What about the What? Finding the Deeper Meaning in Pedagogical Documentation

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. To begin with I would like to wish all the followers and readers of this blog a very HAPPY NEW YEAR! A new year is the time for reflection and resolutions. For me, 2017 will be the year that I continue my quest to make meaning from the theory and practice of pedagogical documentation. Meaning making is an opportunity to think deeply about the content of documentation so that it can become pedagogical. Not all documentation is pedagogical. I have a number of workshops scheduled for the new year that will be focusing on documentation. Now is the time for reflection on how to support educators in the practice of pedagogical documentation. Fleet, Patterson & Robertson (2012) suggest that pedagogical documentation “is not a real-time movie or a record of events, but a subjective set of frozen moments that provoke, inform, record, and provide opportunities for further thinking, wonder, able to be offered back to children for comment and reflection” (p. 7). It is a process whereby early learning teachers seek to make meaning.


Seneca College Newnham Labschool

When documentation has meaningful content that depicts learning and development, early learning teachers share it with children, families, the community, and with each other as a way to demonstrate children’s competency and capacity. This is a form of assessment of children’s learning as it is visible, transparent and meaningful. During this process, educators seek to make meaning in their continued reflection of the documentation in order to seek ways for it to authentically influence the direction future teaching and learning will take.


Seneca College Newnham Labschool

The framework proposed by Rolfe, Freshwater & Jasper (2001) could serve as a guide for reflection to support the process of meaning making. This tool developed for helping professions such as nurses, involves three components: what, so what and now what? By using this framework as a way to reflect upon documentation it can lead to curriculum decisions. My colleague Cindy Green and I have shared and studied this framework with numerous educators from Upper Canada Child Care Centres and have found that it enables a deeper level of documentation that surpasses “scrapbooking”.  I threw a provocation Cindy’s way when I suggested adapting the framework to include another component “What about the what?” to encourage even deeper thinking.

What? This is an objective question that asks you to describe what you saw or heard.

What about the What? This is a reflective question that asks you to consider why you choose to record and document a particular situation. How did it make you feel? As you examine the documentation what makes you smile or what tugs at your heartstrings?

So What? This is an interpretative question. What are you learning about the child’s learning processes and what are you learning about your own teaching? How does this situation connect to the child’s prior experience or knowledge? How does it connect to your prior experience or knowledge?

Now What? This is a decision question. Where will you go next? How will this inform your practice? How will you use your knowledge/experience to plan for the children’s indoor and outdoor play experiences or to plan for a long-term project investigation?


Cindy worries that the addition of the “what about the what” will confuse those educators that we have worked with and have seen such progress in their documentation and thinking. I see the additional component as essential in the process of pedagogical documentation. For each stage of the reflection process, more questions can be asked to encourage deeper meaning making. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are welcome! You may also have a framework that you can share.


If you are embarking on a long-term investigation, then the documentation created has become pedagogical. It has influenced your pedagogical approach. What will you do next? What are the next steps? Children can begin by representing what they know through drawing and creating three-dimensional art. In the article by Mary Ann Biermeir: Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent Curriculum in Relationship-Driven Learning Environments clay, wire, wood, and recycled materials are used to help children express what they know. Children learn how to glue, cut, fold, tear, balance, and solve problems in the context of project work. Another example is given in the article that focuses on map-making during the course of the investigation. When the next steps involve making decisions about the direction of the project, including the children’s idea and inviting them to create and demonstrate their thinking and learning will help lead the process forward.

Documentation … is not simply a technique that can be transported but a way of guaranteeing that our thinking always involves reflection, exchange, different points of view, and differences in assessment or evaluation. The documentation materials we use attest not only to our path of knowledge regarding children but also to our path of knowledge about the child and humanity, and about ourselves. They also attest to our idea of the teacher as researcher, of school as a place of research and cultural elaboration, a place of participation, in a process of shared construction of values and meanings ~ Carlina Rinaldi

20 thoughts on “What about the What? Finding the Deeper Meaning in Pedagogical Documentation

  1. Hi Diane,
    I appreciate the series of questions you posed to uncover each of your “what” questions. Made me reflect on some of the areas and questions I forget to ask or think about as I look at my documentation. Thanks!


