Thursday, May 22, 2014

Documentation: Looking Again

When I think of “the Image of the Child” I believe that if Reggio thinkers had not invented it, children’s museums would have had to. Stated so affirmatively, this compelling idea is central to children’s museums’ aspirations. It is the North Star for children’s museums to view all children as capable, competent, rich in ideas and potential; to be viewed as strong in spirit, active agents in their own learning.

I think of documentation in much the same way. A fascinating, complex process, it is a practice well suited to children’s museums, their settings and purpose.

Documentation, however, is not an immediately clear and obvious process. For instance, it is not showing your passport or drivers’ license to identify yourself. It is not timing-and-tracking visitors through an exhibit. Nor is it accountability and using an activity checklist to verify a child does or does not display a skill in an exhibit.

Documentation does, however, follow the child, looking at what she does in order to glimpse how children think and learn. Documentation captures and gives visibility to what is present in children’s activity, interests, ideas and thinking that we are not yet seeing or hearing.

Bringing Visibility to Children’s Potential

Moved by our curiosity and questions, documentation is shaped by focused observations, enriched by other perspectives, and fueled by new insights to further engage children’s potential.

We can describe documentation as a shared, iterative, and reflective process that involves gathering information and interpreting traces of children’s work and words. Unpacking this definition is not simple. Like Reggio philosophy in general, the parts are interconnected. But let me try.
  •  Documentation is a process– noticing, following, and focusing on children’s conversations and questions, their drawings and movements. It’s a process fueled by a question about children’s interests, their thinking, what fascinates them, how they experience a phenomena and express their ideas.
  •  It involves gathering information about children’s work and words. We observe children’s exploration of materials; listen in on their conversations; record their questions; follow their process and where it leads; notice how they represent their ideas; capture traces of their work and words. We take photos, write notes, video, and collect the work itself.
  • Documentation is shared.  Rarely is documentation a solo endeavor. At its best, it involves multiple points of view in dialogue with each other. When photos have been sorted, notes transcribed, museum educators, designers, teachers, parents gather to look at what has been collected and to wonder, discuss, and ask questions among themselves about what this might mean. What thinking do others imagine was behind this gesture, the group’s interest in snails, the rhyming game?
  • Iterative: Documentation is more a spiral than a straight line. It’s a process that revisits itself and the initiating question. Engaging around the documentation draws in new and varied perspectives on observations; distills them into fresh insights; and suggest possibilities about where to go next. Backing up to revisit something glossed over is not unusual and usually yields a new awareness. 
  • Reflective: The exchange among these co-researchers invites thinking about a child’s choice of a word, use of a material, the fascination with the tree bark. Co-researchers wonder where else this exploration might go next. What is the child saying with her words, play, representations, or body language? What other possibilities are contained here? Through reflection we make meaning from what we have seen–and see again. 
  •  The process continues through more iterative cycles, generating more questions, suggesting where this learning can go next, framing how we might relaunch an exploration. How might changes to this activity or component extend children’s explorations of bicycles? How can we learn more about children’s fascination with tape? How can we enrich the experiences and environments we create and facilitate for children? What new questions do we have?

Documentation and Children’s Museums

I am particularly struck by 4 ways in which documentation is a critically valuable tool for children’s museums to do their work better. First, documentation maintains the continuity, integrity, and richness of what’s happening in the space and in the moment. It preserves the flow of activity, cohesiveness of the context, and operative social and physical relationships for children and for adults.  More narrative than checklist, documentation does not extract a word or action from its context and isolate it. Documentation is alive–just as alive and lively as children and their thinking and learning.

Children’s museums are process-oriented in their values and practice. We value the pathways of doing and learning children engage in: what’s involved in getting to the top of the climber, trying varied strokes to squeegee paint on Plexi, placing one block on another just so, and approaching the giant ant with new confidence. Museums also rely on processes such as exhibit development and prototyping to create experiences and environments for children and to engage their potential. Especially noteworthy is that documentation occurs during the course of a project or development of an exhibit. In paralleling and intersecting with the child's process rather than being added at its conclusion, documentation easily informs what comes next in a project or how to improve an experience.

Third documentation is research. While it may not rely on control groups and random samples, it is a research approach grounded in our questions and observations of children and pursued with intention. It focuses on their engagement, experiences, and expressions in ways that advance our understanding of children. Currently, children’s museums draw on research and evidence about children’s thinking and learning as part of planning and evaluating experiences, programs, and environments. Through documentation, children’s museums are actively engaged in building a body of knowledge about children’s thinking, ideas, and learning in settings for play and exploration created for them. 

Finally, documentation makes more than just children’s learning and thinking transparent; it also brings clarity to our thinking and learning. Our knowledge building about children’s thinking and exploration parallels their research and knowledge building. Through documentation we become co-researchers and co-learners with children, and, for that matter, with parents and caregivers. This iterative process inspires more learning and reflection. Just as we are inspired to revisit our work, children who see their own work and thinking documented may be inspired to revisit their experiences and go deeper into their ideas.

Just as Reggio-inspired practice looks different in different communities and contexts, documentation is different in different settings: in Reggio and in the US; in schools and in museums; from one museum to another. Documentation may occur in the context of a classroom project, a project with a community partner, exploring children’s ideas about a topic or question, prototyping for a new exhibit, creating a pop-up experience, or because we have questions about children. In any case, documentation is a process that can and should occur in the everyday life of the museum and children.

While still new in museum settings, documentation is happening more and more. Do you have examples of documentation projects in museums? If so, let’s share them. I would love to hear from you.

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