Sunday, November 24, 2013

Documentation: From Reggio Schools to US Museums

Among what I consider the remarkable contributions of the Reggio pedagogy and practice is documentation. A strategy developed over the course of this 60-year educational project, documentation gives visibility to children’s thinking and discoveries. Both a way of working and researching, documentation is a well-integrated layer on the walls of the infant-toddler centers and preschools. It is a beautiful visual text that follows children and looks at what they do and how they think and learn. For parents documentation provides insights into their children, how they spend time at school, their interests and discoveries; it is an example of how the children are learning. Not intended strictly as assessment, documentation does serve to show what children of this age are able to do in this context, through this approach to learning and teaching.

Museums have been increasingly interested in deepening their understandings and sharing ways in which they make a distinct and valued contribution to children, families, and communities. They have, however, lacked a method with the equivalent capacity of documentation to make visible the learner’s thinking and learning—with an orientation to process and bringing the social and physical context forward.

A shared, iterative, reflective process of following children and looking at what they do, and how they think and learn, documentation involves gathering information and interpreting traces of children’s work and words to give visibility to their thinking and discoveries that are present but we are not yet seeing. The process involves stepping back, making mental (and written) notes, taking pictures, and exploring children’s own work for evidence of their processes of learning. Documentation takes time, engages colleagues, and relies on multiple reinforcing practices being deployed. It places both children and adults in the position of learning.

Drawn to and being inspired by this remarkable process is one thing. Adapting it from preschools in Italy to museums in the US is quite another. Yet, the possibility of harnessing this powerful strategy in some varied form for museums is both intriguing and important. Not surprisingly, documentation in museums was one of the three main themes of the Museums Group Study Tour in November 2013. Three aspects were highlighted: its role in creating experiences and environments, making children’s thinking and learning processes visible, and in advocating for children.

In the Reggio Context
The week-long study tour afforded members of the Museums Group opportunities to explore documentation from various perspectives and contexts. As part of the initial overview of the main features of the Reggio educational project, Pedagogista Tiziana Filippini talked about documentation as a process that helps look at the most significant elements that allow us to understand what the children did (and their process) and to keep track of what we did (and our process.)

While there is no single approach or strict process for documentation, it is significant that documentation occurs during the course of a project, not at its conclusion. Tiziana outlined 4 steps that guide this iterative process, one that relies on an understanding of the protagonists, the children, and begins with a provocation, an activity intended to engage children’s interest, invite questions, and prompt their exploration and thinking.
Documentation is like a second skin on the walls
Hypotheses...are generated about what we think we might find through the exploration. Hypotheses might relate to how we can help children find the meaning of what they do, what they encounter and experience. Multiple hypotheses are important; the more we can find, the more we can follow.
Observation...relies on determining what to observe and how. It takes many forms depending on different ages: the adult’s written and mental notes; transcriptions of children’s remarks and conversations; photos and video; children’s drawings, and their material explorations. and reflects on the collected record of children’s thinking. This takes place by oneself and sharing with colleagues (what did you see that I didn’t?) thinking together in a generative way.
Relaunch... considers the most significant elements that advanced the learning process and where children's explorations can go next. Using the evidence, adults might think about how to extend the exploration; and materials the children can work with that are likely to enrich their elaboration of their knowledge.  

In the Everyday Life of the School
Visits to infant toddler centers and preschools provided different opportunities for observing the focus on and focus of documentation. At Allende Infant Toddler Centre for babies 3 to 36 months, A Waiting Unexpected City documentation panel occupies a prominent position in the building’s piazza. Immediately inside the front doors where parents pass daily, the panels’ photos and text distill and interpret children’s exploration of the town gardens, their search of the garden’s borders, and special dialogue with the great Cedar of Lebanon.

Inside the classrooms evidence of documentation as an on-going process was apparent. Teacher observation sheets from that day were laid out; photos of 3-4 children engaging with materials were accompanied by teacher notes about they oriented the paper, used colors, and made marks and signs. Notebooks gathered daily observation sheets for the week, month, and school year evidence of the duration and thoroughness of the process.

