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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Looking for Learning, Seeking Meaning-Making: Fostering meaning-making in a learning experience

img_0610There is an abundance of ideas and activities all over Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook that point to many ‘learning experiences’ and activity set ups for young children and whilst I appreciate the sharing community of educators all wanting to do the best by children, many of these pinned activities are devoid of their learning context, observation and interpretation of children’s active enquiries.

Active enquiries can be both long and short, last a half an hour to a year, they can be enquiries that originate in children’s own interest and can be offered to children as potential interest and engagement. Ideally they are “educative experiences” (1938, Dewey) that connect the learner to the wider world, across time (continuity) and do not separate out learning into tightly defined subject areas. Many of the shared activities on social media are maybe as Dewey describes as “mis-educative”, a learning experience that may have some benefit to the children, for example, it may address a function to manipulate small objects and thus practice fine motor control, but overall lack that connection to bigger ideas and meaning-making. A mis-educative experience is one in which a child has not reflected or thought about and so has obtained nothing for mental growth that is lasting. (Experience & Education, 1938, Dewey).

img_1398Meaning-Making can be defined as a process by which children’ make-sense’ and interpret situations, events, objects, and conversations either alone or with others. It is a process by which children bring what they already know and have experienced together with the current context of learning. “Learning as meaning-making” is an expression that concerns how children are actively engaged in constructing and making sense of the situation – the context, objects, materials and relationships. Therefore the contexts and situations that we create in our classrooms should be rich and generative in possibility for such deep level, educative learning.

In the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, I have seen how they work with big ideas that offer many interpretative possibilities such as birth, the city, the future, that relate to how children may think about these things. They investigate how children form relationships with materials and matter, and with each other, and within the wider communities of their city and the World and in this way the teachers avoid these unconnected, small, segregated examples of activities that constitute much of what is shared on social media. This need not be confined just to those schools in Reggio but can be grown by us all in all our contexts with young children.

project-2016-img_2801-1I was asked recently about my own personal enquiries and questions that I have about children’s learning that help me to plan and observe children in the process of their meaning-making. Below are some of the questions and enquiries that I hold onto and I offer these as alternatives to help us all think about the best ways of being by children’s side.

  •  Does the learning situation/context off opportunity for meaning-making and can the children bring prior knowledge to the current context? What do they already understand?
  • Does it hold a rich context for children to touch, hold, see it in its original context?
    Is the situation/context of learning generative of multiple perspectives and different points of views?
  • Can children discover information and knowledge for themselves rather than being told?
  • Does the learning experience/situation offer potential for continuity and evolvement of ideas over time?
  •  Are there rich and multiple sources of information that you can draw upon?
  • What do you anticipate what may happen in the learning situation/context? (So as to be open to the unexpected and unusual.)
  • What are the strategies and approaches of the children to learn about the subject(s)?
  • How do they use strategies of imagination and fantasy as part of their meaning-making?
  • When moving between languages of expression (the hundred languages of children) how are children re-elaborating their ideas and thinking?
  • How are we supporting the children to discover more about the subject for themselves? 
  • Are our questions generative of further learning, that open up to increased diversity of thinking and ideas – asking how, what if questions rather than why?
  • How do we re-propose to children their ideas and thoughts so as to raise up challenge, further debate, different ideas (diversity)?

It isn’t as easy as browsing pictures online, but with thought and curiosity we can engage with children’s’ active enquiries and generate rich and educative learning situations that foster creativity, critical thinking and imagination of both children and educators.