Narrative Inquiry

Hetland’s Narrative Assessment

A well-chosen case study or a collection of narratives may shed light on an area of inquiry, revealing perspectives and experiences needed to understand a phenomenon–a different understanding than we get interpreting quantitative measurements (Kramp, 2004). That’s the post-positivist researcher’s perspective, more common in recent decades.

Assessment for today

A 21st-century approach to teacher and program evaluation could focus on the telling of specific learning experiences, rather than standardized test data. But our 21st century public schools have felt the full force of a tsunami of scientific data demands. The wave must have originated many decades in the past and deep down in national consciousness, then radiated outward from there in all directions, before impacting bridges, paths, ports, and other metaphorical structures in education, shocking the population of schools and leaving a devastated landscape.

In contrast, Lois Hetland suggests a narrative design for assessment based on her eight studio habits, relying on rich description of specific learning episodes. In her chapter, Can Studio Habits Help Teachers Assess Arts Learning? The Case of the King Cobra, (pp. 123-130 in Jaquith and Hathaway, 2012), Hetland analyzes deeply her observation of a 5-year-old student’s learning during her visit to a choice-based art class. In this case study, she illustrates how a teacher, after briefly describing the learning episode, may consider how it relates to each studio habit and what those observations suggest about what a student understands and does not understand.

Sampling for rich description

It’s not necessary to assess learning for every student every week with this level of depth and intensity. Sabol’s study of teacher attitudes about assessment places at the top of the list of teachers’ misgivings, “Too many students and not enough time to assess.” (p. 21, Dorn, Madeja & Sabol, 2004) Less frequent samples may still meet needs for formative and summative assessment, reports on student progress, teacher reflection, or program evaluation, especially if teachers are “selective and strategic” (Hetland, 2012, p. 125) in selecting the episodes. By using the assessment form she has designed to analyze a student or two each day or week, the teacher documents learning for all students over time. For each of the eight Studio Habits, Hetland’s assessment tool (p. 126) has three prompts to consider:

  • Studio Habits: Consider and add to your observations in these categories
  • Understanding: What do your observations suggest the student understands and doesn’t?
  • What do you want to do next with and for the student?

Teacher as guide

A key characteristic of the narrative approach to assessment is the freedom it gives students to inquire and grow in any direction in school, just like an artist out of school. Hetland presents this tool as an approach to assessment in a choice-based art classroom. Students can choose their trajectory, while teachers observe, interpret, and plan for each individual. Hetland suggests that a teacher who knows what each student needs will guide them individually within a framework of studio habits, intended to be a comprehensive classification of art learning.

Assessment for the future

Is phenomenology the future of school accountability? Could story take the place of grades, percentiles, standardized tests, or achievement norms? That’s a line of inquiry worth considering, but Hetland’s idea for assessment in art seems promising, especially for the growing number of constructivist art programs.

Next steps:
  • If the studio habits are a classification system for the kind of learning that happens in art class, then next we need a taxonomy of the possible observable abilities, inclinations, and alertness within each category. Though it would complicate the framework, it would streamline the assessment process.
  • More could be explored for how to connect students to the assessment. Would they be in charge of observing and documenting their own learning?

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