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.

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.