Early Primary Collaborative Inquiry (EPCI) 2013-14

What is the impact of observation and documentation of student inquiry on identifying next steps for extending learning?

EPCI questionhttp://www.powtoon.com/p/c6sdrtjgiOP/#.U35PNyi3j0o.gmail

Literature Review

“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different” (Loris Malaguzzi).

Susan Frazer (2012, 141) suggests, “documentation is the visible trace of the process that children and teachers engage in during their investigations together”. Drawing from a rich body of literature on inquiry, observation, and documentation, we explored how student wonderings, observations and making learning visible shaped and deepened students’ understanding about their learning as well as our own theories about teaching and learning in the early years. To echo Macdonald’s (2006, 45) words, we, too, “are working to become schools that speak” and to share our stories of learning.


“Inquiry places students’ questions, ideas, and observations at the centre of the learning experience” (Ontario Ministry of Education 2013, 1). Inquiry follows children’s wonderings, adopts a researcher lens, and focuses on the joyful process of learning. Building on children’s innate curiosity, they are able to ask questions and to research topics that are interesting and meaningful to them. Through inquiry, children are developing important skills for the 21st century such as communication, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and making decisions (Ontario Ministry of Education 2012). Educators learn along side the children, embracing their role as co-learner and co-researcher.

worm boy

An exciting moment captured that lead to many wonderings about worms.

There are 4 phases in the inquiry process that initial engagement, exploration, investigation, and communication (Lakehead Public Schools 2012) and can involve an individual child, a small group of children or the whole class testing theories and emerging understandings. An artifact, a conversation, a video can spark inquiry, and/or something wondrous placed in the classroom environment.

The inquiry process is fluid and non –linear as children move through the different phases of the inquiry process. Levels of participation naturally ebb and flow according to particular interests of the children involved. Not all children will be doing the same thing at the same time. Importantly, children determine or co-determine the learning agenda in the classroom as they research their questions, test their theories, and develop new understandings.


“Documentation provides a record of the learning experiences in the classroom, it reveals connections between events, and it provides children, parents, and teachers with an opportunity to review and plan for future experiences” (Frazer 2012, 141). Documentation tells a story about children’s thinking, theory-making, and interests in the classroom, making it “come to life” (Macdonald 2006, 45). It transforms an ordinary moment into something extraordinary (Shor 1992).

Documentation helps us to freeze or capture a moment of learning to reflect on afterwards, provoking all those involved to reflect on the learning. Documentation also provides educators and parents a window into children’s learning (Helm, Beneke, and Steinheimer 2007) and makes children’s learning visible. Through daily and ongoing collection of documentation, children share what they know and can do.

Children share their emerging understandings with “words, work, or actions” (Gandini and Kaminsky 2004, 6), represented by their observational drawings, transcriptions of conversations, photos of a pivotal moment, video, learning stories, documentation panels, artwork, sculptures, plays, and songs among others.

Wein (2012) describes pedagogical documentation as a cyclical process that explores children’s learning journeys. Documentation is an alternative way to assess for and as learning. Pedagogical documentation sheds light on educators’ thinking and understanding by highlighting what educators choose to do or not to do in their efforts to support children’s growth.

According to Wein (2012, 8), the key elements of pedagogical documentation are:
1. Create shared understanding
2. Celebrate rights of individual learners
3. Recognize student ownership of knowledge
4. Actualize shared responsibility
5. Provide voice in learning for everyone

“Documentation makes it possible for teachers, children and parents to look together at learning, to reflect on experience, think about it’s meaning” (Gandini and Kaminsky 2004, 10). Educators revisit documentation to plan for next steps, to reflect on learning, and to dig deeper in order to better understand children’s thinking. It supports reflection on learning.


“Observation, as well as the documentation of observations, is the most important method for gaining assessment information about a young child as he or she works and interacts in the classroom. Observation should be the primary assessment strategy used in the early learning program” (Ontario Ministry of Education 2010-11, 34). Macdonald (2006, 45) suggests, “observation does not limit itself to listening and recording activities and learning of children, but expands to a broader concept of observing the space or environment you are in and evaluating how the environment supports and reflects the learning of children, parents, and teachers”. Observation entails slowing down and listening to children as they learn (Macdonald 2006).

