Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Narrative Assessment: A Sociocultural View

  • Bronwen Cowie
  • Margaret Carr
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_396



From our earliest time stories have played a critical role in recording events, providing insight into ideas, rallying support, and entertaining us. In different ways, all stories serve a purpose, even if to simply relay a message. We can think of examples from, for example, the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees mountains in southern France (15,000 and 13,000 BC), to the Epic of Gilgamesh carved on a stone pillars (700 BC), to the oral traditions that kept Aesop’s fables alive (Aesop lived in 500 BC and his stories were written down in 200 BC), the parables in the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays (as text and performed), Martin Luther King’s speeches, and Steve Jobs’ keynotes to launch new products. As this selective overview reminds us, stories can be communicated and passed from person to person through a variety of modes and media, often in combination. Their power lies in their capacity to capture complexity, evoke emotion, and create empathy, drawing us into a situation and helping us to see ourselves and to see others in new ways. It is this diversity of representational means, purposes, and consequences that underpins the use of stories as assessments in narrative format.

The essence of a narrative assessment is that it belongs to and is embedded in a particular context – national and local community, families, school, and early childhood center. However, a thoughtfully crafted assessment narrative can transcend the original context or place through the way it affords engagement and perspective taking in another place, particularly when it is shared with families at home. Assessments in narrative format can offer plotlines that are designed to resonate with other situations and circumstances and to illustrate multiple possible actions and futures. Sociocultural views of learning and assessment enable us to take account of this complexity.

In this entry we set out the possibilities that narrative assessment offers in documenting, supporting, and reporting the breadth of children’s learning. We ground these possibilities in a sociocultural view of learning and assessment. Sociocultural views of learning acknowledge the extent to which learning is entangled with, and made possible through, the material, social, cultural, and historical features of the context for learning. This view of learning highlights the need for assessment to focus on the learner in context and over time (Gipps 1999; Moss 2008). This view, as Gee (2008 p. 200) reminds us, expands what counts as knowing to include the special ways of acting and interacting a community uses to produce and use knowledge and their special ways of seeing, valuing, and being in the world.

Sociocultural views of assessment also acknowledge that assessment shapes learner identity – how learners come to see themselves as learners and knowers and how they are seen by others. In Stobart’s (2008) terms, assessment plays a crucial role in “making up people” (p. 1). Thus, a sociocultural view of assessment includes consideration of the development over time of a person’s knowledge and expertise, of their affiliation with a particular domain of interest, and of their dispositions and strategies for learning. This breadth of foci is important when the goal is to foster the development of people who can learn and participate productively in society as an individual and as a productive member of the various communities they encounter across the course of their home life, work, and leisure activities. If all these various aspects of learning and being an effective learner are not reflected in assessments, then we can be sure that the enacted curriculum will not pay attention to them.

In the remainder of this entry, we pursue the implications of a sociocultural understanding of assessment through a focus on (i) narrative assessment as a way of acknowledging the distributed nature of learning, (ii) narrative assessments as improvable objects and opportunities for developing a learning journey, and (iii) narrative assessments as boundary-crossing objects that mediate conversations across interested communities:

Narrative Assessments as a Way of Acknowledging the Distributed Nature of Learning

Assessments as narratives can represent, conscript, and engage all the various resources and people who are entangled in the context of an episode of learning. When learning and knowing are understood as distributed (Salomon 1993), the context is not just a source of stimulation and guidance, but a genuine part of the learning – in terms, the unit of analysis is the “person-plus.” Recognizing this, Gee (2007) describes three interlinked elements as involved in a sociocultural-situated view of language, learning, and the mind: an acculturated, socialized, embodied actor, within a situation, coordinating him- or herself with other people and objects, tools, or technologies (mediating devices). He adds that no element in this triad can be defined or dealt with in isolation, because “each simultaneously and continuously transforms the others throughout the action or thought” (p. 367). Wertsch’s (1991) notion of the learner as a person-acting-with-mediational-means provides a complementary perspective on the distributed nature of learning with similar implications for assessment. Barab and Roth (2006) propose the notion of an affordance network as a means of conceptualizing what supports and provides opportunities for learning. Affordance networks can include helpful resources, sensitive adults, friendly peers, and technology of various kinds. The inclusion of the meditational means or affordance network in the assessment narrative is valuable for formative assessment. The learner who reads the assessment story is privy to both what is being learned and how the surrounds supported this learning. They can use this knowledge to help them recognize and seek out these supports on other occasions and contexts.

