Documentation - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



To “document” is “to support (an assertion or a claim, for example) with evidence or decisive information” (American Heritage Dictionary, 1994). It is this relationship between assertion and evidence that makes documentation distinct from observation. While many early childhood educators assume that documentation is a new pedagogical practice derived from Reggio Emilia, there is actually a long history of documentation in early childhood education in the United States. “Throughout the history of early childhood education in North America, teachers and caregivers have collected evidence of the growth in children’s knowledge, skills and dispositions. Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s Bureau of Educational Experiments, founded in 1916 and later to become Bank Street College, emphaized the importance of teachers not only observing children but also recording children’s language, feelings, projects, and daily happenings” (Mitchell, 1950). Early nursery and preschool teachers routinely collected children’s drawings and paintings and recorded verbatim children’s comments and conversations. These attempts to capture important information about the growth of individual children were used to guide children’s experiences. The term documentation appears even earlier in North America when associated with assessment and used as evidence for drawing conclusions about performance. The use of the term has become more popular as interpreted and used by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Teachers document by observing, making notes, photographing, recording (audio or video), collecting children’s work, and/or taking dictation. The drawings, paintings, writing samples, photographs, anecdotal notes, transcripts, and recordings are called documentation.

Today, most early childhood programs do some form of documentation, although its use varies widely. Some programs simply make brief anecdotal notes on children’s development; some develop extensive portfolios on children’s development; and some use documentation as the primary source for professional dialogue and planning. Regardless of the source behind a particular interpretation of documentation, an important part of the documentation process is the time spent thinking, or reflecting, about the meaning of the evidence. Because of the diversity of documentation in North American it is helpful to use the purposes for documentation as a way to organize thoughts about it. These purposes include guiding instruction, assessing individual children, studying pedagogy, and enhancing communication about the educational process. The purpose of the documentation determines how the documentation is collected, thought about, and shared.


Documentation for Guiding Instruction

Documentation used for guiding instruction is typically collected while the learning is happening and reflection on the documentation is usually immediate. Teachers listen, observe carefully, and examine children’s work. They may make anecdotal notes, take digital photographs, and collect and carefully examine children’s products such as drawings and constructions which are produced during the day or over a short period of time. This documentation is often referred to as raw or unprocessed documentation and has been a common practice in nursery schools and laboratory schools. It is usually not copied, framed, or carefully displayed but used immediately. What the teacher and his or her colleagues gain from this documentation is a sense of where the learning experience might go next, what materials and resources might be helpful to introduce, and how to shape their own interactions with the children. Documentation for guiding instruction enables teachers to be more productive and effective. Teachers may or may not choose to share this raw documentation with others, including parents and members of the school community.


Documentation for Child Assessment

Another purpose of documentation is the assessment of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of an individual child. Individual child assessment enables the teacher to be sure that each child is progressing. The most appropriate type of assessment for the young child is authentic performance assessment, that is, assessment based on activities in which children engage on a daily basis (Meisels, 1993).

Authentic performance assessment relies on the collection of good quality evidence or documentation. This type of documentation includes children’s work samples collected into a portfolio, photographic or video recordings, and observations captured in anecdotal notes. There is often an individual developmental checklist which the teacher uses to document the growth and development of skills over a period of time.

Documentation to provide evidence needed for reliably assessing children’s progress, for meeting accountability requirements, or for program evaluation is usually collected as part of a formal process with specific domains or areas of learning documented throughout the year. Teachers examine and discuss the documentation at prescribed intervals and record their conclusions sharing the documentation and their conclusions with parents.


Documentation for Studying Pedagogy

Documentation also provides insight into the teaching and learning process. When documentation is collected and studied for the purpose of understanding this process, it is sometimes called pedagogical documentation (Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence, 1999). Pedagogical documentation is a major component of the philosophy of the schools of Reggio Emilia, where, as shown in the excerpt below, reflection and in-depth documentation shapes their pedagogy and is the major source of professional growth and development.

... we place the emphasis of documentation as an integral part of the procedures aimed at fostering learning and for modifying the learning-teaching relationship. (Rinaldi, 2001)

An excellent example of pedagogical documentation in U.S. schools and centers is Rearview Mirror: Reflections of a Preschool Car Project by Sallee Beneke (1998). Through this captivating documentation of the exploration of a car by children in a community college child-care center, the reader participates in the reflections of the teachers, the parents, and the automotive center staff where the project took place. The documentation enables the teachers to examine and then convey the pedagogical decisions made during the project and to share the value of the learning experiences with multiple stakeholders, including the children themselves.

In North America there have been a number of research and study projects that have focused on using documentation for studying pedagogy based on the principles of Reggio Emilia (Cadwell, 2003; Fu, Stremmel and Hill, 2001). One of the most prominent is Making Learning Visible (MLV). The MLV project began in 1997 as a collaboration between Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Municipal Preschools and Infant- toddler Centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy. MLV sought to draw attention to the power of the group as a learning environment and the power of documentation as a way in which students, teachers, parents, administrators, and the community could see how and what children are learning.

