Participation, Pedagogical Documentation and the Design of Empathetic Learning Contexts

remida_piazza_prampolini_2005aAt the weekend I attended our Sightlines Initiative conference entitled “All Our Futures”.  Sightlines Initiative for those who might not know is the UK reference point and member of the International Network of Reggio Children.  We are an independent organisation promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education. As an organisation we promote the values and principles of what has become known as The Reggio Approach to learning to our members who work in many different types of settings, organisations and schools across the UK together with friends connected throughout the entire International Network.  Too see more about our work, see here.

There were fabulous and thought provoking presentations by Moira Nicolosi, a pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, and Louise Lowings, head teacher of Madeley Nursery School in Telford. Both spoke passionately about the ways in which participation of families in the life and being of schools is a necessary condition for the educational experience of children which included how we use documentation as traces for parent participation.

Carlina Rinaldi was quoted underlining the difference between taking part in something such as education and school as opposed to being a part of education and school.  The latter being the experience to strive for.

Working in an Ecology of Connection

We were shown several small projects and traces that revealed that learning is always in a state of relationship.  One revealed how a young child formed two lengths of wire in clay into curves, with both ends secured into the clay, producing a double loop.  This gesture was named by the child as ‘cat’.  Another child, in response to the cat, took a piece of clay and placed several wooden rods into it in a vertical position declaring this gesture to be ‘rain’.  A further transformational idea in relation to the previous two ideas was when the child who made ‘cat’ picked up a tissue, and carefully spread it out and balanced it upon the cat,  declaring it was now ‘covered cat’.

These small and powerful gestures started out as a small idea but were transformed in dialogue with materials into a bigger and shared idea.  This is turn was documented and made visible, and it is in this act that, “The beauty of the small gesture if we make it visible becomes more powerful and thus makes it more generative” ie, that it is more likely to happen again (L. Lowings).   In this way, as L. Lowings continued, it reveals how it is that, “Children are working in an ecology of connection.”  Connection to ideas, each other, to the world, to everything.   Nothing is separate, nothing is isolated, it is always in relationship and connective.  Indeed what we may think is ‘off topic’ often is not, but rather a possibility of a different way of thinking.  (V.  Vecchi (2010)

Designing Contexts Empathetic to Children’s Ways of Learning

Vea Vecchi in her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia (2010) speaks about the way in which children establish intense relationships with the reality being investigated.  Another short project shared was an investigation into children’s reality and relationship to chairs in restaurants.  It was a part of bigger project in which children’s graphics were to fill spaces and places within the city. Each school chose a place in the city, for example a coffee shop, or restaurant or a shop and made a graphic gift in relation to that space.

In the particular project explored, the challenge was raised together with families and children about the issue of sitting at a table in a restaurant.

 

Many conversations were encouraged with children, designed to find out about their relationship to restaurant chairs.  Many comments were collected (documented) and then analysed to find familiar threads and points of research that could be explored further.  In this example there were three possible threads, one that was about the boredom of waiting, a second about ideas for play and third the pleasure of relationships.  All of these threads could be researched with the children but the choice of the boredom of waiting was chosen.

Starting from the words of children they thought about what they could relaunch and it was the central idea of transformation that connected ideas about how children transformed table objects, how chairs could be sat upon in a variety of ways, something that they called dis-assembled sitting) and the transformational idea of the chair itself and of what else it could become.

The role of the adult in these situations of learning were described as:

  • designing and setting up experiences and provocations to encourage discussion with the child
  • to realise contexts for children to exchange ideas and thinking with each other
  • choosing ways to put together the group
  • to revisit previous discussions and drawings made to verify, evaluate and reflect upon
  • to document strategies of learning for discussion, comparison, exchange and interpretation

The Choices of Documentation

On the second day, a small group of conference attendees stayed on to share work and questions with Moira Nicolosi.  Although those sharing were exchanging thoughts and artefacts that were  personal and pertinent to the participants and settings involved there were several threads arising that related to the relationships and choices of pedagogical documentation.

Documentation of course begins with observation.  But there is a choice to be made before documenting regarding HOW you are going to document and WHY, and for what purpose.   Different languages require different approaches.  For example, it is difficult to document musical or movement based experiences with a written form of documentation alone. We have to choose not only our tools but also our approaches.  Will someone document the experience whilst another acts in the role of teacher, will the educator involved combine both teaching and documenting, will you focus on everything that is happening, or do you base it on a hypothesis you are forming or have.

We then make choices as to how we use our observations (our narrative traces of the children’s experience) to talk about their strategies, their interests and motivations to decide what to propose next.  You need to know how to start from your observations, you have to think about how you choose to document these experiences as well as choose how to group children with proposals relevant to their own research.

It maybe an approach to make choices of what materials and provocations you maybe using but it is another to choose learning contexts that support the generation and elaboration of ideas and thinking amongst the group(s).  It is a constant dialogue between the mutual contexts of learning between materials, languages of expression, the children themselves and the ideas being explored.

