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Conceptualizing Better Data Work in Non-profits: Prompt 1 – The Reggio Emilia Approach

This is the second in a blog post series, the introduction to which is: Conceptualizing better data work in non-profits: First steps toward practice.

Reggio Emilia is an approach to democratic education that originated in preschools in Italy and is now used around the world in schools across age ranges. It’s worthy of some closer reading and The Hundred Languages of Children is an excellent text to get you started. I only plan to share the bits of overview I feel necessary here.

Reggio aims to use a democratic, egalitarian ethos and environment to model the everyday practice of democracy in school (as opposed to traditional authoritarianism, read more from a recent post on popular education). To accomplish this, the approach uses a variety of practices that help to empower children on to more equal footing with adults, and to involve everyone collaboratively in the process of creating and engaging with learning. This is key because one absolutely cannot use their practice of documentation as a better approach to data work if they do not also take seriously the work of creating participatory, anti-adult supremacy, democratic environments, ethos, and practices. Why, how, and what we do with data is always embedded in the broader character of our organizations, and we simply will never create more just data systems if our organizations aren’t doing everything they can, continuously, to sniff out and transform practices of authoritarianism, neoliberalism, racism, ableism and the like built into how they work.

Documentation as Data Work

Reggio uses documentation, which is simply a way of saying “keeping track of what we create and thinking of fun and clever ways to do so (itself part of the creating), then spending time with that stuff together in various ways that help make it useful.”

Already there’s a vast contrast to what I’ve found in my studies of organizational data work – the youth workers we talked to said they spent almost no time with the data they created and felt nearly nothing was ever done with it (and certainly nothing useful). It wasn’t fun, nor clever, and it was almost always done in the terms of funders, not those creating it.

Attitude and Orientation

Documentation according to Reggio is not a technical tool at all, in fact! It’s an attitude toward learning – toward listening to, observing, and evaluating the nature of experience. It is – and they are very consistent and serious about this – a way of knowing with others. What if these two points – attitude and orientation – were the way we approached data work? Right now, I’d characterize the attitude of most data collection/creation as “collecting”, with the closest metaphor as the hobbyist stamp collector. The orientation is to use data as a way of (dis)proving what we think we know about others.

Documentation at Reggio, in contrast, is a way to get to know the people we are working with by paying closer attention to them, and importantly, by inviting them to pay attention with us. Most importantly, documentation is not, and never about finding answers! It is about generating questions that help us learn.


In our paper, Real Big Data, Marisol and I documented 5 purposes for traditional organizational data collection:

  1. Understanding program accomplishments
  2. Interacting with policymakers and funders
  3. Maintaining client information
  4. Organizational and programmatic improvement
  5. Client improvement

In contrast, here’s the 6 purposes for documentation outlined about Reggio:

  1. Enhance learning
  2. Take children’s ideas and work seriously
  3. Continuous planning and evaluation
  4. Parent participation
  5. Teachers’ research and awareness
  6. Making learning visible

What’s striking to me about these is that the don’t look altogether that different! We could match them up fairly closely:

Traditional purposes for dataReggio Emilia purposes for documentation
Understanding program accomplishmentsMake learning visible

Continuous planning and evaluation
Interacting with policymakers and fundersMake learning visible

Teachers’ research and awareness
Maintaining client information
Organizational and programmatic improvementEnhance learning

Continuous planning and evaluation
Client improvementEnhance learning

However, this apparent match up is much less accurate in practice than laid out in this table, because attitude, orientation, and the actual practices are quite different.

The traditional purposes of data work are to understand program accomplishments by tallying AIS (asses in seats), matching results to objectives, and the like. This is something done on/about clients, without their active involvement, and used to talk to funders. It is fundamentally focused on outcomes. In Reggio making learning visible is for a community, to show what is being learned and the process of learning it, and to invite the participation of all parties (teachers, students, parents, admins) into the learning process. It is fundamentally focused on process, or the means by which results are achieved, though it does show some of the results also.

Continuous planning and evaluation at Reggio is not about improving a set program, but about asking questions about where learners as individuals and a group (where the community of the classroom) “are” and offering opportunity to plan what’s next that’s relevant and tied closely to participants’ interests and motivations. Most importantly, this process is done with the whole community, using the documentation that’s been done, and thus involving everyone in the process of planning what comes next. Documentation makes the program itself participatory. In fact, it’s hardly a program anymore, but a shared practice of democratic learning in action.

This is also how parents are involved in serious ways – they can see the learning as its unfolding as documentation makes the process and outcome of learning visible, and then can be invited in as partners in asking questions of the artifacts of documentation and helping to imagine what might come next. This process of participatory involvement of all stakeholders is relegated to a comment box or dissatisfied emails to staff from parents for services rendered in a traditional model.

Taking children’s ideas and work seriously is another important purpose, utterly ignored by traditional data work models. While our studies of data work in youth serving organizations revealed that young people most wanted relationships with people who took them seriously on their own terms, traditional data models only take clients seriously on the terms predetermined by a database maker. At best, they ask clients for their goals, but even these are expected to be in terms of the services rendered. At Reggio, part of the idea of caring for young people is caring for them as community members, and that involves taking seriously their ideas. Documentation helps to recognize, understand, and elevate their ideas and work by displaying it and using it together to further learning and plan next steps.