A narrative assessment itself can be distributed across different modes and media. Enhancing the text, digital narratives in particular frequently include photographs (of children’s work and interactions with others and of the context), audio, video, blogs, and examples of children’s drawing and writing. In practice, an assessment in narrative format offers distinct opportunities to engage the learner. Learners from a young age can be supported to coauthor stories of learning (Carr and Lee 2012). This capacity for learners, including young children, to story what they have achieved is central to the twentieth-century goal of developing citizens who are able to learn throughout their lives (Gordon Commission 2013). Storying by the learner not only demands that learners analyze what they have accomplished, but it also produces an artifact that can act as a mediational means. Thus, the task of assessing can be distributed across stakeholders – learners, teachers, and, often, families – who add a comment to a portfolio from home. Learners can use narratives of learning, in portfolios, to revisit and review their understanding in ways that inform their reflection on the context of and resources they have employed to accomplish this learning and to consider what they could do next.

Narrative assessments can tell an individual story, a collective story, or the story of an activity. Individual stories about learning can be tucked inside a collective story of a group of learners, the school/early childhood center, or the community. Narratives as wall displays, exhibitions, and/or performances of group work are a feature of many early childhood and schooling settings. These displays can include children’s three-dimensional constructions (e.g., clay, wire, and paper) and panels of photographs, drawings, paintings, and writing. Teachers may choose to construct a narrative about how a group/class/community participated within an activity. Here the assessment goal is not necessarily formative or summative but rather to make visible, value, and share what has been achieved. Such documentation also acts to acknowledge the people and resources that have contributed to this achievement.

We summarize here an example from an early childhood center in which a 4-year-old dictated a story about photographs of her block building. This story became a co-constructed narrative assessment for her assessment portfolio when the teacher added a commentary entitled “What learning is happening here?” The co-construction was accompanied and inspired by ten photographs of the block-building episode (Carr and Lee 2012, p. 50). Emma’s dictation is of the construction of the block building as a volcano, describing the assistance of two other children and a book on volcanoes as well as the storyline of the block-building event. The teacher added comments on the contribution of Emma’s prior knowledge: her interest in lava rocks during a recent visit to the local mountain. She also notes the assistance that an adult, a book, and other children gave and adds an acknowledgment of Emma’s curiosity on this occasion; her confidence to express her thoughts, ideas, and theories; and her display of the dispositions to think critically and imaginatively.

Narrative Assessments as Improvable Objects and Opportunities for Developing a Learning Journey

A narrative assessment has the potential to support learning over time. As Bruner points out:

Our self-making stories accumulate over time, even pattern themselves on conventional genres. They get out-of-date, and not just because we grow older or wiser but because our self-making stories need to fit new circumstances, new friends, new enterprises. (Bruner 2002, p. 65)

Here Bruner highlights the role of stories in identity work, highlighting that these stories are tentative and soon become out-of-date. The implication of this for assessment is that any judgment of what children know or can do should not be based on a one-off snapshot. What a child can achieve in one setting with one set of resources (people, ideas, and physical artifacts/tools) will not necessarily be the same or look the same as that achieved in another setting at another time. Consequently, a key challenge for teachers is to provide varied opportunities for children to develop and use what they know already in a different setting and to ensure that any assessment sets up further opportunities for children to learn.

A formative view of assessment (Black and Wiliam 1998) is consistent with the notion that any one narrative assessment, by a learner or teacher, needs to be understood as a moment in time and as “an improvable object” (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1996). Wells (1999) has observed that teachers often encourage students to construct representations that capture something of what is being said and suggested that these representations can function as improvable objects or objects that are in state of development and always being negotiated and renegotiated. Narratives that document learning can play this role because they can be reviewed, rethought, and revised through discussion (Wells 1999). A series of stories can construct a narrative about both continuity and change – the development and expression of a quality or a skill in different situations and over time. The compilation of a cumulative narrative in a portfolio can offer a way for children to appreciate and connect together what they have already achieved, the relevance of the current achievement, and what might be desirable and possible in the future: recognizing and re-cognizing their learning as a journey that takes place over time. It is these connections that transform a sequence of stories into a learning journey. These sequences illustrate an individual student’s efforts, progress, and achievements across time and contexts for those interested in and responsible for his or her learning.

In a learning story entitled Practice Makes Perfect, the early childhood teacher writes the following comment to the child:

Charleeh-Blu, the arts of drawing, collage, writing and painting are all continuing to be a big interest for you. … It was awesome to hear you again link practice to learning to get better at drawing more detailed whales. It’s taken a while, Charleeh-Blu – learning can and does take time and practice – however, your words “…Because I PRACTISE and PRACTISE. Because I couldn’t do it at home. And then I PRACTISE and PRACTISE … now I can draw a whale”. The latest whale drawing is included, together with the child’s explanation of each of the parts. (Carr and Lee 2012, p. 107)

Narrative Assessments as Boundary Crossing Objects that Mediate Conversations across Interested Communities