There maybe times when we get stuck… the times where nothing seems to be happening (although I am convinced they are but we are just not seeing what is directly under our noses).  At these times we have further choices. They could be:

  • to offer another language of expression to see what that raises up
  • to go back into your documentation to find common threads and traces of experience (these in turn become your hypothesis
  • to co-work with another, to gain another perspective)
  • to go back and revisit previous project threads
  • to be in exchange with other children, in other groups, to share ideas, messages, stories with each other to find out further questions and motivations
  • to mix up groups, so that children can be gathered in groups according to interest and common research questions

It was wonderful two days and I hope that I have been able to articulate well some of the thoughts and ideas arising out of the annual Sightlines Initiative conference that always holds connection with the ethics, values and principles that are of the Municipal Infant Toddler and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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The One Hundred Languages (of Learning and Teaching)

Loris Malaguzzi wrote a poem called The One Hundred Languages of Children, and a Hundred, Hundred More.  In it, he described his vision for how children learned through and in a hundred languages interweaving their ways of meaning-making and finding out about the world.  The poem continues to say that, school steals ninety-nine of these ways of learning; a metaphor, I think for saying that certain ‘languages’ are perceived as more privileged than others.   It continues to say how school also taught that subjects and disciplines did not belong together, but should instead be separated and isolated and whereby imagination and fantasy did not belong to the process of learning.

In this foul world of school as perceived by Malaguzzi , I would imagine that assessment procedures take on a similar form of separating and privileging some subjects over others.    In this world of assessment we would enter the scary place of levels, grades and assessment bands that would become, if we were not careful, drivers of pedagogy where the assessment procedure dominates what teachers do. It could lead to situations where we know in our hearts it is wrong but we press on ahead regardless in order to meet the grade or level or band.   We could end up teaching to the levels and its goals, and it would seem an imperative to progress in this linear fashion and as fast as possible to reach the narrow and lifeless goals.

In this foul world, when learning might be considered as ‘slow’ or not making the ‘right’ level of progress then it could lead to panic in the face of not making the deemed level of requirement.  Teaching could quickly become a mode of delivery, instruction and correction where nobody thought anymore to question the levels, or to even think if they were appropriate. Teaching then could take away that playful and imaginative strategy of children to research and make-meaning and might lead instead to stressful situations where learning is forced and prescribed and chdren’s mental health begins to suffer.  I wouldn’t want to live in that foul world, would you?

When we really observe children to see how they learn (and I mean to observe and not what it has often become, as a practice of assigning children’s actions to lists of curricula outcomes) then we see how they are interested in finding out (researching) about the world that they are a part of, they form theories about this world and their relation to it and in elaborating their knowledge they build upon their theories and come to find out more.  For example, they find their way into code systems, symbols and signs though multiple ways, through playing with the ideas of writing, through drawing in symbolic ways, by imitating older children or our own actions and behaviours, and their innate curiosity creates the researchful instinct that children have to begin to learn how to form letters and words because they desire to discover ways of communicating in meaningful contexts. Gunilla Dahlberg of Stockholm University says of children’s desire that:

“Our starting point is that children are exploring the world and trying to create meaning. Being attentive to their creation of meaning creates desire, and when children have desire, they also learn other factual knowledge.”

As teachers we must find a multitude of ways (our own hundred languages) to support these desires so that the process of learning meets with the ways of how children, indeed all humans learn.   If children have a hundred languages (and more) then as teachers we must teach in a hundred languages (and more).

Yet it is happening… this foul world exists, and it exists increasingly for many children and teachers and educators who often dream of a different reality…  so it is with joy when I receive stories, when people are brave of bucking this trend and share what they do, and when I see in practice those places that has at its heart, a committed and practiced set of principles that asks of themselves how learning happens within a living system and what the effect of that learning process is on their children.

A group of schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus Plus strategy and spanning four countries England, Sweden, Spain and Romania are going to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live and the environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that Loris Malaguzzi described.  We are calling the context of learning as transdisciplinary and reference the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson who indeed influenced the thinking of Loris Malaguzzi.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses boundaries of subjects and invites methodology(ies) of working together from different perspectives and points of view to create NEW conceptual ideas, ways of knowing, of being, that combine, integrate and move beyond the capabilities that a singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of relationships.  It is complex, it is a tangle of spaghetti, it is a knotted, nest of noodles.

We are also encouraged by Gunilla Dahlberg who asks of us to problematise that which has become overly familiar, that which we take for granted, so it is important for us to also to step aside and see anew from different perspectives that which we have considered as the type of learning that supports children in their meaning-making.  So we are also interested in why the role of imagination and fantasy seems to be so important, why metaphor seems to accompany children’s learning, why the poetics of learning (the Hundred Languages) that we see in what has become known as the Reggio Approach are considered as essential processes of children’s learning.

Our aim is to richly describe from a transdisciplinary point of view, learning/research/living (and I deliberately group these elements together as one) that is of itself transdisciplinary and to find the possible new ways of describing, observing and evaluating this learning/research/living that sees children and ourselves as within this living system of education; as whole beings, interconnected, and always in relation to each other and the context we find ourselves in.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to an education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the data or crunched number sets that the foul world tends to see them as.