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  • Writer's picturePete Crowcroft

Documentarians at Work: Early Childhood Communities Make Learning Visible and Valuable

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

In this podcast, Dr. Will Parnell explains the considerations that educators need to think through when documenting digitally, but also the power and opportunities that are afforded by this form of record.



Documentarians at Work
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Documentarians at Work:

Early Childhood Communities Make Learning Visible and Valuable

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Documenting with digital technologies intertwines and grows equity and justice in early childhood education. Engaging digital documentation in early learning settings involves deep thinking with life-learning, equitable access, ethics, the possible, and justice. This educational way rethinks the meaning and purposes of educating in early learning.

There are many divergent points of view on what documenting digitally can mean in early childhood classroom settings. Significantly, documentation is a way of living, learning, and making meaning together. The processes of documenting living, learning, and meaning-making jointly through digital means opens new windows into how experiences are shaped and who can bear witness to them. This sort of documentation process can be pedagogical in nature when focused on learning and teaching in action and reflection; it can also become more than pedagogical and relate openly to life, experiences, and the meaning of life we co-construct day by day—herein otherwise called life-learning. To open educators, children, families, and communities to digital documentation of the lived events, learning, and meanings we make with young children offers more perspective-taking together; thus, creating more shared-voices and sense of democracy, equity, and justice through open access and sharing in life-learning.

In Parnell and Iorio, Giamminuti (2016) highlights “the significance of documentation in creating a culture of research (Rinaldi, 2006) that is welcoming and hospitable” (p. 9). This culture grows with children, families, communities, and educators as co-protagonists when making digital documentation together. Envision a film documentarian who is living IN and WITH documents: Imagining (pre-viewing) an idea of something ahead of time, recording events as they unfold, reviewing the recording for understanding, misunderstandings, surprises, mundane happenings, and so on, and (re)turning the documents with co-protagonists to make meaning of the events of life unfolding; AND, then choosing what is made visible. Thus, early childhood digital documentation remains only partial and offers varying views into life-learning.

Questions remain as to whom this documentation work is for exactly. This query brings many possibilities. For example, if digital documentation is primarily for immediate family, then what is captured of life-learning may be arranged differently than if for a broader community. If for extended family members, then determining how open-source it must be plays a role. If for the children themselves, then questions linger about how to share the digital documentation with them—on a tablet, laptop, lcd projection, in printed out form. If for a community of educators, then what is being shared changes based on the nature and intentions in that community. Such decisions should be weighty because they have implications for the documentation and the forms of digital technologies used. All considerations and choices intra-act and entangle with children’s life-learning.

Largely, Rinaldi (2006) reminds us of ethical matters under our charge as documentarians; that we had better know what we deeply believe about the nature of children—each child with us particularly—as we will confirm, demonstrate, and put forth narratives of the life-learning through our reflexive (re)making of the digital documents we are co-constructing. In this way, another question can emerge in how we stay open to alternative narratives from what we have known and understood of children as we co-create digital documentation. Staying with this question of how the child is a knower, doer, experiencer alters the nature and processes of documentation and influences choices of technologies and documentation pathways.

Further, context and place are vital in a process of documenting as well. Particularity of place speaks volumes toward experiences, learning, exchange, and engagement or any lack thereof. Place also offers important considerations for relationality, reciprocal exchanges and communications, and placement, hospitality, welcome, invitation, and interaction with the digital landscapes of documentation.

For example, working with a downtown gallery as a place hosting digital documentation: This gallery opens its doors to the public on the first Thursday of each month. For several months, children, educators, and artists-educators digitally video and document children’s playful inquiry with light, shadow, and reused-recycled plastics (figure 1). These videos and documents of children’s ideas are set up and shared as the gallery’s exhibit. The exhibit is also video-recorded for even more digital documentation of life-learning during visitations.

The gallery hosts a digital and technological documentation of a 10-minute looped video of children’s shadows (silhouettes) playing with reuse materials up against a light box (figure 2). This video of children’s original work is shared in the gallery along a backdrop set up near the entrance of the gallery. Open space with the precise materials the children used are placed on the floor and a sign invites gallery guests saying, “Go ahead…follow our silhouettes!”

As guests enter, materials beckon for engagement because they are lying next to a video showing children manipulating them against a bright light box. For visitors, it is easy to know what to do and also to discover a learning journey through the prior learning experiences of the children, materials, and lightbox silhouettes moving about in the digital landscape. Visitors know they are being video recorded just as the children had known because they see themselves in real-time on a nearby laptop screen that tells them.

In this example, the digital technology documentation shown in video, creates an alternative digital landscape space inside of the real gallery space—thus becoming a place that holds the real and digital landscape simultaneously for new and more life-learning to occur. This is a place where former and new ideas can flourish together from the original digital documentation to the now—of visitors being documented while learning about the children, materials, shadows, and light and as they play with these ideas, following the children’s silhouettes and their own imaginings.

This illustration is one of a million forms of documentation using digital technologies/engagements and an extensive form involving a community of gallery-goers, the early learning families, educators, artist-educators from the gallery and community, and the children. Children did have more opportunities to work in the gallery and also celebrate their life-learning documentation accomplishments (figure 3). Children’s additional visits were digitally documented and re-shared on a blog.

This example only happened due to key features, including a project funder, the kindergarten teachers’ artist-spouse, and gallery access where children became publicly visible through this exhibit. The educational project took 2 years and was an intense amount of work for a small group; it was also well-received in the broader community.

Rather than thinking this example should be reproduced across every context and reduced to a formulaic curricular exercise that is tic-boxed to completion, imagine each educational project offering of digital documentation as unique, unrepeatable sets of experiences; all holding and producing value for more opportunities across divergent ways of knowing, doing, and being. This openness to the endless variety of documentation and making life-learning visible, valued, and valuable is an idea that can drive narrative-sharing.

If digital documentation is a living record of young children’s life-learning and childhoods, then it can speak to educators, adults, and adulthood in new, novel, and innovative ways. Thus, authentically showing and changing the image of child and childhood. Further, this work of documentation offers potentiality and the possible, exponentially through digital technologies; thereby widening digital documentation doors to justice.

Figure 1: Children, Reuse Plastics, and Light

Figure 2: Gallery Silhouette Digital Video for Visitors

Figure 3: Children Revisiting the Downtown Gallery

Will Parnell, EdD, Curriculum and Instruction: Early Childhood, Portland State University, USA



Please note - this reading is in press and cannot be shared or used beyond this blog.

Documentation for Social Justice NEW edited 7-22
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How do you envision your work a documentarian living IN and WITH children, teachers, and community learning?

Who practices documentarian work with you and who is this work for?

How do you go about finding deeper meaning when you make learning visible?

45 views2 comments


Nov 13, 2023

Thanks for sharing your miro board!


Nov 13, 2023

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