Another project which focused on using documentation to inform pedagogy is the Professional Learning Communities Project of the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation. This project involved collaboration with early childhood centers to develop professional learning communities within centers and to introduce and support the use documentation as a tool for examining and improving practice. The Power of Documentation: Children’s Learning Revealed, an exhibit on documentation and professional learning communities in the midwest, was developed by Chicago Children’s Museum and is now a traveling exhibit.


Documentation for Communication

Another purpose for documentation is to provide a vehicle for communicating about what is happening in early childhood programs. In fact, one of the primary reasons that many Italian early childhood programs began to utilize documentation strategies was to increase parent interest in contemplating and discussing children’s experiences. As practiced in many classrooms in Italy as well as elsewhere, this communication around documentation can occur between staff members, with children, with parents about what is happening in children’s classrooms and how their child is learning, and with the members of the greater community to share what is happening in the classroom and to develop respect, understanding, and support of the work that is done there. This use of documentation is becoming more widespread as early childhood programs are becoming more accountable to funding agencies and to parents, each eager for information on the growth in children’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions within the early childhood classroom.


Value of Documentation

Documentation requires time and commitment of an early childhood program staff. Although there are many ways to gather evidence about children’s learning such as test scores and checklist of performance on specific goals, the open process of documentation as interpreted by many early childhood educators has unique advantages. Documentation provides insight into students’ thought processes. An understanding of how a child came to a particular conclusion can show significant learning progress and creative problem solving even when the “answer” is officially wrong. Documentation also gives the audience an appreciation for how children think, and how that thinking is different from adult cognition. Teachers as well as parents and other adults can gain a better understanding of the challenges and questioning that characterize children’s thinking. Children’s learning dispositions, such as being persistent and curious, can be captured and built upon. Steps in a problem-solving sequence can be recorded. These thought processes and the skills of assessing a problem, designing a solution, trying it out, and persisting to find a better solution are, in fact, a major part of many disciplines of study. Documentation strategies help teachers to directly capture and then reflect upon these thinking processes, alone and with others.

Documentation also encourages teachers to look at knowledge and skills beyond those that can be assessed verbally or in paper and pencil tests. Documentation enables teachers to capture children’s learning as they construct models, build in the block area, play in housekeeping, or conduct an experiment in science. Observing and collecting children’s work encourages teachers to be open to diverse ways of learning and to focus on unique ways that children approach learning tasks (Gardner, 1993).


Professional Learning Communities

Interest in examining children’s work has been the focus of several school improvement movements in public education in North America, including kindergarten and primary school planning. One of these is the professional learning communities (Eaker, Dufour, and Burnett, 2002). Documentation is an integral part of many professional learning communities. A professional learning community is typically defined as a group of teachers at a school or center who meet to examine individual children’s work and play, and—based on their observations— create ways to extend each learning. The practice of examining work is an integral part of the teaching-learning process; the children learn more and the teachers become seasoned professionals. In such settings where documentation practices are common, the teaching staff regularly meets to present and share documentation collected from the classrooms; and to debate its significance for their teaching. During this sharing the teacher typically poses questions for brainstorming and discusses the children’s interest and skills reflected in the documentation. Other colleagues also share ideas, for example, on how to help the child achieve deeper knowledge or more complex skills in that area and possible next steps. Finally, the group typically incorporates some of the ideas into the following week’s curriculum planning. Over time, the group develops a shared set of effective teaching strategies, in effect revealing the contributions of documentation to adult as well as child learning.

Documenting sometimes results in publishing or sharing documentation of the children’s work such as a display of a project, a media show, or a book about an experience. These products, however, aren’t the primary purpose of documentation but rather a product of the documentation and reflection process. Most programs that use documentation extensively use it to enhance the teaching and learning process.

Further Readings: Beneke, S. (1998). Rearview mirror: Reflections on the preschool car project. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education; Cadwell, L. (2003). Bringing learning to life: The Reggio Approach to early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Dahlberg, G., P. Moss, and A. R. Pence (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Taylor & Francis; Eaker, R., R. Dufour, and R. Burnett (2002). Getting started: Reculturing schools to become professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service; Fu, V., A. J. Stremmel, and L. T. Hill (2001). Teaching and learning: Collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of the mind. New York: Basic Books; Helm, J. H., S. Beneke, and K. Steinheimer (1998). Windows on learning: Documenting young children’s work. New York: Teachers College Press; Helm, J. H., and S. Beneke, eds. (2002). The power of projects: Meeting contemporary challenges in early childhood classrooms—Strategies and solutions. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University; Meisels, S. J. (1993). Remaking classroom assessment with the work sampling system. Young Children 48(5), 34-40; Mitchell, L. (1950). Our children and our schools. New York: Simon and Schuster; Power of Documentation Exhibit: Children’s Learning Revealed, Traveling Exhibit. Chicago: Chicago Children’s Museum; Project Zero and Reggio Children (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children; Project Zero, Cambridgeport Children’s Center, Cambridgeport School, Ezra H. Baker School, and John Simpkins School (2003). Making teaching visible: Documenting individual and group learning as professional development. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero; Rinaldi, C. (2001). Documentation and assessment: What is the relationship? In C. Giudici, C. Rinaldi, and M. Krechevsky, eds. Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children, pp. 78-89.

Judy Harris Helm