From when I first learnt about the Reggio Emilia approach during my teacher training, I have been intrigued by what a ‘Reggio-inspired’ school in South Africa might look like.
A few weeks ago, on a visit to Johannesburg, I was lucky enough to visit the very special ‘Small World Play Group’, a Reggio-inspired preschool for children from ages 2 – 6 (or Grade R).
Here are some reflections on the visit. If the idea of Reggio Emilia is new to you, you could also read an introductory post about the Reggio approach that I wrote last year.
Drawing Pictures of Music: On Making Learning Visible
I made my visit with a dear friend, who is also a teacher, and we were shown around the school by the Principal Lindi Bell. We spent a great deal of our time enveloped in a gentle sense of awe, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to Lindi’s explanations of the bright but warren-like space that revealed each new area like the treasures of a lift-the-flap picture book.
Lindi was generous with her time. In each room she described the materials available and the kinds of activities that occurred there. She told the stories behind the documentation on the walls - ‘this is from where the children drew the Flight of the Bumblebee, while listening to the changing tempo of the music’ or ‘This is where they drew a picture of what a song about you would look like – and what the words would be’, ‘this is where they captured sounds in bottles and then described them’.
It Looked Like Learning. But What Does Learning Look Like?
When I started writing this, part of me just wanted to rave sentimentally - about the poetic but astute beauty of everything we saw, about the keen attention to detail, the special placement of every object, the care shown at every turn both aesthetically and mindfully with the children’s experience always at the centre. But the more I think about it, this ‘desire to rave’ is something I feel cautious about and want to avoid.
This is not because I think my observations would be false - but from a sense that they would be incomplete, partial to the brevity of my visit, to the illusory nature of first impressions. I saw and heard so much that felt so good, and I felt like a sponge at the time, but now I wonder, what did I really soak up? And what can I share that wouldn’t be better expressed by someone better informed, better acquainted? I think, if there is a phrase I am looking for, a phrase to encapsulate my hesitance, it would be ‘for fear of romanticising’ what we saw.
Across the spectrum of educational approaches, one of the most obvious commonalities is the expectation to ‘see’ the progress of learning – and the subsequent celebration when learning is seen (or conversely, the despair when it is not). So strongly engrained is this expectation, that the visible aspects of learning are strongly prioritised and often obscure learning that takes places in non-visual forms (or has non-visual results). For example, visibility is prioritised in written tests or assignments, accounted for by the eye-catching marks of a red pen. It also occurs in the products of daily work, in pictures drawn or painted, in sentences and stories writ, sums solved, questions answered. Paper-pushing, tick, tick, tick. There is also visible learning that is more corporeal, when you can see a change in how a child moves, works or behaves. This learning requires a witness (someone must catch it in the act! And these days, photographs and video recording allow for such moments to be observed beyond the moment itself.) So strong is this preference toward visible learning I am reminded of the question - if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? As though our education system is asking “If a child learns without a visible indicator, did it really learn?”
Looking Beyond the Visible
After visiting Small Worlds I found myself struggling with how much I could trust my own observations, because I wanted to say that I could see how much learning happens there, how the children are respected and engaged, how considerate the environment and staff are. Could I really see that? Not really, not exactly. We didn’t observe any ‘lessons’ or even much activity, most of our attention was directed to the spaces that make up the schools varied environment. And while these spaces couldn't tell us everything about the experiences they've held, they felt intentional and authentic - and in a way they did speak to us, just not in words. This is no surprise, in a way, because in the Reggio approach, the school environment is seen as a ‘teacher’ in and of itself and for that reason the learning environment offers many clues to what kind of learning it holds.
A concerted effort is made by the Small World educators to enrich the classrooms with intriguing materials that encourage children’s curiosities, invite enquiry and entice play. Materials are varied and the means of explorations are not limited to the visual or intellectual, all senses are enlisted in exploration.
Furthermore, the ‘how’ of learning is not dictated by the teacher, but co-constructed by child and adult alike, by children together, or alone, but always in community and always entangled with a particular environment, or materials. This appreciation of the complexity of the world and children’s potential encounters with it forms part of what is called, in Reggio, ‘the Hundred Languages of Children.’
What I like about this idea especially is that it seems to counter the global preference towards visible proofs of learning, as Reggio embraces multiple intelligences and multi-sensorial learning in a specially integrated and authentic way.
