Children, Empathy, Ideas and Ecology

maxresdefaultLoris Malaguzzi, recalling Barry Commoner wrote that ‘ecology will be the alphabet of the future.  We are part of an ecosystem…our earthly journey is a journey made together with the environment, with nature, with the cosmos…[This is] where the great web of our lives exists.”  

Malaguzzi, inspired also by Gregory Bateson was convinced that children, like adults are not separate to and living upon this world but are an integral part of it.  They both talk about the interconnectedness of systems within systems and that nothing can ever be seen in isolation.  It is not about parts or wholes but as a self organising, relational learning system.

There is a vitality and life to learning with and of children, they do not stand still, instead they move with energy making connections between connections.  They are multi-modal with each modality informing each other.  I think this is what Malaguzzi describes in the 100 Languages of Children poem, not of individual languages of learning but of how each language relates to another and another and so on…

This way of working in a relational way or as they say in Reggio ‘a pedagogy of relations’ can make teaching complex.  There are no timetables or boxes, or set lessons for children… we might think we are teaching this and that, but to the young child, their learning is a continuum of continuums.  I have seen this first hand, when observing children in a nursery aged three and four – they move like the wind or as Nora Bateson commented like synapses in the brain and so do their ideas.  Some teachers might think they are flitting, or not settling, or even worse, off task, but they are often deeply engaged in ways in which many an adult has forgotten to be.  Learning flows, not in one direction, but in many directions with no beginning and no end, a complex web, Malaguzzi’s idea of the great web of our lives.

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Patterns of the trees music, Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK

 

So what happens when children are in nature, feeling their ecological connection to the greater web?  Sometimes they might stop and wonder, in awe of leaf, or feather, or tree, but hardly do they stay still at that.  They don’t want to label or categorise what they have found for that is to put it into a ‘box’ that takes it away from the interconnected web.  Instead their curiosity leads them to wonder about the connections it holds, how it is organised with others that might be similar or different.  They look for Gregory Bateson’s ‘patterns that connect’.

When finding many curled up leaves that had fallen to the ground, one group of three year olds commented that they were poorly, that they had lost their Mommy who was waiting for them back up in the tree. The fact that the leaves were curled up inside one another was to them a way of giving each other a hug. Children elsewhere, also three and four try to take the leaves back, returning them to whence they came as if they had become lost from each other.  Another group of children, upon seeing a crisp golden floor of leaves used them metaphorically to create a leaf blanket “to keep the tree warm.”   Another child, made a scarf for a single autumnal leaf “Because it‘s winter and it will get cold, that’s why it has fallen off the tree.”

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

Children have a strong sense of empathy with the world and the cosmos.  One could argue that this empathy is already inside of them and that it comes out in conditions that foster and generate it.  It makes me feel sad when children are ‘taught’ about empathy, as if it isn’t a capability of theirs already waiting for itself to become known.  Children reveal their deep sense of emotional and physical empathy with the leaves of this world as they do with trees, branches, and insects etc.  It is important to cultivate this disposition already inside of the children if they are to maintain this empathy with the world and its finite resources.

So what are the conditions for thinking and expressing ideas about empathy in education?  Well, we could begin with listening to children, and holding always a strong respect for their ideas no matter how off beat, or naive they seem.  We need to see ways of learning and the ideas themselves as connected, as living and moving interconnected thoughts.  We must encourage the multiplicity of ideas and points of view as “everything has more versions” says Nora Bateson, where those somersaults in thinking  (Diane Kashin) can somersault in multiple directions and dimensions.  And then there is us, as teacher or parent, or friend by children’s side who need to act with such sensitivity, who look for relationships, the places where there is energy, to examine and become open to look for the unexpected as a possibility of newness, of fresh ideas, of different ways of thinking about something, even something as simple as a leaf.  Often children’s play is not given the due attention it deserves.  In paying attention we notice their relationships to knowledge and experiences that have the potential to transform theirs and our own beliefs.  However, and so very sadly, this way of being is at odds to a system that values education as an efficient measure of instruction where children are packaged as individual units ready to serve at the altar of the economy.

There is often a poetic approach to children’s construction and expression of ideas.  Art and aesthetics is seemingly at the heart of learning in education for young children therefore we must put it at the heart.  That doesn’t mean we fill children’s time with make and copy crafts, or make use of templates, worksheets and other reductionist methods.  No, we must attune ourselves again with the poetics of learning, find a new aesthetic of a relationship between learning and teaching.  One that listens carefully to children, to the things they wonder about and notice in the world. As Claudia Guidicci of Reggio Children discusses:

“If we perceive children’s learning to be multi-disciplinary, trans- disciplinary, poly-sensorial then we must embrace and generate the contexts for children to represent, communicate and express their thoughts through diverse mediums and symbolic systems.”

