized as informing and strengthening learning and teaching. Students are recognized as capable partners in their own learning. Educator responsibilities are situated within facilitator roles, with expectations of setting high, but achievable, standards for all students. The unique potential of each student is recognized and is valued through a myriad of teaching approaches rather than a prescribed formula. Teaching and learning are reciprocal acts where the student is recognized as a teacher and vice versa.

The use of sociocultural approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment has led to identification of three key themes that support quality teaching and learning for all students. The themes are integral to recognizing the unique potential of all students. The approaches are responsive to the social and cultural contexts of students, and to those people who support their learning. Although the themes are identified and discussed individually, they are also recognized as informing each other, as being interconnected. The themes are:

  • Multiple perspectives that inform a richer knowledge of learning and curriculum.

  • The recognition and valuing of students as learning partners.

  • The impact of collaboration through the use of learning communities.

Multiple Perspectives Inform a Richer Knowledge of Learning and Curriculum

A sociocultural approach to assessment recognizes the dynamic interaction between teaching, learning, and assessment, spread across people, places, and time (Cowie & Carr, 2004; Morton, Rietveld, Guerin, McIlroy, & Duke, 2012; Vygotsky, 1987). Multiple perspectives are valued as shared understandings, and constructions of learning are developed in response to observations and interactions within a community. Reciprocity is valued as teachers and students learn with and from each other. This principle may also be recognized in the Māori concept of ako (Ministry of Education, 2008, 2011b), and in Freire’s (1997) valuing of the importance of people learning together. Teachers are recognized as learners and learners are recognized as teachers.

Teacher Perspectives

Teacher inquiry has been a focus in work with schools using narrative assessment. Teachers have been able to critically reflect on their own positioning and understandings of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment as they have used narrative assessment with students and their families. A number of reconstructions of practice are evident in teacher comments from these projects.

Teachers in the curriculum exemplars project talked about seeing students, learning, teaching, assessment, and themselves through “different eyes.” A critical issue for many teachers has been feeling confident in their ability to know how to teach all students within the curriculum framework. Our work on narrative assessment has established clear links between learning goals and the curriculum itself. Teachers have reported that using an iterative approach to assessment has supported their feeling more confident to be able to recognize learning in a variety of ways (Ministry of Education, 2009a). Focusing on one particular learning area and making sense of how learning and teaching could be in that area have lessened the overwhelming sense of feeling incapable. Once teachers were able to make sense of teaching, learning, and assessment in one learning area, they reflected that they felt more confident to tackle other areas of curriculum learning. Teachers have reported that being able to examine and discuss curriculum in a collaborative setting strengthened their understandings of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment (Guerin, 2015; Ministry of Education, 2009a).

Across a number of projects, teachers have recognized narrative assessment as an authentic and valued assessment approach (Guerin, 2015; Guerin & Morton, 2015; Morton & McMenamin, 2011). An important issue for teachers has been the introduction of a shared responsibility for assessment. Often classroom and specialist teachers have been solely responsible for assessing students with special education needs and making suggestions for future learning. This may or may not be with information about how the student learns and uses skills outside of the classroom. Many teachers have reported their sense of relief as they have repositioned themselves from the role of “expert” to the role of facilitator and learning community member (Guerin, 2008, 2015).

Teachers may have felt that the assessments they were undertaking did not have any purpose. They may have known a child was learning, but their assessments did not show this. This has meant that teachers may have been undertaking assessment knowing a child was going to fail, but feeling unsure of what else to do. Narrative assessment has supported the recognition of the many different ways individuals can learn and may demonstrate that learning (McIlroy & Guerin, 2014; Morton & McMenamin, 2011). Teachers in the curriculum exemplars project reported changes in the way they saw assessment after they had participated in the project (Ministry of Education, 2009a). One teacher reported taking a portfolio of narrative assessments to her school’s board of trustees to demonstrate how learning could be recognized and responded to in that particular school community. Teachers’ understandings of feedback and feedforward evolved as they considered students as partners in learning rather than as recipients of teacher knowledge. Guerin recalled changing the learning stories template for her use of narrative assessment as her understanding of reciprocity evolved. A new question—“What is this student teaching us?”—was added to the framework for collaborative inquiry and reflection. This supported both critical reflection and effective pedagogical practice informed by student voice. Teachers have identified a narrative assessment approach as more aligned with their philosophies about curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. This has led to further considerations of the purposes and consequences of the assessment tools they use.

