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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Progettazione, by Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

We have been inspired by through a recent question about progettazione posed on the Facebook Page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/ReggioEmiliaApproach/ about progettazione that Suzanne curates.  We have decided to collaborate together on a piece that explores what for each of us progettazione means and looks like.

For Debi, progettazione is best described as a transdisciplinary, flexible and open approach to working with children’s hypothesises and thinking whereby their ideas are subject to moderation, elaboration and transformation as thinking develops as part of a learning group. (For more on Learning groups see here)  It is a way of working that goes beyond the completion of a topic or theme set by the adult in which certain concepts are covered through teaching to one that is more akin to a research approach where the educator is a co-researcher alongside the children exploring how young children learn both individually and as part of a group.

For Suzanne, progettazione is an approach where children and teachers are learning, they are collaborators, researchers and teaching each other. The educators are observing the children at a level that is informing them about how they are learning as well as what fascinates them within the project.  It is a complex multi-layered learning situation for all concerned where the educators document the children’s knowledge about the project, as well as their own learning styles and development and analyse this information to improve themselves as educators.  There is a mutual respect between children and educators and the project is driven by the teachers and children together.

For Debi, the children are not guided to cover a range of topics or themes but rather learning situations are created that generate a context for discussion, expression and the contesting of ideas in many modalities and ‘languages’ about the world. Children learn through being offered these generative contexts and provocations that enable children to discover learning for themselves. Progettazione therefore promotes educator development, the co-construction of knowledge as part of a learning group and should be in relationship with the children’s families. In this way, families are invited to learn about the group as the progettazione progresses and not just their individual child at the end.

Another good descriptor about progettazione can be found here at: https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/65

And look here for more information on the general guiding principles of the Reggio Emilia schools. http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/in-dialogue-with-reggio-emilia.html

“If we believe that children possess their own theories, interpretations and questions, and that they are co-protagonists in their knowledge-building processes, then the most important verb in educational practice is no longer to talk, to explain, to transmit, but to listen.” 

Carlina Rinaldi (1998)

Carlina Rinaldi in the quote featured above speaks about how our image of the child affects how we teach. If we see them as empty vessels then our practice is to fill them up with facts and knowledge of our own. However if we believe that children are capable of thinking, of making hypotheses and interpretation and posing questions of their own then rather than fill up the child or transmit knowledge to them, we instead listen to them and most importantly, act upon what they say, to make a choice about what happens next by considering the multiple perspectives shared in the group.

Suzanne also reminds us that we have to agree as team of educators working together what these tricky words such as progettazione, project, topic and theme mean to each other.

“We have had many dialogues about themes and projects and what exactly these words mean for us, and how we can use them in a larger circle of educators around the world. After all this world of ours is shrinking in the sense that we can collaborate online… this means we need to have an understanding of each other. For example the word kindergarten means something quite different when I am in Jenin and Germany from when I have been in Canada and USA – so I find when starting with progettazione we also have to come to some kind of agreement on the language of the progettazione so that we have a common understanding, otherwise I think it is easy to walk away from a meeting thinking we are all in an agreement about where the project is starting from and what direction it will initially take… to discover that all the educators take completely different directions from each other.”

Progettazione therefore we could say in an approach that:

  • is co-lead by children and educators working together
  • is a flexible and open approach that is open to modification and multiple points of view
  • is a form of professional development for teachers (a research approach)
  • happens as part of a learning group collaborating together
  • where observation is used to understand the learning processes of the children as well as well as the construction of knowledge within the learning group
  • involves family engagement during the process of the progettazione
  • involves many languages of expression, to discuss and hypothesise ideas and thoughts
  • requires agreement amongst teams of educators  upon what the term means to them

For Suzanne, an example of progettazione was when she worked at a bilingual school that had at its heart a research question about language…… since they were profiling in language, to understand how children acquired and used language(s) was very important. For example how much did the children know, how did they communicate, how were they learning language and how were non-verbal children communicating, which language was the strongest, how do children learn a second or third or fourth language? She had a ”project” with the children where each of the four groups were exploring different things that each group had shown an interest in… the group she worked most closely with at the time was exploring space, which turned into an exploration of colour and size.  But it was through this space exploration that she observed the children’s language and how they communicated their ideas.  They also had regular meetings analysing their notes, films, photos etc where they not only discussed how the projects could move forward in the sense of what the children were interested in… but also what they were learning about the children’s language and how this information could enable them to be better teachers.

For Debi, who works in the Reggio Emilia tradition of a pedagogista (but also with an arts background) an example of progettazione began with children making observations of the daytime sky.  There was a certainty that the moon was in the sky at night and the sun was only in the sky during the day.  One day, the moon appeared in the sky during the daytime which provided an occasion to challenge this certainty.  What began as discussions about the description of the sun and the moon turned into a context for generating ideas about why this might happen.  Following this event, the learning group (of about 11, 3-4 year olds) seemed to be talking more about the relationship between the sun and the moon, rather than as two separate and isolated phenomena.  They talked about the power, that was held inside the sun and moon and power that emerged between the two.  What appeared to be descriptors about power were maybe, as educators hypothesised using collected traces of documentation to analyse were the genesis of thinking about gravity and energy.  It was during these year long explorations of the relationship between the sun and the moon that educators also researched how playful approaches to using digital media could be used in ways for children to co-construct and express ideas of their own thinking.

Progettazione we could then say is an approach to children’s learning, about educators learning about learning and about making that learning visible for analysis, for acting upon and deciding what to do next.  A final stage is the publication of summative documentation that  makes visible the co-research of the adults and the children.  Progettazione cannot happen without what Carlina Rinaldi calls the “Pedagogy of Listening” and does not really occur when children are working in isolation of each other.  It forms in the relationship and interaction of others; other children, other educators, other families and the community.

“Listening to children’s theories enhances the possibility of discovering how children think and how they both question and develop a relationship with reality. This possibility is magnified when it occurs within a group context that allows for the experience of others to be shared and debated.”

https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/59

Thank you for reading,

Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

Suzanne Axelsson blogs at interactionimagination.blogspot.co.uk

Debi Keyte-Hartland’s blog can be found at debikeytehartland.me

Other links
https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/progettazione-reggio-inspired-teaching-in-dialogue-with-the-learning-processes-of-children/