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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Pedagogical Documentation in Challenging Times

I have in a much loved notebook that I took on my first ever visit to Reggio Emilia, now nearly 17 years ago, a quote by Malaguzzi scribed on a singular page saying that, “We can only change what we can take charge of.”  In these times of undignified, ugly and paradoxical world ‘leaderships’ whose ideals are seemingly to separate, to isolate, and to deny or describe as fake those very things that others hold dear, what is it, that we can take charge of in order to change, when the ordeal seems so great?

The process of pedagogical documentation we could say is to observe and listen closely to what children say and do, to use those collected traces of documentation (film, photographs, dialogue, artefacts etc) to help us and others to understand how children think and act, which thus helps us then to make better choices of what to do next, and makes visible in the final process of publication the image of the child we hold and have discovered.  It makes visible their dispositions, their meaning-making, the things they value and their ways of seeing the world.  In learning to read documentation it helps us to expand our minds to what is capable and possible when we work in ECE and to what our own image of the child is.  To read more about pedagogical documentation read here and visit Diane Kashin’s wonderful blog at Technology Rich Inquiry  specifically for pedagogical documentation here.

I wonder, therefore, if pedagogical documentation holds within it a power to make visible the values of a humane society?  If we look at the words associated with humane in a Thesaurus we are confronted with terms such as compassionate, kind, kindly, kind-hearted, considerate, understanding, sympathetic, tolerant, civilised, good, good-natured, gentle; lenient, forbearing, forgiving, merciful, mild, tender, clement, benign, humanitarian, benevolent, charitable, generous, magnanimous; approachable, accessible.  These are characteristics I have seen in documentation, where children are often engaged with thinking about nature in relational ways.  They demonstrate and live out these ways of being that offer alternative and multiple viewpoints on climate change, natural systems and relationships in nature and between themselves and ourselves.  Where children exclaim that they can hear daffodils drinking, that trees have songs, that things that grow can talk to each other, that everything belongs together.

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Woodlands Primary and Nursery School. Telford. UK

This drawing was made by a 4-5 year old and details a small stand of trees that the children, as part of a small inquiry group had been exploring.  There was one tree that was different, (can you spot it?)  It didn’t have all its leaves like the others did.  Children had suggested many ways of dressing it up in party clothes to make it feel better or to try and look for its parents.  The comment made after the drawing was complete was;

“We are all together with the tree’s. There is a sad one without any leaves… we can join it.”

For me, this drawing and the sentiment expressed of joining with it reminds me of the human spirt of collaboration, of empathy and the need to be with others.  It offers the antidote to what our news-feeds are filled with, in terms of politics, governance and leadership.  In making it visible and thus sharable we can take charge of what we value in our classrooms, and change what people see.  It worked for a small town called Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, could it do so on a global basis too?

Pedagogical documentation for me has always offered opportunity to share stories that offer a different perspective to the singular story or narrative being told  (the dominant discourses) and thus offers us a way of creating conditions for change to emerge.  The one thing we can take charge of is what we share, so instead of sharing the latest fad for what is on the light box, share instead something powerful, that just might, turn minds to a more humane way of being.

In this video, children from the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia share with the global community their thoughts and thinking about Peace.  It is something we can all learn from.