Other issues that have been identified have included thinking about accessibility for the students themselves and their families/whānau, and understandings of the classroom. As a teacher herself, Guerin remembered a key “aha” moment in the curriculum exemplars project when she realized that, although she thought of all of the students as learning partners, she had produced learning plans in text-only format—making them inaccessible and essentially worthless as day-to-day learning tools for many of the students.

Some teachers have reconsidered how they see their classrooms and the roles of people within them (Ministry of Education, 2009a). Some students have been encouraged to write learning stories with and about each other. This process has been modeled and scaffolded by teachers focusing on assessment as an iterative process. One teacher was observed writing learning stories for the whole class. Another teacher drew on learning stories from peers talking about playground activities, where adults may not have been part of the context. Professionals (e.g., speech language therapists) working within schools on a regular basis have added to learning story strings as information has been shared across people, places, and time.

Schools have their own unique community contexts, and schools have chosen their own preferred ways of working with narrative assessment. Sometimes this has meant recognizing tensions between how we may be working and how we might wish to work. This may have meant reconsidering whether school reporting systems are achieving a meaningful end or questioning how subject content is being developed so that all students have access to learning opportunities (Guerin & McIlroy, 2014). In many instances, learning stories have been a “vehicle for inclusion” (Dunn, 2004) as teachers have been able to recognize the student as a learner, not solely as a person with a label. Sometimes, learning stories have made visible some of our exclusive ways of working, even when we have worked with the best intent for all students. The clear links between the learning stories and the framework used to analyze them provided a space for teachers to critique their own practices. This has led to clearer understandings of effective pedagogy and the consequences of our actions for students and their families/whānau (Guerin, 2015; Morton & Guerin, 2015).

Teachers who recognize themselves as capable of teaching everyone in their class are more likely to recognize everyone as a learner, to think critically about their positioning and understandings of disability, and to plan teaching, learning, and assessment within inclusive ways of working (Black-Hawkins, 2012; Valle & Connor, 2011). This includes notions of how to link learning goals and to reconstruct individual education plans as meaningful documents. Following her participation in a learning community that focused on the introduction of narrative assessment in her elementary school, a teacher reflected that:

We have always structured Tom’s learning to the individual education plan, but now, with narrative assessment, we are structuring the IEP around Tom’s achievements. Tom is showing us how much he is learning and we are taking notice. As a result we are able to support him better.

(Guerin, personal communication, 2010)

Family/Whānau Perspectives

Educators are not the only people trying to make sense of how education can look and be for all students. Families, too, may struggle to make sense of schooling, curriculum, and assessment. The shared use of learning stories has supported a better understanding of these concepts and how they can support each other. Narrative assessment has provided the opportunity to recognize progress and achievement in a myriad of ways. Woody’s mother, Kate, noted that the use of learning stories offered written confirmation that he was learning and provided a picture of his progress over time:

I think a lot of families would appreciate that (having learning stories in a portfolio), too, because you don’t often see small gains, and written in a written form that’s not going to be obvious, where if with the narrative assessment you can look over a whole thread, a whole running record of what’s been going on, and you can see the gains, even when they are small. So you can see from where they started to where they are now.

(Guerin, 2015, p. 143)

The sharing of learning stories from multiple environments has provided opportunities to recognize how learning may occur in many different ways. The stories may have focused on a specific skill and a student’s use of that skill across home and school settings. The sharing of stories has supported more holistic understandings of the students and some of the ways they have learned and have chosen to show us what they already know. For example, one of the boys in the project used skills at his home for at least 6 months before teachers saw evidence of the skills at school. This information was used to think about the skills we wished to teach him, and, with family support, he began some of this work at home rather than at school. The stories also identified his sister as the person he was most likely to learn a new skill from. School staff and family members agreed on specific skills that needed to be taught and the student’s sister introduced that new skill to him first. Traditional assessment approaches would not value this information, yet it had a profound effect on the student’s ability to make sense of a new skill.

The observations of a wide range of people living and working with a student in a variety of contexts can contribute to educator understandings and reconstructions of concepts such as achievement and progress. An example is a string of learning stories about Peter, a student who was learning to write words to communicate to an audience. The learning story string included observations from home and school over an 18-month period when Peter began to make sense of using words in a sentence. In the first 12 months, the string detailed Peter’s progression from writing a one-letter word (I) to writing a three-word sentence (I am Peter.) to writing a more complex sentence where Peter used the words “I am going on a . . .” and then drew a train. All of the observations occurred in the school setting. They demonstrated Peter’s emerging understanding of using words and symbols in a sentence to communicate.

