by Joanne Esser
For many of us educators, learning about the early childhood centers in Reggio Emilia, Italy was immediately inspiring. What they were doing with children made sense and fit with our ideals about how we wanted to teach and learn. We wanted to dive in, adapt and embed their practices into our own classrooms right away.
Each of us then had to choose a place to begin incorporating Reggio-inspired practices into our own work. It is often hard to know where to start, since even an initial study of those beautiful Italian classrooms and the deeply considered philosophy that undergirds them reveals how incredibly complex it is.
Some people begin by redesigning their environments. They evaluate and make changes to their physical spaces, room layout, the materials available to children and even the colors and containers in the room. Other people begin by introducing project work, building children’s interests into some deeper, bigger study of a topic, stimulating children’s thinking in a way that recognizes their strong capabilities.
But one of the most basic and essential places we can begin to emulate the effective practices we see in Reggio Emilia is with documentation.
Documentation is a term that is becoming common and almost jargon-y in early childhood education. When that happens, the word can begin to lose its true meaning, becoming over-simplified or interpreted in a shallow way. There are even companies promoting products and systems to help teachers “document,” often for the purpose of accountability, gathering data to prove that the children are meeting some set of predetermined standards. But in Reggio Emilia, documentation has a much deeper meaning.
At its heart, pedagogical documentation in the Reggio-inspired sense is the practice of paying close attention to what children say and do. It is a stance, a way of seeing with intention and curiosity. The practice of documenting is based on the belief that young children are innately driven to learn, that their actions and words are powerful and purposeful, and that they are actively engaged in making meaning all the time from their daily lives.
Documentation does not mean simply taking lots of photographs, writing down quotes from children or posting panels on the walls – although those activities are often part of the documentation process. The artifacts alone are not the essence of the concept. Authentic documentation in the Reggio sense involves making intentional choices about what data to collect, reflecting on the data, interpreting and analyzing it with colleagues, communicating what you’ve observed with families and with the children themselves, listening to their interpretations and using what you’ve learned to plan for new experiences. It’s a very complex cycle!
In the words of Reggio educator Lella Gandini, “When we document, we make the deliberate choice to observe and record what happens in our environment in order to reflect and communicate the surprising discoveries in children’s everyday lives…Documentation is not…the collecting of data in a detached, objective, distant way. Rather, it is seen as the interpretation of close, keen observation and attentive listening, gathered with a variety of tools by educators aware of contributing their different points of view. In fact, our views about childhood and our personal theories influence what each of us sees and hears; that is why we need to compare interpretations among colleagues.”
Many of us in the Network have felt the need for more reflection and collaboration with colleagues about our documentation efforts. When we closely observe a group of toddlers playing together at the water table, or a five-year-old making an original “invention” out of recycled scrap materials, we are naturally excited. We want to share our questions and our observations of what our children are doing with others who can help us understand more deeply what is really happening. Having other sets of eyes and ears to look at our assorted photos, notes and snippets of collected dialogue often brings new perspectives to our work – even when those colleagues might not know our children or be part of our program.
To meet this need, the Network is creating a new initiative: the Documentation Lab. We want to offer educators an on-going way to share traces of their work with each other, get and give feedback about documentation and generate ideas for next steps in learning based on what children have been doing. We envision the Documentation Lab as a co-facilitated, collaborative working group where participants can bring work-in-progress, critically analyze it and learn from each other, at whatever stages we are in our practice.
A core group of interested Network members started tossing around ideas for the Documentation Lab this summer. But we also invite input from potential participants to help decide when, where and how often we’ll meet – probably one evening a month or every other month, meeting at a public site such as a library – and what our format should be. The Lab gatherings will be free and open to anyone who wants to learn more, whether you are experienced in using documentation or whether you are brand new to the idea.
The official “kick-off” of the Documentation Lab initiative will be on September 23, as part of the regular monthly Network gathering. Join us for a workshop focused on documentation: “Set Your Intention to Pay Attention,” 9:30 a.m. to noon in the Lakeview Room in the Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, Minnesota. Then add your voice to give direction to this new opportunity. More information about the Documentation Lab will be widely shared within the Network as it takes shape.