Progettazione, by Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

We have been inspired by through a recent question about progettazione posed on the Facebook Page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/ReggioEmiliaApproach/ about progettazione that Suzanne curates.  We have decided to collaborate together on a piece that explores what for each of us progettazione means and looks like.

For Debi, progettazione is best described as a transdisciplinary, flexible and open approach to working with children’s hypothesises and thinking whereby their ideas are subject to moderation, elaboration and transformation as thinking develops as part of a learning group. (For more on Learning groups see here)  It is a way of working that goes beyond the completion of a topic or theme set by the adult in which certain concepts are covered through teaching to one that is more akin to a research approach where the educator is a co-researcher alongside the children exploring how young children learn both individually and as part of a group.

For Suzanne, progettazione is an approach where children and teachers are learning, they are collaborators, researchers and teaching each other. The educators are observing the children at a level that is informing them about how they are learning as well as what fascinates them within the project.  It is a complex multi-layered learning situation for all concerned where the educators document the children’s knowledge about the project, as well as their own learning styles and development and analyse this information to improve themselves as educators.  There is a mutual respect between children and educators and the project is driven by the teachers and children together.

For Debi, the children are not guided to cover a range of topics or themes but rather learning situations are created that generate a context for discussion, expression and the contesting of ideas in many modalities and ‘languages’ about the world. Children learn through being offered these generative contexts and provocations that enable children to discover learning for themselves. Progettazione therefore promotes educator development, the co-construction of knowledge as part of a learning group and should be in relationship with the children’s families. In this way, families are invited to learn about the group as the progettazione progresses and not just their individual child at the end.

Another good descriptor about progettazione can be found here at: https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/65

And look here for more information on the general guiding principles of the Reggio Emilia schools. http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/in-dialogue-with-reggio-emilia.html

“If we believe that children possess their own theories, interpretations and questions, and that they are co-protagonists in their knowledge-building processes, then the most important verb in educational practice is no longer to talk, to explain, to transmit, but to listen.” 

Carlina Rinaldi (1998)

Carlina Rinaldi in the quote featured above speaks about how our image of the child affects how we teach. If we see them as empty vessels then our practice is to fill them up with facts and knowledge of our own. However if we believe that children are capable of thinking, of making hypotheses and interpretation and posing questions of their own then rather than fill up the child or transmit knowledge to them, we instead listen to them and most importantly, act upon what they say, to make a choice about what happens next by considering the multiple perspectives shared in the group.

Suzanne also reminds us that we have to agree as team of educators working together what these tricky words such as progettazione, project, topic and theme mean to each other.

“We have had many dialogues about themes and projects and what exactly these words mean for us, and how we can use them in a larger circle of educators around the world. After all this world of ours is shrinking in the sense that we can collaborate online… this means we need to have an understanding of each other. For example the word kindergarten means something quite different when I am in Jenin and Germany from when I have been in Canada and USA – so I find when starting with progettazione we also have to come to some kind of agreement on the language of the progettazione so that we have a common understanding, otherwise I think it is easy to walk away from a meeting thinking we are all in an agreement about where the project is starting from and what direction it will initially take… to discover that all the educators take completely different directions from each other.”

Progettazione therefore we could say in an approach that:

  • is co-lead by children and educators working together
  • is a flexible and open approach that is open to modification and multiple points of view
  • is a form of professional development for teachers (a research approach)
  • happens as part of a learning group collaborating together
  • where observation is used to understand the learning processes of the children as well as well as the construction of knowledge within the learning group
  • involves family engagement during the process of the progettazione
  • involves many languages of expression, to discuss and hypothesise ideas and thoughts
  • requires agreement amongst teams of educators  upon what the term means to them

For Suzanne, an example of progettazione was when she worked at a bilingual school that had at its heart a research question about language…… since they were profiling in language, to understand how children acquired and used language(s) was very important. For example how much did the children know, how did they communicate, how were they learning language and how were non-verbal children communicating, which language was the strongest, how do children learn a second or third or fourth language? She had a ”project” with the children where each of the four groups were exploring different things that each group had shown an interest in… the group she worked most closely with at the time was exploring space, which turned into an exploration of colour and size.  But it was through this space exploration that she observed the children’s language and how they communicated their ideas.  They also had regular meetings analysing their notes, films, photos etc where they not only discussed how the projects could move forward in the sense of what the children were interested in… but also what they were learning about the children’s language and how this information could enable them to be better teachers.