In the last 6 months of the 18-month learning story string, Peter’s mother emailed two learning stories to the school. The stories were accompanied by photos of a list of instructions Peter had left on the bathroom door. He had made a spa out of a box and had left instructions for his parents about how to use the box. The instructions were a jumble of numbers and letters. They demonstrated a more emergent level of writing than what Peter was using in the classroom. In traditional assessment approaches, Peter could be identified as not maintaining his knowledge of sentence structure or spaces between words, etc. In a narrative assessment approach, we had the opportunity to recognize Peter’s taking a skill from one setting (school) and using that knowledge in another setting (home). He used the knowledge of writing to communicate an idea (instructions) to his parents. The narratives demonstrated Peter’s functional use of his knowledge across settings. Peter taught the adults supporting him that progress is not necessarily linear and that sometimes learning can be unpredictable.

Peter’s learning story string reflects another important concept in iterative assessment. Contrary to traditional notions of assessments being undertaken within tight time frames, no time limit was set for the string to be developed. The string was developed in response to the observations of learning that was occurring. If we had set a time limit of 12 months, we would have missed the opportunity to recognize Peter’s generalizing his learning across contexts.

Sometimes, educator understandings of what assessment is and can be, and the lack of value given to the knowledge of families/whānau, mean that opportunities to observe learning can be lost. It has not been uncommon to open an email and see a message from a parent saying, “I don’t want to bore you, but I am so proud . . .” or “It’s just something little, but we are so happy because. . . .” Narrative assessment values the observations of family/whānau as informing a deeper, richer knowledge of learning.

The Recognition and Valuing of Students as Learning Partners

Aotearoa education research (Absolum, 2006; Absolum et al., 2009; Alton-Lee, 2003; Gilmore & Smith, 2008; Wearmouth, Berryman, & Glynn, 2009) and policy documents (Ministry of Education, 2007, 2011a, 2011c) value quality teaching and learning that make students partners in their own learning. This positions students as participants within teaching, learning, and assessment processes, in contrast to traditional roles of students as recipients of these processes. Students’ sense of themselves as learners informs their identity and well-being. This may be defined by how they experience themselves through participation in school as well as how others define them (Wearmouth, Berryman, & Glynn, 2009). As Aotearoa schools have embraced more formative uses of assessment over the last 20 years, there have been more opportunities for students to participate in learning conversations and processes. Student participation in these conversations is essential if we are to support them in sharing their reality for their goals and the assessment of their goals (Bourke & Mentis, 2013).

There are concerns that the student’s voice in learning is still underutilized and misunderstood, and that educators have some way to go in teaching students how to participate in the new roles (Smith & Smith, 2007). Thinking about all students as assessment and learning partners challenges historical teacher/student roles and practices. This is particularly true when students with special education needs are reframed as partners. Historically, students with special education needs have been assessed in terms of deficit and remediation. There has been a dominance of clinical assessment approaches that may not consider broader understandings of learning. The shift to sociocultural understandings of the impact of context on learning challenges traditional assessment approaches that position the responsibility for learning solely on the individual. In doing so, it provides the opportunity for all students to be recognized as valued and valuable participants in teaching and learning (Saggers, Macartney, & Guerin, 2012).

In work with educators, students with special needs, and their family/whānau, the authors have investigated and worked together to consider how all students can be recognized as learning and assessment partners. We have recognized inclusive education as situating the learner at the center of any discussion about education (Murray, 2000). This has required flexible thinking and problem-solving as we have collaborated to rethink notions of dialogue and student agency with students whose learning needs have been identified through a range of labels. Central to this work has been a belief in all students as learners. This presumption of competence (Biklen, 2000a; Snow, 2007) places responsibility on educators to listen to, to develop, and to value students’ voices and identities. It also changes the traditional role of professionals as assessment experts to one of professionals as assessment partners (Biklen, 2000b).

Educators’ Perspectives

Educators in both the Ministry of Education’s curriculum exemplars for students with special education needs project (Ministry of Education, 2009a, 2009b) and in our education research have identified some key strategies that have supported them in their learning with students. Many of these key strategies can also be found in the work of researchers focused on culturally responsive pedagogies and sociocultural theory (Macfarlane et al., 2012). Educators have recognized the following strategies as pivotal to their work:

  • Take the time to get to know a student well. Learn about the student’s perceptions and experiences of the world and build connections to their world.

