The 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.
Carroll (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.
To 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.