Learning Groups: Thinking, Pedagogical Documentation and Collaboration

For many years now, I have been interested in the essence of group encounters with children.  By this I mean, contexts of learning that are group based rather than individual encounters of learning.  I am very much inspired by the context of the Municipal schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy schools whom have as one of their many features the idea that learning happens in relationship with others, other children, teachers, family and the community and who place great value on participation and collaboration.

This feature of group learning is something that can be overlooked by educators working in dialogue with the characteristics, values and features of the educational project that has become known as the Reggio Approach.  By this I mean we can easily become seduced with their use of loose parts, light, mirrors, or natural material as ‘must have’ resources in a Reggio inspired context and lose sight of the importance in their work of group learning.

In the book Making Learning Visible (2001),  a collaboration between Harvard University and Reggio Children they label four distinctive features of a learning group. (See below). They define a learning group as a collection of persons who are …”emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products and making meaning – an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning with others.”  P 285.

They also say that when children and adults are in groups “…we encounter new perspectives, strategies and ways of thinking…we also learn with others modifying, extending, clarifying, and enriching our own ideas, and those of others.”

I suggest therefore that in our pedagogical documentation, and in our shared analysis of the documentation we should be looking for the ways in which children elaborate upon ideas (of their own and others), upon how their ideas grow and evolve,  and transform and generate new ideas as well as looking for understanding of concepts and meaning.  So often we can get caught up in the awe and wonder of what children say and do that we forget to seek ways of identifying and giving shape to the learning and using what we find out as way of thinking about what could be looked at next.

Four Features of a Learning Group

  • The members of learning groups include adults as well as children.
  • Documenting children’s learning processes helps to make learning visible and shapes the learning that takes place.
  • Members of learning groups are engaged in the emotional and aesthetic as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.
  • The focus of learning in learning groups extends beyond the learning of individuals to create a collective body of knowledge.

Making Learning Visible (2001) Project Zero & Reggio Children

The first feature reminds us of how we are a part of the learning group as much as the children are; learning alongside of the children about the subject and about the ways in which they construct knowledge.  As the children inquire, so do we.

An example of this was with a group of children aged 3-5 at Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK  In identifying with a tree within their environment, children expressed a deep sense of empathy with the tree, giving it human characteristics and applying what they knew about being safe and secure to the needs of the tree.  In doing so, they said that the tree had a family, a mother, a father and a grandmother. and that it had feelings.  What at first appeared like a fantastical and imagined idea of the children turned out with further research to hold truths in it; revealing that the forest floor, sometimes referred to as the world wide wood, was indeed a place of relationships, where some trees acted like parents to other trees, sheltering them and coaxing them to grow.  It was important in this scenario to find out more about the relationships of trees, not only to fuel our learning but as to be able to listen more closely to the evolving ideas of the children working together as part of a group.  There was also the shared inquiry of the educators as to how children developed a sense of empathy with living things.  This inquiry was a central act of the research of the teachers into children’s learning processes and acted as a driver for project work on an ecological theme.

The second feature focuses on the bigger picture of learning.  In the ‘Making Learning Visible’ book referred to earlier there are countless examples of mini group documentaries that focus on making explicit the doing, the learning and the possibilities of meaning.  The documentaries give a visual shape to what has been seen yet remains open for others point of view also to be heard.  In this case, the documentaries act not as the singular, descriptive, truthful point of view but as a means to creating other points of view by asking others ‘what do you think’?  When documentation is used in this way, then future plans can be made based on what the children themselves are making sense of, where they might be stuck, and used to anticipate what they might do next.

At Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK documentation is collected in group learning journals, and are brought to the weekly pedagogy meeting together with examples of children’s drawings or clay work so that multiple educators can read the documentation, make sense of it, discuss and contest it and come to an inter-subjective re-reading of the documentation.  From this point, plans are then made in how best to offer future situations of learning, or generative contexts that enable children to evolve their thinking and the construction of knowledge as part of a group.  It is the pedagogical documentation itself (the notes, photographs, dialogue) that are collected in the moment with the children that becomes the tools in which learning is debated and given shape and visibility.  It is these in the moment notes that are also used directly with the children, serving as a memory of their previous learning.  When the group documentation is used in this way it fosters a strong sense of a learning group identity.

The third feature focuses on emotional and aesthetic aspects of learning as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.  What engages the children’s desire to learn and what excites them form the focus of enquiries of the group.  Choices are made to the types of materials and their presentation and the situations offered to the children that make the everyday and ordinary unexpected and extraordinary. Children engage in different modalities and ‘languages’ of learning to make meaning and construct knowledge and the environment is considered as a place of working, feeling and thinking together.

An example of this is in how a group of 3-4 year old children at Ashmore Park Nursery who were keen planters and gardeners became interested in the hidden shape of seeds when viewed under a digital microscope.  The unusual shapes they saw challenged their thinking that all seeds were the same and generated new ideas about germination and the powers that enabled it to happen.  The seeds were examined, drawings and clay models of their theories made, dance and movement work explored the energy and visual aesthetics of germination and children considered the feelings of the seeds as they germinated.