  • Rethink concepts like dialogue. Be open to how students may communicate their voice. Use a variety of media and opportunities to support student participation.

  • Provide students with the language of learning. Teach them the labels for the learning they are doing so they understand they are learners and how this is so.

  • Provide regular opportunities for students and the staff supporting them to revisit learning plans, to remind them of the goals they are working toward. Plans and other learning documents need to be in student-accessible formats.

  • Pay attention to accessibility. For example, when students and families meet for assessment and learning conferences, how can all students be recognized as partners? How do we support opportunities for all students to participate? Are all students part of a student/parent conference?

  • Pay attention to the impact of adults supporting the student. For students who have a high amount of adult support, how can their voice be heard without their being overwhelmed or dominated by adult voices?

Although these recommendations may have been made in reference to students with special education needs, the strategies support more inclusive ways of working with, and for, all students.

Students’ Perspectives

When students are positioned as active participants in the co-construction of their learning, we have the opportunity to understand both their reality and their own sense of identity (McIlroy & Guerin, 2015; Ministry of Education, 2011c). Student perspectives have informed our work in a number of ways. Within the curriculum exemplar project, we were able to recognize the voices of the students who were the focus of the learning project as well as their peers. The learning stories or narratives drew on the observations of people across environments. When we shared the stories, we began to see the many ways the students were using learning and letting us know what they needed to learn next. Some stories told of learning we had not observed and reminded us that students learn within much wider contexts than just the classroom. Some of the students could say what they wanted to know and what they wanted to learn next. Sometimes, their peers helped us to understand their views. Sometimes, family/whānau knowledge provided us with new and unfamiliar understandings of students as learning partners.

At times, the learning stories have included statements where students have been able to identify themselves as capable. For example, when, after months of trying, Peter was able to write a three-word sentence independently, he stated, “I am a writer.” Peter articulated an emerging identity as he recognized at 10 years of age that he could write. He made this statement in a classroom, where peers and teaching staff alike celebrated and reinforced his new-found identity by adding his work to the writing of peers on the wall, by clapping, and by making positive comments that demonstrated they also saw him as a writer. Peter’s family reinforced this further by hanging his writing on the wall in their house.

Sometimes, peers added their voices to learning stories to affirm students as learners. When Tom was able to take a peer’s hand and walk her over to a book and show her a photo of herself by pointing to it, she said, “Tom, you know that’s me. I am your friend. You like me.” Tom’s peer reinforced his positioning as a friend in the classroom, someone she liked and valued, someone who belonged. In these ways, learning stories have the potential to capture the ways students identify themselves and are identified by others. This also supports a sense of belonging.

When teachers listen to students with special education needs, they demonstrate a valuing of diversity and uniqueness. Including student voices in planning and assessment supports students’ participation as enablers of success. This can be a complex process, so we must pay attention to how we value that voice. If we are committed to listening and responding to students as partners, we have to accept that sometimes we may be challenged by the messages we receive.

Ben was a student who had learned how to participate in decision-making focused on his learning over a number of years. He was actively involved in planning and reviewing his learning goals and programs with his teachers and family members. When Ben attended his 6-month individual education plan (IEP) meeting, he was unhappy to find that one of the participants was someone he did not know, an education professional who had been in his classroom for the first time the morning of the meeting. Ben challenged the professional in the meeting, asking “Why you here? I not know you.” Ben’s comments challenged the adult participants to reconsider the practice of including participants who did not know him well in future IEP meetings. As a result of this conversation, prior to future IEP meetings Ben identified the people who were supporting his learning and they were invited to attend the next meeting.

When researching and working with students with special education needs in their local school, Guerin was able to observe the ways that Woody, a student labeled severely and multiply disabled, used his voice. Although Woody was labeled nonverbal (not communicating through words), when adults took the time to get to know him and his unique ways of communicating, they became more informed about their own ways of working. In the project, adults ensured that Woody had accessible copies of his learning stories on his computer. The files were in visual, text, and audio feedback modes, which ensured that Woody had accessible assessment information available to him when he wished to see it. The stories were also placed in the class library so that Woody’s peers had access to hard copies they could read themselves or share with him. The adults recognized that their use of the stories was part of an ongoing dialogue about, and with, Woody. The dialogue was about his and their learning together. The adults believed that the stories also supported Woody’s understanding of how he was valued as a learner, as someone who belonged in the school community (Bourke & Mentis, 2014; Morton, McMenamin et al., 2012).

