Pedagogical Documentation as a Tool for Thinking Differently

Refections on Gunilla Dahlberg’s presentation at the Sightlines Initiative conference London, 14th May 2016

IMG_3512I have just attended the Sightlines Initiative/Institute of Education conference about Loris Malaguzzi where Gunilla Dahlberg spoke about the courage to think differently.  The conference began with a rather subdued question and comments session where University lecturers shared their concerns about students who have grown up in the current national curriculum who are now ‘waiting to be told’ what to do… who find it ‘difficult to think’ beyond the statutory requirements of the official guidance and curriculum.  What would Malaguzzi of thought of this discussion I wondered?

510xR6NA+7LThrough reading his writings in the new book Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia edited by Vea Vecchi and Peter Moss and others it seems he would question our image of the student as much as he would ask us to think of our image of the child.  With a rich image of the child, the child who grows up into a student requires a rich educator, and a rich context in which the fruition of their thinking can emerge, grow and evolve.

Gunilla Dahlberg reminded us that:

“There is often a focus on what children can’t do.  So you have to prioritise documentation as a tool for changing your thinking.”  

There is a vitality and a reciprocity in documenting learning processes that enables a rethinking, a multiplicity of perspectives.  She suggests that we must stop focusing on what children (and therefore students) can’t do and to focus on documenting learning as a tool for changing thinking.  Blaming the student won’t do it.  But engaging in a process of pedagogical documentation might do it.

Pedagogical documentation is the capturing through photographs, dialogue, video, notes the experiences of children as a means of reconstructing the learning so that it can be shared with others to gain their point of view.  What we observe is always ever, only partial, and the process of documentation enables us to gain those other perspectives that can provide different meanings and interpretations of what is going on.  Gunilla Dalhberg described this as a strategy that can help others to rethink their own experiences and practice.

The Stockholm Project, that Dahlberg was involved in began as a small network , where people shared small snippets of documentation with each other to find and interpret meaning.  It was empowering and helped to prevent the fall back into the default position of what was safe and known.

Dahlberg reminded us of Malaguzzi’s words to, “Take care of intensity, affect and aesthetic vibration through “listening”.  What a wonderful description of an active pedagogy of listening that is vibrant and alive with potential.

Louise Lowings, a head teacher with whom I work at Madelely Nursery in Telford described the process of teaching in a pedagogy of listening as a constant dilemma:

“The teaching dilemma happens in the moment, there is a change, we look for change, our time is flexible, we are responsive and looking for relationships, of where the energy is, to look for the vitality in learning…we are not interested in the already known, but looking always for the unexpected and trusting in the process of finding and seeing this.  We see knowledge as contestable, or what we see and hear, interpret and re-present in documentation as contestable.”

IMG_3513This contesting is an important aspect of pedagogical documentation – our documentation as already mentioned is only ever partial, but documenting does not mean we are recreating the truth, but that we are offering an image of what we think was going on so that it can be debated, confronted, and challenged.  Therefore pedagogical documentation is a process of struggling to understand (the unexpected), to search for meaning with and through others.  Thus, pedagogical documentation leads to a transformation of thinking, it is a methodology for re-organising both thought and action.  Importantly in Reggio they do not document fixed outcomes, but generative processes of learning in action.

It is the act of pedagogical documentation that helps us to answer these three important questions of Dahlbergs:

  • How have we constructed the learning child (and therefore the teacher) in early childhood education?
  • How have we constructed knowledge?
  • How have we constructed environments for children’s explorations, symbolic activities and play?

1a4f9c4a3434a4e4fec4ce05b7a94296Gunilla Dahlberg shared a beginning of a pedagogical project with children from Stockholm.  It began with a group of children finding a dead Roe Deer in the woods.  This excited the children and the teachers.  The deer was in a state of decomposition with its skeleton partially exposed.  In listening to the children they talked about the exposed skeleton, the reasons why it might have died and how it got there.  The teachers were ecstatic because now they had a project about ‘skeletons’.  They got children to collect skeletons, and the whole pre-school became decorated with different types of skeletons.  Interestingly, when the children were asked to draw their experiences of the roe deer, the children did not speak of the skeletons, but instead talked about the rotting and the bacteria, the knights, the worms and the foxes and eagles.  The educators were disappointed – where were the skeletons? What the children were actually interested in was not the skeleton at all but the process of decay and the bacteria and insects involved.  Thus, work proceeded on the process of decay and a group theory was visualised on the walls of the nursery.  As the children and their theories were drawn and discussed together, capacities of the children to listen to each others theories was increased, so the teachers instead looked at how could the children find out more about bacteria… and of course that lead to many, many more theories about mould:

“The mould comes from a star and falls down to the ground.”

