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


A European Transdisciplinary Learning Research Project: Making the Parts ‘Whole’

IMG_1503I am part of an international group of researching schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus + strategy.  It spans four countries (England, Sweden, Spain and Romania) who are just beginning to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live in environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that we are calling transdisciplinary.   

We are referencing the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson, Edgar Morin and Loris Malaguzzi amongst others who each share ideas about learning that see it as, complex and tangled, without a beginning or end point, and that challenges ideas about learning and of seeing the world in separate subject areas (parts) with a simple linearity of progressional thought.  

In this way of documenting learning we are involving ourselves not just with languages of expression and learning but also with languages of evaluation.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to a living education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the objectified data or crunched number sets that the world of standardised assessment and testing tends to see them as.

Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007, p,37) warn us of the kind of abstract maps that we make out of theories of child development that, “…make us lose sight of what is really taking place in the everyday lives of children and pedagogues, since reality is more complex, contextualised and perspectival than the maps we draw, the descriptions we make and the categories we use…The child becomes an object of normalization… with developmental assessments acing as a technology of normalization determining how children should be.”

We are greatly concerned with this global problem of the normalisation of children through standardised tests and assessments that determines how children should be and denies them the complexity of being living and breathing subjects of a living system of education.  At the time this blog is being written the English government is considering how best to introduce, implement and administer a standardised test for four year olds whilst globally, PISA is developing and about to trial a standardised test for five year olds.   It is evidence towards a manipulating education system that values conformity and denies subjectivity and pre-packages children into discreet parcels of sameness that is considered as the norm in society.  Anyone who falls outside of this package, is excluded,  considered as in need of intervention, weak, and abnormal rather than having a differing point of view.  Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, cite Foucault (1977) who names this behaviour as dividing practices.  

Vea Vecchi (2010, pXV) describes transdisciplinary as, ‘…the way in which human thinking connects different disciplines (subjects) in order to gain a deeper understanding.”  It differs from interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary in that it is not just about connecting and  combining different academic subjects at the same time but is more about what happens when you do, what difference does it make, and what is it that is new, that arises from it? For Vecchi it results in a deeper understanding, for me it is like a new way of seeing in increasing complexity that sees the child and educator as rich, strong, subjective, relational and connected with a multitude of ways of constructing and expressing their own perspectives and learning within a living system.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses and connects perceived boundaries of subjects and invites methodology(ies) of working together from different perspectives and points of view to create NEW conceptual ideas, ways of knowing, of being, that combine, integrate and move beyond the capabilities that a a supposed singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of rich and complex border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of interrelationships.  It is neither to see the parts in insolation (separation) nor rather to regard the wholeness as what is important to study.  It is rather more likely to be the differing contexts, interconnections, and the relationships that are integral to the whole.  Nora Bateson (2016, p,157) describes this as systems thinking. She tells us:

“At the core of systems work is a search not just for details, but for patterns.  This is not easy with the epistemological limits of western culture, where the habit of applying notions of cause and effect has been rewarded over several centuries of cultural, technological, and theological development.  Systems thinking require us to see past those old scripts and into the world of interrelations.  To think in terms of systems is to suspend the version of reality of the wise scholar who looks through his binoculars or microscope and classifies parts of nature as he objectively sees.  This arcane character is replaced with another sort of scholar, one who is willing to see in several directions, seeking patterns of interaction.

I like this idea of being a researcher who is not searching for a certain truth but rather one who is able to see in transopic ways ie across multiple fields and contexts and is the opposite of myopic, the narrow and short fielded kind of vision, who is seeking to understand the variables of interactions and interrelations.   Nora Bateson continues to remind us that the complexity is in the ambiguity of parts and wholes:

“It is both correct and incorrect to outline parts and wholes.  Maddening though that paradox is for doing research, it is the only transcontextual way to account for the variables of interaction over time and in complex systems.” (p,160)

Nora Bateson then radically asks instead, “what happens if we begin to ask if perhaps the world is not made of parts and whole?  How can we describe it, study it and in fact … what is it?”  (p,162)

It is in this place of deep and complex uncertainty, that I now find myself in and am looking to describe with colleagues across different international contexts what learning is, how it happens and how it is best fostered and generated. The project itself is called Making the Parts ‘Whole’ and it is the first time that I am beginning to question this relationship of parts and wholes.  It is all rather fuzzy at the moment, but I feel that it is a good place to be as to be certain is to think I know the truth.  It makes me question such things I have seen as unquestionable such as child-centred and holistic learning and the relationship between teaching and learning (as if there is only one directional relationship).  All of it makes my mind swim, but I am excited nonetheless.  For anyone interested in hearing more about this project, and what it looks like in practice, then please let me know in the comments box below or by way of email to as there is an opportunity that as part of this project, we will be building a separate website where our shared learning as a research group shall be able to be explored in more depth.  


Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Dalberg, G, Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007).  Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care:  Languages of Evaluation.  2nd edition.  Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Bateson, N. (2016).  Small Arcs of Larger Circles:  Framing Through Other Patterns.  Axminster England: Triarchy Press.