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 bring 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 process of learning–at every stage. 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 this November. 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 their prompt exploration and thinking.
Documentation is like a second skin on the walls
Hypotheses...are generated about what we think we might find with 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, their material explorations.
Interpretation...reviews 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.

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