Finally, teachers use documentation for their own learning or to talk to others to enhance their own growth. Because traditional data systems are so divorced from frontline workers, this was never the case in our studies. Workers experienced only the burden of data entry, with no participation in analysis of the data, and certainly never with the perspective that engaging with the data might help them understand and improve their work. Teachers in Reggio are positioned as continuous learners too, and as working collaboratively to improve their practice.

In short, while on the surface there appears to be similarity of purpose between traditional data work and documentation with Reggio Emilia, they are very distinct. Adopting a sense of purpose more in line with documentation at Reggio Emilia would fundamentally alter our relationship to data work – and this is key – alter how we do our work and perceive our roles and that of those we work with. They go hand-in-hand and it cannot be otherwise.


It is key to understand that the topics pursued for learning in the Reggio approach are chosen by learners together. That is, students and teachers pick up on topics of interest (one example: where does all the trash we make go?) and then pursue that interest in creative ways as they learn.

Documentation is integral to this type of learning. A community that’s decided to learn about bugs brings sketchbooks and draws what they observe. They act it out through play. They take pictures. Teachers in turn might take pictures and video, or record conversations. A record exists of what transpired, accessible and engageable by the community. The community then can regularly engage with the artifacts produced through documentation – drawings, pictures, writing, images, and so forth.

This documentation is never engaged in a single predetermined fashion, but in multiple, ongoing, and non-linear ways. The documentation is explored by students looking at each other’s drawings and asking questions, or teachers looking at the drawings in aggregate. Someone asking a question then prompts new inquiry and the process continues.

Artifacts are hung inside and outside the classroom, inviting a broader community into the process of learning together. Parents, or kids in other parts of the school, might interact with the learnings and learners as a result. The community is enabled to re-encounter what it created, perhaps bringing new learning to older observation.

Teachers (and other stakeholders) spend time with (and such time is treated as an essential part of the job) the documentation, in conversation with students, parents, and colleagues. They might ask all sorts of questions: What did I miss that child(ren) were trying to communicate or pursue? What could I have done to handle that situation in a more democratic manner? What is showing up because our arts budget has been cut? Documentation encourages open curiosity, and an environment where everyone shares the vulnerability of learning and growing, and thus feels comfortable to be seen with flaws or shortcomings.

Finally, the documentation can be used to advocate for the approach and resources needed to continue it, by helping to tell to others the stories of what’s unfolded and what has been accomplished. It helps to communicate import and value in terms that agree with the values of the approach and invite funders/stakeholders to be part of understanding what is transpiring.

Fundamental to this practice is the realization that “knowledge is never verifiable through listening or by observation alone, but rather it gains clarity through a negotiated analysis of the communication process itself” (The Hundred Languages of Children, p. 239). Thus, no documentation or data is itself the end goal. Rather, it is to encourage reflection, communication, and engagement. A data process is thus never about collecting the data – it’s about using it to provide opportunities for shared meaning making. It is through this shared meaning making with colleagues that common meanings and values are (re)created and realized.

As with all the approaches in this series, I want to end with a reminder. If the content here didn’t already make this clear: this approach doesn’t offer a model for a database about your clients. It can’t – further, it refuses to do so. And likewise, it provides no simple model for how to go about doing data work. Instead, it should be understood as a prompt, a starting place for discussion and shared meaning making, because it is that very process, inviting in all stakeholders, that will (re)create your work and alongside it, your data work, in a way that promotes data justice.


Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. E. (Eds.). (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach–advanced reflections (2nd ed). Ablex Pub. Corp.

Katz, L. G., & Chard, S. C. (1997). Documentation: The Reggio Emilia Approach. Principal, 76(5), 16–17.

McNally, S. A., & Slutsky, R. (2017). Key elements of the Reggio Emilia approach and how they are interconnected to create the highly regarded system of early childhood education. Early Child Development and Care, 187(12), 1925–1937.

Schroeder-Yu, G. (2008). Documentation: Ideas and Applications from the Reggio Emilia Approach. Teaching Artist Journal, 6(2), 126–134.

Turner, T., & Wilson, D. G. (2009). Reflections on Documentation: A Discussion With Thought Leaders From Reggio Emilia. Theory Into Practice, 49(1), 5–13.

6 replies on “Conceptualizing Better Data Work in Non-profits: Prompt 1 – The Reggio Emilia Approach”

[…] Participatory data as part of organizational processes: This one is a bit of a mind-bender and thought experiment. What if participatory processes around data simply became a part of how organizations conduct their work. For example, what if part of intake was a conversation between a worker and client(s) about what was important to know about and how they’d learn it – and then this became what the worker and client recorded together about their interactions. What if, instead of a database, this information was regularly examined by, visualized, and discussed by stakeholders involved? The ways an organization interacts with clients might just be part and parcel to how they create data – which would require some major shifts in how we think about service delivery too. A concrete example can be found in a long ago post of mine about case notes. This approach might also share a lot in common with the Reggio Emilia documentation approach. […]