Helm, Beneke, and Steinheimer (2007, 33) remind us, “observing is an intentional act…learning to ask open-ended questions that cause children to think can help teachers to uncover valuable information about children’s thought processes, and feeling“. Being present and prepared to recognize moments of learning support educators and children’s work to share their learning with others in the school community.

Tools to gather when observing children and their learning:
• Paper, pencils, pens, clipboards
• Camera, video, iPad, iPod, tape recorder
• Computer or laptop
By having the materials needed to make observations close by, moments of learning can be captured for later reflection and documentation. Observations are “selective and partial…traces” of children’s thinking (Gandini and Kaminsky 2004, 6). When documentation opens a window into children thinking, reflection on learning becomes possible.


Last year, our Early Primary Collaborative Inquiry (EPCI) research explored what is the impact of observation and documentation on student literacy behaviours.  At the regional face to face EPCI meeting, our leadership team wanted to continue our learning of observation and documentation to all areas of learning.  We invited all our kindergarten educators, some grade one and two teachers, and all school administrators to participate in the inquiry.  We also invited educators from our school based child care centres and some community partners to join us in our professional development (PD) sessions and school based professional learning community (PLC)meetings.  We had 3 half day professional development sessions and used part of the school based PLC meetings which occurred approximately every 6 weeks to support this inquiry.  During the initial team training, we outlined the draft plan for our research.  Teams were asked to identify a student who they are curious about how they learn.  They were asked to observe and document learning, look at student data, developmental continuums, program expectations from The Full-Day Early-Learning Kindergarten Program, Draft Version, 2010-11 and then make if…then… statements to help with programming.  A documentation template was shared and offered to teams to use to help with documentation but not mandatory as many types of documentation would be encouraged.  All teams had tools to assist with documentation including, video and audio recorders, and cameras. Teams were asked to bring their documentation to PD sessions and PLC meetings so that documentation could be shared amongst colleagues.  Inviting multiple perspectives to analyze the documentation supported educators’ planning for next steps.  To support educators with programming, the professional training sessions covered the following topics:

We had two other PD opportunities to help us with our learning this year.  We invited a team of educators from one of our school based childcare centres that follows a Reggio Emilia learning philosophy to present at one of our PD sessions.  They shared some of their practices around emergent learning and documentation which supported our inquiry.  The second PD session was lead by Dr. Carol Anne Wien.  She spoke to us about pedagogical documentation and reinforced the importance of documenting our students thinking to deepen our understanding of our students.

Here are some photos that captured some of our educator teams’ learning during our PD sessions.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

In one of our team PD session, we had our educators participate in The Egg Drop Challenge.  We were practicing observing, documenting and noticing and naming the learning during this team building activity.  Many educators decided to do this activity with their students.  Here is one teams story.

Near the end of our inquiry, we were introduced to the Harvard Graduate School’s Protocol for Analysis of Pedagogical Documentation.  This protocol involves three steps:  studying the documentation; interpreting the documentation, and planning for next steps.

Finally, as a way to share some of the ordinary moments that became incredible learning stories in our classrooms everyday, we created a blog entitled, Lakehead Public Schools Early Years Resource Blog.  Educator teams were invited to share their incredible learning stories on this site.

Analysis & Interpretation

Educators were surveyed and interviewed about their learning and their student’s learning. Educators commented that they found themselves continually analyzing their practices and rethinking what they did throughout the day. Reflecting helped teachers create a culture of looking more deeply at what was planned for the day, what actually happened in the day and helped to deepen conversations with colleagues about our student’s work. One educator commented “we really looked at what we were doing to try and support our student’s learning and have more conversation about what we observed happening”.  Educators recognized that it is only through observation that they could actually plan effectively for learning.  Here are some photos of our intentionally planned learning environments.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

