Participation, Pedagogical Documentation and the Design of Empathetic Learning Contexts

remida_piazza_prampolini_2005aAt the weekend I attended our Sightlines Initiative conference entitled “All Our Futures”.  Sightlines Initiative for those who might not know is the UK reference point and member of the International Network of Reggio Children.  We are an independent organisation promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education. As an organisation we promote the values and principles of what has become known as The Reggio Approach to learning to our members who work in many different types of settings, organisations and schools across the UK together with friends connected throughout the entire International Network.  Too see more about our work, see here.

There were fabulous and thought provoking presentations by Moira Nicolosi, a pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, and Louise Lowings, head teacher of Madeley Nursery School in Telford. Both spoke passionately about the ways in which participation of families in the life and being of schools is a necessary condition for the educational experience of children which included how we use documentation as traces for parent participation.

Carlina Rinaldi was quoted underlining the difference between taking part in something such as education and school as opposed to being a part of education and school.  The latter being the experience to strive for.

Working in an Ecology of Connection

We were shown several small projects and traces that revealed that learning is always in a state of relationship.  One revealed how a young child formed two lengths of wire in clay into curves, with both ends secured into the clay, producing a double loop.  This gesture was named by the child as ‘cat’.  Another child, in response to the cat, took a piece of clay and placed several wooden rods into it in a vertical position declaring this gesture to be ‘rain’.  A further transformational idea in relation to the previous two ideas was when the child who made ‘cat’ picked up a tissue, and carefully spread it out and balanced it upon the cat,  declaring it was now ‘covered cat’.

These small and powerful gestures started out as a small idea but were transformed in dialogue with materials into a bigger and shared idea.  This is turn was documented and made visible, and it is in this act that, “The beauty of the small gesture if we make it visible becomes more powerful and thus makes it more generative” ie, that it is more likely to happen again (L. Lowings).   In this way, as L. Lowings continued, it reveals how it is that, “Children are working in an ecology of connection.”  Connection to ideas, each other, to the world, to everything.   Nothing is separate, nothing is isolated, it is always in relationship and connective.  Indeed what we may think is ‘off topic’ often is not, but rather a possibility of a different way of thinking.  (V.  Vecchi (2010)

Designing Contexts Empathetic to Children’s Ways of Learning

Vea Vecchi in her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia (2010) speaks about the way in which children establish intense relationships with the reality being investigated.  Another short project shared was an investigation into children’s reality and relationship to chairs in restaurants.  It was a part of bigger project in which children’s graphics were to fill spaces and places within the city. Each school chose a place in the city, for example a coffee shop, or restaurant or a shop and made a graphic gift in relation to that space.

In the particular project explored, the challenge was raised together with families and children about the issue of sitting at a table in a restaurant.

 

Many conversations were encouraged with children, designed to find out about their relationship to restaurant chairs.  Many comments were collected (documented) and then analysed to find familiar threads and points of research that could be explored further.  In this example there were three possible threads, one that was about the boredom of waiting, a second about ideas for play and third the pleasure of relationships.  All of these threads could be researched with the children but the choice of the boredom of waiting was chosen.

Starting from the words of children they thought about what they could relaunch and it was the central idea of transformation that connected ideas about how children transformed table objects, how chairs could be sat upon in a variety of ways, something that they called dis-assembled sitting) and the transformational idea of the chair itself and of what else it could become.

The role of the adult in these situations of learning were described as:

  • designing and setting up experiences and provocations to encourage discussion with the child
  • to realise contexts for children to exchange ideas and thinking with each other
  • choosing ways to put together the group
  • to revisit previous discussions and drawings made to verify, evaluate and reflect upon
  • to document strategies of learning for discussion, comparison, exchange and interpretation

The Choices of Documentation

On the second day, a small group of conference attendees stayed on to share work and questions with Moira Nicolosi.  Although those sharing were exchanging thoughts and artefacts that were  personal and pertinent to the participants and settings involved there were several threads arising that related to the relationships and choices of pedagogical documentation.

Documentation of course begins with observation.  But there is a choice to be made before documenting regarding HOW you are going to document and WHY, and for what purpose.   Different languages require different approaches.  For example, it is difficult to document musical or movement based experiences with a written form of documentation alone. We have to choose not only our tools but also our approaches.  Will someone document the experience whilst another acts in the role of teacher, will the educator involved combine both teaching and documenting, will you focus on everything that is happening, or do you base it on a hypothesis you are forming or have.