At the Michelangelo School, we saw another aspect of documentation played out in the everyday life of a school with 3-5 year olds. In the school’s piazza, a small group of 4-year olds, a teacher, and a dancer engaged in activities related to an on-going research project on movement and dance. The children, observed by the dancer as they moved across the space, were experimenting with “light” and “heavy” movements, part of developing an alphabet of the body. Outside the 3-year olds' room, a teacher facilitated (as well as photographed and took notes of) strategies that a small group of 3-year olds used in drawing together, cooperating and not cooperating, as part of a project to create a group. Every aspect of children's exploration and learning is important to document.

In Museums
Midweek in the Study Tour, the Museums Group formed 5 mini-study groups around topics of on-going and emerging interest. Eight of us gathered to explore our question: How can documentation be a starting point for planning exhibits to understand children’s interests, questions, and ideas about a topic?

Limiting discussion to exhibit planning proved to be challenging since documentation appears to be a valuable strategy applicable far beyond exhibit planning, holding promise for facilitating the museum experience and communicating with parents and stakeholders. As in the Reggio schools, documentation needs to become part of the museum culture and daily life, integrated into practices and procedures, supported as a starting point for planning, and considered as basic to professional development.
Six significant ideas emerged from our discussion. They made connections between a documentation process that focuses on the child and features of experience (exhibit and program) planning in museums; and they often included examples of museum efforts
The genesis of an exhibit experience idea is from children, their questions, interests, ideas, or what fascinates them. This is a significant departure from the current practice of sourcing ideas for exhibits and programs that typically emerge from exhibit planners, school curriculum, funder interest, or exhibits that are popular at other museums. Based on the rich content of projects and ateliers (studio explorations) throughout the Reggio schools, exhibit experiences are very likely to cover valued content with the bonus that topics and approaches interest and engage children. 
Opal School children investigate, 
"What happens when you work together to help these colors meet?
Starting points to engage children come from many sources. Open-ended experiences on the exhibit floor lasting only a few days can be planned around a variety of provocations related to the hypotheses. We can activate children’s meaning making with— a framing question: what are children’s ideas about light (or community, or…)?; materials: paper viewed through the lens of a material rather than of a tool; a prompt: “Imagine a bicycle that…”; a video of children involved in an activity; or changing the physical context by adding or taking away a prop, material, or object from an exhibit. 
  • Minnesota Children's Museum invited children to explore fort building with different materials as part of rethinking its galleries.  
A starting point: a temporary fort building activity with varied materials
The question we ask for the exhibit is also capable of telling us something we didn’t know about children’s thinking and learning. An exhibit or program is more than a set of activities for children to engage in and our intention that they will thereby learn content. Developing an exhibit is an opportunity to learn about the meaning-making capabilities of children. While we do develop goals for exhibits, typically the true questions we have about children’s learning are not framed until the end of exhibit planning or as part of constructing an evaluation plan. Every exhibit, program, or initiative is an opportunity to understand more about how children understand real vs. fake; or how they understand the city; or how they understand seeds, air, or language; or what it feels like to be in a story.
  • Louisiana Children's Museum's master planning for its Early Learning Village started with children. Two visitor panels made up of children and their parents explored children's ideas and interests in several topics, including food and the importance of water in their lives.   
The children's interests in food crystallized around family, healthy eating, and favorite foods
Experience planners must be both observers of children (and adults) and explorers themselves. An openness to where the children’s exploration might lead–even if unexpected–is critical for experience planners: developers, designers, educators, and evaluators. At the same time, adults creating experiences for children must be aware of concepts which children could explore since children’s exploration might lead to unanticipated places. Adults must be updating their understanding of concepts on relevant topics in nature, light, cities, water, or paper. Inhabiting both these stances places museum staff in the position of being learners themselves–sometimes a new and uncomfortable position.
Adults as researchers and learners: as both observers and explorers
The documentation that launches experience and exhibit planning continues throughout and beyond the opening. The hypotheses, observation, interpretation, and relaunching that characterize the documentation process are similar to formative evaluation and prototyping. Both are sources of feedback suggesting possible changes to the experience to extend children's exploration. Relaunching is an opportunity to frame new questions to learn more about children’s thinking and learning: what are strategies children use to explore this material or medium? how can the physical context work better for a particular age group or for families? Both a continuous source of possible, on-going reflection and a process to keep track of the learning, documentation can continue through evaluation, add to an understanding of the relationship between children and learning, and suggest new experiences, exhibits, and programs.
Everyone has a role to play in documenting and making children’s thinking and learning visible. Documentation benefits from the additional and valued perspectives of floor staff, parents, and caregivers; new points of view enhance understanding. For staff documentation is an opportunity for professional development, building capacity as observers and listeners. Involving them in forming hypotheses, framing questions, and interpreting incorporates a necessary familiarity with the daily museum experience of children and adults. Parents can also be observers of children with prompts from staff such as, “ask your child about …” or “share observations of how your child uses materials, space, or her body to explore.” For staff, parents, and caregivers, involvement as researchers and learners offers a more meaningful and authentic role.
  • Providence Children’s Museum staff capture, write up, and share observations on PlayWatch.
PlayWatch shares staff observations on children's explorations
 Use of documentation in museums is relatively new. It is a promising strategy, responsive to museums' interest in understanding and sharing ways in which they make a distinct and valued contribution to children, families, and communities. Adapting it to museum settings is also challenging. Fortunately, interest exists and is growing. Exploration and experiments using documentation in museums like those noted above are already taking place. More will be coming along. I invite and encourage you to share your experiences with documentation here and hopefully at InterActivity 2014 in Phoenix. 

