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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Journeys into Learning: Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

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A sketch of some fabric found in the markets of Dakar that represents visually my idea of learning.

Many of you who read my blog will have noticed how I refer to the rhizome as a pattern in which I see learning happening in both children and adults.  (Deleuze and Guttarri).  It is akin to how the internet works – a way of jumping and landing on different pads or nodules before leaping off to another that connects.  The spaces inbetween are not separators of knowledge but rather nutrient rich connectors of learning that for me signify the act of the journey of learning.  I like the metaphor of the rhizome because it is in movement in many directions with no specific entry or exit points, or particular progressive pathways and is akin to Loris Malaguzzi’s metaphor of learning being like a tangled bowl of spaghetti.

My journey into the philosophy of Loris Malaguzzi and the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia began 15 years ago. As an artist working in education undertaking residences I first came across the work of the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia as an exhibition.  I never got to the exhibition that first time, I just had the leaflet…I just didn’t know how important it was going to be for me.  I began by reading, from the source…for me it was all about the library, real bookshops at the time and not blogs, Pinterest or Facebook back then!  Reading from the source is so important, it is easy to become lost in interpretations of an approach to learn that is so context based to the city of Reggio Emilia and Italian culture.  So my advice is to head to the Reggio Children website and find your countries official Reggio Children International Network Member organisation, which is NAREA in the US or Sightlines Initiative in the UK, others include Red Solare, The Reggio Children Institute, REANZ and purchase books published by Reggio Children and books recommended by them.  It is easy to get lost online…

sightlines-w200But then again, getting lost is kind of fun and can lead to the unexpected finds.  I prefer to head out with tools of orientation.  At Sightlines Initiative we talk about ‘Tools and Compasses’ that enable us to go on a journey of discovery, of research but without getting lost in the wilderness.  These are found below and reprinted from ReFocus Journal 6

Values and characteristics in developing environments of enquiry : Tools and CompassesUnknown

Values & principles

  • Education is the creative process of exchange, relationship and understanding of oneself, others and the world.
  • Things, people and experiences … The educative environment looks for skills to be in relationship and explore relationship. Dialogue is of absolute importance in its everyday practice.
  • The awareness of constant possibility is a quality not a limitation. Knowledge is always open to change.
  • ‘Listening and exchange’ is the dominant idea in pedagogical practice, and in the learners’ experience. The practice of listening, with evaluation and synthesis, enables educators to interpret children’s competencies and questions, and to construct with them suitable learning experiences.Images & understandings
  • Children are rich in curiosity and competence and potential. They are innately sociable and seek exchanges.
  • The desire and predisposition to be curious, to enquire, to make hypotheses, to interpret and make sense of our experiences, to be in relationship, are basic human characteristics.
  • Our learning spaces need to be imbued with the characteristics of curiosity and sociability.Qualities & tools
  • Time – space – attention: the three basic tools, creating the foundation of the educative experience. They are the responsibility of educators in collaboration with children and their families.
  • Dialogue is a tool as well as a value. Regular and detailed reflection processes are vital in the co-construction of sociable learning journeys.
  • Pedagogical documentation is a vital tool in making learning visible for educators, children and families.
  • The schoolspace needs to be a studio for exploration, examination and exchange. It can be a place where we bring the tools of all our senses to the business of learning, across all the perceptual modes and expressive languages.

These values and characteristics keep close to me, as a guide for all that I do and approach.  They are not a set of rules, or closed actions, but rather a set of thoughts for not getting lost.  They came out of discussion and many years of thinking about what happens in Reggio Emilia and in how we construct together our own creative and reflective pedagogic practice here in the UK.  Reggio is often referred to asa mirror, not to initiate or copy but to use to reflect on our own contexts.  

I share these thoughts in the spirit of encounter and exchange.  For me these two important words are framing my year of 2015 – to encounter new perspectives and to be IN exchange with as many a possible.  Facebook, blogs and Twitter make that all so much easier now.  A wonderful blog and connected post to this is a recent connection made with Diane Kashin.  This blog is inspired by her own on the same subject, so go see that too, comment on them, and contemplate your own journey and tools and compasses.  I attach an image of a quote she shared here that encapsulates the idea of journeying with others.

malaguzzi-quote-rive

For further information please feel free to contact me here or through Sightlines Initiative.