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Documentation: tensions & truths

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Documentation has the potential to be a beautiful declaration of our image of the child. It can invite you into a conversation on our view of childhood and what it means to value learning in all its wonderful complexity. But let’s face it, documentation can also be wrought with tension and difficulty for many who show up and put pen to paper. I often find myself thinking about this complex relationship some have with documentation and what contributes to its contrasts and tensions. It is complex no doubt, but I do believe it has a lot to do with being conscious about the many small choices we make towards our documentation practices over time. What we hold on to and what we let go of is critical, recognising documentation is a moving, evolving process that is interconnected with our ongoing learning as professionals.

Here are 7 tensions I have come into regular conversation with in my work as an early childhood consultant. I have contrasted these tensions with what have become my truths with documentation in the hope it offers an opportunity to rethink or reimagine the way you bring head and heart together in what you make visible.

Tension 1 Know your purpose

Standing on firm ground about why you document is always going to anchor you strongly in conversations about what you document and therefore what you choose not to document. Knowing your purpose will give certainty, direction and clarity.

Possible truth

Less is more when it comes to documentation, yet it feels as risky as doing a bungee jump to reduce the amount of documentation. In truth, we can lean into doing less. It is worth the risk as it gives professional freedom and ignites creativity. You can only do what you can do in the time you have - so make what you do count.


Tension 2 Be authentic

Anything that is repeated too frequently is at risk of depersonalisation. Authentic documentation speaks to the heart of who the child is and how they show up as a learner. This means celebrating the struggles, triumphs and dilemmas that come along for the ride. Documentation that is authentic often speak holistically about the struggle in learning and does not wash over difficulty with ‘rainbow and unicorn’ speak.

Possible truth

Objectivity and subjectivity must sit side by side in documentation, not one without the other, both contribute to authenticity. Making a choice to document any one moment over another is an act of subjectivity in itself and therefore recognising that documentation makes visible your professional voice must also come with responsibility.

Reflect on this succinct explanation by Rinaldi, 2004, p4

"It is impossible to observe without interpreting because observation is subjective. It is impossible to document without interpreting, and it is impossible to interpret without reflecting and observing. When you choose something to document, when you take a photograph or videotape an experience, you are making a choice. That means that you are giving value or evaluating this experience as meaningful for the children’s learning processes and for your learning processes as well. When you document, you are sharing the children’s learning and your own learning … what you understand, your perspective and also, what you value as meaningful. Within the word ‘evaluation’ there is the word ‘value’. Valuing means giving value to this learning context, and to certain experiences and interactions within that context"


Tension 3 Templates are flexible not fixed

Whilst templates have their place for guiding documentation when they become fixed as the only way they create pedagogical barriers. We want to move away from what is 'right and wrong' and lean into dialogue about what we are trying to say and the best way to say it. Just like learning to drive a car you graduate from your learner plates with experience, templates can be like learner plates and we all need them now and again but going ‘freestyle’ recognises the expertise many educators should be able to bring to their documentation.

Possible truth

Templates might be useful to develop understanding for a trainee or as an induction process but it is important to know when to move beyond them and create space for creativity. I am in favour of going freestyle. Let’s not undermine the complexity many educators already bring to documentation and oversimplify it with a template.

'Too much construction of what documentation should ‘look like’ can shift the focus into rules and can risk reducing the process into a technical cycle of doing and proving'

(Lorraine Sands, Educational Leadership Project, NZ)


Tension 4 Online documentation requires wisdom

Online documentation provides families the opportunity to access documentation in flexible ways but it still requires wisdom so we are not caught out expecting educators to post 100 photos a day. Is this a trend you want to be subscribing to and how might this fit with your overall purpose with documentation? Wisdom asks us to be discerning and have insight about what we do which ultimately protects us from riding the wave of any new trend.

Possible truth

Nothing beats face to face engagement that builds meaningful trusting relationships. Online platforms are an important communication tool but do not mistake it for the only way we build meaningful relationships and partnerships with families.

