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.


The Journey into Children’s Drawing

The Language of Drawing

510xR6NA+7LI have always been both before and since the research of my MA days an avid interested party in the strategies and content of children’s drawing.  I am currently reading the new book from the Contesting Early Childhood series published by Routledge entitled “Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia” edited by Calgari, Castagnetti, Giudici, Rinaldi, Vecchi and Moss and was delighted to come across some writings on the subject by Loris Malaguzzi himself (pp.308-312)

Malaguzzi describes drawing as a language (one of many), as a natural and biological language belonging to children that is constantly in conversation with many other languages available to children.  (See Malaguzzi’s The One Hundred Languages of Children poem).  From the outset of his description of drawing, Malaguzzi reminds us of the great responsibility of adults to read and interpret these visual communications.  It is with great sadness that I see many a child’s drawing simply placed in a going home box or drawer without any form of real reading or interpretation of it. They are valued, but as pieces of children’s ‘mark-making’ or as a precursory stage to writing and have become more about participating in a process of drawing than valued as a communicative language in their own right.  I wrote about Drawing as a Communicative Language here.

Malaguzzi, reminds us that drawing is “refined and diversified through children’s life experiences.”  Drawing when viewed in this way is something to be re-elaborated over time (not necessarily the same drawing but the same subject) and offers the educator a way of seeing drawing as an attribute of children’s capacity for critical thinking.  With each new drawing made, there is a refinement of process and form and of the ideas that sit behind it.  The drawings are never fixed with one singular meaning but are rather, as Malaguzzi tells us, multi-factored, dynamic, evolving, ambitious, and unfolding with meaning(s).

“Children’s journey in drawing (through the drawing, through this evolving language because it constantly accompanies children’s evolution) produces different and sometimes discordant attitudes towards the relations between themselves and the world, between themselves and things, between themselves and situations, themselves and feelings and so on.” p309

The drawings therefore act as sites of relational exchange, they are a visual becoming rather than a recall or remembering of something past.

IMG_6560I work with a network of schools for whom drawing is central to their pedagogy as a method amongst many methods of visualising children’s thinking, their ideas, their communications, their theories.  One such example is this drawing from Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK.  What appears as a simple charcoal line on a strip of paper is in fact a ‘seed’s song’.  It was created whilst singing a song made up by the 3 year old drawer to help seeds grow.  What might seem at first as a sweet but naive idea is connected to current explorations into plant to plant communication strategies, which makes his idea seem not so naive after all.   Also, within this genesis of an idea is it possible that he is creating a musical score of some sort, a visualisation of one language (singing/music) into another (drawing/musical notation)?

The Pleasure of Drawing


Malaguzzi also speaks of the pleasure of drawing.  Pleasure as defined as a form of energy.  He names the ‘pleasures’ that characterise the act of drawing as:

  • A motor pleasure – a feeling in the body and of nervous activity that gives pleasure when in the act of drawing
  • A visual pleasure
  • A rhythmic-temporal pleasure – the rhythm and flow of a pencil or marker upon a surface that breaks up space in many directions
  • A spatial pleasure – the organisation of space through drawing
  • A self-identifying pleasure – the seeking and giving of meaning and identity to marks made
  • A pleasure of repetition
  • A pleasure of knowing and learning – of making permanent or ‘fixing the event’, the what has happened or the object in terms of what is known about it
  • A pleasure of the aesthetic – to know when a drawing is just right, balanced in harmony with your ideas

So, Malaguzzi reminds us that:

 “…reading children’s drawings is something very serious, very committed, very difficult, very responsible.  To interpret a drawing we meed to have competency, passion, and a capacity for getting inside the children’s situation and the operation they are carrying out…

The risk we run is of classifying too quickly and putting things in order too soon, without thinking sufficiently, without waiting sufficiently long, of not knowing how to wait, and not knowing how to interpret children’s acts.”  p311

He ends with this important statement:

“In other words we have started on a journey to the source of children’s thinking.”