When Woody reread his learning stories, the adults used observations to inform future practice. Woody often chose to read the same learning story over and over again on his computer. Observations focused on identifying which photos Woody was returning to repeatedly. Were there certain people he was more interested in looking at? When other students were reading books on his computer with him, how did he respond (loud rocking, yelling, sustained looking, pointing with his hand)? These observations were pivotal in teaching adults about how Woody was communicating what he liked and didn’t like about the work they were doing together. An example is that when Woody was given a menu to choose a story from, more often than not he chose the stories that involved his friend Duncan. The adults supporting Woody realized that Woody was more likely to reveal a skill when he was working with Duncan.

The collection of learning stories worked to sustain Woody’s interest by revisiting previous episodes of learning. Adults used learning stories prior to pool visits as a reminder of learning goals, including reminding Woody about what they had already achieved and what they were focusing on in the next period. In this way adults tried to support a co-authoring and co-construction of both curriculum and assessment that reflected Woody’s interests and made clear links to learning in the curriculum.

Adults had to reconsider self-assessment and the ways they could support Woody to participate in learning with them. This required thinking outside of the square in many everyday activities. Woody was asked to choose photos to match text, and to choose the learning stories he wished to reread. The adults supporting Woody agreed that there would be no time limit for Woody to complete reading a book. This may have meant he pushed the replay button for a specific page numerous times. Adults recognized the opportunity to take as long as he wished as a significant part of dialogue and a possible opportunity for agency. When Woody replayed the same page many times, it usually featured a person or symbol of high interest to him. This information shaped further ways the adults chose to work together.

A further example of a student voice informing practice arose from the use of narrative assessment with Kirsty, her teachers, and other adults supporting her. Kirsty was attending her local high school. Over a 1-year period, a number of learning story strings had supported recognition of her achievements and progress in literacy. When Kirsty attended her final IEP meeting for the year, she informed the adults attending that she was not happy with the school report, which she could not read. The report was of the same text-only format as for all students, providing grades of 1 to 4 for understanding and achievement in a certain range of subjects. Kirsty had decided on a report format that she could read and she wanted a teacher to help her with it. Kirsty’s end-of-year report was an A2 cardboard poster of approximately 50 photos from her learning at home, in school, and in the community for the previous 12 months. It did not have one word written on it, but Kirsty could speak to every photograph. She could say where she was when the photo was taken, what she was learning, and who was learning with her. The report was completely Kirsty accessible.

Our research into the formative use of narrative assessment has signaled a further aspect of student voice that challenges notions of students with special needs as passive recipients of teaching and learning. At times during our work in schools, we have recognized students labeled as disabled making choices not to engage with assessors. The following narrative from Guerin’s doctoral research illustrates this point.

A specialist was working through an assessment exercise with Woody at school (Woody is a student who is labeled as severely disabled and nonverbal). Woody had been working in class prior to the assessment exercise with the specialist. Within class he had been quite verbal and was observed to be interested in the work on his Toughbook computer. During the following assessment session with the specialist, Woody appeared listless, with his head down. He made very little noise. He did not search the room for sounds or people. The specialist completed her work, stating that it appeared to be “one of those days” (where Woody’s impairment affected his ability to participate in assessments). The assessment data that she had collected were sparse. She would try again tomorrow. When the specialist had gone, I asked Woody what he was doing. I told him I knew that he hadn’t tried and that he was able to do so much more. I told him the specialist would think he couldn’t do things when he could. Woody leaned over towards me and laughed.

I was stunned as I realized that Woody had made a choice about participating within the assessment exercise. As an educator I was suddenly aware that there would have been occasions in my work where I had interpreted a lack of participation by students as a reflection of impairment, not student choice. I was also concerned about how Woody would be identified within the assessment data. I worried that his actions might result in him not accessing a particular piece of equipment because he was observed to not be ready to use it.

