By Sarah O’Leary
Our pedagogical documentation journey has been a long one. For years we had been filling out checklists, compiling Key Development Indicator reports, all of which took a long time and were quickly filed away never to be seen again. It was a really disheartening process. For practical educators it seemed like a pointless activity, adding little value to the daily lives of children or to the practices within our early childhood service.
We had been writing learning stories on a regular basis, for display within the rooms and to send to Early Childhood Ireland for learning story award entries. These stories were compiled on a standalone basis, usually recording long term experiences. They were valued and interesting, but it was not until I heard Wendy Lee speak (Learning Stories specialist from New Zealand), and having a conversation with Maire Corbett, Early Childhood Ireland, that we realised we could write them as a document to illustrate each child’s emergent interests and learning. We realised that they could answer requirements set out in Tusla Regulation 19 – Health, Welfare and Development of the child, and for the Department of Education’s education focused inspections.
The most important step was exploring what pedagogical documentation meant within our context. Pedagogical documentation for me is a fancy way of describing storytelling, something Irish people are very good at. Recalling an event, adding thoughts and ideas to it, communicating what happened next, and how and why the story impacted those involved. Ideally it is combined with visuals, such as photos, artwork, or images of the children’s creations. We first came across pedagogical documentation on a study trip we participated in, to Reggio Emilia in Italy in 2008. At the time we thought it looked wonderful but was completely out of reach for us. Because we didn’t completely understand the potential transformative effect of the practice, we could not envision how the investment required, both financial and timewise, could ever be worth it.
How times have changed. We have discovered that pedagogical documentation is a dynamic and reflective practice that holds immense potential for transforming early childhood education and wellbeing. We as early childhood educators are always looking for innovative approaches to enhance learning experiences for children, some of which involves a lot of trial and error, reflective practice, and collaboration. I believe pedagogical documentation provides so much for the child, their educator, and the families, while enhancing the overall atmosphere and environment within our setting.
Pedagogical documentation requires us to reflect on the kind of educator we want to be.
- What traces do we want to leave on the lives of the children in our care?
- What kind of impact do we want to make on those around us?
We need to reflect upon our image of the child, how do we see them, what do we value for them, what do we want children to experience? We must reflect on what moments to capture and how to enhance them, as well as coming up with ways to make the lives and learning of children visible to the wider community.
Unlike our previous approaches to documenting children’s learning, pedagogical documentation is not a tick box exercise, there are no technical tools to follow. It is an attitude, a belief system that illustrates listening, participation, communication, and relationships within our early childhood settings. It provides a medium through which learning and teaching becomes visible to the educator and the child and if shared, can enhance the knowledge and understanding of colleagues, families and even the wider community. It is a movement away from simply recording observations of the child as we previously practiced, to creating an image of the child as active citizens within and beyond the setting.
In practical terms our pedagogical documentation often begins with observing what is happening for the child, recording their conversations, interactions, and ideas. This is done through photographing the moment and writing up an account. Early childhood educators are skilled at observing meaningful moments for children and can give detailed accounts of the emergent interests of every child in their care. Pedagogical documentation requires us to take it one step further. We need to combine these moments with our existing and emerging knowledge, questioning what is truly going on for the child, and how we can extend the experience? It is through this process of evaluation and reflection that pedagogical documentation can provide opportunities to explore multiple interpretations of what is happening, including the reflections and thoughts of the child, the educator, and colleagues. Valuable information can be gained by receiving observations, thoughts and reflections of parents and guardians when the pedagogical documentation is shared.
The reflective piece is the challenging part, sometimes we overthink what we are recording, often missing the beauty of simple moments, where the rights of the child were respected, where their abilities and dispositions are celebrated, where the kindness displayed ripples throughout the service and into the wider community.
Reflective practice provides occasions where decisions can be democratically made on what should be done next. What materials and provocations are to be provided to scaffold the child’s experience and to enhance the culture of the setting? The collection and recording of documentation is the technical part. It is the reflective practice that creates the meaning. It is important that the voice, views, ideas, and values of the child are recorded, all of which are reflected and acted upon by the educator. This reflection requires time, precious time that is often not available within the daily practices of early childhood settings. This time is something that I highly value, and we as a service have invested heavily in it. I believe that it is something that policy makers should be aware of with any future funding considerations. It has enhanced our practice, our professionalism, and our relationships, which in turn has enhanced the quality of our provision. It is a wonderful tool to enhance collaboration and raising the professionalism of our sector. It is a way of making the lives of those who often go unseen and unheard visible and valuable.
“We think of documentation as an act of caring, an act of love and interaction” – Carlina Rinaldi
Sarah O’Leary and Michelle Akerlind are the Directors of Cheeky Cherubs Early Years Schools, which has two settings in Cork -one in Bishopstown and one in Ballincollig. They have created two beautiful yet individual centres where the uniqueness of each child is celebrated and supported through providing opportunities to play, explore, share and learn with their peers, while being cared for and educated by wonderful, qualified and experienced teachers.