Pedagogical Documentation as a Tool for Thinking Differently

Refections on Gunilla Dahlberg’s presentation at the Sightlines Initiative conference London, 14th May 2016

IMG_3512I have just attended the Sightlines Initiative/Institute of Education conference about Loris Malaguzzi where Gunilla Dahlberg spoke about the courage to think differently.  The conference began with a rather subdued question and comments session where University lecturers shared their concerns about students who have grown up in the current national curriculum who are now ‘waiting to be told’ what to do… who find it ‘difficult to think’ beyond the statutory requirements of the official guidance and curriculum.  What would Malaguzzi of thought of this discussion I wondered?

510xR6NA+7LThrough reading his writings in the new book Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia edited by Vea Vecchi and Peter Moss and others it seems he would question our image of the student as much as he would ask us to think of our image of the child.  With a rich image of the child, the child who grows up into a student requires a rich educator, and a rich context in which the fruition of their thinking can emerge, grow and evolve.

Gunilla Dahlberg reminded us that:

“There is often a focus on what children can’t do.  So you have to prioritise documentation as a tool for changing your thinking.”  

There is a vitality and a reciprocity in documenting learning processes that enables a rethinking, a multiplicity of perspectives.  She suggests that we must stop focusing on what children (and therefore students) can’t do and to focus on documenting learning as a tool for changing thinking.  Blaming the student won’t do it.  But engaging in a process of pedagogical documentation might do it.

Pedagogical documentation is the capturing through photographs, dialogue, video, notes the experiences of children as a means of reconstructing the learning so that it can be shared with others to gain their point of view.  What we observe is always ever, only partial, and the process of documentation enables us to gain those other perspectives that can provide different meanings and interpretations of what is going on.  Gunilla Dalhberg described this as a strategy that can help others to rethink their own experiences and practice.

The Stockholm Project, that Dahlberg was involved in began as a small network , where people shared small snippets of documentation with each other to find and interpret meaning.  It was empowering and helped to prevent the fall back into the default position of what was safe and known.

Dahlberg reminded us of Malaguzzi’s words to, “Take care of intensity, affect and aesthetic vibration through “listening”.  What a wonderful description of an active pedagogy of listening that is vibrant and alive with potential.

Louise Lowings, a head teacher with whom I work at Madelely Nursery in Telford described the process of teaching in a pedagogy of listening as a constant dilemma:

“The teaching dilemma happens in the moment, there is a change, we look for change, our time is flexible, we are responsive and looking for relationships, of where the energy is, to look for the vitality in learning…we are not interested in the already known, but looking always for the unexpected and trusting in the process of finding and seeing this.  We see knowledge as contestable, or what we see and hear, interpret and re-present in documentation as contestable.”

IMG_3513This contesting is an important aspect of pedagogical documentation – our documentation as already mentioned is only ever partial, but documenting does not mean we are recreating the truth, but that we are offering an image of what we think was going on so that it can be debated, confronted, and challenged.  Therefore pedagogical documentation is a process of struggling to understand (the unexpected), to search for meaning with and through others.  Thus, pedagogical documentation leads to a transformation of thinking, it is a methodology for re-organising both thought and action.  Importantly in Reggio they do not document fixed outcomes, but generative processes of learning in action.

It is the act of pedagogical documentation that helps us to answer these three important questions of Dahlbergs:

  • How have we constructed the learning child (and therefore the teacher) in early childhood education?
  • How have we constructed knowledge?
  • How have we constructed environments for children’s explorations, symbolic activities and play?

1a4f9c4a3434a4e4fec4ce05b7a94296Gunilla Dahlberg shared a beginning of a pedagogical project with children from Stockholm.  It began with a group of children finding a dead Roe Deer in the woods.  This excited the children and the teachers.  The deer was in a state of decomposition with its skeleton partially exposed.  In listening to the children they talked about the exposed skeleton, the reasons why it might have died and how it got there.  The teachers were ecstatic because now they had a project about ‘skeletons’.  They got children to collect skeletons, and the whole pre-school became decorated with different types of skeletons.  Interestingly, when the children were asked to draw their experiences of the roe deer, the children did not speak of the skeletons, but instead talked about the rotting and the bacteria, the knights, the worms and the foxes and eagles.  The educators were disappointed – where were the skeletons? What the children were actually interested in was not the skeleton at all but the process of decay and the bacteria and insects involved.  Thus, work proceeded on the process of decay and a group theory was visualised on the walls of the nursery.  As the children and their theories were drawn and discussed together, capacities of the children to listen to each others theories was increased, so the teachers instead looked at how could the children find out more about bacteria… and of course that lead to many, many more theories about mould:

“The mould comes from a star and falls down to the ground.”

“When you get old you get mouldy.”

“The mould-bacteria spits out the mould onto the  bread.  The mould grows and then the bread is covered by the mould.  The mould-bacteria then flies back to the forest.”

In this way, as Dahlberg continued children were bringing out something totally new – something we have never seen or heard before.  It is not a transmission pedagogy but the surprising discovery of another reality that is often closely related to nature, ecology and life sciences.

So, back to those seemingly problematic students in ECE… if we wish for them to learn then we must provide for them rich contexts and situations of learning so that they can document the vitality and intensity of learning in life.  We cannot continue in a cycle of blame but be open to the possibility that everyone (including ourselves) can learn to see with eyes that can *jump over the wall IF we generate the contexts and conditions for that to happen.

