Pedagogical Documentation as a Tool for Thinking Differently

Refections on Gunilla Dahlberg’s presentation at the Sightlines Initiative conference London, 14th May 2016

IMG_3512I have just attended the Sightlines Initiative/Institute of Education conference about Loris Malaguzzi where Gunilla Dahlberg spoke about the courage to think differently.  The conference began with a rather subdued question and comments session where University lecturers shared their concerns about students who have grown up in the current national curriculum who are now ‘waiting to be told’ what to do… who find it ‘difficult to think’ beyond the statutory requirements of the official guidance and curriculum.  What would Malaguzzi of thought of this discussion I wondered?

510xR6NA+7LThrough reading his writings in the new book Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia edited by Vea Vecchi and Peter Moss and others it seems he would question our image of the student as much as he would ask us to think of our image of the child.  With a rich image of the child, the child who grows up into a student requires a rich educator, and a rich context in which the fruition of their thinking can emerge, grow and evolve.

Gunilla Dahlberg reminded us that:

“There is often a focus on what children can’t do.  So you have to prioritise documentation as a tool for changing your thinking.”  

There is a vitality and a reciprocity in documenting learning processes that enables a rethinking, a multiplicity of perspectives.  She suggests that we must stop focusing on what children (and therefore students) can’t do and to focus on documenting learning as a tool for changing thinking.  Blaming the student won’t do it.  But engaging in a process of pedagogical documentation might do it.

Pedagogical documentation is the capturing through photographs, dialogue, video, notes the experiences of children as a means of reconstructing the learning so that it can be shared with others to gain their point of view.  What we observe is always ever, only partial, and the process of documentation enables us to gain those other perspectives that can provide different meanings and interpretations of what is going on.  Gunilla Dalhberg described this as a strategy that can help others to rethink their own experiences and practice.

The Stockholm Project, that Dahlberg was involved in began as a small network , where people shared small snippets of documentation with each other to find and interpret meaning.  It was empowering and helped to prevent the fall back into the default position of what was safe and known.

Dahlberg reminded us of Malaguzzi’s words to, “Take care of intensity, affect and aesthetic vibration through “listening”.  What a wonderful description of an active pedagogy of listening that is vibrant and alive with potential.

Louise Lowings, a head teacher with whom I work at Madelely Nursery in Telford described the process of teaching in a pedagogy of listening as a constant dilemma:

“The teaching dilemma happens in the moment, there is a change, we look for change, our time is flexible, we are responsive and looking for relationships, of where the energy is, to look for the vitality in learning…we are not interested in the already known, but looking always for the unexpected and trusting in the process of finding and seeing this.  We see knowledge as contestable, or what we see and hear, interpret and re-present in documentation as contestable.”

IMG_3513This contesting is an important aspect of pedagogical documentation – our documentation as already mentioned is only ever partial, but documenting does not mean we are recreating the truth, but that we are offering an image of what we think was going on so that it can be debated, confronted, and challenged.  Therefore pedagogical documentation is a process of struggling to understand (the unexpected), to search for meaning with and through others.  Thus, pedagogical documentation leads to a transformation of thinking, it is a methodology for re-organising both thought and action.  Importantly in Reggio they do not document fixed outcomes, but generative processes of learning in action.

It is the act of pedagogical documentation that helps us to answer these three important questions of Dahlbergs:

  • How have we constructed the learning child (and therefore the teacher) in early childhood education?
  • How have we constructed knowledge?
  • How have we constructed environments for children’s explorations, symbolic activities and play?