This does not mean that visible proofs of learning are superfluous, far from it. In every room, on every shelf and wall, visible signs and results of learning are celebrated and shared, amongst children, staff and – crucially - parents. This celebration is rich and nuanced, noticeably aesthetic. It is not just worksheets filed away, or cookie-cutter artworks on display. This ‘making-visible’ is rooted in the Reggio principals of co-learning and community, where children are empowered to witness and value their own learning, and to share this learning with their peers, teachers and parents. It also recognises that a child’s learning happens contextually and continuously, not in a vacuum called ‘being taught’ but in communion with the school’s environment and the materials available within, in communion with the child’s peers, teachers and even parents, who are valued as co-collaborators in their child’s learning journey. This recognition of inter-connectedness, and the way it is embraced, lies at the heart of Reggio.
I write this feeling a little vulnerable. I think this is partly because I am trying to explain these ideas before I truly understand them, like trying to explain a painting of the jungle to a gecko in the desert. And vulnerable also because, as a teacher in a ‘mainstream’ school I am becoming very conscious of how controlled my classroom environment is and how restrictive my teaching methods often are, despite my good intentions to have a more flexible / child-led approach. This makes me uncomfortable, but I think (and hope) it is the kind of discomfort that is going to compel me to different action in the future, because it is attached to a sense of urgency; a feeling that I can’t carry on using my current methods because they just don’t make sense. I know there are many alternatives out there, and Small Worlds was a beautiful eye-opener to what I hope will be a big part of my own future as a daunted-but-determined learning teacher.
Thank you to Lindi Bell and the staff at Small Worlds for the opportunity, for your generous time and especially for the inspiration.
Read more snapshots from my classroom, or other recent posts.
DISCLAIMER: This whole post is kind of a long disclaimer, because I think I lack the personal experience to give nuance to quite a complex set of ideas. In fact the gist of this article is 'Here are some interesting links that probably explain everything better than me'.
So, If you really want to find out more about self-directed education and unschooling I would strongly encourage some further reading and web exploration, starting with the sites mentioned below. I can provide a tentative definition, but why not hear it from the horse’s mouth?
Local is Lekker
Firstly, from South Africa comes ‘Growing Minds’, host of the Learning Reimagined Conference I attended in Joburg last month. The site is full of articles, written by children and adults alike, who are actively ‘unschooling’ and reflecting on their experience.
You could also check out the websites of two self-directed education centres in South Africa. Free Range Education Centre in White River is part of a global network of ‘Agile Learning Centres.' AGLs are designed to facilitate freedom of choice in how children spend their time. Riverstone Village is an education centre based on the Sudbury model, which emphasis democratic processes that flatten social hierarchies between adults and children. I was lucky to be able to visit Riverstone Village the day after the conference, and I will write about my impressions of the space and its philosophies soon.
Both Agile Learning Centres (ALCs) and Sudbury model schools are based on strong principals around children’s rights and perceived capabilities. They recognise that learning comes naturally and often joyfully to children (/all humans) and that the enforced learning practices of conventional schooling undermines this very potent urge. Their claim is that by allowing children to explore their own interests in their own time, learning occurs without need for pressure, force or any wilful manipulation by adults at all.
There are many international examples of these kinds of schools. The Agile Learning Centres Network connects like-minded SDE schools all over the world. There are also numerous Sudbury schools, with Riverstone being the first of its kind in South Africa.
Alongside these more formal learning institutions (which I have also heard being referred to as ‘unschooling schools’) you find unschooling itself, which is essentially a departure from home-schooling, where all formal curriculum is abandoned. Instead, parent’s ‘follow the child’s way’ allowing them to freely investigate their interest and impulses over whatever time duration they desire. I am really hesitant to make broad claims about unschooling, because I have only interacted with a few unschooling parents and children since attending the LRC conference. I also stand to correction on this loose definition!
Suffice to say that unschooling works in loads of different ways as each family and unschooling community work out their own process and best practices. Some unschoolers interchangeably refer to it as ‘life-learning’ to emphasis the idea that learning and living are entangled and should not be considered separated. At the conference, I also noticed a big emphasis on parents being mindful to ‘deschool’ themselves from dominant conceptions of how learning works and perhaps more important how control in conventional schooling systems works. As such, unschooling is as much about the parents attitude, and their ability to adapt, as it is about the child’s life experience and development. I plan to write more about this too, as these principals resonated with me a great deal as a teacher, even though I am not a parent.
