KAREN HOPE shares her perspective on another hot topic in the early childhood sector, delving into the pressure that educators face to photograph children in their care, to document learning. Do photos of children engaged with another child or an educational activity properly demonstrate what they learn? And is it time to re-evaluate the content that is shared with families to demonstrate learning in other ways?
As someone who spends part of the working week assisting early learning services to document richly and ethically, I am often in conversations about the amount and type of pedagogical documentation educators are required to generate. Increasingly, educators tell me they struggle to keep up with the demands for daily visual evidence of children’s learning and development—not only from employers and other colleagues but also from families.
It would seem that some families want photographs of their child every day!
Educators are feeling the weight of this expectation. The idea of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ seems to be a powerful driver behind what is photographed and why. This gratuitous use of photography has quickly morphed into a daily expectation from families, or worse, a service requirement. Whether photographs are emailed, printed, dumped into a portfolio or uploaded through an app, some families expect them each day.
The rapid expansion of technology in everyday life has meant early childhood educators have many tools available for pedagogical documentation. The early childhood sector has responded enthusiastically to these technological tools and a lot of documentation in children’s programs reflects the use of photography, which does make sense. Photographs frequently gathered over a period of time that are accompanied by strong narratives can contribute to evidencing learning and development.
It would be difficult to find a service that does not rely on some form of photography to document children’s learning, and there can be a lot of value in this. When someone stops to take a photograph of a child, or their work, it can communicate a powerful message to children that, ‘you and what you are doing matters; and this tells us something about you’.
However, I believe that a lot of current practices reflect a lack of authenticity around what is photographed and a disregard for the many ethical and consensual considerations that need to be taken into account when photographing children and their work. This is not the fault of families, nor is it the fault of the online platforms storing and distributing the images (though I suspect some might like to blame them). The platforms might give you the tools to capture the photograph but it is not responsible for the judicious thinking that should underpin our documentation decisions.
Gratuitous photography is what happens when we assume that a photograph automatically demonstrates learning, and it is what happens when we do not fully understand what we are required to do in line with the National Law and the National Quality Standard (NQS). Families do need to be informed about their child’s progress, but photographs are not the only way we can, and should, be doing this.
Photography in early learning centres has, in some ways, become a runaway train, and some services are grappling with how to pull it back into manageable, authentic and ethical applications. How are we going to communicate to families that a photograph of their child sitting in front of a puzzle does not always evidence learning, development or engagement?
A way forward may be to articulate and communicate to families what it is we do— why we do it and how we do it. We are the professionals in this space and we have a large body of pedagogical knowledge and theory sitting underneath the way we work with children and how we assess and communicate learning and development. While this might appear to be simplifying a complex issue, the practicality of applying professional knowledge here is the key to getting the train back on track.
We know that strong relationships with children and families in early learning spaces are vital and a cornerstone of what we do well. We also know that being present with children is important. But to be present requires educators to be interested and available. It requires educators to be attentive to the children and actively listen to them. To notice, explore, expand and celebrate the things that interest young children is how we come to know who children really are.
So … do you want me to ‘be’ with your child or photograph your child?
Box of Provocations
By Anne Stonehouse
Explore ethical issues with the cards, which are intended to support critical reflection, discussion, debate and deeper thinking about teaching, learning and what it means to be a professional educator. Their use will result in a better learning experience for children, families and educators. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.