Educators also commented on how important planning the learning environment is to support students learning. “We need to provide the resources, not the answers”, one educator commented about her learning and self-reflection.  “We’ve learned that there is more engagement, more learning and less classroom management needed, when our environment is inviting, organized and supporting student learning.” explained one team.  “We continue to work at setting out provocations that will provoke children to be creative, engaged and curious about materials.” commented one educator team.  Here are some photos of some provocations.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

Documenting students throughout the day became one of our practices. Students became comfortable with seeing educators recording their words and actions.  “We started the year off by documenting everything. Once we spent time looking at our documentation, we realized that we were trying to capture everything which is impossible and we needed to work on capturing moments of learning.  We put more thought into what we were trying to capture and why” explained one early  years team.  “We try to capture new information about our students.  When we learn something new about what a student thinks and is able to do, that is worth documenting” explains one educator.

Our portfolios, photos and bulletin boards all help tell the learning story and growth over time.  Below are a few examples of the various types of documentation (for example, documentation panels, tweets and portfolios), that educators shared to show student’s thinking.

A learning story about starfish A learning story sharks


Students reading and sharing their portfolios

Revisiting our documentation became one of our practices.  The photo above captures a precious moment in the day when two students chose to look through their portfolios, to revisit their learning stories and share their work with each other.  Educators also revisited their documentation and shared learning and ideas with colleagues which was a pivotal learning experience. “Time to hear other’s perspectives helped guide further learning.”  Hear how one team describes how documentation has changed for them this year.

Another team explained, “We became more flexible in our day plan so that we can respond to learning. We learned to slow down, be more present during observation and we became more responsive to our student’s learning. Our students seemed happier and more engaged”.

Near the end of our inquiry, we used the Protocol for Analysis of Pedagogical Documentation to study our documentation. With this process we recognized the importance to slow down our analysis of documentation and to be aware of biases and judgments that we may have.  This process of analysis also supported our planning for next steps for learning.

Another big theme that was revealed as a result of analyzing our educator comments and feedback, is that of relationships and relationship building.  One administrator commented, “Having childcare staff at our PD sessions and PLC meetings has given teams the opportunity to build relationships and some understanding of each others’ roles and responsibilities.  This time together has supported the team relationship building which impacts programming, relationships with children and families, and the school culture.”  Relationships with colleagues, students and the environment, as well as, the relationship of students’ with educators, their peers and the environment, was a big theme that was recognized.  “The interconnectedness of everything on our planet dovetails with a teaching approach based on collaboration and a theory of learning based on relationships” (Lewin-Benham 2006, 7).  The importance of relationships to learning is echoed in the body of literature in early years’ learning (e.g.; Lewin-Benham, 2011).

Educators comment about their students learning:

“I’ve learned that my students feel like we really care about what they are thinking. They see us recording their ideas and questions which shows that we care about what they say and think.” shared one educator.  We used guiding questions like ‘What do you see?, What do you think?, and What do you wonder?’  These key phrases became familiar conversation guides in many of our classrooms.  “When we help our students research their wonderings, they learn that we honour their thoughts and show them that what they think is important. Our students learn that researching their wondering is possible and powerful. They see that sometimes there is more than one answer.” one educator shared.  “My student’s are more involved, they’re learning how to collaborate with their peers as opposed to just to us. They’ve learned how to talk and work together” commented another educator. A grade one educator shared, “They’ve learned how to question. All of my students are wanting to ask questions, deeper level questions.”

Our documentation is evidence that learning has occurred.  We have recorded their thoughts, photos and video that captured learning and writing samples that show how their thinking has changed over time.” explains one educator.  “It’s exciting to see my students wanting to read and research things that they are interested in.  They want to write about it because it is important to them.  It feels different this year – in a good way.”  commented one educator.

Student's researched and recorded their ideas

Student’s researched and recorded their ideas

Parents comments:

One educator team commented that the parents in their class, “can’t believe what their children are talking about, the vocabulary they are using, and what they’re interested in. Parents want to contribute to what is happening in the classroom too, which is so exciting.”

