What does documentation do?

by Carol Anne Wien

Daniela Lenzi, when she spoke to us April 12-13, 2014, at the ORA conference at The Bishop Strachan School, said several things which continue to niggle away at me. While I listen to Reggio educators speak, I often find—initially–that their ideas roll off my mind, as if I already think I understand what they mean. Am I the only person in the audience for whom the translation process induces this sort of lassitude? Later, when I revisit my notes, and think about the implications of what was said, I realize their ideas are radically different from my initial grasp of them. I realize their ideas demand much more thought to interpret for our context, and much more time and effort to confront what they might mean for our practice. But on April 12 when Daniela spoke, I had agreed to comment on what she said right after her speech, so I was super-alert, on guard against my tendency to slide into complacence. From time to time I’ve wanted to go back to several ideas she raised and the invitation to write for this blog provides a lovely opportunity to do so.

I will take up briefly three comments Lenzi made. She asked, “What value does our body have in documentation?” Later, she said that “Documentation should describe how we learn to learn,” and that “Documentation should show us new views of reality.” I will try to open up each of these statements a little as I explore them below.

Where is the body in documentation?

Lenzi asked what content documentation should have. She continued, “What value does our body have in documentation?” She reminded us that “children have a very powerful body with its own language [of expression] inseparable from mind: the body is mind, a whole.” This sense of beginning with the body brought me back to something Francesca Georgioni, a Reggio educator, used to say when she was working with teachers at The Bishop Strachan School. In her new-found English Francesca would say, frequently, “Very important! Watch children move!” Have we thought adequately about the implications of viewing children’s body movements as a language of expression, as communication telling us what we need to know about the thinking and feeling of a toddler or infant or four-year-old? When we are looking at how our environments function, do we begin with observing the movement patterns of the children using the space? Where do they go? How long do they stay? Are there spaces they avoid? Spaces that seem to conjure conflict? Do we think about the messages they are giving us by the ways they move their bodies and where they take them? Do we document such movement? What would we learn that we don’t know now, if we did?

Lenzi is asking, I believe, whether we think about this bodily language of shared communication in our documentation. I suspect that if we begin to think about the body as an instrument of expression for each of us—not merely for dancers and acrobats—we will begin to see, ie. to notice much more about movement and about what bodies communicate in our daily lives as educators. It might be something new for us.

Learning how to learn

Lenzi said, too, that documentation describes how we learn to learn. She said, “the objective of documentation is to describe how we learn how to learn.” The funny thing is that no one in education ever says what we mean by “learning”: I have discovered, through teaching a graduate course on pedagogical documentation many times, that the views of learning expressed from the learner’s perspective are vastly different, and more complex, than the views expressed from the perspective of teaching, as in curriculum documents. Learners speak of learning as something dynamic—coiling or spiralling in constant motion, returning to where it was earlier but now different, etc. I believe, in fact, that the word “learning” may be the most under-theorized term in education. But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s just one of those huge words like love or truth or hope that has a thousand meanings, depending on context.

Yet until I heard Lenzi say this, I thought it was enough to try to make learning visible and explicit in documentation, in order to share and discuss it with others. The notion of inquiring into how we learn how to learn throws a gate open on a whole new landscape to think about. What sort of learning? Insight? Problem-solving? Information gathering? Joy? Resolving social conflicts? Seeing someone needs help and offering it? Coping with pain? What are we talking about? How do we recognize it? Is it any different than the daily experience of living? It seems to me her statement that documentation is to describe how we learn how to learn is something to take up in documentation study groups. What would it mean if we were asking the question? What would we find out? What would we think it means “to learn how to learn”? Have we ever even thought about it? The phrase itself suggests that there may be contexts in which we do not learn to learn: do we set up conditions that contribute to non-learning? What a thought! But Dewey certainly thought so, with his notion of mis-education. Here is a pathway to think through …….

New Views

A third statement Lenzi made about documentation was that

“Documentation should offer new views of reality.” This, I think, is the most demanding purpose for documentation that I have ever heard. Shocking in its challenge to us. And meaning clearly that documentation must go far beyond assessment. For assessment is about finding the known, observing what we know to look for, such as children’s knowledge of colours, shapes, letters of the alphabet, capacity to count, developmental milestones, and so forth. To show us something new, documenters must be able to think outside known frameworks. How do we do that?

Such a position, that we should offer new views of reality, is akin to the role of artists in a society who raise consciousness by showing what we had been too busy to notice or too fearful to think about (Collingwood, 1979/1938). Think of industrial photographer Edward Burtynsky’s film Watermark which illuminates the gigantic scale of the construction of the Chinese dam on the Yangtze River: we ask should humans be doing things on such a large scale? What are the unintended consequences? In showing what industry has done in places we would not otherwise see, Burtynsky acts as a kind of conscience for the social world.

In this same way that artists work as a kind of conscience for a culture, the Reggio educators show us realities in their programs different from what we commonly accept as possible. They act as a conscience in keeping the positive image of competent children. An example of this image—and a possible reality new to us–was Lenzi’s video of a 16-month old infant pretending to throw and catch a ball with an educator. (Did we have any idea a not-yet-verbal child could symbolize so?) Showing us such a documented reality acts as a kind of conscience demanding that we see more capacity in children than we previously might have imagined. Sights such as these show us new views of the reality of what children have learned and can do. Sights such as these fulfill the value of the image of children as rich in intelligence, insight, and capability.

Documentation as Relationship

In my own recent work with documentation I have been attempting to support understanding of teaching and learning as relational, and relations as the connections that others are making that can be followed through documenting. These connections form rivers of thinking and feeling that lead in unpredictable directions. They lead us away from competition and notions of judgment to notions of intersubjectivity: can I, for instance, understand what you are thinking, can I follow it, can I grasp the meaning you are making of this occasion? I believe it to be a radically different paradigm for thinking about the meaning of the word “learning”.

Karyn Callaghan and I have been working for several years with Jason Avery to create from his binders of documentation created over 11 years, while working as an artist-educator in the Together for Families program, a book that shows some of these relations. We call it Documentation as Relationship: “I am in your Eye”. It is being published by Davis Art in Massachusetts and should be out soon. It will be interesting to consider it in terms of Daniela Lenzi’s three points about documentation and look for evidence that shows those points. Perhaps it might illuminate some aspects of relations between children and adults that we have not thought about. Perhaps revisiting in this way will raise new questions.

What does documentation do?