Narrative documentation about learning, including that collected in portfolios, can travel between a center or school and the home providing a forum for teachers, parents, and children by themselves or in consultation with others to recall learning events and author possible pathways for learning. Seen this way, assessments as a physical or virtual object create a need and a forum for various stakeholders to come together and talk. That is, they serve as boundary objects through the way they enable communication and cooperation across the different stakeholders in children’s learning (Moss, Girard and Greeno 2008). Star and Griesemer (1989) introduced the concept of boundary objects, defining them as objects that are plastic enough to adapt to the needs and constraints of several different communities but robust enough to maintain a common identity across settings. When narrative documentation as a collection of records and artifacts moves between and is contributed to by children, teachers, and parents, it not only depicts the multiple perspectives of children and teachers; it also offers a democratic possibility for informing the public of what is happening in a school/early childhood center. More than this, as part of acting as a boundary object, narrative assessments can provide opportunities for agency and coauthoring between children and between families and children as well as teachers. When narrative assessments are shared across communities, this provides an opportunity for additional comment, explanations, and collaborative discussions about forward planning. It also enables the construction of a sense of belonging in the new community. Emma, a teacher in a new-entrant school classroom, writes the following about the use of a portfolio of narrative assessments as an object that crossed the boundary between kindergarten and school:

(This boy) didn’t speak a word for probably a week or so and then he brought his Kindy book [portfolio of Learning Stories] in and it was like a new child emerged and it was like ‘This is me and this is who I am’ and even though I don’t necessarily have the language to tell you, I can show you with pictures. And I would turn around at all times of the day and hear little murmurings and laughing and there would be pockets of children sitting around with this little boy with his Kindy book. (Carr and Lee 2012, p. 83)

Assessment as narrative has resonance across cultures. It can reference the wider cultural values and norms while at the same time telling a personal, local, and/or collective story. In New Zealand, for instance, Māori cultural valuing of the collective and viewing the child always in a web of relations are richly reflected in cultural traditions and stories. This worldview is reflected in the assessment narratives that are developed by teachers in Māori immersion educational settings in New Zealand (New Zealand Ministry of Education 2009). Te Whatu Pōkeka was the name given to the project that developed this narrative approach.

We have named this project “Te Whatu Pōkeka”. A whatu pokeka is a baby blanket made of muka (fibre) from the harakeke (flax) plant. Carefully woven into the inside of the blanket are albatross feathers to provide warmth, comfort, security, and refuge from the elements. The pōkeka takes the shape of the child as it learns and grows. It is a metaphor for this project, the development of a curriculum that is determined and shaped by the child. Our principle focus in this project is the assessment of Māori children in a Māori early childhood setting. (p. 1)

Concluding Comment

Like the paintings in Lascaux Caves, assessments as narratives communicate messages about learning, achievement, and contexts; they make visible what is valued in a community. We have argued here that this visibility can engage all the players in an education practice, enabling a sharing of the authoring and an expanding of the perspective. Furthermore, when stories add up to more than a summary of the parts, they describe a learning journey that can be revisited and reviewed; they take on assessment’s role of “making up people” in a transparent way. Assessments as narratives can initiate conversations about learning and a learner self. These stories about learning insist on a sociocultural interpretation of learning, one that adds context and facilitates resources to an assessment of the learner’s endeavors and achievements; this lens enhances a “built-in” formative purpose, one that provides some direction to the learner and the teacher (and the interested wider community of family) about the mediational means that were useful so far and some suggestions about the way forward.


  1. Barab, S., & Roth, W.-M. (2006). Curriculum-based ecosystems: Supporting knowing from an ecological perspective. Educational Researcher, 35(5), 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1996). Rethinking learning. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), The handbook of education and human development (pp. 485–513). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  3. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Carr, M., & Lee, W. (2012). Learning stories: Constructing learner identities in early education. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  6. Gee, J. (2007). Chapter 15: Reflections on assessment from a sociocultural-situated perspective. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 106(1), 362–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gee, J. P. (2008). Game-like learning: An example of situated learning and the implications for opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullan, J. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity and opportunity to learn (pp. 200–221). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gipps, C. (1999). Sociocultural aspects to assessment. Review of Educational Research, 24, 353–392.Google Scholar
  9. Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education. (2013). To assess, to teach, to learn: A vision for the future of assessment. Technical report. Retrieved from www.gordoncommission.org
  10. Moss, P. (2008). Sociocultural implications for assessment I: Classroom assessment. In P. Moss, D. Pullan, J. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity and opportunity to learn (pp. 222–258). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Moss, P., Girard, B., & Greeno, J. (2008). Sociocultural implications for assessment II: Professional learning, evaluation, and accountability. In P. Moss, D. Pullan, J. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity and opportunity to learn (pp. 295–332). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2009). Te whatu pōkeka. Wellington: Learning Media.Google Scholar
  13. Salomon, G. (Ed.). (1993). Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39. Social Studies of Science, 19, 387–420. doi:10.1177/030631289019003001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Stobart, G. (2008). Testing times: The uses and abuses of assessment. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Bronwen Cowie
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand