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Tracing Children’s Thinking Through Observation, Documentation and Reflection

Lella Gandino of Reggio Children talks to Bing staff in February for staff development.

Nov 1 2007

By Adrienne Lomangino, Head Teacher

Bing teachers spend hours each week taking notes on children’s conversations, snapping photos in the classroom, and working with children to make their ideas salient through words, movement, music, crafts and artwork. We call this documentation. Visitors to Bing see some of the results hanging on the classroom walls, and in the booklets teachers assemble to preserve children’s creations and tell their stories. We find that these records enrich children’s experiences at school—as well their parents’ and our own understandings of them.

Bing teachers took a hard look at this practice on Feb. 20, 2007, when early childhood education specialist Lella Gandini, PhD, spent the day with us pondering the connections between teaching, learning, observation, documentation, and reflection. Gandini is a representative of Reggio Children, a liaison organization for the internationally renowned municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, which place documentation at the core of their educational philosophy. At Reggio Emilia schools, documentation incorporates use of photographs, video, children’s work, children’s words, and teachers’ interpretations. These teachers consider documentation to be integral to and inseparable from their work with children.

To draw the staff into a deeper appreciation of the meaning and importance of documentation, Gandini began by focusing attention on the Reggio Emilia view of young children and education. Gandini introduced a couple of ideas that one might at first react to by thinking “well of course.” The first of these ideas: “Children are competent.” The second: “To be a teacher is to be with children.” However, when considered fully, these ideas are not so simple and have far-reaching implications for what it means to be a teacher.

At the heart of the Reggio Emilia educational project is the belief that “children are competent.” Fully embracing this belief has implications for the paradigm of teaching. The teacher, in this view, is not the omniscient holder of knowledge who tells the children what to do. Rather, the teacher’s role is to support and extend the child’s examination of the world. To optimally support children’s efforts to elaborate and extend their thinking and exploration, teachers need insights into the child’s perspective of the situation. Through observing children and interacting with them, teachers can gain insights that will enable them to assist children in cultivating their thinking. By taking records of children’s activity, teachers have traces to examine and reflect upon. According to Gandini, observation, documentation, and interpretation are essential practices for successfully teaching in accordance with the belief that “children are competent.”

Another concept essential to the Reggio philosophy Gandini proposed for consideration is: “To be a teacher is to be with children.” For teachers, attentively listening, observing, recording, and reflecting transforms what “to be with children” means. The teacher is not imparting knowledge, hoping that the children are somehow absorbing it. Rather, Gandini provided images of “being with children” through attentive listening, observing, recording, reflecting, and offering.

In the first example of documentation Gandini presented a series of pictures referred to as “the story of Laura.” In the first photo, an infant, Laura, examines a picture of a wrist watch in a catalog as a teacher observes intently. Laura then points to the picture and looks at the teacher.  Noting the child’s interest, the teacher then points to her own watch and raises it up to Laura’s ear. Laura’s eyes are wide and her mouth slightly open as she leans toward the watch. In the next image, Laura is putting her ear to the catalog page. The series of photos provide a trace of a child-teacher interaction that is rich for reflection. They reveal this young child making a hypothesis about what a watch does, “do all watches make a sound?” and with support from an attentive adult, making a connection between the real world and the two-dimensional photographic representation.

In another photo sequence, referred to as “the closed spaceship,” two preschool-age children, Ivano and Francesco, are drawing. Ivano challenges Francesco about the meaning of his drawing, which could be described as a scribble. Rather than intervening, the teacher remains nearby, attending to their unfolding interaction. Francesco asserts that it is a spaceship that is closed. Ivano then proceeds to draw on Francesco’s paper, above the “spaceship.” Ivano labels his addition to the drawing as an astronaut, thereby validating Francesco’s assertion that his drawing is a spaceship. Francesco smiles. This brief story, which could so easily be overlooked in the stream of classroom activity, reveals the boys’ responsive, validating exchange.

These examples reveal the value of documentation for reflecting on children’s thinking and development. Reflections on such documentation provide insights into not only the thinking processes of individual children, but also the development of children more generally. Seeing Laura’s expressions and responses, for example, one cannot help reconsidering one’s conceptions of infants’ cognitive capacities.

In her examples of documentation from Reggio Emilia, Gandini illustrated the teacher’s intent stance, waiting to discover how the child will respond to an object of interest. Listening, as Gandini points out, is more complex than hearing. The teacher learns from the child, then tries to give the child more grist to develop his or her awareness and understanding. Attending closely to the child’s activity leads the teacher to consider, “What can I do next to support this child?”

These are not extraordinary situations with special materials, but rather everyday moments—an infant pointing to the picture of a watch in a catalog, and children examining each others’ drawings. Through careful observation and documentation, the attentive teacher can recognize many learning opportunities within children’s everyday activities. As teachers plan activities and select materials, they often anticipate learning opportunities. But through listening and observation they will also notice the unexpected learning opportunities that arise as children use materials in unforeseen ways.

In the afternoon, Bing staff members had the opportunity to discuss their own observation, documentation, and interpretation practices in small groups. Then the staff reconvened, sharing reflections, making suggestions, and asking questions. After the staff collectively generated a listing of a couple dozen reflections, and the room hummed with the flurry of ideas, Gandini re-centered the group by drawing attention back to children with some profound musings from Loris Malaguzzi, founder of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschool system and its director for more than 30 years. She noted, “Teachers that use documentation see that children are moving forward,” and through such experiences gain an energizing sense of wonder and surprise.