I often find myself thinking about the relationship between early childhood educators and documentation and what causes its tensions. No doubt the reasons are complex, but I believe we can deal with many of the difficulties by being conscious of the numerous small choices we make about our documentation practices over time. What we hold on to and what we let go of are critical. It is empowering to recognise documentation is a moving, evolving process that is interconnected with our practice.
Here I outline six common tensions I have discussed regularly with early childhood educators as part of my work as an early childhood consultant. For each tension, I offer a contrasting truth about documentation as an opportunity for you to revolutionise the way you bring head and heart together in deciding on what you make visible about the learning of children in your care.
Tension 1: Know your purpose
Standing on firm ground about why you document is always going to anchor you strongly in conversations about what you document and therefore what you choose not to document. Knowing your purpose will give certainty, direction and clarity.
Truth: Less is more when it comes to documentation yet it feels as risky as doing a bungee jump to actually reduce the amount of documentation we create. In truth, we can lean in to doing less. It is worth the risk as it gives you professional freedom and ignites creativity.
Tension 2: Be authentic
Anything that we repeat too frequently is at risk of becoming depersonalised. Authentic documentation speaks to the heart of who the child is and how they show up as a learner, celebrating their struggles, triumphs and dilemmas. Documentation that is authentic often speaks truth about the struggle in learning and does not wash over difficulty with ‘rainbow and unicorn’ speak.
Truth: Objectivity and subjectivity must sit side by side in documentation. It is not a case of one without the other: both contribute to authenticity. Because making a choice to document any one moment over another is an act of subjectivity, recognising that documentation is an act of advocacy can bring a deeper sense of purpose.
Based on this truth, we can see documentation as “a subjective set of frozen moments that provoke, inform, record and provide opportunities for further thinking and wonder, able to be offered back to children for comment and reflection” (Fleet et al 2012).
Tension 3: Early years documentation templates are flexible, not fixed
Templates have their place in guiding documentation. However, when they become fixed as the only way to document, they create pedagogical barriers. Just as when you learn to drive a car you graduate from your learner plates with experience, templates are useful as a base when you are learning but you reach a point of expertise in documentation when you can go ‘freestyle’.
Truth: Templates might be useful to develop understanding for a trainee or as an induction process but it is important to know when to move beyond them and create space for creativity by going freestyle. Let’s not oversimplify documentation with a template when many educators are able to bring nuance and complexity to documentation without relying on a template.
Tension 4: Online early years documentation requires wisdom
Online documentation gives families the opportunity to access documentation when it suits but providing this opportunity still requires wisdom so we are not caught up with the expectation that educators will post a thousand photos a day. Is this a trend you want to subscribe to? How might it fit with your overall purpose for documentation? Wisdom asks us to be discerning and have insight into why we do what we do, which ultimately protects us from riding the wave of the latest trends.
Truth: Nothing beats face-to-face engagement for building meaningful, trusting relationships with families. Online platforms are an important communication tool but we should not mistake them for our only relationship tool.
Tension 5: Isolation strangles innovation
If we want educators and teams to genuinely reflect on and critically engage in pedagogical practices, we must reduce the barriers that keep them isolated. To think together effectively, we need time beyond hallway conversations. Being in dialogue with one another builds depth and breadth in how we see, listen and respond – this shows up in what we document.
Truth: Collaboration among educators generates thinking, learning and depth in what we write, as well as offering professional companionship. It promotes genuine evaluation of documentation systems and structures within the context we are using. Making this micro-change regularly is far more widely accepted than the often large top-down changes that happen once a year.
Tension 6: Less is more – high frequency destroys enjoyment
How much, how often? This is the great debate over documentation that requires resolution through responsibility and ownership at a local level. Balancing time to document, research, reflect and collaborate when engaging in non-contact time is essential. Non-contact time is not about squeezing as many assessments as possible out of it.
I choose to factor in the following elements when deciding with a team what documentation is realistic:
- the number of children enrolled each week
- the teaching team’s confidence and skill with documentation (and types of documentation)
- how much time (including continuous time) is allocated each week for documentation
- priority management skills.
Truth: When we can linger a little, read out loud, evaluate and discuss our documentation, we are more likely to share our best and most authentic work. Documentation in this case is about not just the product or outcome but also the professional learning it can offer in the process.
Final words on early years documentation
Documentation is not the enemy; systems, structures and unrealistic expectations are. Always be conscious about how these critters creep into the fabric of your culture. Remember we all have choices so use wisdom in making decisions about your approach to documentation – it might well bring professional enjoyment.
I want to enjoy the opportunity documentation offers me – the opportunity to give a professional voice to how I listen and think. For this reason, I reflect wisely on how and what I document. Knowing we have choices and then learning to give voice to the tensions that will arise in our documentation practices are vital parts of the meaning-making process in every context of an early childhood educator.
Reference: Fleet, A, Patterson, C and Robertson, J (eds) (2012) Conversations: Behind early childhood pedagogical documentation. Jamberoo, NSW: Pademelon Press.