Individuals and Groups in Documentation – Not Either/Or Evaluation

One of the common questions I hear when American educators encounter the Reggio Emilia approach is how children are assessed, how their learning is evaluated, or perhaps even what systems of measurement are being applied to track development and growth.

One of the common answers I hear from the educators of Reggio Emilia is that their documentation provides evaluation, but provides so much more than just evaluation.

Upon reflection, I agree with what the educators from Reggio Emilia are trying to communicate, but I also find that the answer feels hollow to some.  While documentation is a rich topic with far too many resources to name (I’d start here and here), I do want to talk about one particular aspect of documentation that contrasts specifically with American concepts of evaluation: group vs. individual evaluation.

The Loaded Term – Evaluation

Definitions of evaluation are broader than we think.  They can address entire school programs, professional development experiences, teacher practices, and much more.  But when teachers refer to evaluations, it is almost a given that we are talking about evaluating children’s cognitive learning (sometimes even in really specific content areas such as literacy and numeracy).

Early Childhood Developmental Checklists for parents, preschool teachers and caregivers.

We’ve seen these before, right?

I have heard the educators of Reggio Emilia take the word evaluation far more literally: they hope to give value to children.  When they talk about imbuing value into an experience, it is a stark contrast from another way that Americans use evaluation: Judgment.

Evaluations, in this sense of judgment, of children are typically used as a way to compare children against a norm, a standard, or even other children within a specific community.  It is a way for us to track and monitor children in a state of progress.  The teacher’s role in this state of mind is one who monitors and also one who prods development.

When evaluation becomes a judgment, it means that we focus on individual children.  Evaluation of children focuses on what they can demonstrate or show.  Any semblance of relational or group learning gets reduced to how an individual responds to or behaves in groups.

This very much fits in line with American mantras of education: individual fulfillment and attaining personal success (i.e. wealth or career status).

Loading the Term Differently – Evaluation as “Giving Value”

When we take a more literal approach to the word evaluation, we think about how to give value to a child’s experience.  This orients the teacher very differently.  The teacher is not a monitor, rather the teacher is a co-researcher. In other words, the teachers investigates alongside the children similar to the way an ethnographer lives among and within a community to understand their culture.  Something else an ethnographer does is document and share what they found.

Teachers as co-researchers don’t just talk about individual children, comparing a child to others, and placing judgments.  Teachers as co-researchers look for the meaning of the experience and try to give value to the participants.  They then share out their attempts to make meaning out with the broader community.  In Reggio Emilia, that takes the form of documentation.

Ray of Light from the Wonder of Learning Exhibit

It also means that when we give value to experiences, we can look at groups of children AND individuals within the group.  We describe or even quote specific children’s actions and words.  We try to capture the emotional, social, cultural, and even political dynamic of the experience.  The teacher asks questions that emerges from their subjective understandings (you cannot remove or sanitize yourself from the experience because that is not authentically what happened).

When we do evaluation this way, the stories are far richer, they expand far beyond narrow standards that can’t possible capture the details of any given experience.  It beckons teachers to be intellectuals rather than technical monitors and surveillants.  We attune our senses to children and practice a “pedagogy of listening” rather than a mentality of operating from an adult’s senses and “catching them while they’re good.”

Whatever your stance is, and it’s obvious the stance I care for, it’s important to know what it is that you are doing and why you are doing it.  Otherwise, you risk breaking the loop of research-practice connection (a subject I’ll have to tackle another day).

This post is a reflection piece from the US College and Students Study Tour 2018 in Reggio Emilia.

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