Why ‘exchange’ and not ‘study tour’? A Sweden/UK Educational Exchange Project.

A Visualisation of Exchange? A swedish teacher came across this composition, the young child described it as the cold country (the tiles) and the green country (the green pegs) and in the centre is the middle land. I couldn't help but see this image as a metaphor for the reason of exchange.

I have just returned from a visit to some of the pre-schools of Stockholm, Sweden.  It was an exchange opportunity organised through Sightlines-Initiative for three settings I work with here in the UK with three pre-schools in Stockholm.  In just three weeks time, our Swedish colleagues come to visit here in a mutual exchange and for participation in our daily school life with young children.

The schools involved in this exchange are all ‘inspired’ by the context of education seen in the Reggio Emilia pre-schools of Italy.  To be inspired does not mean to copy or replicate their experience but instead to reflect upon the ideals and values they place upon the environment as a teacher, pedagogical documentation as a tool of research and making learning visible, group learning, a rich image of the child and the connectivity between school and community.  What is interesting in the Swedish context is that here lay a group of schools examining these principles of Reggio within their own Swedish cultural and educational context in a similar way to how we are examining the principles of Reggio within our own UK context.

Exploring the variation and tonal hues of autumnal colour. A five year olds composition.

This experience so far is very different from a study tour, which usually focuses upon a go, see, and find attitude that I liken to a kind of teacher tourism led by the knowledgeable pedagogical guide. This exchange felt more like a live, feel, and hold experience.  There was something quite unique in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, even though for just a week.  Often it was overwhelming, as at first you have so many questions that are all aimed at orientating yourself around what you are experiencing and making sense of what you see and feel, but then as time progresses, your questions become more refined, more attuned to finding the similarities and differences between the two positions and practices.

Doing this as part of network feels important too, as it is not just about your classroom, or your individual school but how an experience like this can challenge the culture and perception of education, family, child and childhood for a connected group of people.  This is important because it is only together in the situation of a small group can we exchange our points of view and reach a possible third way of understanding or a new creation of knowledge and understanding.

Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) describe this process of constructing new knowledge in relation to children, but I propose here to use it as a way of understanding how as a group of educators we too construct new ways of being and seeing.

“Recognizing the function and peculiarities of conversations held in small groups is an important step for adults.  It requires the adult to shift from a perspective which sees language as the revealer of thought to that of language as a generator of thought…It is possible therefore, to see group discussion as a way in which to create knowledge instead of being simply a method for discovering who has what knowledge.”

On a study tour, it is easier to go and see and find out ‘the ways to become a better educator’  – a process of osmosis where you seep up the educational chlorophyll from others who have already discovered a better way of being.   This experience of mutual exchange has enabled through active participation, constructive dialogue and group discussion/exchange a method to generate and create new ways of being and thinking.

As a group of children sat talking and painting about the transformation of colour in leaves, another group drew what this discussion group looked like. It reminded me of the importance of seeing ourselves from a different perspective.

What I have also understood so far from this experience, is that there is no one singular way of improving education, there is no necessary singular path to follow, we must not become all the same even though we may share values and principles. I understand too that there is still also the danger of responding to what is seen and felt and lived passively i.e. to become consumers of thinking rather than searching for the possible third way.  We might do this in looking for answers on the how and what we want to change and develop, the bits that we already know don’t quite work.  We have to be wary of just looking for solutions, too easily.

So, instead of focusing on the what and how of our educational practices maybe we should first start from the point of view of why.

Our questions in the beginning were:

  1. How do we work with parent participation (strategies, methods, building mutually respectful relationships)?
  2. How do we think about the environment and prepare materials and areas for children and children’s own choices?
  3. How do we construct meaningful learning projects?

But the danger lies in how we might replicate what each other does in our differing settings and doing so in admiration of the other but without critically deconstructing the experience and reconstructing new possibilities.  I realise now that our questions should have been written instead as:

  • Why do we want to encourage parents to be active and equal participants in the educational experience of young children?
  • Why should we think about the educational environments and materials we offer children?
  • Why construct meaningful learning projects for young children?

Maybe, if we think about the why, learn to construct and reinvent our knowledge and practices continuously we can indeed transform our practices.

References

Bonilauri and Filippini (2000) in Reggio Children Reggio Tutta: A guide to the city by the children.

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Experiencing and doing is not sufficient for learning

“Experiencing and doing, is not sufficient for learning: doing the same thing time and again does not necessarily lead to learning; the activity in learning – the doing – is indispensable but not sufficient for learning.  The reflection, the evaluation, the analysis that allows for reviewing the process of doing is a vital element that allows for the extraction of information and making sense.  Thus learning implies doing, revisiting the process of doing and evaluating the consequences of doing.”

Julia Oliveira-Formosinho  “Togetherness and play under the same roof:  children’s perceptions about families”  European Early Childhood Education Research Journal.  Vol 17. Number 2, June 2009

The above quote reminds me of how Loris Malaguzzi talked about the idea of school as being a place where children not only ‘did’ with their hands but also connected their hands (and doing) with their minds (thinking).  I have become really interested in how early childhood educators support the process of children ‘making sense of their doing’ by revisiting and evaluating learning experiences, especially as part of a group.  It doesn’t always seem easy or natural at times.

 There are no doubt some challenges and dilemmas, such as:

  • Observing and documenting the doing only, how do we recognise and make visible how children make sense of their participation in an experience or encounter?
  • Exploratory/sensory/messy based activities are and have been considered essential to early years development and learning.  How do we evaluate which of these types of encounter enable the critical thinking?
  • Finding time for group reflection.  How do we pause the action to aid reflection?

It would be great to hear how others in the field approach these challenges or indeed if you have a different perspective to share.  Leave your comments in the box below.