The Paradox of Pedagogical Documentation

Documentation is the life-blood of our experience as educators working in the Reggio Way.  It is how we show students not just that we are watching what they do, but listening to what they say and how they feel.  By documenting, we provide parents an insight into the everyday challenges and victories that make up the lived experiences of their sons and daughters.  Documentation is the physical representation of teachers studying students, and as such it is a tool by which we share our observations and teaching strategies with one another.  It is a way for teachers to express a desire for respectful student interactions while demonstrating a commitment to honing their craft with each passing day.

But because of its tremendous importance, documentation also embodies a serious problem for teachers.  The role of the Reggio educator is hopelessly complex, and some of the many hats we wear can seem incompatible at times.  As co-researchers, it is our responsibility to be attentive and fully engaged with our students in an effort to nurture their investigations from moment to moment.  It is also our responsibility to make sure their learning journeys are made visible not just to parents and teachers, but also to the students themselves.

We’ve all experienced it: the moment we think, “This is incredible, I should be writing this down,” the learning shifts in another direction and the opportunity to document is lost.  Conversely, we have all gotten out a camera in an effort to record an incredible educational triumph only to have the student stop what they are doing, face the camera, smile, and ask “Did you take a picture of me?  I want to see.”  Truly powerful learning moments in which teachers and students are discussing, investigating, and growing alongside one another are exactly the sort that illustrate the importance of children and adults learning side-by-side.  But in order to document them, teachers must necessarily place themselves on the outside of the learning moment looking in, which destroys the profound sense of symbiosis.

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How can a Reggio educator be both a compassionate and engaging companion for curious minds while also being a clinical and meticulously accurate observer of children researching their world?  Both roles require complete attention, but are seemingly incompatible.

Students deserve to be engaged.  While every student is capable learning on their own, an educational community is a place where knowledge should be combined and distributed.  Students learn from their experiences, but they also learn from their peers, their parents, and their teachers.  It is the role of the teacher to convey to each student the importance of curiosity, which is best achieved through demonstration, not explanation.  The most powerful thing a student can ever hear from an adult they respect and admire is the phrase, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”  Speaking these simple words to a child shows them that a vacuum of knowledge isn’t a shortcoming; in fact, it is more often than not the start of something exhilarating.  As adults, expressing excitement at the prospect of investigating something totally unfamiliar shows children that while knowing is convenient, not knowing is more fun.  Profound learning hinges upon students both embracing the unknown and viewing the people around them as the greatest resource they have for discovery.

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At the same time, students deserve to be heard, not paraphrased.  The destination of their learning is not as important as the method by which the students arrive, which should be reflected in the documentation we write.  In my opinion, the goal of pedogogical documentation is not just to show what students are doing, or even what they are learning, but who they are.  When observing students that have speech difficulties, I endeavor to recreate their cadence and word choice in the text of my documentation.  I try not to omit the squabbles that occur in moments of social-emotional learning; after all, every good story needs conflict in order to establish the significance of the resolution.   The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not true.  Our photos and narrative voice are the frame, but the true work of art is what comes out of the mouths of our students while they observe, experiment, and develop an understanding of their world.

My grandfather often reminded us to “be fully present” in whatever we do, and to this day I take that to heart.  When I am with my students digging a hole, I am committed to doing just that: digging a hole.  When I am listening to the dialogue of my students and taking painstaking measures to catch the nuances of their speech, I am fully focused on them.  But the unfortunate truth of the matter is that complete focus on one necessarily results in a compromise of the other.  Similarly, being simultaneously half-focused on both students and documentation results in an unsatisfactory result for both.

Solutions to the paradox of pedgogical documentation are not universal.  Having asked many teachers about their documentation strategies over the past few years, I have found some to be a good fit and others to be definitively not my style.  Written note taking, for example, is too slow for me to catch the minutia of what makes documentation feel real to the reader.  Stationary video devices, such as tripods, also don’t work for me because they draw the attention of the students so effectively that they artificially change the focus of the day’s investigations.  So far, my two greatest assets in the resolution of the paradox are simple: an audio recording device and a co-teacher.