“When you get old you get mouldy.”

“The mould-bacteria spits out the mould onto the  bread.  The mould grows and then the bread is covered by the mould.  The mould-bacteria then flies back to the forest.”

In this way, as Dahlberg continued children were bringing out something totally new – something we have never seen or heard before.  It is not a transmission pedagogy but the surprising discovery of another reality that is often closely related to nature, ecology and life sciences.

So, back to those seemingly problematic students in ECE… if we wish for them to learn then we must provide for them rich contexts and situations of learning so that they can document the vitality and intensity of learning in life.  We cannot continue in a cycle of blame but be open to the possibility that everyone (including ourselves) can learn to see with eyes that can *jump over the wall IF we generate the contexts and conditions for that to happen.

To conclude, let me share this of Loris Malaguzzi as another lens for thinking about documentation as an act of courage in a context of being alongside others:

One has to have the courage to think that if a flower is born this influences upon the sun and the moon… every human being is a context of hundred’s of expressions, experiences and memories.  This context is continuously changing through experience and knowledge.  It is an illusion that one is alone.  We consist of many, one speaks with ones own voice but also with many other human being voices.  (1993)”

Happy Documenting and Sharing of it with others.

*The eye that jumps over the wall, was the title of Reggio Emilia’s first touring exhibition that later became the One Hundred Languages of Children.

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9 thoughts on “Pedagogical Documentation as a Tool for Thinking Differently

  1. Wow! What an exciting experience Debbie ! I have only heard Gunilla Dahlberg on a video I found on the internet and it was extremely thought provoking. This post is excellent and I am going to refer to it in my own work. I am going to read this one a couple of times. I have been reading on Malaguzzi this week in a pedagogical biography. What I found interesting is that from the moment he was a young teacher, he began teaching, he was unique. He saw what needed to change. He understood freedom of expression, prior knowledge, curiosity, the right to ask questions and seek answers, humor, and a different way of being with children. He gave the children blank pieces of paper without lines to write. I could be wrong … it is a metaphor of freedom of difference. So many children struggle to write within the lines such as my son … basically fit a mould of one type of child. I am going to carry notebooks with lines in my workshops to represent constraints and the blank sheet of paper as a response to constraints. I think he is a giant of pedagogy and because of his fearlessness to be different and not constrained by the system, we are inspired to dare the same. Thanks for this excellent post! Claudia

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  2. Thank you Claudia. You are right,he was truly a giant of pedagogy. The book is amazing as it makes you realise that he changed whatever he touched from the summer schools he worked at to the schools and everything in between. Peter Moss commented that the schools were his books.

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  3. This piece truly made me pause….rewind and then read it all over again. The first part of my digestion (reading) focused upon ‘me’ and what things, notions and preconceived ideas/ideals I bring to my classroom atmosphere, and where I stood as an educator, observer and facilitator. My regurgitation (second reading) shifted from me to how I could impact a future student…ECE or child within my care.

    My favourite part was “pedagogical documentation leads to a transformation of thinking, it is a methodology for re-organising both thought and action. Importantly in Reggio they do not document fixed outcomes, but generative processes of learning in action.” THIS must be the cornerstone upon which all future, former and present ECE’s stand upon.

    This article is a true reflection of where I want to be and where I’d LOVE to continually travel in my journey as a professional in this field. Awesome job Debi, and thank you for sharing!

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  4. I absolutely loved your article! I agree 100%. The example of how the children became interested in the decaying process rather than the skeletal frame is such a wonderful way to illustrate how young children learn. The process is so much more than the end result. The process of decay is so rich with information and the children are such natural beings of curiosity. Love this posting!

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