We then make choices as to how we use our observations (our narrative traces of the children’s experience) to talk about their strategies, their interests and motivations to decide what to propose next.  You need to know how to start from your observations, you have to think about how you choose to document these experiences as well as choose how to group children with proposals relevant to their own research.

It maybe an approach to make choices of what materials and provocations you maybe using but it is another to choose learning contexts that support the generation and elaboration of ideas and thinking amongst the group(s).  It is a constant dialogue between the mutual contexts of learning between materials, languages of expression, the children themselves and the ideas being explored.

There maybe times when we get stuck… the times where nothing seems to be happening (although I am convinced they are but we are just not seeing what is directly under our noses).  At these times we have further choices. They could be:

  • to offer another language of expression to see what that raises up
  • to go back into your documentation to find common threads and traces of experience (these in turn become your hypothesis
  • to co-work with another, to gain another perspective)
  • to go back and revisit previous project threads
  • to be in exchange with other children, in other groups, to share ideas, messages, stories with each other to find out further questions and motivations
  • to mix up groups, so that children can be gathered in groups according to interest and common research questions

It was wonderful two days and I hope that I have been able to articulate well some of the thoughts and ideas arising out of the annual Sightlines Initiative conference that always holds connection with the ethics, values and principles that are of the Municipal Infant Toddler and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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Drawing and Young Children: Re-Connecting With Our Own Poetic Languages

I was privileged last week to be invited to run a workshop about drawing, teaching and young children.  My work began by collecting many different types of drawing media (inks, watercolours, charcoal, soft pastels, oil pastel, pencil crayons of different varieties, aqua crayons, non permanent and permanent markers, graphite, charcoal pencils to name a few.  I also collected together many different surfaces of ‘paper’ including brown paper, textured paper, acetate, corrugated card, cartridge paper of different weights and colours, paper napkins, bubble wrap, tissue and mulberry papers, transparent, opaque and paper of differing sizes.  I aimed to create a palette of surfaces for where the marker would encounter its resting place.

imageIn the book of the exhibition, Mosaic, Marks, Words, Material by Reggio Children (2016) they challenge the viewer to engage in their own poetic thinking in order to see and savour the exhibit.  I took this challenge back to the educators with whom I was working with, to challenge our own thinking and to reconnect with our own creative and expressive languages.

In order to truly see and value children’s poetic expressions the book challenges us to engage wth our own sense of the poetic, the expressive, the imaginative, the metaphoric, so the day was taken up with two practical sessions.

dscn1293Session One involved the testing and hypothesising about the materials offered, finding out what they can do, their affordances, their ways of making marks upon the surfaces available.

 

dscn1301Session Two involved the use the materials and the knowledge gained from the first session to express an idea, to offer a poetic representation in marks and materials.  The idea was to represent a personal idea or something related to the ideas being constructed in the research within their own classrooms together with young children aged 3-4.dscn1303

Many ideas were explored, ideas about houses that belonged in the sky, the difference between noise and music, the representation of a song, of a piece of embroidered fabric, an angry sky, a happy sky,  the phases of the moon.  In doing so, the educators became makers of marks that entwined with the surfaces and narrators of their own metaphors and poetry.  At times, the talk was rich, at other times, we were silent in with our thoughts and making.  We engaged in a kind of slow movement, giving time to the activity of drawing and the expression of thinking.

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What became apparent was that it was the surface of the drawing (often created by ripping up and attaching pieces to another surface that drove and motivated us to make marks.  A finding also of the educators in Reggio Emilia – it was if the surface ‘spoke’ to us of how it could be used and encountered.  The materials therefore were not passive surfaces awaiting marks but surfaces that sought to be  dressed with markers in empathetic and reciprocal ways,  It made me think of how important it is to offer different types of surfaces of ‘paper’ to children, not just as a way of offering diversity but as offering different languages upon which to verbally speak upon.

The sessions enabled educators to become familiar with the materials and drawing instruments, understanding both their affordances and difficulties and thus be better prepared to understand from the child’s point of view how they might experiment and make-meaning with the characteristics and properties of the materials.  It also enabled educators to ‘feel’ how it is to express an idea, how vulnerable it can be, and how we discover and experiment with different strategies (just like the children do) to offer our marks as communicative and expressive acts of a visual nature.

If you work with children, give time to you to draw for yourself, and in doing so, you will notice more of what children do and perhaps, as Malaguzzi famously said, perhaps your teaching will be different from before.