To conclude, let me share this of Loris Malaguzzi as another lens for thinking about documentation as an act of courage in a context of being alongside others:

One has to have the courage to think that if a flower is born this influences upon the sun and the moon… every human being is a context of hundred’s of expressions, experiences and memories.  This context is continuously changing through experience and knowledge.  It is an illusion that one is alone.  We consist of many, one speaks with ones own voice but also with many other human being voices.  (1993)”

Happy Documenting and Sharing of it with others.

*The eye that jumps over the wall, was the title of Reggio Emilia’s first touring exhibition that later became the One Hundred Languages of Children.

Advertisements

Technology in Early Childhood Education: Tools and Languages

digital-map-fullIf we are to develop new pedagogical approaches that value digital and technological ‘tools’ as capable of expressive and creative potential then we must look to the digital landscape as a range of possible languages rather than ‘tools’.  In this, I mean, how can we view digital languages as poetic and aesthetic, as a means of narrating stories of life and the world and constructing new ways of knowing and knowledge. 

If we consider clay, we can view this substance as both a material/tool and language.  It can be used as a material/tool in which to develop fine motor skills through exploration of its properties, or it can be used in a context of ideas and thinking, where it is used to narrate and communicate meaning.  It is the latter context in which myself and a group of UK and Swedish early childhood centres (see below) are currently researching.

Certainly, when I began working in ECE 20 years ago, where computers were present they were often used to develop skills in mouse control and page navigation.   I remember then testing the boundaries of possibility by taking in my then huge laptop and being surprised at how 3 year olds were capable of exploring image manipulation in early versions of Adobe Photoshop.  I could see the shift happening from the “What if” exploration of the material (in this instance, laptop and Photoshop) to the emergence of ideas of expression that communicated a thought about something within a realm of what Anna Craft would call  “Possibility Thinking”.

As a network of researchers we are particularly interested in those types of apps, their usage and modalities that Howard Gardener discusses that can promote a strong sense of identity, allow deep relationships, and stimulate creativity. Our challenge is to go beyond the ways that apps are designed to be used so they can make visible the diversity of children’s experiences and thinking, and become capable of narrating and expressing new ideas.  This is not easy as many children’s app developers create apps, for example animation apps, but with pre-loaded characters and backgrounds that children can use.  These apps, although intuitive for children to use are creatively constrained already in the use of templates and pre-loaded material. They are easy to make a simple animation with but often without the depth of thinking that children are capable of.

Other digital modalities such as digital projection and green screen can be as playful in nature as role play and open ended materials and these form a great potential for multi-modal expression with children.   Also, the ways in which digital endoscopes and microscopes can enable the re-proposal of the familiar world of nature in unexpected and complex ways that offer curious new worlds and environments to explore to generate new, imaginative ideas and questions.

As a research group we are interested in Gregory Bateson’s ideas of cybernetics, of systems, patterns and relationships, and will look for those connective patterns generated in the in-between spaces between children, digital languages and the natural world.  Children already have a wealth of knowledge and an openness to ideas, we are interested in these new patterns of thinking that digital languages propose to children as we suspect that these will transform our pedagogy and approaches to learning.

In a weeks time, 10 educators and myself travel to Stockholm, Sweden for our first exchange in this research project.  It is a blended approach that uses social media networks as well as offline, realtime exchanges together with digital and non digital materials.   We are exchanging learning stories and reflecting on each others work in a process of active professional learning about children’s relationship to the digital and natural world.  We are seeking and exploring ways for young children to connect across classrooms and across verbal and non-verbal languages.  We aim to create a body of research in the form of case studies, publications, a conference and a range of online resources.  It’s a very exciting time!

A possibility of a beginning…

“It’s starting to grow…slowly…it’s not growing yet, no not yet because the leaves haven’t come out.” 
“It growed by itself because it’s invisible.”
 Dancing with beans that grow. Ashmore Park Nursery, Wolverhampton

Dancing with beans that grow. Ashmore Park Nursery, Wolverhampton

Two children are interacting with a  full screen moving time-lapse projection of a growing bean.  Their own projected shadows become as one with the projected image, both projections combining as a single image.  As children discuss their movements and the beans moments they consider what growing is, both in language and through movement.  It is this coming together, this blending of modalities that we are most interested in.

 

“You pull this lever and this lever and this lever and then it will be grown… and then it lifts up.” 
DSCN2940
Experimenting with wire levers to make the plant grow. Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton

Alongside of these children, and interweaving amongst all the languages available for the children to express their ideas were others generating ideas of germination through drawing and clay.  The clay offered opportunity for mechanical and physical expression of showing how the bean might grow.  The drawing offered opportunity for visualising the ideas through imagery and ‘talk and draw’.  All of these interweaving languages lend themselves to future ideas of stop motion animation (amongst others). Therefore we can begin to see where a traditional material such as clay may begin a dialogue with a digital language rather than concentrate solely on the app, the pre-loaded story characters and pre-generated backgrounds.  In this way, children’s own creative and critical thinking creates both the context and the content.

 

 

The Schools involved in this research are:

Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Hillfields Nursery School and Children’s Centre, Coventry, UK

Madeley Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Phoenix Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Lange Erik Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Barnasinnet Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Vintergatan Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Sma Vänner Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

With thanks to Ashmore Park Nursery School for enabling me to share this material.

 

 

EU flag-Erasmus+_vect_POSWe are very happy to be funded by Erasmus Plus in our shared research into new digital pedagogies with young children.