The documentation pilgrimage

In the children’s literature classic Alice in Wonderland there is the following exchange between the curious, brave and intelligent Alice and the mysterious and devious Cheshire cat.

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat : That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter, which way you go.

Alice: So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

I have been reflecting on this exchange quite a lot lately, Alice’s ambivalence about where she was going as long as it was somewhere and the Cheshire Cat’s response that she would indeed get somewhere if she continued on long enough.

Early childhood educators are going somewhere. They are on the documentation pilgrimage and I use the word pilgrimage intentionally. Typically the word refers to a journey or search to a location of great importance. Early childhood educators are on their way to the shrine of National Quality Standards, Early Years Learning Frameworks and National Law, and having arrived at our destination we have reduced children’s learning, development and potentials to 5 outcomes and have failed to take advantage of the rich opportunity for rich, purposeful documentation decisions that was provided to us. So this is where we are.

Thinking about the pilgrimage that early childhood educators take every week it is fair to say we are doing a lot of walking. If early childhood educators wore documentation pedometers to work we would very likely meet the target steps required. The pedometers would tell us that we have indeed arrived somewhere, however I am not sure we know where that somewhere is. Do we care where we are going or is it just important that we get somewhere? Do we care what kind of documentation we collect or just that we can provide evidence of having collected it?

When the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) were first introduced a common analogy that was used to describe how they might be used was to think of them as a house frame that provided an essential bracing structure.  This structure could then be used to support the addition of fixtures and fittings. These fixtures and fittings were our curriculum approaches, our philosophies and pedagogical practices. This is where you could enact the “lived” curriculum.

This was very useful for educators and, if you expanded this analogy to consider that the concrete slab that is required for any house frame is the developmental theory, or big ideas, on which the frame is firmly supported, then we were well on our way to visualising and understanding the intent of the documents and the wonderful opportunities they provided to us to deliver contemporary early childhood education that relied on useful documentation.

Unfortunately we have not got as far with our curriculum fixtures and fittings as we could have and should have. The rich potential that the early learning frameworks documents handed to us has not been fully realised and instead of doing more and being more with young children, we are documenting more and not always successfully. We have become focused on matching experiences and activities to outcomes, and then producing reams of documentation to evidence these sometimes, tenuous connections.

Educators must leave behind a largely unhelpful way of documenting the work they do with young children and look for better ways to document the strong pedagogical learning and approaches that underpin the programs that are delivered to children in early learning environments across Australia, every day. To do this we will firstly have to stop working and thinking in a panopticon of surveillance. Who is it that tells us that we have to produce portfolios for every child, who is it that says every child must have a certain number of learning stories completed for each child? Who is it that we think we are being surveilled by?

The notion of working in a panopticon is a useful construct in this discussion. A panopticon is a type of building that is designed in such a way to allow people to be observed, it is typically used in the design of prisons. It allows a “watchman” to observe its occupants without them knowing whether they are observed or not.  The idea is, that because you do not know when you are being watched you behave like you are. Are we documenting children’s learning because we think we will be in trouble if we don’t?  Are we generating copious amounts of documentation because someone might check? The watchman should not be your focal point.

Early childhood educators are required to provide meaningful information about learning and development to children, to families, to the community and to each other, that demonstrates a way of understanding and articulating what they are doing, how they are doing it and what it all means. Of the 2 standards and 9 elements that make up Quality Area 1 – Program and Practice in the National Quality Framework (NQF) there is nothing in framework documents that speaks to the quantity of documentation required, rather, it encourages us to be focused, active and reflective in our documentation decisions. The quality of this information does not rely on quantity.

We have known for a long time that the process is more important than the product, when it comes to the artifacts that children produce, yet this knowledge does not seem to be reflected in how we document children’s learning. We have become more focused on what children have done and how best to evidence that, rather than what they have learned and how best to share it. The task facing early childhood educators is produce documentation that is orientated not towards our capacity to meet outcomes but rather to a way of informing our curriculum and pedagogical decisions.

A lot of early childhood educators will tell you that they are drowning in paperwork, that the demands for evidence of children’s learning and development are taking them away from their core business of being with children. I think this argument is redundant. I wonder who is making these documentation demands and who are the beneficiaries of this prodigious documentation output?

During a recent professional development session I was facilitating, a group of educators told me the following story:

They went on a road trip, far away from their small country town to take a look at what some services were doing to document children’s learning. They went, they looked, they touched, and they were amazed. They thought that the service was beautiful, the documentation meaningful and most importantly, it was visible. There were program plans and displays of children’s work everywhere. One of the educators told me about a conversation she overheard between two children in the playground.  The children were playing and upon making some discovery that was of great interest to them, they spent some time investigating and discussing it. One of the children expressed a desire to go and tell an educator in the playground so they too could take a look, but upon hearing this idea the second child said, “don’t do that, then we will have to talk about it and draw it and stuff, and get asked questions?” When did it all become about evidence and what do children think about this?

Maybe I am mad but I say, document for meaning, document because it tells you something, document because it makes you think of something, document to share learning, after all when it is visible it’s shareable!

Document like there is nobody watching.

It will require a strong conviction and belief in your own pedagogical practices to challenge the norms and assumptions that sometimes are the dominant voice in the discussion on documentation best practice. People might think you are mad but it will be worth it.

I return to my thinking about Alice and the Cheshire Cat

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

This article was originally published on Early Talk, Early Learning Association Australia’s blog.

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 documentation pilgrimage”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Karen for this wake up call to the ‘madness’ that can creep into educators’ beliefs and practices related to documentation. I hope lots of educators and services read and reflect honestly about your ideas and how they might respond.

    Cindy says:

    I cannot tell you how much your article reasonated with me Karen. Being relatively new to programming and documentation, I recently threw out the whole notion of “one Learning Story and Extension” per month after realsing just how unauthentic and inaccurate this “just get it done” style of programming is. A quick photo and a 2 sec conversation does not equate to a quality piece of documentation for the 50 preschoolers in our room. They deserve so much more and we as educators should strive to deliver so much more! Now as the Educational Leader in my centre, I am a strong advocate for quality over quantity. Lets slow down and really look and listen. Let’s then truly reflect on what we have seen and heard.
    Thanks Karen, I will be giving all the educators at my centre, a copy of this article.
    Cheers Cindy

    Kathryn Yew says:

    I immediately think of my goodbye letter to a child who has recently left my service. It was in the form of “Some of my favourite memories with you are” and “Some of the things I am proud of you for are”. Meaningful now and into the future, honest, reflective and in line with Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework principles. Relationships and every individual building a strong, healthy sense of self.

    How lovely if we could all build more in terms of great memories and pride in each other.

    An understanding of development naturally grows through love, as we seek to support children together.

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