The Language of Describing the Complexity of Learning

“Survival of the fittest, in a world that worships development and ‘forward-moving progress’ makes us all lost and small.”

Nora Bateson. 2016.  Small Arcs of Larger Circles

I have been thinking lots recently about the language we use to describe learning and learning processes. We often speak in linear ways of ‘progress, ‘development’ and ‘next steps’. We also speak sometimes as if everything is so simple and and fixed ‘oh it’s process over product… it’s a schema!”  I wonder if this is at all what I see with children. Indeed, Loris Malaguzzi defied describing learning in such progressive and fixed steps when he used the metaphor of a tangled bowl of spaghetti more akin to Deleuze and Guttari’s vision of a rhizome.

Both metaphors see learning as a tangle, with no beginning or end.

I struggle too with terms such as ‘personalised learning’, ‘Individual learning’ even ‘uniqueness’. Not that I believe we are all the same or learn in the same way, No! But rather that it takes away the social and contextual connection to learning, that ability we have to learn together, our interdependencies between each other and the environment. A tree does not grow alone, it is connected via the forest floor to other trees via a vast network of roots and fungi sharing nutrients, energy, and some might say ‘knowledge’ of a kind that helps other trees to live in the forest. We are nature, not just a part and I think more and more about the mechanistic educational language that we use that seemingly separates us from each other and the world.

In these times especially, words like relational, collaboration, mutuality, connection, participation, sociability, togetherness seem more apt descriptors as well as values to hold dear.  The learning I see in young children is not linear or staged, they do not learn in unique silo’s they bounce ideas and thoughts off each other, it’s complicated, multidirectional and relational. Learning is, and is in a relationship to other children, their families, ourselves, friends, the environment, that tree, and everything within it. It’s the interaction that takes place between the parts that enables it to sit as tangled bowl of spaghetti rather than a singular thread of pasta.  So let’s think deeply, widely, broadly, upwardly, inside out and upside down about our ways of describing ‘learning’ so that we can begin to find richer ways and concepts of describing something as beautiful as ‘learning’.

But we must also err on the side of caution too… because in finding new language and concepts we must still remain flexible and open to new learning and not close it down with newly created fixed truths.  We must avoid just creating another set of polarities or binaries than define learning as linear or fixed.  I remember Gunilla Dahlberg talking about this, and saying we must shift from the paradigm of I, I, I, to And, and, and… as in this way we see things from multiple perspectives, all at the same time and thus in new and ever evolving ways.

Pedagogy of the Digital World

Pedagogy of the Digital World

172e307-2 I write this blog post on a flight coming back from a week working in Singapore with UWCSEA. A fabulous school committed to values of education that recognise and generate contexts for Creativity, Innovation and Collaboration through an enquiry/inquiry-based approach to learning. One of many thoughts arising out of this week of complex thinking about meta-projects, learning contexts for discovery and the intelligences of materials we offer children was the pedagogical values and choices we make for approaching Digital Languages with young children. I am also a pedagogical point of connection and provocateur of thinking of a network of schools committed to exploring the digital world in relation to social, constructivist practice(s) in both the UK and in Sweden and questions of relevancy, ethics and pedagogy of the digital pervade my thoughts currently.

Opposing Points of View about the World of Digital Tech

The landscape of thinking about digital literacies, modes and tools of technology is as wide as it is diverse. On one side of the spectrum are the educators who see no place for the digital world in the classroom, where iPad’s for example are rejected in favour of exploring ‘real’ and not ‘virtual’ worlds and materials and where games, apps and screen time are relegated to appropriate use at home for their entertainment value and quasi educational benefit but not a tool of education in the classroom. Researchers at this end of the spectrum are concerned with the effect on children of excessive screen time, the effect on their interaction and social skills, their lack of being and exploring of the ‘real world’ and its materials as well as the quality of apps that appear highly addictive but yet offer little in content. There are many concerns. (See Aric Sigman, Sue Palmer for arguments against digital tech in early childhood education).

At the other end of the spectrum are the pro-digital advocates who consider technology and the digital landscape as rich, offering new ways of approaching thinking and the construction of knowledge upon collaborative platforms that enable connection between different time zones and geographical possibilities. No longer is it required to be in the same room, at the same desk to engage in a learning dialogue. Indeed its enthusiasts would have us embrace the digital world as a whole new way of being, not just one of becoming more efficient, able to share what we each do in easier ways, but offers a new way of collaboration that simply was not there before. Information is out there, both good and misinformed and it behooves the seeker to critically reflect and research wisely the available data. Advocates of the digital world include Jackie Marsh, Emma Mulqueeny, Guy Merchant and Dr Rosie Flewitt).

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The Interests of a Digital Pedagogical Immigrant

My current area of research is upon the creative and expressive uses of digital languages and tools in the early childhood arena of education. For children with whom I am working with now, they are immersed into this digital rich context of social media, coding, research, platforms, and hacks, where books are downloaded and games played online with multiple players in different continents. They will have been digitally scanned in the womb, their birth records entered onto digital platforms and their first images of ‘self’ posted across social media sites by their well meaning parents before they were even born. Their social identity already public, multiple and complex.