For Debi, who works in the Reggio Emilia tradition of a pedagogista (but also with an arts background) an example of progettazione began with children making observations of the daytime sky.  There was a certainty that the moon was in the sky at night and the sun was only in the sky during the day.  One day, the moon appeared in the sky during the daytime which provided an occasion to challenge this certainty.  What began as discussions about the description of the sun and the moon turned into a context for generating ideas about why this might happen.  Following this event, the learning group (of about 11, 3-4 year olds) seemed to be talking more about the relationship between the sun and the moon, rather than as two separate and isolated phenomena.  They talked about the power, that was held inside the sun and moon and power that emerged between the two.  What appeared to be descriptors about power were maybe, as educators hypothesised using collected traces of documentation to analyse were the genesis of thinking about gravity and energy.  It was during these year long explorations of the relationship between the sun and the moon that educators also researched how playful approaches to using digital media could be used in ways for children to co-construct and express ideas of their own thinking.

Progettazione we could then say is an approach to children’s learning, about educators learning about learning and about making that learning visible for analysis, for acting upon and deciding what to do next.  A final stage is the publication of summative documentation that  makes visible the co-research of the adults and the children.  Progettazione cannot happen without what Carlina Rinaldi calls the “Pedagogy of Listening” and does not really occur when children are working in isolation of each other.  It forms in the relationship and interaction of others; other children, other educators, other families and the community.

“Listening to children’s theories enhances the possibility of discovering how children think and how they both question and develop a relationship with reality. This possibility is magnified when it occurs within a group context that allows for the experience of others to be shared and debated.”

https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/59

Thank you for reading,

Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

Suzanne Axelsson blogs at interactionimagination.blogspot.co.uk

Debi Keyte-Hartland’s blog can be found at debikeytehartland.me

Other links
https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/progettazione-reggio-inspired-teaching-in-dialogue-with-the-learning-processes-of-children/

Learning Groups: Thinking, Pedagogical Documentation and Collaboration

For many years now, I have been interested in the essence of group encounters with children.  By this I mean, contexts of learning that are group based rather than individual encounters of learning.  I am very much inspired by the context of the Municipal schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy schools whom have as one of their many features the idea that learning happens in relationship with others, other children, teachers, family and the community and who place great value on participation and collaboration.

This feature of group learning is something that can be overlooked by educators working in dialogue with the characteristics, values and features of the educational project that has become known as the Reggio Approach.  By this I mean we can easily become seduced with their use of loose parts, light, mirrors, or natural material as ‘must have’ resources in a Reggio inspired context and lose sight of the importance in their work of group learning.

In the book Making Learning Visible (2001),  a collaboration between Harvard University and Reggio Children they label four distinctive features of a learning group. (See below). They define a learning group as a collection of persons who are …”emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products and making meaning – an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning with others.”  P 285.

They also say that when children and adults are in groups “…we encounter new perspectives, strategies and ways of thinking…we also learn with others modifying, extending, clarifying, and enriching our own ideas, and those of others.”

I suggest therefore that in our pedagogical documentation, and in our shared analysis of the documentation we should be looking for the ways in which children elaborate upon ideas (of their own and others), upon how their ideas grow and evolve,  and transform and generate new ideas as well as looking for understanding of concepts and meaning.  So often we can get caught up in the awe and wonder of what children say and do that we forget to seek ways of identifying and giving shape to the learning and using what we find out as way of thinking about what could be looked at next.

Four Features of a Learning Group

  • The members of learning groups include adults as well as children.
  • Documenting children’s learning processes helps to make learning visible and shapes the learning that takes place.
  • Members of learning groups are engaged in the emotional and aesthetic as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.
  • The focus of learning in learning groups extends beyond the learning of individuals to create a collective body of knowledge.

Making Learning Visible (2001) Project Zero & Reggio Children

The first feature reminds us of how we are a part of the learning group as much as the children are; learning alongside of the children about the subject and about the ways in which they construct knowledge.  As the children inquire, so do we.