So, if we are to generate the right contexts for children we need for children’s meaning-making to be a central attribute of our pedagogy.  They need to have an emotional engagement with the subject and we have to understand the meaning of their and our own experiences.  Children are so open to the world of ideas of the world, to the possibilities that science has to offer us as a way of asking questions.  Their ideas are often related to bodies of knowledge in the field of science, philosophy, anthropology, ancient wisdoms… as educators we need to be open to knowledge beyond what is safe and already known to us. As Jeff Bloom reminded me, their ideas are also fantastical and although might not be ‘accurate’ are often at the edge of scientific exploration and should become the questions that scientists and the such need to be asking to see further ways of knowing our world.

In doing so we enable children to make their own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgements, and feelings of others. Transformative learning like this develops renewed and flexible learning as well as being rich in critical thinking.

So I am an advocate not just of being in the world, the woods and the forests, the beaches and caves, the meadows and oceans but to listen with ones whole body to make it possible to see what ourselves and children love and wonder about when encountering these places.  Ideas and places are interlinked, they are not separate.  If I have learned anything from closely observing young children it is that they are, to quote Gregory Bateson “…living in a world of ideas.” and those ideas are as connected to the world and the cosmos as it is themselves.  

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Mathematical Thinking: Play and Learning

Mathematical Thinking: The Pattern of all Patterns

images-5Tomorrow I present at the British Council here in Dakar, Senegal.  The subject is the creative ways of approaching mathematics in the classroom.  From the teachers I have had the honour of speaking with thus far in my trip there seems to be a significant challenge in how mathematics can be taught in an engaging and meaningful way that is less theoretical and is more about and of life.

I have said many times before that:

“I believe we are all born with creative capacities but suspect that these creative dispositions become diluted and lost when conditions for creativity are not met.”

Our challenge as educators, as parents and as contributors to children’s learning experiences is to create the right kind of contexts for learning to germinate, grow and evolve.  So how can we do this?

imagesMuch of it depends on how we view mathematics.  Do we see it as a separate subject form science, writing, the arts, geography?  Do we teach the theory of maths and not its application?  Do we consider the outcome more important than the process of arriving at a possible answer?

Fry (2015) challenges us to consider the pattern and nature of mathematics.

“Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns – predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles…

Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving.”

Fry (2015) The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation

Unknown-1So we can see how Mathematics can be about life here in Senegal.  About how we survive and thrive with patterns and predictions of weather, to population growth in the cities that grow at exponential rates, the maths of engineering, of construction, of building, of tides and ecology. It is inherent in daily life too, the trips we make to the local boutiques, when tabs or monies owed lists are made, in the handling of money for exchange in the market, in the measurements of the street tailor, and the space, patterns and designs in the local cloths and fabrics.…mathematics we could say is part of the woven cloth of everyday life here.

images-1Children’s mathematical thinking originates in the meanings they make in their play.  We can help in this by making their school based mathematical lessons MORE PLAYFUL.  Research backs this claim up.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF,2008) in England commissioned a review into mathematics and teaching to find out about the effective learning in mathematics.  It concluded that effective learning in mathematics was:

  • Rooted in playfulness
  • Social in nature

DCSF (2008) Williams Maths Review 

images-3The Williams Math Review reminded us also that the young child’s intrinsic drive to play and learn ‘through play’ was the beginning of ‘messing around’ around with mathematical ideas and creative thinking.  More alarming was that it was usually us as adults who failed to recognise this, or failed to offer an environment where this could take place.  In other words, these thinking dispositions were being diluted and lost because conditions for mathematical and creative thinking were not met.

images-2However there are things that we can do and can take charge of in our own classrooms.  We can look for local materials and situations where mathematical thinking can be explored and played with.  We can set smaller groups of children off on smaller tasks whilst teaching others, we can create caravans of learning experiences giving opportunity for mathematics to be lived and be connected in more contextual and culturally meaningful situations for children.

UnknownWe have dilemmas to face that are not just relevant here in Senegal but are part of a global crisis in education that asks for us not to continue the separation of subjects into distinct and different categories, to stop the over reliance on testing of knowledge and to embrace and create conditions for creativity, innovation and critical thinking to emerge.

Our challenges are:

  • To make the teaching of Mathematics more context and culturally meaningful for Senegal’s children?
  • To re-imagine Senegalese children as rich and competent makers of meaning?
  • To ensure our children are higher order thinkers, that display habits and minds of mathematical thinking?
  • To cross the threshold between the theoretical classroom of yesterday and the concrete and practical classroom of tomorrow?

Therefore, we must for our children create the fruitful conditions for learning in our changing world.  To create contexts that value children’s play with ideas that involve mathematics and combined subjects and images-4dispositions.  We have to change the dominant paradigms that continue to emphasise testing and instruction and that view the child as weak, and empty.   This is not just for children in Dakar, Senegal but a call for revolution in education globally supported by a growing global family.  If we fail, then I fear we will leave our children unprepared for the challenges in our rapidly changing society and economy.  We can make change in our own classrooms, and each small change is an act of humility towards a better place for the children of Senegal.  Together as a community, we can begin to extend those ripples of change and find our supportive partners who wish for the same goals.  The goal being to give the right contexts for learning that enables Senegal children’s to thrive and seek meaning in their cities and places that they live, breathe and play.