The One Hundred Languages (of Learning and Teaching)

Loris Malaguzzi wrote a poem called The One Hundred Languages of Children, and a Hundred, Hundred More.  In it, he described his vision for how children learned through and in a hundred languages interweaving their ways of meaning-making and finding out about the world.  The poem continues to say that, school steals ninety-nine of these ways of learning; a metaphor, I think for saying that certain ‘languages’ are perceived as more privileged than others.   It continues to say how school also taught that subjects and disciplines did not belong together, but should instead be separated and isolated and whereby imagination and fantasy did not belong to the process of learning.

In this foul world of school as perceived by Malaguzzi , I would imagine that assessment procedures take on a similar form of separating and privileging some subjects over others.    In this world of assessment we would enter the scary place of levels, grades and assessment bands that would become, if we were not careful, drivers of pedagogy where the assessment procedure dominates what teachers do. It could lead to situations where we know in our hearts it is wrong but we press on ahead regardless in order to meet the grade or level or band.   We could end up teaching to the levels and its goals, and it would seem an imperative to progress in this linear fashion and as fast as possible to reach the narrow and lifeless goals.

In this foul world, when learning might be considered as ‘slow’ or not making the ‘right’ level of progress then it could lead to panic in the face of not making the deemed level of requirement.  Teaching could quickly become a mode of delivery, instruction and correction where nobody thought anymore to question the levels, or to even think if they were appropriate. Teaching then could take away that playful and imaginative strategy of children to research and make-meaning and might lead instead to stressful situations where learning is forced and prescribed and chdren’s mental health begins to suffer.  I wouldn’t want to live in that foul world, would you?

When we really observe children to see how they learn (and I mean to observe and not what it has often become, as a practice of assigning children’s actions to lists of curricula outcomes) then we see how they are interested in finding out (researching) about the world that they are a part of, they form theories about this world and their relation to it and in elaborating their knowledge they build upon their theories and come to find out more.  For example, they find their way into code systems, symbols and signs though multiple ways, through playing with the ideas of writing, through drawing in symbolic ways, by imitating older children or our own actions and behaviours, and their innate curiosity creates the researchful instinct that children have to begin to learn how to form letters and words because they desire to discover ways of communicating in meaningful contexts. Gunilla Dahlberg of Stockholm University says of children’s desire that:

“Our starting point is that children are exploring the world and trying to create meaning. Being attentive to their creation of meaning creates desire, and when children have desire, they also learn other factual knowledge.”

As teachers we must find a multitude of ways (our own hundred languages) to support these desires so that the process of learning meets with the ways of how children, indeed all humans learn.   If children have a hundred languages (and more) then as teachers we must teach in a hundred languages (and more).

Yet it is happening… this foul world exists, and it exists increasingly for many children and teachers and educators who often dream of a different reality…  so it is with joy when I receive stories, when people are brave of bucking this trend and share what they do, and when I see in practice those places that has at its heart, a committed and practiced set of principles that asks of themselves how learning happens within a living system and what the effect of that learning process is on their children.

A group of schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus Plus strategy and spanning four countries England, Sweden, Spain and Romania are going to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live and the environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that Loris Malaguzzi described.  We are calling the context of learning as transdisciplinary and reference the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson who indeed influenced the thinking of Loris Malaguzzi.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses boundaries of subjects and invites methodology(ies) of working together from different perspectives and points of view to create NEW conceptual ideas, ways of knowing, of being, that combine, integrate and move beyond the capabilities that a singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of relationships.  It is complex, it is a tangle of spaghetti, it is a knotted, nest of noodles.

We are also encouraged by Gunilla Dahlberg who asks of us to problematise that which has become overly familiar, that which we take for granted, so it is important for us to also to step aside and see anew from different perspectives that which we have considered as the type of learning that supports children in their meaning-making.  So we are also interested in why the role of imagination and fantasy seems to be so important, why metaphor seems to accompany children’s learning, why the poetics of learning (the Hundred Languages) that we see in what has become known as the Reggio Approach are considered as essential processes of children’s learning.

Our aim is to richly describe from a transdisciplinary point of view, learning/research/living (and I deliberately group these elements together as one) that is of itself transdisciplinary and to find the possible new ways of describing, observing and evaluating this learning/research/living that sees children and ourselves as within this living system of education; as whole beings, interconnected, and always in relation to each other and the context we find ourselves in.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to an education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the data or crunched number sets that the foul world tends to see them as.

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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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