Woody’s mother, Kate, and his grandmother, Margaret, were not stunned at all. They recognized that Woody had been making choices for a number of years. They were both clear that if assessors did not take the time to establish a relationship with Woody, then he ignored them. Further to this, if Woody ignored the specialist, his family chose to ignore the assessment report, not recognizing it as valid or valuable. I asked Margaret what the family would do if Woody missed out on resourcing they thought he was entitled to through his decision to not participate in the assessment tasks. She stated, “That is when we fight. We pick our battles. If we know Woody needs it, that’s when we fight.”

(Guerin, 2015, p. 1)

This raises a number of critical issues in assessment in education. How do we recognize the impact of assessor competence on access to learning opportunities for students recognized as having special education needs? How do we recognize the diversity of student capability and learning through the assessment processes we undertake? What is the value in assessments that family/whānau and school staff may choose to ignore because the assessor has limited understanding of a student’s knowledge in more than one context? These questions may frame our future ways of working.

Students’ Families’ Perspectives

Families/whānau have brought a range of assessment experiences to projects we have worked on together. Parents have talked about the overwhelming number of assessments their children have been involved in as adults have worked to make sense of how best to support them. Some parents have spoken positively of collaborative teams that they have been part of, of sharing information, and of joint problem-solving. At times parents have recognized assessment processes as being isolating, not contributing to any better learning outcome for their child, as having their knowledge ignored, and of professionals (including teachers) not taking the time to get to know their child and their family. Parents have overwhelmingly participated in research with us in the hope that teachers and others working with students with special education needs will gain a better understanding of the many different ways of working with all students. They have participated in projects, with a vision of better access to learning opportunities not only for their own child, but for all children (Guerin, 2015).

The students we have worked with have ranged in age from 5 to 21 years old. The students themselves and their families have participated in a variety of teaching, learning, and assessment processes over a range of contexts. Many of the assessments have had a clinical focus, with the identification of deficits and remediation being pivotal to informing future planning. In contrast, narrative assessment has introduced a broader, sociocultural focus that embraces the perspectives of many people, recognizing learning across contexts. Kate, a parent of a student recognized as having multiple and severe disabilities, reflected on the use of narrative assessment with her son over a 1-year project. She valued the use of narrative assessment, seeing it as valid and authentic:

You take a lot of people, they come in from the outside, they’re only here for an hour so they’re only just looking, well, from an outside view so they don’t see, they don’t know who he is, they don’t know what he is capable of, cos he takes a while to warm up to a person a lot of the time too. So, yeah, you’ve got to probably gain his trust like any person . . . but narrative assessment that is the inside view.

(Guerin, 2015, p. 143)

Parents have identified a number of ways that narrative assessment has supported their children to be recognized as the learners they are and can be. They have valued narrative assessment as an approach where:

  • The focus is on the children and their learning.

  • Progress is not predefined in linear steps.

  • Assessment is linked to the real world of the student.

  • Achievement is recognized and celebrated, rather than a focus on failure.

  • Adults’ understandings of assessment are supported.

  • Parents have an insight into what is happening at school.

  • Constant (but not usually instant) progress over time is recorded.

  • Intelligence is revealed in a variety of different ways.

  • Possibilities for learning are made clear.

  • Teachers talk about how their learning about a child has developed through the information in learning stories.

  • The stories can inform better learning goals in IEPs.

  • Family/whānau and student participation is supported.

  • The stories are part of a learning conversation between school and home. (Guerin, 2015; Ministry of Education, 2009a)

We have observed families/whānau sharing narrative assessment focused on their child/ren in many different ways. Parents have reflected on the pride they have felt in sharing learning stories that recognize their child as an engaged learner. The stories may be shared with wider family through a range of media. Grandparents and other family/whānau members not living in close proximity to the child have an opportunity to celebrate learning success with the family. One grandparent wrote to express her pride in reading her grandson’s learning stories:

I can’t put into words how I felt when Lesley gave the learning stories book to me. I just melted in to tears and asked, “Do you mind if I read it later on my own?” The emotion that came over me was of love, pride and joy. We do hope he continues to develop and that one day he may talk to us.

(Guerin, private communication, 2009)

The Impact of Collaboration Through the Use of Learning Communities

Inclusion implies a collaborative approach to problem-solving and developing shared understandings of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment across a range of people within and beyond the classroom (Black-Hawkins, 2012; Saggers, Macartney, & Guerin, 2012). Our work has supported the use of collaborative learning communities where the contributions of parents, school staff, specialists, and students are equally valued. Collaborative learning communities that recognize and draw on the strengths, interests, skills, and knowledge of different members of a teaching and learning group can strengthen and enhance access to learning opportunities for all students (Guerin, 2008; Rix, 2005; Wenger, 2000, 2004) .