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When an investigation begins, I stealthily turn on my audio recorder and place it in my breast pocket.  And then I go about my business.  I talk to the students, ask them questions, listen to them speak to each other, and join in whatever course of action they choose to take.  If and when the investigation draws to a close, I stop my recording device, append a date and simple title (e.g. “Hairy Bug, 6.25.17”), and move on with my day.  When it comes time to make documentation, I review the audio recording and transcribe each and every shred of dialogue I can discern in a form that almost resembles a screen play.  Finally, I insert my voice to create a narrative that fills in the blanks and informs the context for dialogue that does not speak for itself.

My co-teacher, however, is the real magic behind my ability to produce quality documentation.  At our school, and at many preschools all over the nation, there is an ongoing battle over the importance of small class size and low student-to-teacher ratio.  Small classes are easier to manage, and because of this, I think many teachers often adopt a paradigm of dividing the students of a class in two and facilitating two activities at the same time.  I challenge that paradigm.  While it does make for a smaller, more manageable group of students, it eliminates the sense of comradery between the teachers.  Many of my greatest pieces of documentation, in fact, are of activities and provocations I neither planned nor facilitated.  I stood on the periphery capturing the moment while my co-teacher frolicked in the garden with sixteen children.  Cooperating eliminates the need to choose between students and documentation.  With the right relationship, two teachers can create a fluid researcher-photographer team that can turn any learning moment into not just a memorable experience for the students, but a shining example of what working in the Reggio Way can achieve.

In the end, as with all things related to teaching preschool in the Reggio Way, balance is key.  As teachers, we need to find a balance between making sure our students are engaged and making sure they are heard.  We need to find a balance between being a researcher and a non-fiction author.  We need to find a balance between technology and intuition.  We even need to find a way to balance our time between working together, reviewing the raw material we collect each day, and the actually producing high-quality pieces of documentation for students, parents, and other teachers to view.

Frankly, there are no easy answers.  But as Peter Marshall once said, “oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”  It is our obligation and our privilege to let the paradox propel us to create better and more authentic illustrations of the incredible learning our students do each and every day.

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7 thoughts on “The Paradox of Pedagogical Documentation

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  1. I love the idea of one teacher engaging completely with the kids while the other focuses on documentation! Right now I’m on my own with 10 kids, but hopefully that will be changing soon. Hopefully my new coteacher will be open to that idea 🙂

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    1. Teaching solo can be really frustrating, but it has it’s perks as well. Have you done any time lapse documentation? It is very hands-off and you can set it up in the morning in a place the students can’t reach, then just let it run all day. It can be crazy to see what your kids do all day long in just a few minutes.

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      1. No, I have never thought of that! Do you just use a digital video camera? After your post, I want to pick up a voice recorder as well. I keep hearing about teachers using them, but I’ve never tried it. How fun would it be to keep one in each center? Then I could hear what the children are exploring when I’m not right next to them.

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      2. Yup, a good old fashioned video recorder should work. Most iPhones have a time lapse setting.

        That sounds like an awesome idea for the voice recorders in each center. I would feature a different center each week in documentation just so you aren’t oppressed by the amount of raw audio you end up with.

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  2. i wonder about the ethics of recording children without their knowing or permission, Janet Robertson just wrote forcefully about that. i guess the important issue is what you do with it, once you have it. All adults reserve the right to decide whether they wish their words or images to be plastered across the web, and children are not always asked. And they respond with great intelligence on the matter if they are consulted. When i was less concerned about such dilemmas, i also craved the teamwork of working with another teacher. I was often in the company of one, two or three teachers, but mostly they were all concerned with documenting their moment with the children, with precisely the consequences you mentioned.. they stop before you get the camera out, they turn and smile for the camera, etc.. In the end, with a sympathetic team mate, i used the fairly successful strategy of having a code question to prompt her to take some photos… such as ‘Janet, could you put the kettle on for a cup of tea” or ;Janet, could you bring the such and such’… something that would not distract the chlldren’… or even just to have a song.. any song..or to hum.. as a way of ;etting your partner know that you want documentational support…

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    1. I like the idea of a code word, I never consider that. Might have to give it a try…

      Consent is a very tricky issue. I think most teachers take a tremendous number of photos of their students with “implied consent,” a previous understanding between student and teacher that documentation is happening whether they discuss it in that moment or not.
      I don’t think documentation would be achievable if we had to ask each student each time we wanted to take their photo. That being said, my students hear all my audio recordings and I would never use any piece of material (whether photo or audio) without the consent of a student.

      Consent is something that is very tricky to be sure. I’m throwing around the idea of writing a post about it in the near future, but it is extremely divisive and difficult to write about.

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