The Languages of Drawing in a Context of Inquiry. An EARCOS funded Workshop in Beijing

It was my absolute pleasure and honour to be asked to prepare and present in this 2 day weekend workshop hosted by the International School of Beijing (ISB) with the passionate and dedicated Louise Lowings, who is the Head Teacher of the internationally known Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK which is one of the schools in the West Midlands where I live and work. Together we lead a group of 60 delegates in a journey of exploring and understanding the meaning-making and communicative strategies of children’s drawings.

We were keen to unpick the processes behind children’s drawings done both in group learning contexts and spontaneous and individual moments.   We considered the role of drawing as a mode of children’s research in the way in which they investigated the affordances of both the materials and the surfaces that received the marks; the narration that accompanied the drawing; and the theories that children were exploring when constructing and communicating knowledge about the world.  We acknowledged that children’s drawing was sensitive to the vitality of life, were deeply complex and rich in meaning and that originated in the world of aesthetics where children sought beauty, balance and harmony in the composition of their drawings.  It was important for us to underline what John Matthews states in his book (2003) “Drawing and Painting:  Children and Visual Representation” that drawing was the basis for all thinking and closely linked to subjects and disciplines beyond those traditionally associated with the arts.

On day one, I began with a theoretical underpinning that challenged the way in which drawing was seen as a developmental model beginning with a meaningless scribbling stage that developed through fortuitous mistakes that were developed over time until visual realism was achieved.  This is a deficit model in which to see children’s drawings operating within as it is based only upon western fine art traditions and lacks the emotional, social and individual and group contexts of experience that children exist within.   Contemporary research places drawing at the heart of meaning-making and sets it within the social context in which the sharing and exchange of ideas occurs.  Processes of map making, theory drawing, the role of the educator and visual thinking were also considered during this time.

After a discussion on drawings participants had brought with them, next up was Louise Lowings, sharing an example of group inquiry based work from Madeley Nursery School.  It focused around a group of children aged 3-4 years old who were displaying an interest in the woodlice they found in the garden.  This inquiry saw the children of this particular learning group evolve their own ideas and theories about ladders, lifts, boats and special lights that were needed by the community of woodlice they had found.  Drawing here was a modality that sat within a context of other languages of expression such as paint, clay and construction.  Drawings in this inquiry were both researchful and inventive and full of vitality of learning and expression.  As Loris Malaguzzi wrote; “In fact, drawing, painting (and the use of all languages) are experiences and explorations of life, of the senses and of meanings. They are expressions of urgency, desires, reassurance, research, hypotheses, readjustments, constructions, and inventions.”  (Loris Malaguzzi, 1988)

Their work on the subject was both beautiful and complex and revealed the strong need of educators to carefully, pedagogically document the unfolding experiences of the group of children.  It was not enough just to focus on the drawings themselves but on the connections they made in talk, in action, through the use of other languages of expression and in their playful encounters of real woodlice that the flow of children’s thinking in a context of inquiry was made visible.

In the afternoon, both of us lead workshops on unusual/unexpected drawing media and theory drawings.  These enabled educators to experiment and explore for themselves the mark-making possibilities of media and encouraged their own sense of critical thinking as they bounced ideas off each other in small groups when they thought how magnets worked.  They were then encouraged to draw their theories out, negotiating the form and shape and use of colour of their graphic explanations that used both skills of imagination and logic simultaneously.

Day Two began with me sharing work on the pivotal role between graphical instruments and the surfaces that received their marks.  I also shared various, generative contexts where children’s graphicacy could be explored within a frame of inquiry.  Lou Lowings shared a fabulous project on the graphical development of snail drawings from Madeley Nursery that occurred last year. We not only thought about the place of graphics in inquiry based work but considered too what inquiry itself looked like with children in ECE.   We also shared our thoughts on working with young children aged 1-3 and in contexts where children didn’t share a language between them or who didn’t share a language with the educators in their schools.  

In the afternoon a whole workshop focused on the relationships of colour.  This was a workshop that really exceeded any expectations that we had and where the unexpected was found to be rich and vibrant.  Educators were invited to create a series of hues of red where we suggested the names such as lip red, Beijing red, rose red…  We also provoked them to create a series of blue swatches, each different and asked for them to be named.  Memories, story telling, humour, iconography, symbolism and emotion were all displayed as participants negotiated and contested each others point of view on colour making.  Subjectivity and hearing of differing perspectives was rich.  It reminded us that there is no singular truth in the process of inquiry, only possibilities.  Maybe it was the sun and the beautiful clean air that made it all seem extra special too. 

Once again, a big, big thank you to the team at ISB, Karen,  Sherryl,  Jesse and OOL, who made this all happen and to EARCOS for funding it. It was truly an honour and we hope that in the future  we can share more about children’s creativity, their thinking and processes of inquiry in the near future.  For further information, please contact Debi at debikeytehartland@mac.com

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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.