Monday, November 18, 2013

When do we teach them and when do we let them wonder?

October's Provocation: What Do the Principles of Reggio Emilia Look Like Here?
Last week, four parents of children from 1-4 years old joined Katy and I for our first family provocation to talk about what we mean when we talk about the “Reggio Emilia approach” in our context.  We started with some parent questions about our history - about how and when we found this approach and started bringing it to bear on our pedagogy at PTCC. Katy, our director who is celebrating her thirtieth year working here, was incredibly helpful at this stage. She told the story of how PTCC came to be, and how we came to our approach  (gradually, over the last fifteen years or so.)

Next, we read PTCC’s mission statement together, and spent extra time on phrases from the second paragraph, where we get specific about what we do here.  I asked the parents to work in pairs and identify examples from their experiences here at the center. Here are some highlights:

Sarah: The children are co-constructors as well. For example, I love the “Question of the Day”. One time the question was “What makes trains go?” One child said people make trains go. Two said coal makes trains go. Two said electricity makes trains go. One child said a motor makes trains go and two said batteries make trains go. My child said batteries make trains go since she was thinking of her toy Lego train at home. The other child said batteries make trains go really fast. All of them were right and they were very different and it was a wonderful question. As they're talking about the answers, they listen to each other and they think about it differently."

Andrew: For my children, transition can be very difficult. The "Question of the Day" is a welcoming ritual for my family. As they enter the classroom, they're being grounded by thinking about their life outside of it.

Rick: From the kids' perspective; they spend so much time here. I can imagine it being disconcerting if you did not have a connection with home.

Abby: [This] last [sentence] stands out for me because of the documentation. I see this all the time. I am used to seeing pictures and a verbatim story about my son, and what he said, and then a reflection from a teacher. I know what my kid is doing at school.

Jumping In and Stepping Back

Rather than simply reading a list of principles we share with our colleagues in Italy, our conversation surrounded one "cognitive knot". Striving to untangle these sorts of knots is not just the work of adults in our tradition:

"Just as a knot (whorl) in  wood grain impedes a saw cutting through it, and just as a knot (tangle) in thread stops the action of a sewing needle, any problem that stops the children and blocks their action is a kind of cognitive knot." (pg 157, The Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition). 

To hear our staff think about these kinds of knots, read this post.  Suffice it to say, we value them, we welcome them and we know that they help us to grow and learn when we try to get them undone. 

The knot we discussed is tangled around the questions:
"When do we step in and when do we step back?" 
"What is the role of an educator or parent in a child-centered curriculum " and 
"What do we let children explore and what do we "teach" them?" 

These questions could be a whole other post, so I'll just share that we had a great chat that included:
  • What's the difference between attentive inaction and inaction?
  • Is it ok to let children work under a flawed or completely incorrect theory about the world? For how long?
  • How do babies acquire a new skill? How can an adult support their learning?
  • How do we acquire or build knowledge?
  • What and how do children learn when we don't teach them?
  • Valuing frustration as the starting place of innovation and learning.
We didn't answer any of these questions (sorry, everyone, you'll have to keep working on these knots yourself!) but we had a very lively and satisfying (to me) conversation that left us all wondering further.

Next, we each read a piece of documentation written by teachers. Writing about children is a big part of our practice, and we value it for several reasons. It's a great place to look to learn about what it means when teachers and staff here say that we're inspired by the educators in Reggio Emilia. Reading pieces from infant, toddler and preschool rooms we noticed:
  • that documentation can give us a window into the classroom, set the context so that we can better participate when we're there
  • a teacher describing her internal dialog, her own struggle about how to respond to some children's conflicting ideas
  • a teacher allowing children to linger and move through the transition from naptime at their own pace, playfully
  • it's hard to know what a baby is intending or preferring before they can communicate very intentionally, and one teacher/author spent time considering the possibilities for one child in one moment

Finally, I asked if anyone had any unanswered questions, and we all agreed that the question of when do we help our children or tell the "the answer" lingered. 

  • I recommended the book Talking Their Way Into Science by Karen Gallas. It's by a teacher researcher about a classroom of 7 and 8 year olds, but the principles are absolutely valid when thinking about younger learners. It's short and fascinating and a great read.
  • We talked about our practices with babies and young toddlers and how many teachers are also inspired by Magda Gerber. A blog by one of her students, Janet Lansbury, can be found here.
  • Andrew gave us a beautiful synopsis of the big ideas behind constructivism (here's an interesting link he passed along) and suggested an article in Wired about emergent learning in the older grades. We also discussed the TED talks of Sugata Mitra, which detail how children learn without being explicitly taught.
This blog is one way that we can continue this conversation. Where do you fall as a parent or teacher on the "stepping in" or "stepping back" spectrum? What are some of the flawed theories your children have shared with  you as they constructed their ideas about the world?

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