The fourth feature encourages the idea of the learning group being a community of learners that focuses on collective as well as individual knowledge.  It is the collective engagement that helps children and educators to work in ways that support the comparison of ideas, participation in discussion and the resulting modification and elaboration of ideas of the group where collaboration is a strong ethic.

In a project at Madeley Nursery School, Telford, UK that explored the idea of a Hive Machine for Bee’s, 3-4 year old children co-constructed knowledge about how a group of bees that were found dead in the school’s roof died.  Together they discovered and explored ideas about how bee’s saw the world, how they moved, what they liked in the school’s garden and how they communicated. Together they made a special garden for the bee’s, a bee home and generated a group story of what happened to the bees.  The story was shared to other children, families and educators through an animated story which they made and the story was later communicated back to the dead bee’s in the roof in a system of pipes and funnels that connected the dead bee’s to the tablet that ‘told’ the story.  In doing so, this groups identity was created through collaborating together on shared research into the systems and cycles of bee’s and they achieved more by participating in learning as part of a group, than what they could of achieved if only working and playing as individuals.

There is a strong discourse in schools and in educational organisations that for children to work in a group is a characteristic of a more academic route to learning.   Although I don’t disagree with the importance of play and a playful approach I do not want to, at its expense lose these features of learning that happen through groups, where the sharing and elaboration of each others ideas are able to provide multiple points of view, democratic participation and where their opinions and ideas are valued, heard and shape the future of their learning.

For those who are Reggio inspired, group learning is such a strong feature of the educators of Reggio Emilia that can go unnoticed in favour of beautiful things, environments and glossy documentation of the individual if we are not careful. So let us not forget the beauty, the aesthetics, and the emotional engagement of working in groups with children and let us find ways to document that learning in ever more meaningful ways that help us transform education from a model of transmission to one that listens to children and sees them as they do in Reggio as protagonists of their own learning.

Pedagogical Documentation and its links to Children’s Personal Social, and Emotional Well Being

Observations and documentation from a beginning of a project.

Recently I was interviewed by Kathy Brodie as part of the Spring 2017 Early Years Summit.  Here are some of the questions asked and my written responses (I go into more detail on the video, that can be accessed at the link at the end of this article.

What is pedagogical documentation?

Pedagogical documentation is the process of learning to understand what it is that children might be thinking.  It is a visible process of thinking and reflection on children’s learning.  It may take the form of photographs or film combined with notes of what children say and do.  So, for example you might be working with a small group of children on a shared enquiry.  I’ve been working with some educators who are interested in children’s theories about the sun and the moon.  As part of finding out what they know and think, the educators invited the children to draw their ideas, and in doing so, the educators took photographs and sometimes filmed the children,  and noting down the things they said and did.

We could say that pedagogical documentation is a research methodology in trying to find out and make visible and thus sharable what children say and do.  In using the traces of documentation, for example the films, the photographs the artefacts produced, the written dialogues of the children we can then use them  analyse with others to try and find out what is really going on and thus form a plan of what to do next.   In this way, pedagogical documentation is a form of ongoing professional development combined with planning,  But its most important use I think is when we use it back with the children, to re-offer what they have said and done, to show we value what they say and do and to work together to find ways to elaborate knowledge on the shared enquiry.

Pedagogical documentation works on many layers – it is for planning, for learning how children learn and think, its for making visible to others, like families what children are doing.  For me it differs form the usual formative assessment  that we do which tends to be for generating data on cohorts, for evidence for inspection.  Rarely are observations shared and used in a way that helps us to learn about children and for the children to see themselves as learners.

How can we use pedagogical documentation to help transform our thinking?

In collecting the traces of children’s experiences we can use these as visual aids and memoirs to re-create a context for learning.  In doing so, we analyse the pieces and try to see the bigger picture that sits behind them.  One thing I do is sit with educators and their traces of documentation and help them to piece together the bigger picture, of what we think children are thinking about.  So trying to go beyond the superficial.  In doing so, it awakens in us the pleasure of seeing children in richer ways – we begin to notice their strategies for learning, the patterns of their learning and in doing so it transforms our thinking of what children are capable of.  Loris Malaguzzi of the schools in Reggio Emilia, talked about the importance of standing aside for a while, and listening carefully because then, our teaching would be different from before.  I think what he meant was that the change occurs in us, that we see children and their amazing capabilities for deep thought and action.  This is what the process of pedagogical documentation does in transforming our thinking about how children are in the world.

How can this support young children’s personal, social and emotional development? 

I think there are some very clear links between the purpose and practice of pedagogical documentation and children’s personal, social and emotional development.  The action of pedagogical documentation often begins with the lifting of a pen to write or a camera to take a photograph.  In doing so you are showing that you are visibly listening, that you are valuing what that child or group of children are doing.  You are demonstrating and practising what  Carla Rinaldi calls the pedagogy of listening.  As a child you know that you are being noticed, listened too and thought about.

