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.

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The One Hundred Languages of Children

The One Hundred Languages of Children

© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK
© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK

“The One Hundred Languages is a metaphor for the extraordinary potentials of children, their knowledge-building and creative processes, the myriad forms with which life is manifested and knowledge is constructed. The hundred languages are understood as having the potential to be transformed and multiplied in the cooperation and interaction between the languages, among the children, and between children and adults.”  

Carlina Rinaldi (2013) Re-Imagining Childhood

I have been thinking about and re-visiting my thoughts about The One Hundred Languages poem and what Loris Malaguzzi meant by it, and how it is interpreted in both the Reggio context and in contexts outside of Reggio Emilia.  For Carlina Rinaldi (2013) in Re-Imagining Childhood she says the one hundred languages are transformable and that they are multiplied in the interaction between the languages, children, and between children and adults.

I am interested in what is meant by the interaction between the languages, and between the protagonists of adults and children and what it produces.   So often this metaphor is only used as the individual ways, or preferences in which children express and construct knowledge as a dancer, or through clay, or by writing, or as a scientist.  I think it is one of many interpretations, on a continuum of meaning-making.  This interpretation supposes that children have access to one hundred, but that they choose only one of the hundred as a way of communicating and learning about the world. The poem suggests that it is school who steals the ninety-nine.

I am wondering about the spaces that exist in-between the languages, as children go from one language to another to another – transforming the thinking.  A group of children from Madeley Nursery School in the UK have this year been wondering about the sounds of things that grow.  The idea was born as they listened to seeds jiggling about in a packet and comparing those to other seed sounds.  The work itself transformed for one group, to become about the relationship between two trees and of their relationship to the children.  They listened closely with intent to the seeds and the trees themselves, as the educators listened too with intent to the ideas and theories of the children.  What may have at first appeared as a whimsical and playful idea about trees in communication linked closely to ideas of fungi and tree roots collaborating as they pass nutrients and more to each other, under the floor of the forest.  This represents one language moving to another, from one of listening physically to the tree, with pipes and tubes, to expressing with voice and gesture.  It is the space in-between that transforms the learning into expression.

© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK
© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK

Later in the year, as ideas evolved the small group of children came together to gift the tree with a song.  The song was collaborative, negotiated and composed interweaving many cultural and symbolic meanings together with known nursery rhymes.   The song existed as a song to be sung and as a written document, it was transformed into a set of symbolic drawings representing the many elements of the song and was transformed again from 2D to 3D clay compositional signs that were transformed again with colour.  The clay signs were then given to the tree, together with parents as part of a celebratory coming together.

© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK
© 2016 Madeley Nursery School, UK

I wonder how these transformations from one language to another helped in the transformation of thinking.  Applying the metaphor of a rhizome Deleuze and Guattari (1987) in A thousand plateaus suggest that thinking is multidirectional, holds no beginning or end, and has many possibilities of pathways (tubers).  Olsson (2009) in Movement and experimentation in young children’s learning suggests that thought is provoked when encountered by something unfamiliar.  In moving between languages we can create contexts of the unexpected, so that thought is in a state of continual movement and evolvement.  The song that was sung became an unexpected set of signs in which new stories emerged about its constituent parts.  The transformation from written sign into clay brought another unexpected encounter as 2D signs were made 3D with new possibilities for change and evolvement into more complex signs and symbols that were gifted and left to remain on the tree itself.  Now, the tree was gifted, it formed a new meaning that contained ideas about reciprocity and symbolism for both children, educators and parents.  Its meaning was neither closed or complete as ideas about its existence and transformation continued to provoke new thoughts in the audience it ‘spoke’ to.

According to Deleuze and Guttari (1987) assemblages are structures, metaphoric in content and form that are created through connections and relationships between interactions, materials and artefacts including the cultural and community context, time and place.  We could call the gifted tree an assemblage of an encounter between tree, children, place, and materials capable of expression and meaning-making (languages).

Finally, Rinalidi (2013) reminds us that, “It is the responsibility of the infant-toddler centre and the preschool to give value and equal dignity to all the verbal and non-verbal languages.”  In this way we must create multiple opportunities for all languages capable of both meaning-making and expression in our work with children.  It leaves us  the challenge not just to recognise the One Hundred Languages but to provoke them too, and thus enable the unexpected encounter that gives rise to the birth of new thinking in the continuum and evolvement of learning.