An example of this was with a group of children aged 3-5 at Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK  In identifying with a tree within their environment, children expressed a deep sense of empathy with the tree, giving it human characteristics and applying what they knew about being safe and secure to the needs of the tree.  In doing so, they said that the tree had a family, a mother, a father and a grandmother. and that it had feelings.  What at first appeared like a fantastical and imagined idea of the children turned out with further research to hold truths in it; revealing that the forest floor, sometimes referred to as the world wide wood, was indeed a place of relationships, where some trees acted like parents to other trees, sheltering them and coaxing them to grow.  It was important in this scenario to find out more about the relationships of trees, not only to fuel our learning but as to be able to listen more closely to the evolving ideas of the children working together as part of a group.  There was also the shared inquiry of the educators as to how children developed a sense of empathy with living things.  This inquiry was a central act of the research of the teachers into children’s learning processes and acted as a driver for project work on an ecological theme.

The second feature focuses on the bigger picture of learning.  In the ‘Making Learning Visible’ book referred to earlier there are countless examples of mini group documentaries that focus on making explicit the doing, the learning and the possibilities of meaning.  The documentaries give a visual shape to what has been seen yet remains open for others point of view also to be heard.  In this case, the documentaries act not as the singular, descriptive, truthful point of view but as a means to creating other points of view by asking others ‘what do you think’?  When documentation is used in this way, then future plans can be made based on what the children themselves are making sense of, where they might be stuck, and used to anticipate what they might do next.

At Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK documentation is collected in group learning journals, and are brought to the weekly pedagogy meeting together with examples of children’s drawings or clay work so that multiple educators can read the documentation, make sense of it, discuss and contest it and come to an inter-subjective re-reading of the documentation.  From this point, plans are then made in how best to offer future situations of learning, or generative contexts that enable children to evolve their thinking and the construction of knowledge as part of a group.  It is the pedagogical documentation itself (the notes, photographs, dialogue) that are collected in the moment with the children that becomes the tools in which learning is debated and given shape and visibility.  It is these in the moment notes that are also used directly with the children, serving as a memory of their previous learning.  When the group documentation is used in this way it fosters a strong sense of a learning group identity.

The third feature focuses on emotional and aesthetic aspects of learning as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.  What engages the children’s desire to learn and what excites them form the focus of enquiries of the group.  Choices are made to the types of materials and their presentation and the situations offered to the children that make the everyday and ordinary unexpected and extraordinary. Children engage in different modalities and ‘languages’ of learning to make meaning and construct knowledge and the environment is considered as a place of working, feeling and thinking together.

An example of this is in how a group of 3-4 year old children at Ashmore Park Nursery who were keen planters and gardeners became interested in the hidden shape of seeds when viewed under a digital microscope.  The unusual shapes they saw challenged their thinking that all seeds were the same and generated new ideas about germination and the powers that enabled it to happen.  The seeds were examined, drawings and clay models of their theories made, dance and movement work explored the energy and visual aesthetics of germination and children considered the feelings of the seeds as they germinated.

The fourth feature encourages the idea of the learning group being a community of learners that focuses on collective as well as individual knowledge.  It is the collective engagement that helps children and educators to work in ways that support the comparison of ideas, participation in discussion and the resulting modification and elaboration of ideas of the group where collaboration is a strong ethic.

In a project at Madeley Nursery School, Telford, UK that explored the idea of a Hive Machine for Bee’s, 3-4 year old children co-constructed knowledge about how a group of bees that were found dead in the school’s roof died.  Together they discovered and explored ideas about how bee’s saw the world, how they moved, what they liked in the school’s garden and how they communicated. Together they made a special garden for the bee’s, a bee home and generated a group story of what happened to the bees.  The story was shared to other children, families and educators through an animated story which they made and the story was later communicated back to the dead bee’s in the roof in a system of pipes and funnels that connected the dead bee’s to the tablet that ‘told’ the story.  In doing so, this groups identity was created through collaborating together on shared research into the systems and cycles of bee’s and they achieved more by participating in learning as part of a group, than what they could of achieved if only working and playing as individuals.

There is a strong discourse in schools and in educational organisations that for children to work in a group is a characteristic of a more academic route to learning.   Although I don’t disagree with the importance of play and a playful approach I do not want to, at its expense lose these features of learning that happen through groups, where the sharing and elaboration of each others ideas are able to provide multiple points of view, democratic participation and where their opinions and ideas are valued, heard and shape the future of their learning.

For those who are Reggio inspired, group learning is such a strong feature of the educators of Reggio Emilia that can go unnoticed in favour of beautiful things, environments and glossy documentation of the individual if we are not careful. So let us not forget the beauty, the aesthetics, and the emotional engagement of working in groups with children and let us find ways to document that learning in ever more meaningful ways that help us transform education from a model of transmission to one that listens to children and sees them as they do in Reggio as protagonists of their own learning.