Portfolios: Pedagogical documentation or souvenir?

KAREN HOPE shares some key discussion points after facilitating a group of educators, who were delving into re-thinking ways to document learning and development for educators and children. Karen asked the group ‘what current documentation practices might they leave behind?’—This opened up ideas to what changes could be implemented to create documentation to improve ideas, strategies, interpretations, and research.

I recently facilitated a group of early childhood educators in re-thinking ways they document learning and development—both their own and children’s. To begin with, they considered what the term documentation meant, and I proposed that documentation is the search for meaning.

As educators, we are required to create documentation that encourages us to be focused, active and reflective in our design decisions. Documentation provides us opportunities to keep track of our steps, and not only communicate the pathways we took, but to also reconstruct and relaunch our work. Documentation can provide a context where theories and ideas are listened and responded to, and in addition to revealing what children research, learn and think, it should also reveal what educators learn and think.

To create documentation that better reflects ideas, strategies, interpretations, and research; I asked the group to consider what current documentation practices might they leave behind?

The educators suggested portfolios.

I asked, ‘What are portfolios, and who are portfolios for’?

The responses were candid and insightful; words such as ‘memorabilia’, ‘mementos’ and ‘visual records’ were used. Responses suggested the intended audience of portfolios were children and families. They are a ‘keepsake’, a reminder of a child’s time in the service, or as one educator told me, ‘They are like a souvenir’. This educator aptly described what, perhaps, many portfolios have become, and the comment encouraged other educators to critically think about what their own portfolios represented. They agreed that portfolios have the potential to offer more than providing children and families a visual representation of the children’s presence in the early learning space.

Reflecting on this discussion and having seen a variety of portfolios in early learning environments, I’ve considered whether portfolios have become a symbol of an experience, an object that evokes memories of a certain time, or a memento. Are they more like a souvenir, or a snow globe, rather than evidence of children’s and educators’ learning and development?  Portfolios may not be a strategy of pedagogical documentation that they are often held up to be.

Pedagogical documentation—a term used widely in the Reggio Emilia project—requires us to shift from documentation that has historically relied on developmental and objective knowledge of children (and is often retrospectively viewed), to a more nuanced approach that places both process and product by children and educators as key to creating documentation, which reflects the multiple perspectives about the children, educators, context, and environment.

The portfolio as a pedagogical documentation strategy can provide educators the opportunity to do this, and make explicit the footsteps of children, educators, and families. The portfolio reflects what we are thinking, researching and learning. It should be the construction of traces left behind.

Portfolios can also give children a voice, where they can document their own learning and development. They also help us acknowledge children’s rights to be the primary authors of their lives. When done well, portfolios provide children, families and educators opportunities to see themselves through the thoughts and ideas of others. They can create a context where theories and ideas are legitimised and responded to. Educators need to consider that they are equal beneficiaries in this process.

At your next staff meeting try to devote some time for a pedagogical documentation inventory. Consider the following:

  • What are the advantages or disadvantages of what you are currently doing? What might be some different approaches? How are you going to find out about them?
  • Who is advantaged or disadvantaged by your documentation decisions?
  • In your documentation strategies, what are the ethical considerations?
  • Are you documenting your own thinking, strategies and interpretations alongside those of children?
  • What are the family/community views on the documentation that you share with them?
  • Do children have opportunities to make documentation decisions?
  • How are children reviewing the work?
  • Does the documentation focus on learning or only what children produced?
  • Does the documentation add to your body of knowledge both regarding children’s learning and development and educator learning and development?
  • Does the documentation allow the work to be re-launched?

Educators work best when they share understandings about children’s learning, and agree on approaches to curriculum design and pedagogical practices. Portfolios should shine a light on theory, research, ideas, learning, and development. This service has decided to leave portfolios behind in 2020 and focus on inquiry books instead. A step towards enriching, challenging and reflecting on practice.


ECA Recommends

Conversations: Behind early childhood pedagogical documentation
By Alma Fleet

Conversations is an original book in that the complexities of contemporary theory and critical pedagogy are presented with a ‘practical’ confidence that engages the reader. Throughout, the authors write about and around the concept of pedagogical documentation, each from a new perspective and offering varying levels of engagement. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.

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Karen Hope

Karen Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing is strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via her website at: karenhopeconsulting@gmail.com www.karenhopeconsulting.com

8 thoughts on “Portfolios: Pedagogical documentation or souvenir?”

    Amanda Guy says:

    What is the difference between a inquiry book and a portfolio.

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Karen for provoking us to reflect more deeply on documentation. Unless we continue to challenge or question practices associated with documentation they are likely to become taken for granted with their original purpose and power lost over time. The brave new world of electronic documentation which many believe ‘solves’ the documentation issue, requires the same deep reflection and questioning

    Allison says:

    So what are inquiry books?

    Lisa Bryant says:

    I love this! As someone who works with the education and care sector but is not an educator I am totally puzzled by documentation – but have always been completely puzzled by portfolios.

    I spoke to an educator the other day whose centre was doing 6 or 7 different types of documentation daily. It felt like a lot more of what they were doing was for families than as a pedagogical tool.

    Karen Hope says:

    The term ‘inquiry books’ that have been referred to in the work done at this particular service can be described in the following way;

    This type of pedagogical documentation makes very explicit the link between relationships and a pedagogy of active listening. Of joining your attention to children’s attention. This type of documentation, when done well, enables educators and children to:

    1. Read the work
    2. Revisit the work.
    3. Assess the work
    4.Re-launch the work

    The inquiry books show evidence of children and educator’s hypotheses, research questions, thinking and critical reflections. The work documented makes visible the learning and development of all stakeholders and provides many opportunities for formative and summative assessment. This type of documentation and assessment are inextricably linked.

    All the fragments of documentation, artefacts, transcripts and narratives – everything – becomes the starting point of interpreting process and thinking and understanding the value that children attribute to their work

    It is ethical documentation that places children as the authors of their own lives and considers children’s rights to participation. Key to this approach to documentation is that alongside children’s work and thinking, is educator work and thinking. The educator is a co-researcher.

    To document this way does require a number of conditions, that include:

    1. The work space must allow the practices of listening, observing, researching and documenting.
    2. Time need to be given to interpretation that includes multiple stakeholders.
    3. The documentation needs to be shared with families to allow for different and subjective views.

    I would also like to add that this was a big piece of work that this service has undertaken and some traditional ways of thinking and working had to be left behind. They were however, a team of educators very committed to exploring a different way and it was a pleasure to think alongside them.

    Donna says:

    How do I subscribe to your blog?

    Early Childhood Australia says:

    Hi Donna, if you go to the main page of The Spoke, http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/ you can subscribe on the right-hand column of the page.
    thank you, The Spoke.

    Ruth Smith says:

    Thank you for this article. It has been an area of critical reflection for me for some time.
    I too feel we need to consider that the children are the authors of their lives.
    Often portfolios are filled with a lot of busy DOING blurb that reads more like a travelogue of pretty pictures and adult synopsis not of learning but a day to day itinerary.I often refer to the Conversations Book, it offers an great insight into how educators and children reflect on the learning that has taken place.

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