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.

Projects and Progettazione: An alternative to the trashy crafty tat of Christmas!

The construction of learning projects with young children is an area I have been interested in since first visiting the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia several years ago.  At the moment with the advent of Christmas, educational (???) blogs are abundant with festive craft projects for children including fablon snowmen, cotton spool christmas trees and glittery paper stockings.   For me project working offers an alternative to what I call the trashy tat of early years craft fodder!  Harsh I know, but working with projects reveals and illuminates just what young children can do when not tricked to the table of trash.

Working in this way (sometimes known as the project approach) enables the possibility for groups of children to work together exchanging ideas, opinions and constructing learning as a group facilitated by educators whom themselves are part of the group, co-constructing knowledge alongside of the children.  They are a powerful pedagogic approach that encourage the space for deep exploration of a theory or concept and the expression and realisation of ideas of children working as a collaborative group.  They challenge the idea of the learning environment as simply an arena of self chosen, self resourced and accessible materials and resources for children to choose from and provide an alternative to the make and take art and craft activity.

Projects or progettazione(as they are called in Reggio Emilia) are offered to the children and often invite engagement of families.  They are used as an opportunity to share the project and raise the profile of what is possible in early childhood education within the wider community of the school/setting.

Sharing project work in Reggio Emilia - exciting and scary!

A project far from being something that is could instead be considered as something we do, a way of working, and a pedagogical approach.  It is not something that is delivered to the children in a single lesson (with an identified objective) or given to the children over a short period of time in chunks of a topic web but rather could be seen as a space where both knowledge itself as well as the process of the project are considered as emergent and elaborative where learning is built over time.  Projects can be both short and long but will have this pattern of knowledge becoming more complex and more elaborate over time.

Engaging Families in Project Work

A challenge in the beginning of any project is how to involve families as participants in the process of the project formation.  On a recent study exchange to visit pre-schools in Stockholm I became increasingly aware of how projects were chosen based on a criteria  not only of interest to the children but also in the ability of the proposed project for family participation.  There the idea of the summer assignment or summer memory was as a UK teacher reflected upon, an important way for the school/setting/educator to establish a mutual relationship with the families that had at its heart an idea about engaging in and constructing the project together.  It was often a simple invite, to bring something in related to the project concept, for example, something that made a sound (for a project about sound) or something found in nature (for a project about the natural world) but the objects and materials gathered from families were displayed with care in a prominent place, their value clearly communicated and then worked with and upon by the children with the resulting documentation shared back.

Workshops can also be part of the project cycle that sees the participation of parents using the materials that the children are simultaneously exploring and the ideas being formed within the project.  At one of the settings I work at, they recently held a wonderful parent meeting where educators facilitated a workshop for parents to play with and invent new tints of colours (an aspect of their project about transformation).  It was an opportunity for families to involve themselves in the work and the emerging ideas of the children.

Networks and Professional Development

Projects hold the possibility for professional development especially when entered into as a group of schools/settings working together.  The project networks of teachers in Stockholm involved other interested parties from the wider context, for example people in the universities with an interest in the language or material being investigated in the project.  Before launching head long into any project there should be a pre-project phase.  This could be described as a time for finding out about the thematic concepts of the project for ourselves as educators from many different perspectives (not just education), a time of reading and research and of developing the vocabulary and language that will help us to see how the children might construct their knowledge. This pre-project phase is also a time of finding out from the children about their thoughts and first ideas.

Reading around the subject of the project is incredibly important.  In a recent project about photography, the reading from philosophical sources raised issues about the lack of plasticity of photography as a medium of expression and the potential that photography held to create images that were created without intention at all. Reading also helped us to understand the differences between an image and a picture.  This was new knowledge and helped the educator team to re-frame the project and alert us to the possibility of oversimplification of techniques and the creation of unintentional images.

Project Pointers

Here are some brief pointers taken from my 2011 journal in thinking about projects with young children.

  • Documentation should be used to reflect back and analyse the intent with children.  Documentation should not be hidden but used for reflection and discussion with children and as a tool for constructing further active contexts for dialogue.
  • Find a way and a time to decide with children where and how we’ll spend our time together.  Project work requires being part of a group and this needs organising.
  • Consider how a summer assignment/memory could act as a starting point for a project and make it visible and possible for children to continue working with the artefacts collected.  Share this documentation with families.
  • Develop parent workshops to work with the materials of the children, their ideas and their theories.
  • Consider what you want to find out as part of the project, use this as a basis for for your research questions.  A project is akin to a research methodology.
  • Dialogue with families should infect the direction of the project and not just be a one way feedback to families.
  • Alert children to the connection between their ideas, thinking and use of materials in a group context (contagion and borrowing of others competencies).  We must directly activate these important opportunities for reflection and noticing what each other does and how it connects.
  • Make ongoing project work visible – if it is visible we can use it as a visual aid for dialogue and discussion with families and children.
  • Observational work and drawing – it is not a way of making beautiful paintings or drawings but as a way of constructing meaning and looking closely at something.  In projects, drawing is an important technique for playing with and communicating ideas.

It would be really good if people reading this blog could add their ‘project pointers’ and help grow this list of things to think about.  I find it fascinating that people from all over the world are reading and sharing my little blog. We have the opportunity to create a  global multiple perspective on working with projects with children.  This is my English slant on it, so what do projects feel like and look like in Australia, America, Peru or Spain…? – or even in other parts of the UK?