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.

Participation, Pedagogical Documentation and the Design of Empathetic Learning Contexts

remida_piazza_prampolini_2005aAt the weekend I attended our Sightlines Initiative conference entitled “All Our Futures”.  Sightlines Initiative for those who might not know is the UK reference point and member of the International Network of Reggio Children.  We are an independent organisation promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education. As an organisation we promote the values and principles of what has become known as The Reggio Approach to learning to our members who work in many different types of settings, organisations and schools across the UK together with friends connected throughout the entire International Network.  Too see more about our work, see here.

There were fabulous and thought provoking presentations by Moira Nicolosi, a pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, and Louise Lowings, head teacher of Madeley Nursery School in Telford. Both spoke passionately about the ways in which participation of families in the life and being of schools is a necessary condition for the educational experience of children which included how we use documentation as traces for parent participation.

Carlina Rinaldi was quoted underlining the difference between taking part in something such as education and school as opposed to being a part of education and school.  The latter being the experience to strive for.

Working in an Ecology of Connection

We were shown several small projects and traces that revealed that learning is always in a state of relationship.  One revealed how a young child formed two lengths of wire in clay into curves, with both ends secured into the clay, producing a double loop.  This gesture was named by the child as ‘cat’.  Another child, in response to the cat, took a piece of clay and placed several wooden rods into it in a vertical position declaring this gesture to be ‘rain’.  A further transformational idea in relation to the previous two ideas was when the child who made ‘cat’ picked up a tissue, and carefully spread it out and balanced it upon the cat,  declaring it was now ‘covered cat’.

These small and powerful gestures started out as a small idea but were transformed in dialogue with materials into a bigger and shared idea.  This is turn was documented and made visible, and it is in this act that, “The beauty of the small gesture if we make it visible becomes more powerful and thus makes it more generative” ie, that it is more likely to happen again (L. Lowings).   In this way, as L. Lowings continued, it reveals how it is that, “Children are working in an ecology of connection.”  Connection to ideas, each other, to the world, to everything.   Nothing is separate, nothing is isolated, it is always in relationship and connective.  Indeed what we may think is ‘off topic’ often is not, but rather a possibility of a different way of thinking.  (V.  Vecchi (2010)

Designing Contexts Empathetic to Children’s Ways of Learning

Vea Vecchi in her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia (2010) speaks about the way in which children establish intense relationships with the reality being investigated.  Another short project shared was an investigation into children’s reality and relationship to chairs in restaurants.  It was a part of bigger project in which children’s graphics were to fill spaces and places within the city. Each school chose a place in the city, for example a coffee shop, or restaurant or a shop and made a graphic gift in relation to that space.

In the particular project explored, the challenge was raised together with families and children about the issue of sitting at a table in a restaurant.


Many conversations were encouraged with children, designed to find out about their relationship to restaurant chairs.  Many comments were collected (documented) and then analysed to find familiar threads and points of research that could be explored further.  In this example there were three possible threads, one that was about the boredom of waiting, a second about ideas for play and third the pleasure of relationships.  All of these threads could be researched with the children but the choice of the boredom of waiting was chosen.

Starting from the words of children they thought about what they could relaunch and it was the central idea of transformation that connected ideas about how children transformed table objects, how chairs could be sat upon in a variety of ways, something that they called dis-assembled sitting) and the transformational idea of the chair itself and of what else it could become.

The role of the adult in these situations of learning were described as:

  • designing and setting up experiences and provocations to encourage discussion with the child
  • to realise contexts for children to exchange ideas and thinking with each other
  • choosing ways to put together the group
  • to revisit previous discussions and drawings made to verify, evaluate and reflect upon
  • to document strategies of learning for discussion, comparison, exchange and interpretation

The Choices of Documentation

On the second day, a small group of conference attendees stayed on to share work and questions with Moira Nicolosi.  Although those sharing were exchanging thoughts and artefacts that were  personal and pertinent to the participants and settings involved there were several threads arising that related to the relationships and choices of pedagogical documentation.

Documentation of course begins with observation.  But there is a choice to be made before documenting regarding HOW you are going to document and WHY, and for what purpose.   Different languages require different approaches.  For example, it is difficult to document musical or movement based experiences with a written form of documentation alone. We have to choose not only our tools but also our approaches.  Will someone document the experience whilst another acts in the role of teacher, will the educator involved combine both teaching and documenting, will you focus on everything that is happening, or do you base it on a hypothesis you are forming or have.

We then make choices as to how we use our observations (our narrative traces of the children’s experience) to talk about their strategies, their interests and motivations to decide what to propose next.  You need to know how to start from your observations, you have to think about how you choose to document these experiences as well as choose how to group children with proposals relevant to their own research.

It maybe an approach to make choices of what materials and provocations you maybe using but it is another to choose learning contexts that support the generation and elaboration of ideas and thinking amongst the group(s).  It is a constant dialogue between the mutual contexts of learning between materials, languages of expression, the children themselves and the ideas being explored.

There maybe times when we get stuck… the times where nothing seems to be happening (although I am convinced they are but we are just not seeing what is directly under our noses).  At these times we have further choices. They could be:

  • to offer another language of expression to see what that raises up
  • to go back into your documentation to find common threads and traces of experience (these in turn become your hypothesis
  • to co-work with another, to gain another perspective)
  • to go back and revisit previous project threads
  • to be in exchange with other children, in other groups, to share ideas, messages, stories with each other to find out further questions and motivations
  • to mix up groups, so that children can be gathered in groups according to interest and common research questions

It was wonderful two days and I hope that I have been able to articulate well some of the thoughts and ideas arising out of the annual Sightlines Initiative conference that always holds connection with the ethics, values and principles that are of the Municipal Infant Toddler and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.