Learning Groups: Thinking, Pedagogical Documentation and Collaboration

For many years now, I have been interested in the essence of group encounters with children.  By this I mean, contexts of learning that are group based rather than individual encounters of learning.  I am very much inspired by the context of the Municipal schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy schools whom have as one of their many features the idea that learning happens in relationship with others, other children, teachers, family and the community and who place great value on participation and collaboration.

This feature of group learning is something that can be overlooked by educators working in dialogue with the characteristics, values and features of the educational project that has become known as the Reggio Approach.  By this I mean we can easily become seduced with their use of loose parts, light, mirrors, or natural material as ‘must have’ resources in a Reggio inspired context and lose sight of the importance in their work of group learning.

In the book Making Learning Visible (2001),  a collaboration between Harvard University and Reggio Children they label four distinctive features of a learning group. (See below). They define a learning group as a collection of persons who are …”emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products and making meaning – an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning with others.”  P 285.

They also say that when children and adults are in groups “…we encounter new perspectives, strategies and ways of thinking…we also learn with others modifying, extending, clarifying, and enriching our own ideas, and those of others.”

I suggest therefore that in our pedagogical documentation, and in our shared analysis of the documentation we should be looking for the ways in which children elaborate upon ideas (of their own and others), upon how their ideas grow and evolve,  and transform and generate new ideas as well as looking for understanding of concepts and meaning.  So often we can get caught up in the awe and wonder of what children say and do that we forget to seek ways of identifying and giving shape to the learning and using what we find out as way of thinking about what could be looked at next.

Four Features of a Learning Group

  • The members of learning groups include adults as well as children.
  • Documenting children’s learning processes helps to make learning visible and shapes the learning that takes place.
  • Members of learning groups are engaged in the emotional and aesthetic as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.
  • The focus of learning in learning groups extends beyond the learning of individuals to create a collective body of knowledge.

Making Learning Visible (2001) Project Zero & Reggio Children

The first feature reminds us of how we are a part of the learning group as much as the children are; learning alongside of the children about the subject and about the ways in which they construct knowledge.  As the children inquire, so do we.

An example of this was with a group of children aged 3-5 at Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK  In identifying with a tree within their environment, children expressed a deep sense of empathy with the tree, giving it human characteristics and applying what they knew about being safe and secure to the needs of the tree.  In doing so, they said that the tree had a family, a mother, a father and a grandmother. and that it had feelings.  What at first appeared like a fantastical and imagined idea of the children turned out with further research to hold truths in it; revealing that the forest floor, sometimes referred to as the world wide wood, was indeed a place of relationships, where some trees acted like parents to other trees, sheltering them and coaxing them to grow.  It was important in this scenario to find out more about the relationships of trees, not only to fuel our learning but as to be able to listen more closely to the evolving ideas of the children working together as part of a group.  There was also the shared inquiry of the educators as to how children developed a sense of empathy with living things.  This inquiry was a central act of the research of the teachers into children’s learning processes and acted as a driver for project work on an ecological theme.

The second feature focuses on the bigger picture of learning.  In the ‘Making Learning Visible’ book referred to earlier there are countless examples of mini group documentaries that focus on making explicit the doing, the learning and the possibilities of meaning.  The documentaries give a visual shape to what has been seen yet remains open for others point of view also to be heard.  In this case, the documentaries act not as the singular, descriptive, truthful point of view but as a means to creating other points of view by asking others ‘what do you think’?  When documentation is used in this way, then future plans can be made based on what the children themselves are making sense of, where they might be stuck, and used to anticipate what they might do next.

At Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK documentation is collected in group learning journals, and are brought to the weekly pedagogy meeting together with examples of children’s drawings or clay work so that multiple educators can read the documentation, make sense of it, discuss and contest it and come to an inter-subjective re-reading of the documentation.  From this point, plans are then made in how best to offer future situations of learning, or generative contexts that enable children to evolve their thinking and the construction of knowledge as part of a group.  It is the pedagogical documentation itself (the notes, photographs, dialogue) that are collected in the moment with the children that becomes the tools in which learning is debated and given shape and visibility.  It is these in the moment notes that are also used directly with the children, serving as a memory of their previous learning.  When the group documentation is used in this way it fosters a strong sense of a learning group identity.

The third feature focuses on emotional and aesthetic aspects of learning as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.  What engages the children’s desire to learn and what excites them form the focus of enquiries of the group.  Choices are made to the types of materials and their presentation and the situations offered to the children that make the everyday and ordinary unexpected and extraordinary. Children engage in different modalities and ‘languages’ of learning to make meaning and construct knowledge and the environment is considered as a place of working, feeling and thinking together.

