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.

Advertisements

Progettazione, by Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

We have been inspired by through a recent question about progettazione posed on the Facebook Page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/ReggioEmiliaApproach/ about progettazione that Suzanne curates.  We have decided to collaborate together on a piece that explores what for each of us progettazione means and looks like.

For Debi, progettazione is best described as a transdisciplinary, flexible and open approach to working with children’s hypothesises and thinking whereby their ideas are subject to moderation, elaboration and transformation as thinking develops as part of a learning group. (For more on Learning groups see here)  It is a way of working that goes beyond the completion of a topic or theme set by the adult in which certain concepts are covered through teaching to one that is more akin to a research approach where the educator is a co-researcher alongside the children exploring how young children learn both individually and as part of a group.

For Suzanne, progettazione is an approach where children and teachers are learning, they are collaborators, researchers and teaching each other. The educators are observing the children at a level that is informing them about how they are learning as well as what fascinates them within the project.  It is a complex multi-layered learning situation for all concerned where the educators document the children’s knowledge about the project, as well as their own learning styles and development and analyse this information to improve themselves as educators.  There is a mutual respect between children and educators and the project is driven by the teachers and children together.

For Debi, the children are not guided to cover a range of topics or themes but rather learning situations are created that generate a context for discussion, expression and the contesting of ideas in many modalities and ‘languages’ about the world. Children learn through being offered these generative contexts and provocations that enable children to discover learning for themselves. Progettazione therefore promotes educator development, the co-construction of knowledge as part of a learning group and should be in relationship with the children’s families. In this way, families are invited to learn about the group as the progettazione progresses and not just their individual child at the end.

Another good descriptor about progettazione can be found here at: https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/65

And look here for more information on the general guiding principles of the Reggio Emilia schools. http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/in-dialogue-with-reggio-emilia.html

“If we believe that children possess their own theories, interpretations and questions, and that they are co-protagonists in their knowledge-building processes, then the most important verb in educational practice is no longer to talk, to explain, to transmit, but to listen.” 

Carlina Rinaldi (1998)

Carlina Rinaldi in the quote featured above speaks about how our image of the child affects how we teach. If we see them as empty vessels then our practice is to fill them up with facts and knowledge of our own. However if we believe that children are capable of thinking, of making hypotheses and interpretation and posing questions of their own then rather than fill up the child or transmit knowledge to them, we instead listen to them and most importantly, act upon what they say, to make a choice about what happens next by considering the multiple perspectives shared in the group.

Suzanne also reminds us that we have to agree as team of educators working together what these tricky words such as progettazione, project, topic and theme mean to each other.

“We have had many dialogues about themes and projects and what exactly these words mean for us, and how we can use them in a larger circle of educators around the world. After all this world of ours is shrinking in the sense that we can collaborate online… this means we need to have an understanding of each other. For example the word kindergarten means something quite different when I am in Jenin and Germany from when I have been in Canada and USA – so I find when starting with progettazione we also have to come to some kind of agreement on the language of the progettazione so that we have a common understanding, otherwise I think it is easy to walk away from a meeting thinking we are all in an agreement about where the project is starting from and what direction it will initially take… to discover that all the educators take completely different directions from each other.”

Progettazione therefore we could say in an approach that:

  • is co-lead by children and educators working together
  • is a flexible and open approach that is open to modification and multiple points of view
  • is a form of professional development for teachers (a research approach)
  • happens as part of a learning group collaborating together
  • where observation is used to understand the learning processes of the children as well as well as the construction of knowledge within the learning group
  • involves family engagement during the process of the progettazione
  • involves many languages of expression, to discuss and hypothesise ideas and thoughts
  • requires agreement amongst teams of educators  upon what the term means to them

For Suzanne, an example of progettazione was when she worked at a bilingual school that had at its heart a research question about language…… since they were profiling in language, to understand how children acquired and used language(s) was very important. For example how much did the children know, how did they communicate, how were they learning language and how were non-verbal children communicating, which language was the strongest, how do children learn a second or third or fourth language? She had a ”project” with the children where each of the four groups were exploring different things that each group had shown an interest in… the group she worked most closely with at the time was exploring space, which turned into an exploration of colour and size.  But it was through this space exploration that she observed the children’s language and how they communicated their ideas.  They also had regular meetings analysing their notes, films, photos etc where they not only discussed how the projects could move forward in the sense of what the children were interested in… but also what they were learning about the children’s language and how this information could enable them to be better teachers.

For Debi, who works in the Reggio Emilia tradition of a pedagogista (but also with an arts background) an example of progettazione began with children making observations of the daytime sky.  There was a certainty that the moon was in the sky at night and the sun was only in the sky during the day.  One day, the moon appeared in the sky during the daytime which provided an occasion to challenge this certainty.  What began as discussions about the description of the sun and the moon turned into a context for generating ideas about why this might happen.  Following this event, the learning group (of about 11, 3-4 year olds) seemed to be talking more about the relationship between the sun and the moon, rather than as two separate and isolated phenomena.  They talked about the power, that was held inside the sun and moon and power that emerged between the two.  What appeared to be descriptors about power were maybe, as educators hypothesised using collected traces of documentation to analyse were the genesis of thinking about gravity and energy.  It was during these year long explorations of the relationship between the sun and the moon that educators also researched how playful approaches to using digital media could be used in ways for children to co-construct and express ideas of their own thinking.

Progettazione we could then say is an approach to children’s learning, about educators learning about learning and about making that learning visible for analysis, for acting upon and deciding what to do next.  A final stage is the publication of summative documentation that  makes visible the co-research of the adults and the children.  Progettazione cannot happen without what Carlina Rinaldi calls the “Pedagogy of Listening” and does not really occur when children are working in isolation of each other.  It forms in the relationship and interaction of others; other children, other educators, other families and the community.

“Listening to children’s theories enhances the possibility of discovering how children think and how they both question and develop a relationship with reality. This possibility is magnified when it occurs within a group context that allows for the experience of others to be shared and debated.”

https://www.reggioaustralia.org.au/component/content/article/59

Thank you for reading,

Suzanne Axelsson & Debi Keyte-Hartland

Suzanne Axelsson blogs at interactionimagination.blogspot.co.uk

Debi Keyte-Hartland’s blog can be found at debikeytehartland.me

Other links
https://tecribresearch.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/progettazione-reggio-inspired-teaching-in-dialogue-with-the-learning-processes-of-children/