Thanks to our group: Ruth Shelly, Portland Children’s Museum; Debbie McCoy, Woodbury Preschool at The Strong Museum; Olivia Isenberg, Children’s Museum of South Dakota; Caroline Wolf, The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum; Alyssa Tongue, Children’s Museum of Tacoma; and Maeryta Medrano, Gyroscope, Inc.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Children of Reggio Welcome You

A Crowd Made of Clay at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre

Soon after arriving in Reggio Emilia by train, visitors and residents pass through a sotto passagio, an underground tunnel under the railroad tracks. Not just a safer, more convenient way to get to a taxi or bus or head from the station into the city on foot, it is also a welcome to the city of Reggio by the children.

A graphic installation of 24 black and white panels of children’s images of bicycles, the mural runs approximately 240 feet long through the passageway. An occasional mirror is inserted between panels where the tunnel bends and cyclists are not easy to see because this is also a passageway with fast-moving bike traffic.  

Hundreds of bicycles were drawn by children from infant toddler centers and preschools through high school, from creative play centers, and from parish centers around the city. The drawings were created with discarded materials and bi-products of industrial processes, images that were scanned and digitized.  Quotes from children in many languages capture and reflect their experiences and understandings about bikes and riding bikes, like the one from 5 year old Rupert, “If you put your eyes behind you it looks like the trees are riding bicycles, because they rush and rush.” 


We often see children about the city as I did Wednesday afternoon when children in strollers, buggies, and baby carriers moved through the center of the Piazza with their mothers. Seldom, however, do we see children’s creativity and ideas presented so prominently in a very public space and in such a significant location as we do in this extensive mural. The striking graphic style testifies to children's capacity to imagine, explore, and express ideas in beautiful and complex ways. Its scale also brings visibility to children’s presence and their value to the city.

 A part of a larger project, Under the City Skin, BIKES LOTS OF THEM, is a project of REMIDA the Creative Recycling Centre.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seeing Children in the City

Together on the Piazza di Nettuno in Bologna
My last post included mention of some Reggio museum group members preparing for the study tour by looking for traces of children in the city and for evidence of how communities support children. Inspired by their intentions, I have charged myself with thinking about and looking for children’s presence in the city and using the cities I am visiting on my way to Reggio as a provocation. I have been spending a few days in Leeuwarden in the northern part of The Netherlands, in Amsterdam, and in Bologna.

A concept of interest to me for some time and one I have written about previously here and here, seeing children requires both on-going thinking and vigilance to become meaningful. A recent experience reminded me of this when a museum leader involved in master planning asked, “What does seeing children mean?” referring to a core strategy in the master plan. In this setting, the phrase and strategy were not new, but clearly they were neither well understood nor internalized. Several interpretations were proposed by members of the group: valuing and investing in children; recognizing their capabilities and potential; taking children seriously.

