I have just returned from a visit to some of the pre-schools of Stockholm, Sweden. It was an exchange opportunity organised through Sightlines-Initiative for three settings I work with here in the UK with three pre-schools in Stockholm. In just three weeks time, our Swedish colleagues come to visit here in a mutual exchange and for participation in our daily school life with young children.
The schools involved in this exchange are all ‘inspired’ by the context of education seen in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools of Italy. To be inspired does not mean to copy or replicate their experience but instead to reflect upon the ideals and values they place upon the environment as a teacher, pedagogical documentation as a tool of research and making learning visible, group learning, a rich image of the child and the connectivity between school and community. What is interesting in the Swedish context is that here lay a group of schools examining these principles of Reggio within their own Swedish cultural and educational context in a similar way to how we are examining the principles of Reggio within our own UK context.
This experience so far is very different from a study tour, which usually focuses upon a go, see, and find attitude that I liken to a kind of teacher tourism led by the knowledgeable pedagogical guide. This exchange felt more like a live, feel, and hold experience. There was something quite unique in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, even though for just a week. Often it was overwhelming, as at first you have so many questions that are all aimed at orientating yourself around what you are experiencing and making sense of what you see and feel, but then as time progresses, your questions become more refined, more attuned to finding the similarities and differences between the two positions and practices.
Doing this as part of network feels important too, as it is not just about your classroom, or your individual school but how an experience like this can challenge the culture and perception of education, family, child and childhood for a connected group of people. This is important because it is only together in the situation of a small group can we exchange our points of view and reach a possible third way of understanding or a new creation of knowledge and understanding.
Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) describe this process of constructing new knowledge in relation to children, but I propose here to use it as a way of understanding how as a group of educators we too construct new ways of being and seeing.
“Recognizing the function and peculiarities of conversations held in small groups is an important step for adults. It requires the adult to shift from a perspective which sees language as the revealer of thought to that of language as a generator of thought…It is possible therefore, to see group discussion as a way in which to create knowledge instead of being simply a method for discovering who has what knowledge.”
On a study tour, it is easier to go and see and find out ‘the ways to become a better educator’ – a process of osmosis where you seep up the educational chlorophyll from others who have already discovered a better way of being. This experience of mutual exchange has enabled through active participation, constructive dialogue and group discussion/exchange a method to generate and create new ways of being and thinking.
What I have also understood so far from this experience, is that there is no one singular way of improving education, there is no necessary singular path to follow, we must not become all the same even though we may share values and principles. I understand too that there is still also the danger of responding to what is seen and felt and lived passively i.e. to become consumers of thinking rather than searching for the possible third way. We might do this in looking for answers on the how and what we want to change and develop, the bits that we already know don’t quite work. We have to be wary of just looking for solutions, too easily.
So, instead of focusing on the what and how of our educational practices maybe we should first start from the point of view of why.
Our questions in the beginning were:
- How do we work with parent participation (strategies, methods, building mutually respectful relationships)?
- How do we think about the environment and prepare materials and areas for children and children’s own choices?
- How do we construct meaningful learning projects?
But the danger lies in how we might replicate what each other does in our differing settings and doing so in admiration of the other but without critically deconstructing the experience and reconstructing new possibilities. I realise now that our questions should have been written instead as:
- Why do we want to encourage parents to be active and equal participants in the educational experience of young children?
- Why should we think about the educational environments and materials we offer children?
- Why construct meaningful learning projects for young children?
Maybe, if we think about the why, learn to construct and reinvent our knowledge and practices continuously we can indeed transform our practices.
Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) in Reggio Children Reggio Tutta: A guide to the city by the children.