Documentation—what’s the point?

Over-attention to documentation continues, often seemingly with more emphasis on quantity than on quality. It would be heartening to hear of a service where practices were rated as outstanding in every respect and at every level, but the National Quality Standards rating was diminished because there wasn’t enough documentation!7

Many documented observations of children appear to be more about what they have done than about evidence of what they have learned or are learning. This seems to be true even when the accounts are mistakenly called ‘learning stories’.

It’s much easier to see, hear and record what children are doing than what they are learning. Most educators are familiar with milestones, which are mainly behaviours that can be seen or heard, and much documentation is of milestones. Learning, on the other hand, may or may not be readily visible. It’s subtler, often requiring interpretation and analysis about meaning rather than simply noting the behaviour.

This is especially true of children who aren’t yet adept at using language. Verbal children can often tell you what they have learned or are learning. On the other hand, educators have to infer possible learning with babies, toddlers and older children whose skills at using language are limited. You have to speculate frequently about meaning and often as a result will decide to look for more evidence to confirm or disconfirm your hunches.

Documenting learning in ways that inform program planning is more complex than focusing on milestones and behaviour.

Several illustrations:

It’s obvious when a baby feeds herself peas using a pincer grip. It’s less obvious that this is an expression of her desire for independence and autonomy.

It’s easy to notice a toddler walking purposefully around the space, collecting jar lids and other flat objects in a basket and then posting them into a tissue box. It’s not as easy to understand that this child is beginning to plan and be more purposeful in his play.

It’s easier to notice a two year old snatching others’ toys than to see that as a child learning to be a member of a community.

Children’s learning is what the EYLF is about. The Learning Outcomes are its centrepiece. The detail in the Learning Outcomes and associated resources about the Outcomes can support educators’ efforts to pay more attention to learning.

Following are some questions to consider:

No matter what we call it, does my/our documentation focus more on what children are doing than it does on what children are learning?

If we want to focus more on learning than doing, what will help us make the shift?

And the really important question: Given that one of the most important reasons for documenting children’s learning is to inform our pedagogy or practice, how do we connect what we know about children’s learning to what we do every day? How can we make sure that there are direct links?

Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

20 thoughts on “Documentation—what’s the point?”

    Fiona MacGregor says:

    Hi Anne,
    I would have to agree with you wholeheartedly. This is an issue that we are trying to overcome in our preschool setting. All my educators are highly trained and excellent practitioners. Yet, we all struggle with documenting learning in meaningful ways.
    The reasons for this are two fold. Firstly, there is little time to think, reflect and then write about the complexities of children’s learning experiences due to having limited time “off the floor” allocated for written work (a structural issue).
    Often our daily reflections are written hastily, surrounded by noise and constant interruptions, and the completion of the work often competes with the quality possible to produce.
    Secondly, in terms of quantity the educators take on the onerous responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of the families who crave quantity in the form of portfolios (a cultural issue). Therefore the documentation does tend to lean towards the ‘what the child has been doing” rather than focus on the learning as the sheer quantity of the information produced cannot be successfully analysed in any real sense.
    Creating the balance is an ongoing battle between producing professional work, the duality of the task and the role that producing satisfying documentation has on an educators sense of achievement.

    Belinda Adair says:

    Hi Anne and Fiona,
    Time is definitely a factor which impacts on documenting children’s learning. Documenting children’s learning often creates an ethical dilemma as it impacts strongly upon interactions which I believe are fundamental for learning. Educators become consumed with documentation and interactions are compromised. In the ideal world where educators receive extended periods of time to document and plan, the analysis of learning would be easier as educators have time to critically reflect and analyse learning. In the real world, where time impacts, educators are pushed to “produce” something and thus you get the descriptions of what children are doing rather than what they are learning.

    Chelsie de Bomford says:

    Hi Anne, I really like the illustrations you put forward in this article. Examples of meaningful observations, looking deeper at the child’s learning and demonstrating the child’s abilities working towards the EYLF outcomes as appose to stating the obvious. I also feel it is of huge importance that educators have the opportunity for collaborative,reflective practice thus enhancing the teams understanding of the potential of children and their amazing ability. It really frustrates me that there are many ‘moments’ missed in the infant and toddler age groups and I liked the way you illustrated this, very important. We can all cry we are time poor and yes that is true however it all comes down to management, if our leaders, directors etc want us to provide the highest possible care for our young children then they need to be mindful and respectful of our important role and allow adequate time for educators to be together, to critically reflect and analyse, to go to a deeper level of thinking and in essence raise our professionalism which in turn raises the type of curriculum we offer children.
    Thanks for this thought provoking article.