Teachers in Aotearoa commonly work in collaborative learning communities focused on an issue of education inquiry. The groups may be based within and across schools. Within the projects we have supported, learning communities have reflected the unique contexts of school communities and the nature of the projects we have undertaken. In the curriculum exemplars project, teachers, education facilitators, academic staff, and parents worked together to make sense of narrative assessment. In other projects, a learning community has included the students, their families/whānau, teachers, and education support staff.

Collaborative learning communities have provided opportunities for people to share their knowledge and to make sense of how to move forward with a focus on a particular issue. Teachers have reported feeling relief at being able to share information and work together with families rather than having to be the “expert.” Families have also reported positive experiences where they have felt their knowledge is valued, and they have gained a greater understanding of curriculum and how to make sense of schooling. The inclusion of students with special education needs in a learning community has challenged us to think about the roles and responsibilities of community members. At times this has meant students’ participating for shorter periods than a full meeting, rescheduling meetings to a time of day that suits the participation of the students, clarifying the information being discussed, and ensuring students have ample opportunities to revisit the information prior to a meeting.

A number of key issues have been identified by learning community members as being pivotal to the group’s working successfully. They are:

  • Setting clear goals and purpose for the group and ensuring there is shared understanding of them.

  • Agreeing on how information will be shared so that everyone has access to it in a meaningful way.

  • Building trust with each other.

  • Not predetermining the outcomes of what the group may achieve, but accepting that learning together may be unpredictable.

  • Recognizing members’ strengths, knowledge, and experience. (Guerin, 2008, 2015; Ministry of Education, 2009a)

Collaborative learning communities have worked in a number of ways. In some projects, members have designed learning story strings together. Other groups have considered the impact of their use of narrative assessment on curriculum. They may have raised new issues from their collective inquiry to frame future investigations. For example, when Kirsty said she did not like her school report because she could not read it, the learning community supporting her discussed and redesigned the school report format for all students.

Sometimes learning communities have recognized the need for another voice in their discussions. They may have invited a person with a specific set of skills to join their discussion with a focus on a particular issue. This may be a one-off visit or a negotiated time, depending on the issue being investigated.

Another interesting observation is that the students themselves have often established their own learning communities as they have gained and been intrigued by new knowledge. For example, when Kirsty was learning to text, she began to ask peers for their cell-phone numbers and she began texting them. They would respond to her texts, accepting the many varied ways she may have communicated a message. Kirsty expanded her network further when she joined Facebook. Kirsty and her peers made sense of the new ways of communicating as they tried sharing information and various digital platforms. Some of the interactions were used in learning stories to demonstrate the power of sharing information and skills in new learning.

Across the projects we have worked on, there is a clear message from learning community participants that their positive experiences of being in these groups have been enhanced by having a facilitator who has a knowledge of narrative assessment. This knowledge was recognized as pivotal in developing a shared understanding of how curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment could be linked. This was particularly important when focusing on issues such as problem-solving how dialogue and agency could be recognized in our work with students with labels of multiple disabilities.

The sharing of information between and among the people supporting students, and if possible, the students themselves, strengthens an inclusive approach to education. The busyness of people’s lives has been recognized, but a commitment to being part of a learning community has meant that there have been opportunities to reconstruct learning, teaching, and assessment with a shared focus on better access to learning opportunities for all students. Modern technologies have made this task much easier. Emails, texts, and sharing videos and articles have all made the task of sharing ideas and formulating more inclusive ways of working much easier. The inclusion of students with special education needs within collaborative learning communities continues to be an area of development for us in our work.

Further Challenges

When specialists, students, educators, and families work together, assessment data are more likely to be valued and recognized as authentic (Guerin, 2015). A critical aspect of the assessment process is the relationship between the assessor and the person being assessed. This relationship can determine constructions of (in)competence. Not all professionals (including teachers) have valued or recognized narrative assessment as a valid form of assessment. Some assessors have been reluctant to depart from traditional assessment approaches that are situated within deficit discourses of remediation. Some professionals have been challenged by the construction of students with special education needs as capable assessment partners. Understandings of collaboration may be rooted within historical positions of power that make it difficult to recognize all community members as equals. These challenges provide further platforms of inquiry for educators and academics focused on inclusive practices.


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