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.

Why ‘exchange’ and not ‘study tour’? A Sweden/UK Educational Exchange Project.

A Visualisation of Exchange? A swedish teacher came across this composition, the young child described it as the cold country (the tiles) and the green country (the green pegs) and in the centre is the middle land. I couldn't help but see this image as a metaphor for the reason of exchange.

I have just returned from a visit to some of the pre-schools of Stockholm, Sweden.  It was an exchange opportunity organised through Sightlines-Initiative for three settings I work with here in the UK with three pre-schools in Stockholm.  In just three weeks time, our Swedish colleagues come to visit here in a mutual exchange and for participation in our daily school life with young children.

The schools involved in this exchange are all ‘inspired’ by the context of education seen in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools of Italy.  To be inspired does not mean to copy or replicate their experience but instead to reflect upon the ideals and values they place upon the environment as a teacher, pedagogical documentation as a tool of research and making learning visible, group learning, a rich image of the child and the connectivity between school and community.  What is interesting in the Swedish context is that here lay a group of schools examining these principles of Reggio within their own Swedish cultural and educational context in a similar way to how we are examining the principles of Reggio within our own UK context.

Exploring the variation and tonal hues of autumnal colour. A five year olds composition.

This experience so far is very different from a study tour, which usually focuses upon a go, see, and find attitude that I liken to a kind of teacher tourism led by the knowledgeable pedagogical guide. This exchange felt more like a live, feel, and hold experience.  There was something quite unique in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, even though for just a week.  Often it was overwhelming, as at first you have so many questions that are all aimed at orientating yourself around what you are experiencing and making sense of what you see and feel, but then as time progresses, your questions become more refined, more attuned to finding the similarities and differences between the two positions and practices.

Doing this as part of network feels important too, as it is not just about your classroom, or your individual school but how an experience like this can challenge the culture and perception of education, family, child and childhood for a connected group of people.  This is important because it is only together in the situation of a small group can we exchange our points of view and reach a possible third way of understanding or a new creation of knowledge and understanding.

Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) describe this process of constructing new knowledge in relation to children, but I propose here to use it as a way of understanding how as a group of educators we too construct new ways of being and seeing.

“Recognizing the function and peculiarities of conversations held in small groups is an important step for adults.  It requires the adult to shift from a perspective which sees language as the revealer of thought to that of language as a generator of thought…It is possible therefore, to see group discussion as a way in which to create knowledge instead of being simply a method for discovering who has what knowledge.”

On a study tour, it is easier to go and see and find out ‘the ways to become a better educator’  – a process of osmosis where you seep up the educational chlorophyll from others who have already discovered a better way of being.   This experience of mutual exchange has enabled through active participation, constructive dialogue and group discussion/exchange a method to generate and create new ways of being and thinking.

As a group of children sat talking and painting about the transformation of colour in leaves, another group drew what this discussion group looked like. It reminded me of the importance of seeing ourselves from a different perspective.

What I have also understood so far from this experience, is that there is no one singular way of improving education, there is no necessary singular path to follow, we must not become all the same even though we may share values and principles. I understand too that there is still also the danger of responding to what is seen and felt and lived passively i.e. to become consumers of thinking rather than searching for the possible third way.  We might do this in looking for answers on the how and what we want to change and develop, the bits that we already know don’t quite work.  We have to be wary of just looking for solutions, too easily.

So, instead of focusing on the what and how of our educational practices maybe we should first start from the point of view of why.

Our questions in the beginning were:

  1. How do we work with parent participation (strategies, methods, building mutually respectful relationships)?
  2. How do we think about the environment and prepare materials and areas for children and children’s own choices?
  3. How do we construct meaningful learning projects?

But the danger lies in how we might replicate what each other does in our differing settings and doing so in admiration of the other but without critically deconstructing the experience and reconstructing new possibilities.  I realise now that our questions should have been written instead as:

  • Why do we want to encourage parents to be active and equal participants in the educational experience of young children?
  • Why should we think about the educational environments and materials we offer children?
  • Why construct meaningful learning projects for young children?

Maybe, if we think about the why, learn to construct and reinvent our knowledge and practices continuously we can indeed transform our practices.


Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) in Reggio Children Reggio Tutta: A guide to the city by the children.