1a4f9c4a3434a4e4fec4ce05b7a94296Gunilla Dahlberg shared a beginning of a pedagogical project with children from Stockholm.  It began with a group of children finding a dead Roe Deer in the woods.  This excited the children and the teachers.  The deer was in a state of decomposition with its skeleton partially exposed.  In listening to the children they talked about the exposed skeleton, the reasons why it might have died and how it got there.  The teachers were ecstatic because now they had a project about ‘skeletons’.  They got children to collect skeletons, and the whole pre-school became decorated with different types of skeletons.  Interestingly, when the children were asked to draw their experiences of the roe deer, the children did not speak of the skeletons, but instead talked about the rotting and the bacteria, the knights, the worms and the foxes and eagles.  The educators were disappointed – where were the skeletons? What the children were actually interested in was not the skeleton at all but the process of decay and the bacteria and insects involved.  Thus, work proceeded on the process of decay and a group theory was visualised on the walls of the nursery.  As the children and their theories were drawn and discussed together, capacities of the children to listen to each others theories was increased, so the teachers instead looked at how could the children find out more about bacteria… and of course that lead to many, many more theories about mould:

“The mould comes from a star and falls down to the ground.”

“When you get old you get mouldy.”

“The mould-bacteria spits out the mould onto the  bread.  The mould grows and then the bread is covered by the mould.  The mould-bacteria then flies back to the forest.”

In this way, as Dahlberg continued children were bringing out something totally new – something we have never seen or heard before.  It is not a transmission pedagogy but the surprising discovery of another reality that is often closely related to nature, ecology and life sciences.

So, back to those seemingly problematic students in ECE… if we wish for them to learn then we must provide for them rich contexts and situations of learning so that they can document the vitality and intensity of learning in life.  We cannot continue in a cycle of blame but be open to the possibility that everyone (including ourselves) can learn to see with eyes that can *jump over the wall IF we generate the contexts and conditions for that to happen.

To conclude, let me share this of Loris Malaguzzi as another lens for thinking about documentation as an act of courage in a context of being alongside others:

One has to have the courage to think that if a flower is born this influences upon the sun and the moon… every human being is a context of hundred’s of expressions, experiences and memories.  This context is continuously changing through experience and knowledge.  It is an illusion that one is alone.  We consist of many, one speaks with ones own voice but also with many other human being voices.  (1993)”

Happy Documenting and Sharing of it with others.

*The eye that jumps over the wall, was the title of Reggio Emilia’s first touring exhibition that later became the One Hundred Languages of Children.

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Aesthetics of Relationships in the Early Childhood Classroom

img_4891.jpgThe aesthetics of learning or the seeking out of beauty and loveliness as Vecchi (2010) described it has been embraced by the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy and can be seen in the ateliers, the spaces and rich environments of the schools, the presentation of children’s learning processes through pedagogical documentation as well as in the materials offered to children on a daily basis to contemplate.  On study visits to the schools you cannot fail to see the beauty in how they organise their spaces for children and educators to learn alongside of each other.  Aesthetics in this context is a poly-sensorial approach to understanding each other and the world.

Dissanayake (2000), talks about aesthetics as a sensibility that defines how people intentionally show what they value, appreciate and care about.  It is a playful way of being receptive to elaboration, exaggeration and emphasis and is about understanding and communicating the human condition.   This implies that aesthetics can be related to the idea of relationships too in all their forms.  Relationships between people, children, between objects, materials, environments and places.

d51f7f79345debd680aa3d43ab3be6d1Carroll (1999) considers the aesthetic experience as a way of encountering stimuli that involve attention, contemplation and thoughtful perusal that must involve being open and attentive.  In this way, aesthetics is capturing of attention and wonderment.

In the presentation at the First International Summer School in Reggio Emilia (2010) Vea Vecchi and Claudia Giudicci described how aesthetics must hold a significant pedagogical presence because it is an important part of being human and for children this aesthetical sensibility is their primary method and activator of learning.  The real risk for us all is if we fail to embrace the aesthetics of the relationships of learning is that education becomes mere technique, that learning is simply seen as an efficient and functional way of doing something that conveys no thought or feeling but that is easily measured and feels robotic rather than humanistic.

