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.

Reflecting on Words that Describe the Processes of Children’s Learning

“The teachers art is to CONNECT in real time, with the LIVING bodies of the children with the LIVING bodies of KNOWLEDGE.”
Stephen Nachmanovitch(1993) 

Free Play: Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

A page from my visual notebook


I have been part of a wonderful learning encounter in Toronto, Canada called #Rhythm2016 with Diane Kashin of Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research.  As part of this experience I have been reflecting on words that are important to me that describe characteristics of children’s learning.  The above quote is never far from me.  It is a quote that reminds me about the relationship between children and their learning and the art of the teacher.

Vitality is a word I am drawn to as a way of describing learning that is alive, fluid, under constant construction and grows in organic and multi-directional directions. It is an energy that must also be present in our teaching.  There are deep patterns of curiosity  and connection to the natural world that go beyond interests in popular culture and schema’s of play.  Relationships to more interrelated and more complex ideas about interconnectedness and interdependencies of nature.  At the centre of their research is a characteristic or drive to find out what it means to be alive in a context of other things that are also alive and full of vitality.

Encounter is a word that for me describes the way in which children experience the world through shared experiences with other children and adults.  If learning is constructed as part of a social group, the encounter serves as either a planned invitation or spontaneous happening or indeed as an offering of an idea that holds a different point of view than your own.  I prefer this over provocation, as it is suggestive of a meeting or coming together of materials, experiences, concepts together with children, ideas and thoughts.

Felted compositions made as part of a workshop at #Rhythm 2016


Playfulness is the word that I try hard to embrace in everything that I do.  It is a characteristic of my own play as an artist with coloured wools and yarns as I felt and create layers of colour representative of my ideas and thoughts in the present time.  Sometimes this playfulness is shared with others, sometimes I am alone in my playfulness.  Working with children, this playfulness is a site of exploration, testing, hypothesising and messing about (David Hawkins) Messing About – Hawkins Centers of Learning




Exchange is about how I consider the foster and generate situations that enable children to exchange ideas with each other so that differing and multiple perspectives can rise up and be ‘encountered’.  It is also a characteristic of teacher/educator reflection on children’s learning  – a process involved with pedagogical documentation that enable teachers/educators to come together to revisit traces of documentation collected (photographs, notes, dialogue, video etc.)  in order to reflect on the strategies of learning of the children and to re-present/re-construct it for further audiences to make further layers of interpretation.

Collaboration for me is the process of working together on a shared idea of the group to realise ideas and thoughts.   It could be a shared question or hypothesis, a shared point of view, a shared representation of thinking in a creative way.  The process of collaboration is linked to the social constructivist idea that children learn socially with and from and each other.  It is the opposite of competition.

Mutual Learning is for me the result of interaction in the process of collaboration.  Again an interdependent process of evolvement in multiple directions rather than progression in linear and hierarchal ways.  Learning that happens as a result of social interaction, in a context of playful encounter, exchange and collaboration.

These words have resonated and reverberated with me this week together with many, many more.  I leave you with this quote that I took from Ontario’s exhibition of Reggio Children’s The Wonder of Learning that for me prompted and reminded me about these words and introduces others.  It feels important to recognise the connectivity of these works that give that vitality to learning.

“Encounters between curiosity, spacial sensitivity and a places ‘invitations’ give form, energy and rhythm to moments.”

The Wonder of Learning Exhibit, Ontario , Reggio Children