  2. Pingback: What about the What? Finding the Deeper Meaning in Pedagogical Documentation | thinkingaboutkids

  3. It would be helpful to present a concrete example for each stage of “what”. Also, how is this documentation collected, is it through photographs, videos, anecdotal notes, etc? Lastly, is this a feasible option when FDK classes often surpass 30 children?


    • All forms and ways of documentation in all stages of what … no rules. As for the concrete example – I will work on that but not being in a classroom with children I have limitations. Perhaps others can share their examples? As for documentation, whatever the context, it is a process that should be considered an important part of practice. Engaging children in the documentation collection might help? If there are others who have suggestions, bring them on 🙂


  4. When and where do you have workshops which deepen understanding of documentation and its purpose? I live in the states, Chicago area. Are there any books you could recommend?


  5. Diane, greatly appreciate your reflection protocol. Working in teacher education, it’s important to guide our students to these deeper questions about children’s learning and engagement.


  6. What about the what? Or Why do I care? is an important question in the reflection underlying pedagogical documentation. It can make us aware of our own concerns and beliefs, which often remain hidden in what seems to be obvious and self-explanatory to us. Asking ourselves that question helps us recognise when our thoughts go to other concerns than children’s development or when we get stuck in our own learning process.

    As most early childhood classrooms in Belgium have up to 25 or 30 children, I too am curious about how to make effective work of pedagogical documentation. What we have noticed already, is that when the teacher starts documenting children’s learning by taking photographs (and I know that is only a very small part of it) children will come up to the teacher themselves when they feel they have done something worthy of being noticed. And it pays off to look deeper into why they have that feeling.


  7. Outstanding article. Documentation is the authentic form of assessment of student learning. Though daunting to many, this article clarifies the process and value of mastering this integrated instructional/evaluative strategy. Thank you for adding clarity to the articulation of the process.


  8. Hi Diane
    I love how you provoke my thinking. I think the difficulty for me arises as we try to fit our understanding of documentation as a process into these “boxes” whether it be 3 or 4. In your post I see the defining “charts” confusing as the first set of definitions of what, what about the what, so what and now what seems different from the one following. The second set of definitions (in the boxes) shows interpretation of children and teacher learning congruent with the second phase yet it is more fitting in the interpretative component phase 3, the so what? definition above.
    In terms of adding the What about the What component I definitely support it but yes, am concerned if we change direction with the large agency that we are halfway through working with. Educators need TIME to work with and through their new found practices. We now have almost 200 educators who are working together with What, So What and Now What? and adding another separate piece will be confusing for them as they collaborate and support one another. They are not yet speaking this language and need opportunity to become more confident with the 3 components. At this point we could include the what about the what in the broad phase of What?

    As we move forward with other agencies who have been working with the what, so what, now what for awhile, I think they are ready for this deeper thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think if it were me I would give the what about the what as the first question to assess whether it is worth documenting in the first place. Many practitioners who are starting out using documentation do it because they feel they should, because it looks good or because they have been asked to but aren’t always aware of why they are doing it. I often document to share ideas an thought with other teachers/ parents which is very different to how I would document for parents and children in a preschool setting. Personally I wouldn’t add the what about the what to the document ( unless it became a subtext to the title maybe) but would put it at the beginning of the decision making process.


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  13. Diane,

    Like you, I have seen the vast improvement in teaching that comes with documentation. In my recent book, Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What We’ve Learned from Reggio Emilia about Children and Ourselves, the first chapters are on The Image of the Child, and then next chapters are on documenting. If people are unfamiliar with Reggio Emilia practice, these chapters help them see the weave-effect between documenting and planning curriculum for the maximum benefit of the children in your group. If you haven’t seen the book, I’d be glad to send one to you. You can reach me at sydney@eceteacher.org or look for more information at my website: http://www.eceteacher.org


  14. Pingback: What’s the Difference Between Displaying and Documenting Learning? - Corwin Connect

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