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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Learning Groups: Thinking, Pedagogical Documentation and Collaboration

For many years now, I have been interested in the essence of group encounters with children.  By this I mean, contexts of learning that are group based rather than individual encounters of learning.  I am very much inspired by the context of the Municipal schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy schools whom have as one of their many features the idea that learning happens in relationship with others, other children, teachers, family and the community and who place great value on participation and collaboration.

This feature of group learning is something that can be overlooked by educators working in dialogue with the characteristics, values and features of the educational project that has become known as the Reggio Approach.  By this I mean we can easily become seduced with their use of loose parts, light, mirrors, or natural material as ‘must have’ resources in a Reggio inspired context and lose sight of the importance in their work of group learning.

In the book Making Learning Visible (2001),  a collaboration between Harvard University and Reggio Children they label four distinctive features of a learning group. (See below). They define a learning group as a collection of persons who are …”emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products and making meaning – an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning with others.”  P 285.

They also say that when children and adults are in groups “…we encounter new perspectives, strategies and ways of thinking…we also learn with others modifying, extending, clarifying, and enriching our own ideas, and those of others.”

I suggest therefore that in our pedagogical documentation, and in our shared analysis of the documentation we should be looking for the ways in which children elaborate upon ideas (of their own and others), upon how their ideas grow and evolve,  and transform and generate new ideas as well as looking for understanding of concepts and meaning.  So often we can get caught up in the awe and wonder of what children say and do that we forget to seek ways of identifying and giving shape to the learning and using what we find out as way of thinking about what could be looked at next.

Four Features of a Learning Group

  • The members of learning groups include adults as well as children.
  • Documenting children’s learning processes helps to make learning visible and shapes the learning that takes place.
  • Members of learning groups are engaged in the emotional and aesthetic as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.
  • The focus of learning in learning groups extends beyond the learning of individuals to create a collective body of knowledge.

Making Learning Visible (2001) Project Zero & Reggio Children

The first feature reminds us of how we are a part of the learning group as much as the children are; learning alongside of the children about the subject and about the ways in which they construct knowledge.  As the children inquire, so do we.

An example of this was with a group of children aged 3-5 at Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK  In identifying with a tree within their environment, children expressed a deep sense of empathy with the tree, giving it human characteristics and applying what they knew about being safe and secure to the needs of the tree.  In doing so, they said that the tree had a family, a mother, a father and a grandmother. and that it had feelings.  What at first appeared like a fantastical and imagined idea of the children turned out with further research to hold truths in it; revealing that the forest floor, sometimes referred to as the world wide wood, was indeed a place of relationships, where some trees acted like parents to other trees, sheltering them and coaxing them to grow.  It was important in this scenario to find out more about the relationships of trees, not only to fuel our learning but as to be able to listen more closely to the evolving ideas of the children working together as part of a group.  There was also the shared inquiry of the educators as to how children developed a sense of empathy with living things.  This inquiry was a central act of the research of the teachers into children’s learning processes and acted as a driver for project work on an ecological theme.

The second feature focuses on the bigger picture of learning.  In the ‘Making Learning Visible’ book referred to earlier there are countless examples of mini group documentaries that focus on making explicit the doing, the learning and the possibilities of meaning.  The documentaries give a visual shape to what has been seen yet remains open for others point of view also to be heard.  In this case, the documentaries act not as the singular, descriptive, truthful point of view but as a means to creating other points of view by asking others ‘what do you think’?  When documentation is used in this way, then future plans can be made based on what the children themselves are making sense of, where they might be stuck, and used to anticipate what they might do next.

At Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK documentation is collected in group learning journals, and are brought to the weekly pedagogy meeting together with examples of children’s drawings or clay work so that multiple educators can read the documentation, make sense of it, discuss and contest it and come to an inter-subjective re-reading of the documentation.  From this point, plans are then made in how best to offer future situations of learning, or generative contexts that enable children to evolve their thinking and the construction of knowledge as part of a group.  It is the pedagogical documentation itself (the notes, photographs, dialogue) that are collected in the moment with the children that becomes the tools in which learning is debated and given shape and visibility.  It is these in the moment notes that are also used directly with the children, serving as a memory of their previous learning.  When the group documentation is used in this way it fosters a strong sense of a learning group identity.

The third feature focuses on emotional and aesthetic aspects of learning as well as the intellectual dimensions of learning.  What engages the children’s desire to learn and what excites them form the focus of enquiries of the group.  Choices are made to the types of materials and their presentation and the situations offered to the children that make the everyday and ordinary unexpected and extraordinary. Children engage in different modalities and ‘languages’ of learning to make meaning and construct knowledge and the environment is considered as a place of working, feeling and thinking together.

An example of this is in how a group of 3-4 year old children at Ashmore Park Nursery who were keen planters and gardeners became interested in the hidden shape of seeds when viewed under a digital microscope.  The unusual shapes they saw challenged their thinking that all seeds were the same and generated new ideas about germination and the powers that enabled it to happen.  The seeds were examined, drawings and clay models of their theories made, dance and movement work explored the energy and visual aesthetics of germination and children considered the feelings of the seeds as they germinated.

The fourth feature encourages the idea of the learning group being a community of learners that focuses on collective as well as individual knowledge.  It is the collective engagement that helps children and educators to work in ways that support the comparison of ideas, participation in discussion and the resulting modification and elaboration of ideas of the group where collaboration is a strong ethic.

In a project at Madeley Nursery School, Telford, UK that explored the idea of a Hive Machine for Bee’s, 3-4 year old children co-constructed knowledge about how a group of bees that were found dead in the school’s roof died.  Together they discovered and explored ideas about how bee’s saw the world, how they moved, what they liked in the school’s garden and how they communicated. Together they made a special garden for the bee’s, a bee home and generated a group story of what happened to the bees.  The story was shared to other children, families and educators through an animated story which they made and the story was later communicated back to the dead bee’s in the roof in a system of pipes and funnels that connected the dead bee’s to the tablet that ‘told’ the story.  In doing so, this groups identity was created through collaborating together on shared research into the systems and cycles of bee’s and they achieved more by participating in learning as part of a group, than what they could of achieved if only working and playing as individuals.

There is a strong discourse in schools and in educational organisations that for children to work in a group is a characteristic of a more academic route to learning.   Although I don’t disagree with the importance of play and a playful approach I do not want to, at its expense lose these features of learning that happen through groups, where the sharing and elaboration of each others ideas are able to provide multiple points of view, democratic participation and where their opinions and ideas are valued, heard and shape the future of their learning.

For those who are Reggio inspired, group learning is such a strong feature of the educators of Reggio Emilia that can go unnoticed in favour of beautiful things, environments and glossy documentation of the individual if we are not careful. So let us not forget the beauty, the aesthetics, and the emotional engagement of working in groups with children and let us find ways to document that learning in ever more meaningful ways that help us transform education from a model of transmission to one that listens to children and sees them as they do in Reggio as protagonists of their own learning.