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

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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.

towards-outstanding-in-writing-the-importance-of-drawing-001

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.