What Does Documentation Do?

What Does Documentation Do?
By Carol Anne Wien
October 2015


Carol Anne Wien is a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, Ontario. She was a NAREA board member from 2002–2014.


Daniela Lanzi, when she spoke on April 12-13, 2014 at the Ontario Reggio Association conference at The Bishop Strachan School, said several things that continue to niggle away at me. While I listen to Reggio educators speak, I initially think that I understand what they mean. It’s as if the translation process induces a kind of lassitude in me and their ideas roll off my mind. 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 in Canada 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 presentation, so I was very alert, on guard against my tendency to slide into complacence. From time to time since then, I’ve wanted to return to several ideas she raised, and this essay provides a lovely opportunity to do so.


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


Where is the body in documentation?

Daniela was discussing the content of documentation when she asked, “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 [the] mind—the body is mind—a whole.” This sense of beginning with the body brought me back to something Francesca Giorgioni, a Reggio educator, used to say when she was working with teachers at The Bishop Strachan School. In her newfound English, Francesca would frequently say, “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 within the spaces? Where do they go? How long do they stay? Are there spaces that they avoid? Are there spaces that seem to experience more conflict? Do we think about the messages that the children are giving us in 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?

Daniela was 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, i.e., 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

Daniela also said 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 in, for example, curriculum documents. Learners speak of learning as something dynamic—coiling or spiraling 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 Daniela 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 opens up 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 created to describe how we learn how to learn is something to discuss further in documentation study groups. What would it mean if we were asking the question? What would we find out? What might we think “to learn how to learn” means? 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, considering his notion of mis-education.


New views

A third statement that Daniela made about documentation was: “Documentation should offer new views of reality.” This, I think, is the most demanding purpose for documentation that I have ever heard and is shocking in its challenge to us. It clearly means 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 colors, 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. The film asks the following questions: 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 the same way that artists work as a kind of conscience for a culture, the Reggio educators show us realities in their programs that are 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 Daniela’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 in this way?) 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 Documenting Children’s Meaning: Engaging in Design and Creativity with Children and Families. It will be interesting to consider its message in terms of Daniela’s three points about documentation. Perhaps this 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.

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