A European Transdisciplinary Learning Research Project: Making the Parts ‘Whole’

IMG_1503I am part of an international group of researching schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus + strategy.  It spans four countries (England, Sweden, Spain and Romania) who are just beginning to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live in environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that we are calling transdisciplinary.   

We are referencing the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson, Edgar Morin and Loris Malaguzzi amongst others who each share ideas about learning that see it as, complex and tangled, without a beginning or end point, and that challenges ideas about learning and of seeing the world in separate subject areas (parts) with a simple linearity of progressional thought.  

In this way of documenting learning we are involving ourselves not just with languages of expression and learning but also with languages of evaluation.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to a living education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the objectified data or crunched number sets that the world of standardised assessment and testing tends to see them as.

Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007, p,37) warn us of the kind of abstract maps that we make out of theories of child development that, “…make us lose sight of what is really taking place in the everyday lives of children and pedagogues, since reality is more complex, contextualised and perspectival than the maps we draw, the descriptions we make and the categories we use…The child becomes an object of normalization… with developmental assessments acing as a technology of normalization determining how children should be.”

We are greatly concerned with this global problem of the normalisation of children through standardised tests and assessments that determines how children should be and denies them the complexity of being living and breathing subjects of a living system of education.  At the time this blog is being written the English government is considering how best to introduce, implement and administer a standardised test for four year olds whilst globally, PISA is developing and about to trial a standardised test for five year olds.   It is evidence towards a manipulating education system that values conformity and denies subjectivity and pre-packages children into discreet parcels of sameness that is considered as the norm in society.  Anyone who falls outside of this package, is excluded,  considered as in need of intervention, weak, and abnormal rather than having a differing point of view.  Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, cite Foucault (1977) who names this behaviour as dividing practices.  

Vea Vecchi (2010, pXV) describes transdisciplinary as, ‘…the way in which human thinking connects different disciplines (subjects) in order to gain a deeper understanding.”  It differs from interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary in that it is not just about connecting and  combining different academic subjects at the same time but is more about what happens when you do, what difference does it make, and what is it that is new, that arises from it? For Vecchi it results in a deeper understanding, for me it is like a new way of seeing in increasing complexity that sees the child and educator as rich, strong, subjective, relational and connected with a multitude of ways of constructing and expressing their own perspectives and learning within a living system.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses and connects perceived 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 a supposed singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of rich and complex border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of interrelationships.  It is neither to see the parts in insolation (separation) nor rather to regard the wholeness as what is important to study.  It is rather more likely to be the differing contexts, interconnections, and the relationships that are integral to the whole.  Nora Bateson (2016, p,157) describes this as systems thinking. She tells us:

“At the core of systems work is a search not just for details, but for patterns.  This is not easy with the epistemological limits of western culture, where the habit of applying notions of cause and effect has been rewarded over several centuries of cultural, technological, and theological development.  Systems thinking require us to see past those old scripts and into the world of interrelations.  To think in terms of systems is to suspend the version of reality of the wise scholar who looks through his binoculars or microscope and classifies parts of nature as he objectively sees.  This arcane character is replaced with another sort of scholar, one who is willing to see in several directions, seeking patterns of interaction.

I like this idea of being a researcher who is not searching for a certain truth but rather one who is able to see in transopic ways ie across multiple fields and contexts and is the opposite of myopic, the narrow and short fielded kind of vision, who is seeking to understand the variables of interactions and interrelations.   Nora Bateson continues to remind us that the complexity is in the ambiguity of parts and wholes:

“It is both correct and incorrect to outline parts and wholes.  Maddening though that paradox is for doing research, it is the only transcontextual way to account for the variables of interaction over time and in complex systems.” (p,160)

Nora Bateson then radically asks instead, “what happens if we begin to ask if perhaps the world is not made of parts and whole?  How can we describe it, study it and in fact … what is it?”  (p,162)

It is in this place of deep and complex uncertainty, that I now find myself in and am looking to describe with colleagues across different international contexts what learning is, how it happens and how it is best fostered and generated. The project itself is called Making the Parts ‘Whole’ and it is the first time that I am beginning to question this relationship of parts and wholes.  It is all rather fuzzy at the moment, but I feel that it is a good place to be as to be certain is to think I know the truth.  It makes me question such things I have seen as unquestionable such as child-centred and holistic learning and the relationship between teaching and learning (as if there is only one directional relationship).  All of it makes my mind swim, but I am excited nonetheless.  For anyone interested in hearing more about this project, and what it looks like in practice, then please let me know in the comments box below or by way of email to debikeytehartland@mac.com as there is an opportunity that as part of this project, we will be building a separate website where our shared learning as a research group shall be able to be explored in more depth.  


Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Dalberg, G, Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007).  Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care:  Languages of Evaluation.  2nd edition.  Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Bateson, N. (2016).  Small Arcs of Larger Circles:  Framing Through Other Patterns.  Axminster England: Triarchy Press.

14 thoughts on “A European Transdisciplinary Learning Research Project: Making the Parts ‘Whole’

  1. This is important and intriguing work. I’d love to keep up with it as it progresses.


  2. Thank you, we have just had our first week of exchange between educators from Romania, Sweden, and Spain here in the UK. We are hoping by the end of our travels to each others countries to have shaped what we mean by transdisciplinary learning, and how it happens and the contexts that support it in ECE. It is not a thematic approach to learning but an approach that is learning. Thank you so much for your interest.


  3. I keep coming back to this post… every time I notice and pause on a different phrase, sentence. I think I will print and carry it with me. In thinking with you, you are making me think on “giving value to’ differently in relation to living which might re-orient the dialogues I sometimes am in on how we view children.


  4. Hi Claudia
    Thank you for your comment. And for coming back to, as it reminds me to come back too. This rephrasing of the word/process ‘evaluate’ to what do we give value to, is interesting me once more as I begin to reflect on Covid-19 and the situations it has caused. Perhaps now, more than ever before we have to think again about what has risen up
    In terms of what we have given value to in these times for ourselves, and for our children too. To give ourselves time to re-evaluate, to pause and to acknowledge the possible shifts we have made, or need to make when we re-emerge from this time.


  5. More inspiration from you… please add me to a list to find out more about this work you are part of.


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