This quote shared by Anne VanDam stopped me in my tracks.
Documentation is a reflective process, a pedagogical practice that provides multiple insight into children’s thinking and engagement, as well as the teachers’ thinking. The motivation to document children’s learning should be about wanting to know more and to engage in critical reflection and debate to comprehend and unravel the wonders of children’s thinking. Wendy Shepherd (Rattler 109, 2014)
A few years ago, in a different country, I asked the question: In an ideal world would you still document? My colleagues’ answered with variations of: “Yes, for the children.”, “Yes, to articulate learning to parents.” And “Yes, for assessment and accountability.” Of course, everyone was right; however, I had wanted to answer: “No.” But as I did not have a good enough reason for why I felt compelled to say no, so I agreed with them. Strangely, it was me who had advocated strongly for documentation, learning stories and the use of the online platform Storypark. It was at that point I knew I needed to get to an understanding of why? My actions did not align with my beliefs, until I read that quote. It was that big Aha! moment when I saw the whole picture and understood why I formed the opinions I had around documentation and its role in early childhood education.
I had always believed in documentation, but for a long time, it was a love-hate relationship. This battle came about because I felt like the ‘why we document’ was becoming diluted and pushed aside in place of factors that did not necessarily correlate with students’ learning. For me, there are three primary reasons why documentation ceased to be a tool by which I extended and grew my understanding and that of each of my students, to merely meeting others’ expectations.
Young children don’t play in quotas
When we assign an arbitrary number to how often we must document learning for each child, I think we dilute the authenticity of each child’s learning. Surely, stipulating that all children must have 4 per unit, or 5 per semester stops being about the children and more about ticking boxes? It may lead us down a sameness path, as no one child learns and explores their world in the same way, so their portfolios and documentation should reflect this reality. Just as children are not isolated beings nor are they carbon copies. Creating portfolios that all look that same, such as a self-portrait, or a work sample that all children complete during this month, is taking away each child’s voice. All children learn in groups and individually; some are doers while others prefer to observe and their portfolios and the documentation should be about their learning journey not about meeting an arbitrary quota.
Many people ask, what if a child doesn’t have any documentation? And my answer is always: “Then I need to do a better job at observing that child.” No child’s learning looks or sounds the same, but for some the teacher needs to uncover/discover the learning that is taking place. It also comes down to professional accountability, ensuring that I am aware of where each child is and where we need to go next. For me, Storypark is a big part of this process, as it allows me to get a breakdown of each child’s learning, concepts they have explored or unit of inquiry in which they have engaged. I am aware of each child’s journey without creating a contrived setting in the name of meeting a quota.
Everyone contributes – telling the whole story
Just as imposing quotas stifles individual voices; only documenting via one lens creates a one-dimensional view of each child. Giving all adults who work with that child an opportunity to document gives us an opportunity to see our students from multiple perspectives. The children in our classes don’t always form strong connections with classroom teachers; some students bond with teaching assistants, others with the music, art, or PE teachers or the librarian. Their experiences should be included to create a holistic picture of the child.
When we are open to these opportunities, a child’s portfolio becomes richer and gives a more rounded and accurate reflection of each child we teach. Placing the onus on the classroom teacher could unfairly remove the opportunity of a myriad rich and diverse stories.
It is essential that we give our specialist colleagues and teaching assistants professional development opportunities to provide a collective voice to our children.
Using your voice and choice not templates
In education, we talk about ensuring we afford children opportunities to show their learning differently. Often as teachers, we are asked to document using templates or in one style. To me, this takes away our voices, our passion for our students and telling their stories.
We all have our preferred way of writing, some tell long anecdotal learning stories, including quotes, some take a series of photographs and annotate each stage, and others enjoy writing directly to the child. For myself, I prefer to tell a story. When we are given the opportunity to write in a way that is comfortable for us our own learning is tenfold, we gain a deeper understanding of the child, the learning that took place, and what our next steps should be. Our professional growth is richer and deeper than when we are expected to, in essence, fill out a form.
Over the last few years, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to document using learning stories, and I have not had to worry about quotas or to write in a certain format. I am now working with all my colleagues who interact with my students to provide professional development on documenting using learning stories.
These opportunities have enabled me to grow as a professional, engage in a reflective process, create a pedagogical practice that provides multiple insights into children’s thinking and engagement, and explore my own thinking.
So when I ask myself: in an ideal world would I still document? I now know my why – because I want to know more, be more reflective and understand my students in all their wonder, from all angles.