The One Hundred Languages (of Learning and Teaching)

Loris Malaguzzi wrote a poem called The One Hundred Languages of Children, and a Hundred, Hundred More.  In it, he described his vision for how children learned through and in a hundred languages interweaving their ways of meaning-making and finding out about the world.  The poem continues to say that, school steals ninety-nine of these ways of learning; a metaphor, I think for saying that certain ‘languages’ are perceived as more privileged than others.   It continues to say how school also taught that subjects and disciplines did not belong together, but should instead be separated and isolated and whereby imagination and fantasy did not belong to the process of learning.

In this foul world of school as perceived by Malaguzzi , I would imagine that assessment procedures take on a similar form of separating and privileging some subjects over others.    In this world of assessment we would enter the scary place of levels, grades and assessment bands that would become, if we were not careful, drivers of pedagogy where the assessment procedure dominates what teachers do. It could lead to situations where we know in our hearts it is wrong but we press on ahead regardless in order to meet the grade or level or band.   We could end up teaching to the levels and its goals, and it would seem an imperative to progress in this linear fashion and as fast as possible to reach the narrow and lifeless goals.

In this foul world, when learning might be considered as ‘slow’ or not making the ‘right’ level of progress then it could lead to panic in the face of not making the deemed level of requirement.  Teaching could quickly become a mode of delivery, instruction and correction where nobody thought anymore to question the levels, or to even think if they were appropriate. Teaching then could take away that playful and imaginative strategy of children to research and make-meaning and might lead instead to stressful situations where learning is forced and prescribed and chdren’s mental health begins to suffer.  I wouldn’t want to live in that foul world, would you?

When we really observe children to see how they learn (and I mean to observe and not what it has often become, as a practice of assigning children’s actions to lists of curricula outcomes) then we see how they are interested in finding out (researching) about the world that they are a part of, they form theories about this world and their relation to it and in elaborating their knowledge they build upon their theories and come to find out more.  For example, they find their way into code systems, symbols and signs though multiple ways, through playing with the ideas of writing, through drawing in symbolic ways, by imitating older children or our own actions and behaviours, and their innate curiosity creates the researchful instinct that children have to begin to learn how to form letters and words because they desire to discover ways of communicating in meaningful contexts. Gunilla Dahlberg of Stockholm University says of children’s desire that:

“Our starting point is that children are exploring the world and trying to create meaning. Being attentive to their creation of meaning creates desire, and when children have desire, they also learn other factual knowledge.”

As teachers we must find a multitude of ways (our own hundred languages) to support these desires so that the process of learning meets with the ways of how children, indeed all humans learn.   If children have a hundred languages (and more) then as teachers we must teach in a hundred languages (and more).

Yet it is happening… this foul world exists, and it exists increasingly for many children and teachers and educators who often dream of a different reality…  so it is with joy when I receive stories, when people are brave of bucking this trend and share what they do, and when I see in practice those places that has at its heart, a committed and practiced set of principles that asks of themselves how learning happens within a living system and what the effect of that learning process is on their children.

A group of schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus Plus strategy and spanning four countries England, Sweden, Spain and Romania are going to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live and the environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that Loris Malaguzzi described.  We are calling the context of learning as transdisciplinary and reference the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson who indeed influenced the thinking of Loris Malaguzzi.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses 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 singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of relationships.  It is complex, it is a tangle of spaghetti, it is a knotted, nest of noodles.

We are also encouraged by Gunilla Dahlberg who asks of us to problematise that which has become overly familiar, that which we take for granted, so it is important for us to also to step aside and see anew from different perspectives that which we have considered as the type of learning that supports children in their meaning-making.  So we are also interested in why the role of imagination and fantasy seems to be so important, why metaphor seems to accompany children’s learning, why the poetics of learning (the Hundred Languages) that we see in what has become known as the Reggio Approach are considered as essential processes of children’s learning.

Our aim is to richly describe from a transdisciplinary point of view, learning/research/living (and I deliberately group these elements together as one) that is of itself transdisciplinary and to find the possible new ways of describing, observing and evaluating this learning/research/living that sees children and ourselves as within this living system of education; as whole beings, interconnected, and always in relation to each other and the context we find ourselves in.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to an education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the data or crunched number sets that the foul world tends to see them as.

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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/