    Kristy O'Toole says:

    Hi Anne, I am sitting here with my hand up saying me, me, me, as our service did suffer the wrath of not enough documentation during A&R, yet excelled in all other area’s. Absolute frustration participating in a process that has a graded outcome yet does not have a graded rubric to guide participants. The language used is not measurable and opens itself up to interpretation of the service and then the authorised officer. Our service follows the cycle of planning and has a document that explains our environment and the pedagogy that influenced its design.
    I believe educators that continue to learn about ECE and actively develop as professionals are able to provide the appropriate opportunities for children to learn and develop in. As an experienced (and recently deemed exemplary educator) I wonder if I didn’t document anything for a year would the children in my care be disadvantaged? With beautiful resources, an aesthtically pleasing environment, caring and dedicated educators that are knowledgable and continue to reflect every day, we provide opportunities for children to have positive outcomes.
    We have high expectations for ourselves and the children, we just dont do enough learning stories….apparently 🙂

    […] bringing the benefits of mindfulness to the classroom, and this stunner is from the most excellent Anne Stonehouse about the challenges of documenting learning in […]

    Anabolika says:

    I’ve just tried this out and it looks fantastic!

    Zulaika says:

    Hi Anne i am finding that the general community have no idea how little time we spend with children and how much is focuses on documenting paper work that really no one sees. All this time away from children, we seem to think that paperwork is the be all and end all. But what about the children. Less time doing what parents and families assume we are doing. Its become a business and each child is a dollar sign. They are moved to the next room because there is a space to fill the gaps. It does not seem to be about the development about the child. Numbers add up at the end of the day. Where have we gone wrong.i would love to see more time to interact and engage without shoving a camera in a childs face everytime they do something exstordinary. I am sure this will impact them as they grow..

    Ruth Garlick says:

    I Believe that there are inconsistencies in the views of the assessors’. Even dedicated, experienced and university qualified educators can ‘get it wrong’. There is no regulation that says we must write learning stories, or complete portfolios. What seems to be the key is that there is a clear cycle of learning in place for each child, and this can be recorded and evidenced in many ways. It doesn’t even have to be pretty. I see too many instances of educators interacting with a camera or device between them and the child. There is no requirement that we take photos either. I document for short periods, write it up on my tablet with the child, or make a voice recording with the child’s permission, and revisit it to analyse and plan after hours. Supporting children to be a part of the process frees the educator from making all the decisions. Floor books are a great support in this. It assists children to take ownership of their learning.

    Maree Aldwinckle says:

    Anne, many times milestones are learning. I am really heartily sick of the understanding child development, which in essence is child psychology, being continually bashed. De-emphasising an understanding of development for early childhood professionals is like telling a doctor that they no longer need to understand anatomy. Yes, we want educators to look beyond behaviour, we always have, especially in relation to emotional development and cognitive development. Some aspects of learning and development are more directly observable than others. Not all milestones are directly observable either. Oversimplification of concepts and ideas and continual bad pressing the ideas of understanding child development is not doing the early childhood sector any favours!

    Diane Jurcola says:

    Walking the balance beam, do we concentrate on planning for the future with heads in books or be in the moment with the children to enhance their learnng? Finding a way to do both will keep you steady and being without judgment or criticsm by others on how this is done. Taking the time and effort to be mindfull during the day is a good starting point, this is what I need to practice doing instead of getting caught up in the routine of care and education. Stop and be in the moment with the child and truly listen and observe. These moments are fixed in my memory and appear from now where, when I create my plan.

