In a Reggio-inspired environment, our teachers facilitate powerful learning experiences by often taking a non-interventionist role in the children’s talk and play. We believe that when children can explore deep and mysterious topics in the safe and supportive environment of a classroom, they are capable of teaching themselves and each other along the way.
While at times our teachers will offer a summation of the “lesson learned” from an interaction, we are also attentive to the idea that when children are working through something with their peers, our labeling of the learning is not necessarily an effective tool. This reflects the ideas of John Holt, a teacher and writer:
“When we constantly ask children questions to find out whether they know something, we almost always cut short the slow process by which, testing their hunches against experience, they turn them into secure knowledge. Asking children questions about things they are only just beginning to learn is like sitting in a chair which has only just been glued. The structure collapses.”
With that in mind, I invite you to explore two anecdotes from our classrooms this week. I invite you to look for ways in which the children are in the midst of the “slow process” of testing out their ideas and modifying them as they gain social experience.
Watching children work on their art in a preK classroom, the children’s mouths are as busy as their hands. They explore the delicate balance between empathy, peer modeling, socialization, and the power of language:
You’re a bad boy. (The subject of the comment smiles sheepishly)
Yea, you’re a bad boy.
Bad boy, he’s a bad boy. (The students sing-song this together. All students at the table giggle, including the subject of the epithet.)
(One seems unsure as to what to do, though she giggles too. She is next to speak.)
We didn’t really mean that. It was just a joke. It wasn’t funny.
Yea, we’re sorry.
We didn’t mean that. We’re sorry.
The children all return their gaze to the clay in their hands, avoiding each other for a few moments as they process the ping-pong of emotions and social positioning they just experienced. The power of words, to hurt and to help, is realized by all.
Eating lunch the next day in another preK room, I listen as the children realize they can’t take their “crazy heads” off (wacky hair, hats, etc, in celebration of Purim) for nap time. A teacher at the table searches for appropriate moments and questions to guide the conversation but is careful to not sit in the chair before the glue dries, as Holt might say. Their discussion takes off, and they explore complex moral and ethical issues around violence, justice, and safety:
We can’t take our heads off for nap time?
We could cut our heads off!
Yea we could use a saw.
An electric saw!
Yea that’s you do to bad guys.
Now that’s very interesting. We’ve talked about bad guys before. Can you tell me more?
Well, you could cut off bad guys’ heads.
Yea cause they would cut off our heads!
If they hurt us, we would hurt them.
Oh, so that’s why you would cut off the bad guys’ heads?
But we could just build a shield, to protect us.
But if we don’t hurt them, they’ll hurt us.
This is like him, in the poster (pointing to a poster of Martin Luther King hanging in the center of the classroom).
What do you mean, it’s “like him”?
Because he used the big laws.
But only if you’re in the army or a cop you can kill someone.
The conversation continued to ebb and flow around these themes. A child from a neighboring table, eagerly hanging on every word, was invited to join and pulled his chair over. Examples of non-violent protest, inspired by the MLK poster, were countered and contrasted to what superheroes would do. The weight of the topics was evidenced by the seriousness with which each child asserted his ideas. Eventually the discussion petered out, as the children left one by one to their rest maps, crazy heads intact. The children left their wonderings hanging in the air, hunches explored but unconfirmed.
When and how do you see your child testing their hunches against experience? What is the slow process that your child submits their ideas too? When do you ask your child to label their learning, and when do you let them linger with a thought as they work through it?
Learning is messy, slow, and often difficult to pin-down. By listening carefully to our children’s words, we can come to understand more deeply how they are learning these deep and mysterious topics.