Want to read some research about online documentation - here are two research articles


Tension 5 Isolation strangles innovation

If we desire educators and teams who genuinely reflect and critically engage in pedagogical practices we must reduce the isolation barriers. Thinking together needs time beyond hallway conversations. When we are in dialogue with one another it builds depth and breadth in how we see, listen and respond – this shows up in what we document.

'We need sustenance for the journey, for it is difficult and often lonely - a paradox because in teaching one is always with others'

Stefania Giamminuti, spoken at Reggio Emilia Conference, 2017

Possible truth

When educators are able to collaborate it generates thinking, learning and depth in what we write as well as offering professional companionship. Collaboration increases genuine evaluation of documentation systems and structures within the context they are being used and this micro change done regularly is far more widely accepted than the often-large annual top down changes.


Tension 6 Less is more – high frequency destroys enjoyment

How much how often – the great debate that requires responsibility and ownership at a local level. Balancing time to document, research, reflect and collaborate when engaging in non-contact time is essential. Non-contact time is not about squeezing as many assessments as possible out so I choose to factor in the following elements when deciding with a team what is realistic with documentation:

· Number of enrolled children each week

· Confidence and skill of teaching team in documentation (and types of documentation)

· Time allocation each week for documentation (this includes continuity of time)

· Priority management skills

Possible truth

When we can linger a little, read out loud, evaluate and discuss our documentation we are more likely to share our best and most authentic work. Documentation in this case is not just about the product or outcome but also about the professional learning it can offer in the process. If we are measuring too frequently we simply miss the opportunity to create contexts to nurture children's growth. Read Jill McLachlan's blog post 'Farmers are Smart'


Tension 7 Linking is not analysis

Often what is quicker is not necessarily better. It is frustrating when curriculum documents are reduced to a set of ‘links’ or ‘codes’ for the purposes of describing learning. The process of meaning making requires thinking, researching and contextualising. Not only does this make assessment robust and rigorous but it also acts as professional learning for educators, providing frequent opportunities to build connection between theory and practice.

Possible truth

There are no short cuts to meaning making, it requires thoughtful, considered description. Linking in itself serves little purpose if it is not contextualized within the observation. We simply reinforce that learning is about proving something. Reducing learning outcomes to numbers or codes shifts the learning process into a technical space not a relational one.


Final words

Documentation is not the enemy. Systems, structures and unrealistic expectations are. Let's be conscious about how these critters creep into the fabric of our workplace cultures.

Professional enjoyment is part of the documentation process too, I know for me I want to enjoy the opportunity documentation has to offer, giving a professional voice to how I listen and think about teaching and learning. Whilst there is no 'perfect' way, I want to remain open to the tripping hazards I create in documentation that prevent me from writing authentically and with rigour - when something becomes too hard, frustrating or meaningless it is then I must reconsider what I am doing.

Knowing we have choices is a powerful thing.


Rinaldi, C (2004) The relationship between documentation and assessment. Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange 11(1): 1–4. URL:


$56.95 AU (inc GST)

Too often the landscape of documentation in early childhood settings involves unnecessary entanglements, with the result that rigidity, rules and inherited ways become barriers to participation. Welcoming a conversation about these tensions, Documenting Children's Learning disrupts the myths that may hold back educators in their practice. More than that, it shows how to use documentation in ways that help you turn its wonderful potential into the welcome reality of making children's capability visible. With this resource, you can shift beyond technical discussions about documentation and delve deeper into pedagogical approaches that support communicating ideas, thinking and theories to celebrate the capable child.

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Binbin Tang
Binbin Tang
Jul 15, 2023

Just ordered my book, and cannot wait to have a read! This article is very inspiring and really challenged my thinking! Thanks Kelly!


Skie Peterson
Skie Peterson
Apr 19, 2023

Equally freeing and challenging Kelly. Thank you as always for your wisdom and thoughtful insights.


i love this.....i cant wait to receive my copy of the book.:)

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