Drawing as Meaning Making

drawing-428383_1280From Reggio, we gain a perspective that the ‘Arts’ are equal and co-existing ‘languages’ of expression and communication alongside and together with other ‘languages’… of science… of mathematics… of written word… of other ways of knowing, describing and discovering the world.  Loris Malaguzzi’s poem,  “No Way.  The Hundred is There” is testament to this.

Materials in this context are referred to as languages that are capable of expression and communication.  However, it suggests that there is an ‘if’ there somewhere…

When working with early childhood educators, one of the things we jointly ponder is the issue of skills and if children must first understand the sensorial properties of materials such as clay, paint, charcoal, markers etc. to then be able to engage in representational, expressive and communicative purposes.  It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters what is this, what does it do… and then through working with it begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  It fits in a similar way to how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a slide between a realm of finding out and discovering something before using it to represent a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication.”  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts.”  Therefore children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

I have wondered for a long time about the process of meaning making in the act of drawing and in how that meaning can change across contexts.  For example, I once watched a child drawing and after a while she declared to me it was a cat.  Not five minutes later the same child, with the same drawing, told another educator it was a Beanie Baby.  I was left feeling a little confused, was I wrong in my understanding or was the child wrong?  Well it’s not going to be the child, it will always be me!  It seems that meaning making is far more complex, and more generative of multiple meanings that may or may not connect in a logical manner.

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I find this particular drawing that I have shared in a TEDx talk here fascinating for many reasons.  One, because it ‘represents’ something huge and almost unimaginable neatly contained on a single piece of paper.  Two, because the narrative that accompanies it is a strong theory of how the sun and moon works, and three, because of the sheer beauty and aesthetic of it from such a young child.  But let us not (as my good friend and colleague Louise Lowings would say) get lost in the awe and wonder of it, for it might just dazzle us into doing and thinking nothing more about this,  thus remaining fixed and static in our thinking ourselves.

If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking.  The meaning as dictated through her words would be interpreted as singular and unchangeable.  But Sylvia Kind is suggesting that there is more going on.

Now I read this drawing as a generative act, of thinking in action; an active inquiry into the physics of the solar system.  She is not only actively trying to explain something but is also at the same time trying to understand it herself through the action of drawing and the movement of the material across a piece of paper.  It is rich in description, of texture, space, relations, and movement made in a social engagement between where the marker meets the paper, herself and the atelierista who was observing and listening closely to what she was doing and saying.  There was an interaction, it was intra-active.  An encounter between what she knew and what she was becoming to know.  She was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them (to paraphrase Pablo Picasso).  And of course there is the interaction with the audience, of who views the work and their own meaning making.

When viewing a piece of art, we the audience, are drawn into the world of making sense and meaning of that work, its materials, its presence.  The meaning making therefore does not just lie with the maker but simultaneously sits with the viewer too.  Therefore, this drawing is part of a complex creative process, what Sylvia Kind calls an object of encounter rather than just being a drawing that represents or communicates a fixed thought.  Rather it is relational and interdependent.

“…art as a state of encounter considers that meanings are constituted in the relation between things and in movements of disruption of previously held ideas.”

Kind (2010)

So, and with this is mind, I can now re-describe this drawing as an encounter or event as being:

Sociable – and in a process of exchange with others (those who were present but also those who are and become the audience)

Relational – in that it is situated with an interdependent system of meaning making where ideas connect with those in the making, a sense of becoming

Generative – of negotiating meaning, knowledge and understanding with and through the materials to hand

 

It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children

Hold an awareness – of our our positioning as audience or partner in drawing

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static

To act in researchful ways  – to listen and look out for the connections and interdependencies that become visible (or remain invisible) between the context – maker – audience that are not always logical in order, or sequence

To adjust our pedagogy – to see drawing and other forms of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions and not a simple linear journey from developing skills and understanding affordances to expression and communication of a singular thought.

 

References

Malaguzzi, L.  No Way.  The Hundred is There.  Accessed at http://www.thewonderoflearning.com/history/?lang=en_GB on 5th March 2017

Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.

 

 

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Pedagogical Documentation in Challenging Times

I have in a much loved notebook that I took on my first ever visit to Reggio Emilia, now nearly 17 years ago, a quote by Malaguzzi scribed on a singular page saying that, “We can only change what we can take charge of.”  In these times of undignified, ugly and paradoxical world ‘leaderships’ whose ideals are seemingly to separate, to isolate, and to deny or describe as fake those very things that others hold dear, what is it, that we can take charge of in order to change, when the ordeal seems so great?

The process of pedagogical documentation we could say is to observe and listen closely to what children say and do, to use those collected traces of documentation (film, photographs, dialogue, artefacts etc) to help us and others to understand how children think and act, which thus helps us then to make better choices of what to do next, and makes visible in the final process of publication the image of the child we hold and have discovered.  It makes visible their dispositions, their meaning-making, the things they value and their ways of seeing the world.  In learning to read documentation it helps us to expand our minds to what is capable and possible when we work in ECE and to what our own image of the child is.  To read more about pedagogical documentation read here and visit Diane Kashin’s wonderful blog at Technology Rich Inquiry  specifically for pedagogical documentation here.

I wonder, therefore, if pedagogical documentation holds within it a power to make visible the values of a humane society?  If we look at the words associated with humane in a Thesaurus we are confronted with terms such as compassionate, kind, kindly, kind-hearted, considerate, understanding, sympathetic, tolerant, civilised, good, good-natured, gentle; lenient, forbearing, forgiving, merciful, mild, tender, clement, benign, humanitarian, benevolent, charitable, generous, magnanimous; approachable, accessible.  These are characteristics I have seen in documentation, where children are often engaged with thinking about nature in relational ways.  They demonstrate and live out these ways of being that offer alternative and multiple viewpoints on climate change, natural systems and relationships in nature and between themselves and ourselves.  Where children exclaim that they can hear daffodils drinking, that trees have songs, that things that grow can talk to each other, that everything belongs together.

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Woodlands Primary and Nursery School. Telford. UK

This drawing was made by a 4-5 year old and details a small stand of trees that the children, as part of a small inquiry group had been exploring.  There was one tree that was different, (can you spot it?)  It didn’t have all its leaves like the others did.  Children had suggested many ways of dressing it up in party clothes to make it feel better or to try and look for its parents.  The comment made after the drawing was complete was;

“We are all together with the tree’s. There is a sad one without any leaves… we can join it.”

For me, this drawing and the sentiment expressed of joining with it reminds me of the human spirt of collaboration, of empathy and the need to be with others.  It offers the antidote to what our news-feeds are filled with, in terms of politics, governance and leadership.  In making it visible and thus sharable we can take charge of what we value in our classrooms, and change what people see.  It worked for a small town called Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, could it do so on a global basis too?

Pedagogical documentation for me has always offered opportunity to share stories that offer a different perspective to the singular story or narrative being told  (the dominant discourses) and thus offers us a way of creating conditions for change to emerge.  The one thing we can take charge of is what we share, so instead of sharing the latest fad for what is on the light box, share instead something powerful, that just might, turn minds to a more humane way of being.

In this video, children from the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia share with the global community their thoughts and thinking about Peace.  It is something we can all learn from.