Materials and Contexts: Thoughts about materials, learning in the context of Senegal
I have blogged before about the nature of Intelligent Materials – the idea that materials have inherent qualities and are neither neutral or devoid of suggestion or empathy with certain kinds of ideas and ways of using them.
Here in Senegal, or rather the city of Dakar I am surrounded by its context of its materials. Streets are lined with construction materials of sand, steel wires, bricks of assorted shapes, textures and colours, the beach areas filled with traditional crafts of weaving of straw into roofing or fencing materials, stones , shells and rocks and shops filled with cloth and designs of patterns that hold cultural significance and history.
Nothing here is neutral and it is all part of the rich context of a changing and growing city. When school finishes at 1 pm, the streets become filled with children who traverse and play within these contexts, changing them again in their hands or with their thoughts as they play familiar games of football, hand clapping, singing and dancing as well as the ongoing exploration of the rock pools along the beach. Everything is is curious, even the idea vulture that has fallen from the sky is worthy of inspection and investigation.
Gregory Bateson reminds us of how:
“Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all.”
It is true that this is a city where some materials are precious. In the schools many materials we take for granted e.g. paper, pens, scissors, glue, paint and clay are simply not in abundance. There is a preciousness to them I have not experienced before. One thing I will take home is the idea of preciousness of our resources. To be honest I thought I had a good ethic on that, but that was until I came here and saw the women sat on the corners of the streets, selling the recycled paper and recycled/re-used materials collected on rubbish carts. In a city where there is rarely a rubbish pick up truck – you realise the scale of the problem of what to do with your waste. On the other side, there are materials in abundance here, construction sand, bricks, tiles, roofing materials, and straw. So you can see, the availability and context of materials is specific to geographic context too.
In schools, classrooms are under pressure to take in more an more children and with over 70 plus students per class you can see how hard that is to fund as well as to facilitate. Teachers have reported how they feel their classrooms are more theoretical rather than concretely or physically being able to ‘play with ideas’ and materials in context of investigation.
Which is why the work of ImaginNation Afrika is so important as they are leading the way in terms of showing what is possible within the context of Dakar to make learning engaging, to innovate pedagogical practices and work with materials that are simple, sustainable and manageable.
Today I have been working and in discussion with a team of facilitators about materials and children’s learning in the context of the Reggio Emilia Principles. We did not want to apply these principles to the ongoing work here, but rather found ourselves already within it – a shared dialogue between the Reggio Emilia context and that of Dakar.
We begin by considering these principles that I have re-written out here as questions:
- How can we engage in a reciprocal relationship with the city with our materials and ways of working with children?
- How can we give visibility to children’s learning processes of learning with and through materials?
- How do we promote the rights of children to a quality of education that has at its heart a concept of generating contexts of creativity and critical thinking?
- How do we uphold our belief in the idea of the rich and competent child in our places of work with and alongside of children, some of whom of within vulnerable contexts?
Sitting now reflecting on the day, and thinking earlier to a Facebook conversation about the debate between what is outcome based art and expressive art I am now left thinking about questions that help me to navigate in my thinking about children, creativity and materials.
Therefore I offer these questions as tools and compasses to guide us in our work that may help to stop us from getting lost or not knowing where to begin. They are questions that I think about often, when I feel unsure about how to proceed.
- In thinking about materials that children are using, what do the children notice about the materials they handled? What were their approaches to finding out about the materials?
- In which expressive or aesthetic ways did the children use the materials to represent or express an idea? And which qualities of expression were communicated?
- In their discussions about materials, what themes emerged in how they described them and how they made connections between one material and other?
- Reflecting on this session are there any other possibilities for looking again at the same material either in combination with other materials, or with other tools or lenses of looking? And what will enable the children to build upon the knowledge they are constructing together or to approach the cognitive knots in their learning experience?
I believe we are all born with creative capacities but suspect that these creative dispositions become diluted and lost when conditions for creativity are not met. In thinking about our choices of materials, our reasons for creating contexts of learning, of the qualities of those conditions and encounters we can help foster within ourselves a permanent state of research where we learn how to be better by children’s side.