Taking the train to Amsterdam
As I have traveled by train, tram, bike, and walked in Leeuwarden, Amsterdam and Bologna, as I have waited in airports and train stations and looked about me, I have been asking myself what might seeing children in the city mean.  Although not as simple as the list below, probing each word begins to expose the depth and complexity of 5 words and the wide variety of ways in which children can be visible in the city.
Seeing: Noticing children; hearing their voices; listening to their questions, thinking, and ideas; valuing their identities, differences, and uniqueness; welcoming and appreciating their presence, ways of learning, and play in many forms; making room for them to make meaning 
Children: Full of curiosity, capabilities, and potential; full of empathy; with ideas and with many ways of expression; responding to their environment; owning capacity to create and contribute 
In: In relationship with others; present and engaged with physical and social, public and civic spaces, not only in the home; at the center of a community’s long-term interests 
The city or town, village, suburb, region: Out in the public, in traffic, at play; in places of culture; as active and contributing participants, engaged in real and meaningful experiences

A First Pass at Seeing Children
This exercise does not result in a Rick Steves travelogue, although a Seeing Children In Brussels (or Boston or Reggio) could be fascinating. In fact, visiting cities and looking for children’s presence creates a very different–but rewarding–kind of sightseeing than churches, museums, monuments, or historic houses. A few initial observations have surfaced during a week’s travels.
• In Leeuwarden, Amsterdam, and in other cities and towns in The Netherlands where many people ride bikes and take public transportation, children are highly visible, especially compared to when they are passengers inside cars moving quickly along streets and highways. Riding on the front or back of bikes when they are young, riding their own bikes at an early age, or taking trams, children are easily seen to the city as they go to the market, on a family outing, to school, or to visit friends.
• From a very early age, Dutch children travel on the front or back of their parent’s bikes. Perched up high, they see buildings and people, they see their surroundings, and they see where they are going. Riding close to a parent, they have someone to answer their questions and interpret what they are seeing.
Children off to school in Leeuwarden
• Daily, children ride their bikes considerable distances on their way to school, on bike paths, sometimes paralleling highways, and often in the rain. They go over bridges and under tunnels, cross streets, and signal turns. In moving traffic in a densely populated country, children are considered responsible and are trusted.
Children at the front for Rembrandt's Night Watch

• In the Hall of Honor in the recently and magnificently renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a group of school children  sat on the floor right in front of Rembrandt’s celebrated Night Watch. In a place of great significance culturally and nationally for The Netherlands, children received the prime spot.

The Netherlands, a country of bikes
Bologna, a city of motor bikes
Leaving Leeuwarden and Amsterdam and heading to Bologna, I wondered what I might find there. All cities aren’t­–and shouldn’t be­–the same. Just as their cultures and contexts are different, so will children’s presence be different. I noticed, for instance, that Leeuwarden and Amsterdam are bicycle cities, while Bologna is not. Bologna, it seems, is a city of motorbikes and children in strollers under the porticoes. 
In strollers, under porticoes

In my walking about, I came upon several examples of how the municipality of Bologna, or Comune di Bologna, is supporting places for children in its historic and cultural center. 

    START Laboratorio di Cultur Creative in the Palazzo Re Enzo
      • Passing through the Palazzo de Re Enzo on the Piazza Maggiore, several windows stood out from among the others. They looked like a children’s store or children’s museum. Stepping inside, I learned about START Laboratorio di Cultur Creative (Creative Cultures Lab) that was opened 2 years ago by a foundation with an interest in the public communication of science and technology–informal science.  START offers interactive programs for children 2 years through high school in families and schools in the sciences and arts and provides professional development for teachers. START is located in a space provided by the Comune di Bologna.
      One of 3 libraries for children in the Bologna Library
      • Just across the Piazza from START is the main library of Bologna. Many libraries have a children’s library, but Bologna's has 3 children’s libraries, one for bambini under 3 years, one for children 3-8 years, and one for youth. In the Bebe library, a group of 3 mothers with their bambini were gathered in a comfortable, intimate space. Babies weren't limited to this space; in the big central hall of the library a father held his toddler up to play with the flashlight in one of the displays. 

      On the third level of the library the Urban Design Center, Bologna is located. An exhibit on the master plan for the Comune di Bologna is presented in this space covering plan principles and approximately 25 designated projects for implementing the plan. Among the 10 principles presented and explained–Bologna Ancient and Comfortable, Unites, Is Born Again, Travels, Produces, etc. one, Innovate, highlights children: “…to encourage creativity, to consider its younger generations a resource in which to invest, …” It appears that Bologna does see its children, but does not seem to have taken the larger step of seeing them as creative and as active agents in their learning and in building Bologna’s future now.