An example of this is in how a group of 3-4 year old children at Ashmore Park Nursery who were keen planters and gardeners became interested in the hidden shape of seeds when viewed under a digital microscope.  The unusual shapes they saw challenged their thinking that all seeds were the same and generated new ideas about germination and the powers that enabled it to happen.  The seeds were examined, drawings and clay models of their theories made, dance and movement work explored the energy and visual aesthetics of germination and children considered the feelings of the seeds as they germinated.

The fourth feature encourages the idea of the learning group being a community of learners that focuses on collective as well as individual knowledge.  It is the collective engagement that helps children and educators to work in ways that support the comparison of ideas, participation in discussion and the resulting modification and elaboration of ideas of the group where collaboration is a strong ethic.

In a project at Madeley Nursery School, Telford, UK that explored the idea of a Hive Machine for Bee’s, 3-4 year old children co-constructed knowledge about how a group of bees that were found dead in the school’s roof died.  Together they discovered and explored ideas about how bee’s saw the world, how they moved, what they liked in the school’s garden and how they communicated. Together they made a special garden for the bee’s, a bee home and generated a group story of what happened to the bees.  The story was shared to other children, families and educators through an animated story which they made and the story was later communicated back to the dead bee’s in the roof in a system of pipes and funnels that connected the dead bee’s to the tablet that ‘told’ the story.  In doing so, this groups identity was created through collaborating together on shared research into the systems and cycles of bee’s and they achieved more by participating in learning as part of a group, than what they could of achieved if only working and playing as individuals.

There is a strong discourse in schools and in educational organisations that for children to work in a group is a characteristic of a more academic route to learning.   Although I don’t disagree with the importance of play and a playful approach I do not want to, at its expense lose these features of learning that happen through groups, where the sharing and elaboration of each others ideas are able to provide multiple points of view, democratic participation and where their opinions and ideas are valued, heard and shape the future of their learning.

For those who are Reggio inspired, group learning is such a strong feature of the educators of Reggio Emilia that can go unnoticed in favour of beautiful things, environments and glossy documentation of the individual if we are not careful. So let us not forget the beauty, the aesthetics, and the emotional engagement of working in groups with children and let us find ways to document that learning in ever more meaningful ways that help us transform education from a model of transmission to one that listens to children and sees them as they do in Reggio as protagonists of their own learning.

The Language of Describing the Complexity of Learning

“Survival of the fittest, in a world that worships development and ‘forward-moving progress’ makes us all lost and small.”

Nora Bateson. 2016.  Small Arcs of Larger Circles

I have been thinking lots recently about the language we use to describe learning and learning processes. We often speak in linear ways of ‘progress, ‘development’ and ‘next steps’. We also speak sometimes as if everything is so simple and and fixed ‘oh it’s process over product… it’s a schema!”  I wonder if this is at all what I see with children. Indeed, Loris Malaguzzi defied describing learning in such progressive and fixed steps when he used the metaphor of a tangled bowl of spaghetti more akin to Deleuze and Guttari’s vision of a rhizome.

Both metaphors see learning as a tangle, with no beginning or end.

I struggle too with terms such as ‘personalised learning’, ‘Individual learning’ even ‘uniqueness’. Not that I believe we are all the same or learn in the same way, No! But rather that it takes away the social and contextual connection to learning, that ability we have to learn together, our interdependencies between each other and the environment. A tree does not grow alone, it is connected via the forest floor to other trees via a vast network of roots and fungi sharing nutrients, energy, and some might say ‘knowledge’ of a kind that helps other trees to live in the forest. We are nature, not just a part and I think more and more about the mechanistic educational language that we use that seemingly separates us from each other and the world.

In these times especially, words like relational, collaboration, mutuality, connection, participation, sociability, togetherness seem more apt descriptors as well as values to hold dear.  The learning I see in young children is not linear or staged, they do not learn in unique silo’s they bounce ideas and thoughts off each other, it’s complicated, multidirectional and relational. Learning is, and is in a relationship to other children, their families, ourselves, friends, the environment, that tree, and everything within it. It’s the interaction that takes place between the parts that enables it to sit as tangled bowl of spaghetti rather than a singular thread of pasta.  So let’s think deeply, widely, broadly, upwardly, inside out and upside down about our ways of describing ‘learning’ so that we can begin to find richer ways and concepts of describing something as beautiful as ‘learning’.

But we must also err on the side of caution too… because in finding new language and concepts we must still remain flexible and open to new learning and not close it down with newly created fixed truths.  We must avoid just creating another set of polarities or binaries than define learning as linear or fixed.  I remember Gunilla Dahlberg talking about this, and saying we must shift from the paradigm of I, I, I, to And, and, and… as in this way we see things from multiple perspectives, all at the same time and thus in new and ever evolving ways.