I first thought about this when I was in Reggio Emilia for the first time and was confronted with some A3 sized photographs of their youngest children in the infant toddler centres.  They were just simple black and white photographs of each of the children in that classroom, all presented just above floor level.  In a video I saw how the babies would crawl across the floor and find themselves and each other, often in pairs or in small groups: these encounters with photographs often resulted in much giggling, and pointing, and hands on printed faces found eyes and noses, that they then used to find their own nostrils and mouths.  It was a from of pedagogical documentation that created a context for encounter of self and of each other.  It was a powerful engagement and I realised just what a positive experience this was for the children.  Over time, as these photographs remained and the children got to know each other more they would point to each other as if saying, ‘thats you and that is me, we are together.’  It created a positive context for togetherness.

Another example displayed in a similar way was the story of how two children played with a doll together.  It was a very strong way to demonstrate collaboration and what that looked like for the very young children.  It modelled their positive interactions and how they were building a relationship together through the passing of a doll to each other.  Carlina Rinaldi again speaks of the process of documentation as “an act of caring, and an act of love and interaction.”

The simplest thing that we can do, is to turn the camera or the tablet around and engage with children with what we are doing.  So often, observations mean that the educator is busy writing and not interacting, or hid behind the lens of a camera or face down in a tablet.  This is not what we want to do.  But by turning the camera around we use it like a visual notebook, we can share with the child or group of children what we ourselves are valuing – and the children have always got something to say back to that!  It is often a way to engage in conversation about  what they are trying to understand, what they making sense of and what they are doing in relation to others.  This interaction may then lead to writing down more of what they say, we can say things like ‘that is really important what you say, I’m going to write it down.  Again it tells the child that what they have to say  or what they have done is interesting.

A great example of this way of working happens at Madeley Nursery School in Telford.  There they use reflective journals to collect traces of the children’s experiences.  Inside they lay photographs side by side with what children say and  do together with the questions and thoughts it arises for them as an educator.  The children are fascinated with these books, and so they should be, it is full of their adventures!

The reflective journals are used directly with the children, and this is important as they are not just collecting points of evidence but are used and often added to by the children.  A session might begin with a small group gathering, the reflective journal placed on the floor so all can see.  The educator would then use this journal to reflect back with children on what they have said and been doing.  It connects experiences over time and enables children to see themselves as a part of a group community.  It can also help create the conditions for building a sense of belonging by seeing yourself in connection with others.

The children also have individual books which they call “Celebration Books’.  These books are co-owned by the child and the family and are a site of celebrating learning and development.  Many places have these type of books, but what I find special here is that the parents contribute so much to the books, making connections between home and school.  The educators often find that what interests the children at home is what captivates them at nursery too and vice versa of course.  In terms of their personal, social and emotional development the child recognises themselves as powerful learners with something to offer the world.  The books are loved by the children, and the families and I mean loved.  They are containers of precious energy and opportunity.  Just looking at them makes them feel good about themselves and what they are learning about.  It brings back memories and it makes special seemingly ordinary moments.

At a nursery school in Wolverhampton called Ashmore Park Nursery, they display traces of the children’s drawing and painting, their models and makings so that children can see that their work again is valued but also to see their work in a context of others.  The children work in small groups, in an enquiry based way on shared provocations and ideas often raised by the children themselves.  In this way children working on shared ideas see the work of their peers.  They see that their idea can be similar or different to others and learn to understand that we all have different points of view (and can still live together).  This is something we can learn from the children as adults; this living with a multiplicity of ways of knowing and being.

So we could say, that at the heart of the process of pedagogical documentation and its subsequent sharing and publication to others (including children and their families) is that it values, relationships, listening, caring, meaning-making connection belonging and interaction as essential elements and outcomes.

What strategies for using pedagogical documentation would you suggest for practitioners, especially if this is a new idea for them?

I would always start small.  I’d buy a large notebook with blank pages in so that I could not just write but draw too.  Sometimes I like to draw how the children are drawing, copying the types of marks they are making in sequence.  I’d sit with a group of children and listen to their conversation and take notes on what I find interesting or have questions about.  I’d certainly take some photographs or maybe short snippets of film that I could look back at later.  I’d stick the photographs in the book, nothing fancy like a scrapbook, but just an ordered set of  written and visual notation.  And then I’d find someone who could talk to me about it – maybe in a reflection or planning meeting.  I’d like to find out what other people think about what was going on and see if it matched with my own thoughts or if the discussion offered new thoughts.  That often happens with me.

Alternatively I’d use film as my modality of collecting.  I’d take short snippets of film of no more than 5 minutes and use these in a staff meeting to share and find out from others what they think is going on and what questions it raises for them.  It is surprising when you do this, suddenly you start making connections, seeing familiar patterns of thoughts or play across different contexts.  You get to know the child or group of children even better.  Then I would use the film or the notes to think about what to offer next.  It might be more of the same, it might be a challenge or a provocation for thinking about something differently.  But always, I would use it back with the children.  They like to see themselves on film and it gives rise to useful information that you can use in your own thinking of what to do next.

To find out more, access the interview at The Spring Summit and access a wealth of other interviews by ECE specialists on the subject of children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Well-Being.  http://www.earlyyearssummit.com/?ref=Debi