Aesthetics and expression are for Vecchi (2010)  “…activators of learning in all children’s ways of knowing”.  In her presentation to the International Summer School she gave the example of the yearly provocation of autumnal leaves.  Leaves are something that are familiar to many teachers across the world and used at some point to discuss and ponder the changing of the season.  However, all too often dried, decaying leaf corpses are collected and displayed.   An inherent danger in this is that we teach children that autumn is about death and about the colours orange and brown.  Instead she suggests we should contemplate the whole pulsating life cycle of the tree and not just the leaf and to see colour not as one shade but of many possible variations. Aesthetics exists here in the complexity of the relationships of life and nature and the relations inherent with it, us, the world and the cosmos.

Children were asked if they thought trees were alive.  Children responses included:

“I think trees are alive because they make apples, they make leaves, they make wind.” Marco aged 4.

“The roots are very, very important because they are the tree’s brain.” Giuseppe and Giulia aged 5-6.

“The [tree] seed already knows how it has to become.” Vittoria aged 5.

In these early beginnings children were not just confronting the crumbled form of a leaf devoid of its mother tree but expressing their thinking regarding the aliveness of trees.  Knowledge rather than something fixed was seen as fluid and provisional and worthy of elaboration and multiple perspectives.

#2lgTo elaborate and re-present these provisional theories clay was offered as medium capable of being moulded and shaped by small hands to form many different expressions of tree and aliveness.  Children sought different ways of expressing their theories, searching for the most beautiful ways to communicate and make visible their thinking.  In the work with clay, children must understand the techniques so that their trees can stand up but often children would make thin trunks, which were weak and bent over. Vecchi said there were different paths one could follow at this point.  The first one involved the adult showing them a specific technique of how to make a strong trunk. Although this path does not do any harm, the result is often one of many technically good but identical trees.  The second is a hopeful context that sees the educator sitting on their hands, being watchful and hoping for children to solve the problem.  This pathway often results in children moving away to another activity instead, a diversionary tactic that fails to resolve problems.  The third path involves generating an active group context that enables children to experiment with their diverse engineering solutions to the direct problem posed by the educator (based on their observations) of ‘how to make a strong tree?’ This results in many different methods that are modified and elaborated, selected and refined until a firm creative solution evolves within the group of children.

This third way (an intra-active and generative context) enabled children to create a set of trees that communicated their thinking of how and why trees were alive and gave possibility for re-elaboration of their theories as the seasons progressed.  It involved pausing to explore techniques (of making something stand up strong and bear weight), referencing of other languages capable of expression (their drawings and verbal commentary), of being part of a group working together on a shared theme together with a competent educator knowing when to ask and pose questions, when to listen and when and how to act on what is seen and heard.

To separate out these aesthetic and expressive encounters into skill based teaching of technique is meaningless and counterproductive to children’s learning.  It is like sounding out words that you don’t yet know what they mean let alone use them in a sentence.  To separate instead of connect is to become technical rather than relational, rigid rather than flexible, ignorant instead of empathetic, reductionist rather than complex, poor instead of rich.  If we choose to take a path that tends to separate out the different disciplines, that works in a compartmentalised way then we choose myopia – a state of being that lacks imagination, is short-sighted and dangerous.

Giudici and Vecchi reminded me that aesthetics and expressivity offer an alternative educational path that embraces learning as a way of wondering, of seeking beauty, of looking for the complexities, of searching for connective and multiple networks and modes of understanding.  It enables children to show what they care about and enables others opportunities to visibly listen to what they say in a hundred languages.  Aesthetics is a way of knowing that for many politicians and economists may seem unessential and irrelevant right now, but this myopic viewpoint is to deny children an expressive voice and to deny them a powerful and generative and relational context of and for learning.

 

Ellen Dissanayake (2000) Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began.  University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Noel Carroll (1999) Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction.  Routledge, Oxon.

Vea Vecchi (2010) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia:  Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education.  Routledge, Oxon.

Claudia Giudicci and Vea Vecchi (6th July 2010) Presentation “Aesthetics of Learning”.  First International Summer School in Reggio Emilia, Italy.