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.

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Looking for Learning, Seeking Meaning-Making: Fostering meaning-making in a learning experience

img_0610There is an abundance of ideas and activities all over Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook that point to many ‘learning experiences’ and activity set ups for young children and whilst I appreciate the sharing community of educators all wanting to do the best by children, many of these pinned activities are devoid of their learning context, observation and interpretation of children’s active enquiries.

Active enquiries can be both long and short, last a half an hour to a year, they can be enquiries that originate in children’s own interest and can be offered to children as potential interest and engagement. Ideally they are “educative experiences” (1938, Dewey) that connect the learner to the wider world, across time (continuity) and do not separate out learning into tightly defined subject areas. Many of the shared activities on social media are maybe as Dewey describes as “mis-educative”, a learning experience that may have some benefit to the children, for example, it may address a function to manipulate small objects and thus practice fine motor control, but overall lack that connection to bigger ideas and meaning-making. A mis-educative experience is one in which a child has not reflected or thought about and so has obtained nothing for mental growth that is lasting. (Experience & Education, 1938, Dewey).

img_1398Meaning-Making can be defined as a process by which children’ make-sense’ and interpret situations, events, objects, and conversations either alone or with others. It is a process by which children bring what they already know and have experienced together with the current context of learning. “Learning as meaning-making” is an expression that concerns how children are actively engaged in constructing and making sense of the situation – the context, objects, materials and relationships. Therefore the contexts and situations that we create in our classrooms should be rich and generative in possibility for such deep level, educative learning.

In the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, I have seen how they work with big ideas that offer many interpretative possibilities such as birth, the city, the future, that relate to how children may think about these things. They investigate how children form relationships with materials and matter, and with each other, and within the wider communities of their city and the World and in this way the teachers avoid these unconnected, small, segregated examples of activities that constitute much of what is shared on social media. This need not be confined just to those schools in Reggio but can be grown by us all in all our contexts with young children.

project-2016-img_2801-1I was asked recently about my own personal enquiries and questions that I have about children’s learning that help me to plan and observe children in the process of their meaning-making. Below are some of the questions and enquiries that I hold onto and I offer these as alternatives to help us all think about the best ways of being by children’s side.

  •  Does the learning situation/context off opportunity for meaning-making and can the children bring prior knowledge to the current context? What do they already understand?
  • Does it hold a rich context for children to touch, hold, see it in its original context?
    Is the situation/context of learning generative of multiple perspectives and different points of views?
  • Can children discover information and knowledge for themselves rather than being told?
  • Does the learning experience/situation offer potential for continuity and evolvement of ideas over time?
  •  Are there rich and multiple sources of information that you can draw upon?
  • What do you anticipate what may happen in the learning situation/context? (So as to be open to the unexpected and unusual.)
  • What are the strategies and approaches of the children to learn about the subject(s)?
  • How do they use strategies of imagination and fantasy as part of their meaning-making?
  • When moving between languages of expression (the hundred languages of children) how are children re-elaborating their ideas and thinking?
  • How are we supporting the children to discover more about the subject for themselves? 
  • Are our questions generative of further learning, that open up to increased diversity of thinking and ideas – asking how, what if questions rather than why?
  • How do we re-propose to children their ideas and thoughts so as to raise up challenge, further debate, different ideas (diversity)?

It isn’t as easy as browsing pictures online, but with thought and curiosity we can engage with children’s’ active enquiries and generate rich and educative learning situations that foster creativity, critical thinking and imagination of both children and educators.