      Before departing Bologna for Reggio, I found these packs of sugar on the saucer of my cappuccino.  

      Friday, November 1, 2013

      Journey to Reggio

      In August, I posted information about a remarkable opportunity for museums to join the North American Study Group in Reggio Emilia (IT). Responses to this and to other invitations to participate were enthusiastic. Fifty participants from 11 museums along with partners from higher ed, libraries, community organizations, early childhood, and preschools will gather in Reggio from November 10-16 for presentations by early childhood specialists, educators, and studio teachers; visits to infant-toddler centers and preschools; and tours of the Documentation and Educational Research Center.

      The planning team for the museum teams group consists of Julia Bland (Louisiana Children’s Museum), Bobbi Rosenquest (Wheelock College), Ben Mardell (Lesley University and Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), and me. Coordinating with Reggio educators and US Liaison Angela Ferrario, we have been building an agenda around incredible study tour opportunities and participant input. The emerging agenda reflects participant’s interests in and questions around three themes.
      • Seeing the city as a system that supports children and families
      • Engaging parents and community around seeing children as full of capabilities and ideas and as citizens
      • Using documentation in museums: its role in creating experiences and environments, making children’s thinking and learning processes visible, and in advocating for children
      Our time together will include facilitated discussions and reflections to help connect the Reggio educational pedagogy and practices with museums (children’s museums in particular) as well as support alliances among each city’s museums, higher education, and area early childhood professionals. These conversations will be natural opportunities to make visible the Reggio way of working with rigor and reflection in an environment where colleagues share perspectives and learn together. To this rich mix of possibilities, Wheelock College is bringing an incredible resource by facilitating documentation of our learning in the context of the group, capturing thinking and connections with the day’s experiences. Documentation material will be available for follow-up after the tour to support, for instance, on-going collaboration among museum teams.

      Preparation: Traces and Documentation
      Traces of children on Cape Cod (Photo: Ben Mardell)
      Preparation among participants for the study tour is taking many forms with a focus on sharing and learning from each other. Participants have shared their interests related to the three themes. More than forty participants joined a conference call on which Ben Mardell and Julia Bland talked about their preparation in looking for traces of children in the community now in the US and soon in Reggio. They suggested participants also look for examples and images of how their city supports children–reflecting the first theme, supporting  teachers as researchers, and collecting provocations for thinking and discussion.

      In one sense, my preparation for the study tour started in 2000 when I participated in a study tour. Recently I found my notes and began rereading them, thinking about what struck me then, what has been significant and stayed with me, and what I want, in particular, to follow up on now. Hearing Carlina Rinaldi present Pedagogy of Listening on Tuesday, May 30, 2000 was pivotal for me. Re-reading my notes over the last 13 years as well as reading other versions of this piece in books and articles continue to yield new insights on children as researchers; documentation as a tool of observation and interpretation; making thinking processes and ideas visible; and reinforcing a democratic stance that infuses Reggio pedagogy.

      One in a series of panels from Xu Bing: Phoenix at MassMOCA
      On an on-going basis, these areas are reflected in my museum planning work and in blog posts on seeing children, children as citizens, and the public value of museums. They also align, in particular, with one of the museums’ group's theme–documentation considered in the context of museums. 

      Over the last few months some of my preparation has focused on expanding my awareness of documentation beyond schools in Italy and the US. I have also been looking for documentation-like examples from settings that share conditions with children’s museums and that might provide guidance in ways to bring documentation into museum settings.   

      Josie's Drip from Learning Stories
      In this preliminary phase and in my upcoming explorations in Reggio, my interest lies in identifying informal starting points for documentation in children’s museum settings. With collaboration, creative thinking, and persistence, documentation in children’s museums could involve staff from across the museum in thoughtful observation and asking and exploring questions about children; could capture children’s understanding and interests about exhibit topics and concepts; and could help make children’s thinking and learning processes visible to parents, children, staff, and decision makers.

      This is one departure point for a journey to Reggio, among many–my own and others'–starting now and unfolding over time. Over the next 3-4 weeks I will be writing and posting about and from the Reggio Museums Teams Study Tour sharing my own explorations and learnings and those of our museums teams learning together. Ciao!