    Sandra Pope says:

    In the dark ages we kept a card file of the dates that observation taken of children, added a coded symbol for which area of development/ interest /need etc we would address in our follow up planning and identified our intentions of how this would happen in our program and how it would extend that child’s interest, skill, need etc. All staff knew the system, and relief staff could be made aware in seconds of areas in which the child would find benefit/joy/experience and learning. Today’s learning stories give us far more scope but less focus! I cannot decide which practice proves more beneficial to the child, however, it is clear that as an Educator we must have a profound knowledge and understanding of the child development in order to make sense of what we see and hear and observe .
    Often the tediousness of too much paperwork causes us to overlook some crucial factor in a child’s behaviour and this is neither beneficial to the child nor the Educator.
    I continually try to find a less involved method of recording and planning but after 30 years have come to the conclusion that photos and children’s words and drawings tell it all!

    Jan says:

    This is exactly what I think about recording… Can you imagine if we went to the doctor and he said ” I think you have the flu. But to prove that I know what I am talking about, I have to take pictures, write all about why I think that, and see you at least three times before I can confirm that you do have flu…” Either we trust our early years practitioners or we don’t. If we do trust them, take their word that they know what is happening. If we don’t, then they shouldn’t be working with our children. Scrap this pointless paperwork and let these educators have time to work with the children!!! If course they need to observe and nite take to inform their planning, but it does not need to be so unwieldy….! (Rant over!)

    Judith Pack says:

    I am not familiar with the Canadian system, but in the U.S., teachers working in school districts complain about the number of assessments and documentation they must do which takes them away from actually “being” with the children. I have introduced learning stories to countless groups of teachers and this is what I have learned. Teachers first need a good deal of time learning to simply observe—whether it’s noticing behavior or developmental milestones, it doesn’t matter. Being allowed the time to simply watch and take a few notes, without pressure to do it “right,” is important. I believe that the next step is some sort of collaborative work in thinking beyond behavior. After all, these are educated guesses—we’re not sure that an infant or toddler has a desire to be autonomous. In fact, we have no idea what a child is thinking. When teachers can share their learning stories and then ask together, “So, what do you think is happening for the child? What might the child be thinking or learning?” I think this takes time and experience with a great deal of support. Unfortunately this is rarely done in the U.S. It sounds like you, in Canada, are doing a much better job of it!

    Judith Pack says:

    Oops, I apologize. You are Australia! I thought it was Victoria, Canada.

    Louise says:

    I find that by focussing on the learning disposition that the child shows they are developing I avoid writing about the product or behaviour. I use the product or behaviour just to set the context. To me that’s what a learning story is… Context or narrative, reflection linked to dispositions and learning outcomes, then future planning. For this reason I am in love with learning stories! They are also so powerful in engaging parents in their child’s learning. Feels like I’m on a different page?

    Maree Aldwinckle says:

    Love your coment here. You have captured some of my thinking. Educators need to learn how to observe before they can effectvely document.

    Chris Cook says:

    Love your rant. I’ve been naughty for the last few months because of the depressing rain that just doesn’t want to stop and not written a single thing on paper. Yet the kids are continuing to shine. No ones noticed that I don’t have an intended learning experience or have not met my outcomes. The children are still learning and thriving and because I’ve been a bit more chilled and spontaneous have got to experience way more opportunities. I think we have gone over the top in an attempt to prove our selves as educators. We need to take note of some of the Danish schools and relax.

    Jo says:

    The simplicity & the intentional teaching of a good project/program, has given way to so much paperwork.
    My response to these pressures…. My name does not have; Occupational therapist, Medical Doctor, speech therapist, clinical consultant, Etc, written behind it, so therefore if we “identify” a need/deficit it should referred to a clinical specialist, because it is outside of our scope of practice. Yet we are all doing what the Health Dept should be. and Childcare should be play-based and learning life skills. The Health Dept in particular has let us down, is failing the 0-6yr groups, and is grossly underfunded, and some officers have acknowledges this. It can take up to 3 yrs on the wait-list to assess children. So the Govt is using our services, as pseudo-health professionals, think about it !!!!!!!!! And getting us to do their work.

    Maree Aldwinckle says:

    An interesting perspective Jo.

    Maria Kaluarachchi says:

    Hi Anne,
    Many thanks for this amazing piece of article. I agree with Fiona about having little time to think and engage in quality documentation. When working for a large organisation, and the pedagogical documentation is outlined by those who are not and have not worked in the ECE industry, it becomes a big challenge. I find after nearly 15 years of working in this industry, that I am still on a quest to find the right balance where i could confidently showcase my quality documentation whilst aligning it with the company requirement. This is quite agonising.

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