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 debikeytehartland@mac.com

Advertisements

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.

IMG_1383 (1)
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.”

IMG_0832
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.  

images-1