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.”

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.  



Questions of Enquiry in Early Childhood Education: Making New Connections in Learning

QuestionsI have been reading an article today on psychotherapy and found the dialogue about therapeutic questions that help with connecting experiences and providing new spaces for new thinking a parallel to my work in education.  You can read about Text Network Visualisation for Psychotherapy, below.  I have used it extensively here to think about how I use questions with young children in group contexts as a way of exploring their ideas.

In the web article, Gregory Bateson’s Double Bind is used as a descriptor to suggest ways of transcending limiting situations, where there appears to be no other choices. A kind of damned if I do and damned if I don’t kind of situation. “Various psychotherapeutic practices focus on expanding the range of possibilities for the patient, offering more choices than is currently available. “

It made me wonder about how in group teaching I can use questions and provocations to try to expand the range of possibilities of ideas in a group rather than to recall what is already known, or to explore just one singular idea.  Sometimes I listen in on groups, or talk to teachers and educators afterwards who tell me how they struggle to find ways of working with or hearing the ideas of children that move beyond the simple naming and classifying of things.  Sometimes ideas have arisen but from those children who always voice their ideas or that the ideas are repeated over and over but without a sense of evolvement.  It struck me that I sometimes struggle with ideas in adult group contexts when expected to come up with ideas of my own.  I often think that I need time to do my best thinking.  So what else, other than to give time to the process can help facilitate the connection and emergence of multiple ideas or multiple ways of seeing a situation or phenomena in contexts of group learning.

Questions that elicit Yes and No responses

We all know that these questions are problematic if you are wanting anything else other than a simple yes or no.  The best way I try to avoid these types of questions are to anticipate answers in my own head.  These questions are good if I want the children to choose whether they would like a piece of fruit or not…but not a wise question if used in the context of being ‘polite’ with children as in “Would you like to come to lunch now?’ as this invites the possibility of saying no.  Sometimes a here and now answer is required, but often in the group context of learning these questions bring a sudden and harsh end to lines of enquiry and therefore no elaboration of ideas.

Questions that explore the edges of ideas

seed_germinatingThere are times when a small idea might arise that I want to explore a bit more, lets say a child has thought about how a seed germinates by expressing an idea that the ‘inside blasts out of the seed’.  In this situation there is now a small idea that can be offered back to the group to explore and expand the edges and thus increase the shape inside of that idea i.e. it becomes more complex.   We want to take the small idea, and literally make it bigger, to give it more of an edge.  In the web article, they suggest questions that begin with:

“What will happen if…?” or “What prevents/stops […]  from…?”

So, in this scenario…what will happen if the seed doesn’t want what is inside to blast out, what will happen if the blast doesn’t happen, what will happen to the blast if the seed says no?  Or, I could ask, what stops the blast from hurting the seed, what prevents the blast from destroying everything, what connects the seed to the blast?  These are all questions that can be asked to explore the periphery of the idea.  They generate more information, more explanations, more theories as to the relationship between the seed and the blast.  It gives me and the children more to work with.

Questions that explore the inside of the idea

The questions below are question starters that are suggested in the article that help us to zoom into an idea now that the idea has become more complex.

“How…” and “What specifically…” and “What for?” and “How do you mean that…”

In this scenario about the seed and the blasting, these could be expressed as; how does the blast come out of the seed, what powers the blast, how does the blast begin or end, how does the seed know when it will blast out, what does the blast do?  These questions for young children are helping them to explore the inside of their own or their groups idea. They deal with the specifics raised in the previous set of questions.

The problem with Why?

The article also explores the difficulty of this question.  This question I see written down, underlined, and asked over and over again.  It is often a question that young children (as well as adults) find very difficult to answer. As identified below, the why question can also just hark back to known causes, already identified ways of thinking and being that are not new, that are reductionist and do not hold the possibility to think about ideas in a different way.

“It’s good to avoid questions like “Why” as they only reveal past causal logic: the patient will explain his own interpretation of the origin of his problems, which will already be reduced because of the limited possibilities available at the moment.”

So when faced with the situation when your mouth and mind are begging you to ask why, what to do instead?

A good way to avoid asking “Why” is to replace it with “How” and “What for”.

So in my questions I aim is to ask those that hold within them the possibility to look at ‘the thing’  or idea in a new way and from a different perspective and to be generative of new ideas and thinking.  In this way, the idea that literally begins as a seed, gives opportunity for more complex thinking and evolvement over time.  It doesn’t just end with the exclamation of something wonderful…but has a life to it so it too can literally grow.

Of course all of this has to be tempered with an awareness of not bombarding children with questions, but instead asks of us to be more considered and prepared in our approaches to asking questing that generate new connections in learning.  For me, writing the questions down, anticipating possible answers based on my knowledge of the group and then imagining further clarifying questions helps with the process.  When I find myself suddenly in front of a group and I start asking without having the time to think is when I find it really difficult to listen carefully to the children as my mind is elsewhere thinking about my next question rather than listening to what they have to say.

In my next blog I hope to look at how ideas can grow and evolve by moving between modalities and languages of expression.