Some teams use password protected web pages to share learning stories as a way to communicate with families.  “Families appreciate seeing what is happening in the class so that they can talk about it at home.  Families also seem to be more involved.  The immediateness and visual information is very powerful”, commented one educator.  Some teams also used social media to connect with families and friends through twitter, for example.

Being involved in the Early Primary Collaborative Inquiry has been an exciting learning opportunity for our students, educators, administrators, childcare and community partners.

Future Direction

System Level:

  • We will share this blog and the research of this inquiry with all other educators in our board.
  • We will have educators use this research during school  based professional learning community meetings.

“We hope that by setting up this blog, our educators can see all the research that our colleagues are involved in and be able to access it more easily.”  explains one educator.

School Level:

  • We will continue to focus on using observation and documentation to understand student thinking and learning and guide our teaching.
  • We will share all professional resources within the schools so that all staff have access to them.
  • We will continue to share our documentation with colleagues to invite multiple perspective and support our learning and planning for learning.
  • We will continue to use documentation in the classroom as a way to share students’ thinking and learning with peers so that they can use this to build more knowledge.
  • We will continue to set up the learning environment to support students’ inquiry.

Classroom Level:

  • We will continue to collaborate, analyze, and moderate documentation.
  • We will continue to involve families in the inquiry process by having them help support the direction for learning based on what they know about their child.
  • We will continue to support students questioning and researching skills so that they continue to learn that they have the power to discover and learn what they are curious about.
  • We will continue to build on skills related to inquiry.
  • We will continue to create classroom environments that promote community, opportunities for dialogue, sharing of strategies and thinking and mutual respect for each others ideas.

“One practice that I have changed as a result of this inquiry is to bring students back together to share their solutions and thinking with peers.  This has made a big difference in the climate and culture in my classroom.  It’s a safe place to share our thinking” (K-2 Educator)

“As we followed the protocol’s steps, I caught myself making statements with a bias, which was enlightening.  Listening to other educators’ comments about my documentation was also eye-opening because sometimes they would see something differently which made me rethink things.  The whole process has encouraged me to slow down and take the time to dig deeper” one educator shared.

  • We will continue to use documentation to support knowledge building in the classroom.

“We like putting our documentation up on the smart board so that student’s get to share what they created or investigated during the day.  Children are getting better at listening to each other and asking each other questions.  This sharing time has also motivated others to try new things and they want an opportunity to share at the end of the day.  It has become a great closing activity for our day”  one educator commented.

References & Resources

Carr, Margaret, and Lee, Wendy. 2012. Learning stories: Constructing learner identities in early education. London, California, New Delhi, and Singapore: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Fraser, Susan. 2007. Authentic childhood. 3rd ed., U.S.A: Nelson Education.

Helm, Judy, Beneke, Sallee, and Steinheimer, Kathy. 2007. Windows on learning: Documenting young children’s work, 2nd ed. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Gandini, Lella, and Kaminsky, Judith Allen. 2004. “Reflections on the relationship between documentation and assessment in the American context: An interview with Brenda Fyfe”. Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange, 11(1): 5-17.

Lakehead Public Schools. 2012. Early Primary Collaborative Inquiry: What is the impact of inquiry-based learning on student critical thinking and on educator practices?, June 2012.

Lewin-Benham, Ann. 2006. “One teacher, 20 preschoolers, and a goldfish: Environmental awareness, emergent curriculum, and documentation”. NAEYC, March.

Lewin-Benham, Anne. 2011. Twelve best practices for early childhood education: Integrating reggio and other inspired approaches. New York and London: Teachers’ College Press.

Macdonald, Beth. 2006. “Observation – The Path to Documentation”. Childcare Exchange, November/December.

Ontario Ministry of Education. 2010-11. The full-day early learning program: Draft version.

Ontario Ministry of Education. 2012. Pedagogical Documentation, Capacity Building Series K-12, Secretariat Special Edition, #30, October.

Ontario Ministry of Education. 2012. The Third Teacher, Capacity Building Series K-12, Secretariat Special Edition, #27, July.

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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