At 41 (at time of writing) I am considered a digital immigrant, someone born prior to 1980 that was not born into the world of computers and tech. I was 11 when I dipped my toe in the digital water with a Commodore 64, a simple home computer used mainly for gaming which gave me my first glimpse into programming and coding where I would spends hours of my time entering lines of binary code to make a cursor jump across the screen or a line of text self replicate down the screen. The film War Games (1983) inspired me with ideas of becoming a ‘hacker for good causes’ and showed me the possibilities offered by the world of computers when hooked up to telephone lines. It was my Mum who, as a mature arts degree student, helped me navigate the world of spreadsheets and word processing and taught me to turn on my first PC that had significantly less power than the mobile phone I have plugged into my airplane seat which I can leave on and remain in communication across the globe as I travel from South East Asia to Northern Europe. If only I had the right cable, I could post this blog direct to my webpage before my feet actually touched down. (Next time!) I was 22 when I installed a dial up modem at home, and the landscape of the digital world opened up further for me.

web-30So it is into this world that our youngest children are born and by the time they reach 11, iPad’s will be a historical piece on display at the Design Museum in London and replaced with smaller, more intimate devices capable of so much more…maybe. What lies ahead in terms of new technology is a thesis in itself, and after watching the film ‘Transcendence’ on this flight and seeing the news headline from Stephen Hawkins on the BBC about Artificial Intelligence being the destructive end point of humanity, you can see why technology is an increasing and volatile subject.

The Research of the Aesthetic of the Rhizome of Digital Languages

I am not sure of my position in all of this, hence the need for research. I think everything has possibility for danger, abuse and desensitising of the human experience so the landscape of the digital is not excluded from this possibility. However, I want to seek out and research instead its possibilities for humankind to use technology to enhance our human experience, that gives us new (rather than replacement or more effective) ways of communicating and expressing our discoveries and that creates a new kind of aesthetic experience that has at is heart, a life and a connection to the human spirit.

DCF 1.0I have questions, of course that will frame my thinking. I don’t think it will be an easy task that will result in a clear decision of yes or no but one rather akin to the rhizome, an image of learning I am increasingly drawn to, resembling a tangled bowl of noodles (relevant to being in SE Asia or as Loris Malaguzzi said a tangled bowl of spaghetti). Indeed the internet itself is a model of the rhizome, with there being no sense of a beginning or end, no entry point or exit, rather it is a web of interaction and connectivity, a state of being, becoming and of in between things where materials are not easily ordered or navigated through but yet offer an immense, rich tableau of knowledge, practice and experience that is ever growing and evolving.

My questions relate to several areas and possible concerns including but not exclusive to:

  • Educators’ perceptions of technology and digital landscapes in the early childhood classroom.
  • Educators’ own knowledge and understanding of digital literacies and tools.
  • Children’s immersion into the digital world from pre-birth to early experiences of school.
  • Children’s practices of home based learning and development in the use and application of digital devices and apps
  • Children’s practices of school based learning and development in the use and application of digital devices and apps
  • The aesthetics and sensitivities of a technological/digital modality of expression and creativity in the early childhood classroom (and its relevancy to a increasing and wider world of a digital landscapes and possibilities).
  • The ethics of the digital world, for children, families, educators and end users.

Orientating and Articulating Thinking…

It seems a huge piece of work, a PhD even, but by the time of publication of such research, it will be out of date and irrelevant, such is the pace of technology. Our world is changing and the educational landscape will require new conditions of healthy growth. I need, as do teachers across the world need to embrace a type of research that is immediate and enables ideas to be shared quickly, worked upon in live contexts of exchange and dialogue, clarified and then reworked, constantly being co-constructed and ever evolving as time passes, in a state of constant motion. Why, because, our research, our pedagogy has to be relevant now to our children, it is too late when they are grown up.

There is a huge gap already in terms of educators who embrace technology and those who can’t and won’t because they are either opposed to it, or that they just don’t know how. This journey is as much about all of us digital immigrants who have much to learn from the 18 month old baby who can already navigate an iPad and who thinks a traditional picture book is broken. Or, the child whose fingers have by the time they enter school have developed a whole new vocabulary of gestures that help them in their world of data and digital research that is strange and unfamiliar to us. And of course the child who is comfortable and embracing of a social media based world where they can play with, manipulate and continually construct their identity(ies) whose knowledge of such worlds help them to encounter, seek out and apprehend the very dangers of it, rather than attempt to deny or block the use of it as ‘inappropriate”.   As Emma Mulqueeny of ReWired State said at TEDxBrum 2014 it is the children of this digital, social age that will seek out the perpetrators of international terrorism, paedophilia, and fraud who use such platforms to do harm to others and be the ones who can stop and eradicate it. By denying children and ourselves of digital possibilities we may be in danger of ending humankind through our fear and ignorance rather than artificial intelligence after all. Sorry Stephen Hawkins, but I think I disagree!