‘The presence of a light table does not grant the possibility’

In January 2017 I travelled to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to participate in the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE) intensive study tour.

The focus of the week in Reggio Emilia was on documentation and progettazione. The word ‘progettazione’ was used during the course of the week to explain that curriculum design is a strategy of thought and action. Elena Corte, Pedagogista in the Preschools and Infant Toddler Centres in Reggio Emilia, provided the following provocation: ‘The presence of a light table does not grant the possibility’ (Corte, E., Baladucci School, personal communication, 2017). This comment had great resonance with me. What I think she was saying is that you can have all the light boxes, digital microscopes, artfully arranged autumn leaves and fancy program planning software that the world has to offer, but you still have to know how to do it and you absolutely have to know how to read it. What do we know and what are we on the edge of knowing?

To be able to design and deliver early learning curriculum programs in this way requires educators to understand that documentation is a metacognitive process. It requires an awareness and understanding of our own processes. The question I have about our Australian context is: ‘What’s our process?’ Do we care what kind of documentation we collect or just that we can provide evidence of having collected it?

Documentation best practice in Australia is mired in myth. Some of these myths include, but are not limited to:

  • commercial templates and digital platforms that result in higher quality documentation
  • if you didn’t photograph it, it didn’t happen
  • the more documentation you collect the better
  • every child needs a certain number of observations
  • every child needs a portfolio
  • ‘learning stories’ are the best way to document learning.

And so on and so forth …

What we are actually required to do is provide documentation that encourages us to be focused, active and reflective in our documentation and design decisions. Documentation should provide us with opportunities to keep track of our steps, not only to be able to reconstruct and communicate the pathways we took, but also to continue to progress and make new design decisions.

We have not made good use of the valuable documentation opportunities that the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) has given us. It provided us with the opportunity to generate rich, purposeful documentation that encouraged us to look at children and their development through multiple lenses. The EYLF did not tell us what we had to do but rather where we might go.

In Australia, we have become more focused on what children have done and how best to evidence this, rather than what they have learned and how best to share it. What children produce is important but it doesn’t tell you how they got there unless you know how to read it! The task facing early childhood educators is to produce pedagogical documentation that is oriented not towards our capacity to meet outcomes but rather as a way of informing our pedagogical design and decisions.

In Reggio Emilia, one of the most important roles of documentation is that it needs to have transformative qualities. You are testing your theories with the aim of transforming your understandings and practice. Documentation should also represent a memory of what has gone before in order to inform what might follow. Documentation makes explicit what we value.

There are three missteps we take in Australia in our approach to early learning curriculum design, that influence the kind of documentation we generate.

First, there is the name we actually give to the process. Generally, services and educators will say we are doing ‘Program planning’, ‘I’m doing planning’ or ‘This is my planning time’. We need to stop calling it ‘planning’ and start calling it ‘design’. A plan is a proposal for doing or achieving something—what we are going to do or have to do. A design, by contrast, is a process. It is the creation of something.  Where we might go. We also need to stop working in silos. Educators design curriculum programs, often by themselves, in quarantined chunks of time, and this works against us. In Reggio Emilia the teachers talk about the ‘gaze of solidarity’; about the need to have multiple eyes reading the work. It is the differing competencies within the group that help make important determinations about the work. Documentation is a strategy woven into everyday practice and there is an interdependent relationship between design and documentation. The teachers in Reggio Emilia have constructed contexts and proposals that are in dialogue together. This is multi-perspective work.

Second, there is the pre-thinking before the design process. What are the possibilities? How do I see the child in front of me? Children need to be listened to by adults who are pre-disposed to listening. Educators need to attend to the curriculum design process by having a strategy and attitude that ultimately supports the design process. Early childhood education should not simply be offering children something that has been pre-fabricated. It should not be about offering children a pre-packaged journey or piece of knowledge.

Third, there is the re-launch. Can I read the work? Can I see the learning in the documentation? Can I see the possibilities? Can I see the research questions? The task of educators is to find the child’s ‘zone of proximal development’, and to find the re-launch point in their thinking. This is not too easy and not too difficult. The educators should not create the documentation but rather discuss the documentation.

At a recent early childhood conference that I attended, there was a proliferation of companies spruiking digital platforms for curriculum design. This software is designed to make curriculum design ‘easy’, information for families more ‘accessible’ and the learning and development of children ‘visible’. One example I looked at was a template that could be given to families to explain the importance of meal times in early learning services. It contained a narrative about the social/emotional value of sharing food and then had a space to put a photograph of the child enjoying this experience. This kind of ‘click and drag’ documentation is lazy teaching. Could children themselves not generate a piece of documentation about the importance of shared meal times?

When did we decide to take children out of our documentation design decisions?

It is going to require a strong conviction and belief in our own pedagogical practices to challenge the norms and assumptions that sometimes are the dominant voice in the discussion on documentation best practice in Australia, but it will be worth it!

(This is an edited extract from The Challenge, Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange, Vol. 21, No. 2 pp. 9–10.)

Karen Hope

Karen is an early childhood consultant, lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Her consultancy practice and teaching aims to provide teachers and educators with a disruptive approach to working with, and thinking about, children. Challenging taken for granted practices and dominant discourses is a feature of her work.

3 thoughts on “‘The presence of a light table does not grant the possibility’”

    Janet Eberhart says:

    Oh how I resonate with this article! I feel validated and supported in my continued resistance to packaged documentation yet challenged to go deeper.

    Ayesha Siddiqua says:

    So true but very hard to incorporate into the whole centre . It’s so hard to motivate educators to do critical reflection , curriculum designing seems like reaching the sky and catch a star!

    chantelle says:

    We cant assume everyone knows how to reflect critically or document learners learning in a meaningful and effective way. Educators too are learners and need to be educated. It will take time but we have to start somewhere.

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