There are a whole lot of unschooling blogs out on the blogosphere and they are pretty easy to find, through Google and Youtube. Quite unsurprisingly, all four keynote speakers, were unschooling parents and are also all activists in the sphere of self-directed education. They have websites, books, videos and podcasts galore published between them, some of which I've listed below.
Akilah S. Richard’s work focuses particularly on supporting families of colour enter into and thrive at unschooling. Her website ‘Raising Free People’ includes a podcast, essays and a video blog documenting her families’ own unschooling experience as well as offering advice, courses and public speaking.
Bayo Akomolafe is a writer and poet, philosopher and professor. His personal website 'Bayo Akomolafe' is full of essays and offerings. He runs several projects to do with alternative ways of knowing the world of collaborating, including the Emergence Network, which is a collective of "trickster-activist-artists inspired to rethink our patterns of responding to crisis" (his own description, but wow!)
Teresa Graham Bret is the author of the book Parenting For Social Change and hosts a website by the same name. Her career in inclusivity work at universities, as well as her own experience of parenting (and of being parented), lead her to address issues of ‘adultism’ in mainstream society. This is the recognition that adults are granted superior status as humans simply because of their age - and that this often results in abuse of power, manipulative control and a lot of excuse making, at children's expense.
Koalin Thompson is a South African artist who recently did her Master's in Fine Arts with her children as collaborators. She spoke about this process at the conference and the exhibition description can be found here.
Now that I've effectively let you all know that I am NOT the expert here, I feel more at ease about explaining some of the question and I brought to the conference, the impressions I got from the conference, and the questions I've asked subsequently. This topic isn't going away, I just want to prise it open carefully to make sure nothing spills.
Read more teacher thoughts, stories and musings here!
To print your own 'how to make a zine' zine, download the PDF document below and follow the instructions. Or if watching a how-to video is more your thing, here is a
link to a very rudimentary video I made.
I'd love to know if these instructions are helpful or if you have suggestions for making them more user-friendly. One of the great things about zines is that their easy to edit!
I'd also love to see your zine once it's complete! If you want to share you zine online, upload a picture of it to this Yogile Album www.yogile.com/bicxouqz7kj#21m where you'll also be able to download other people's zines to photocopy and share in print.
Ever since I decided that I wanted to write a few posts on ‘teacher’s who write’ I have been thinking about Vivian Gussin Paley. Since the 1970s she’s written numerous books reflecting on her kindergarten teaching experience and her views on learning. Written in a story-telling style, her books don’t read like an advice or strategy book, like so many teaching books do. They are personal meditations, making no assumptions as to how her experience might compare – or be superior – to others. She says, ‘I saw this, I noticed this’ And maybe next time you observe your own class, you’ll see it too and find that she was right. Her reflections and discoveries have informed important mindset shifts and even policy considerations in the US, around how to view early childhood learning.
Particularly poignant, to me, is her firm reliance and dedication to story-telling in her own writing, which reflects her belief in the central role of story-telling in children’s learning. At the time she started to share this belief in the US, rote-learning and memorization were institutionalised in school curricula. As a result of her work (and that of many others) play-based, child-led and story-centred approaches to education have all gained traction in recent years.
In our African/ South African context, the role of story-telling in education is caught between our colonial educational heritage (which ultimately looks like the same perfunctory, drill-based, production-line education that Vivian saw in US schools in the 1970s) and indigenous, traditional educational heritage, in which oral story-telling has always been central and indispensable. Literacy projects in South Africa, such as Nali-Bali and Book Dash, are well-aware of this and their literacy promotion campaigns in South Africa place story-telling at the heart of their message. Children learn through stories; what Vivian realised was that adults do too.
I love the echo created between her world and her work, the idea that she spent so much time listening to her student’s stories, and then used her own story-telling voice to encapsulate that classroom experience. I don’t doubt that her approach echoed with me when I decided to start writing ‘snapshots’ of my experiences at school, in something of a story-telling style.
I also wonder whether Vivian ever felt like I do, that since I can’t speak for other teacher’s (or student’s) experiences, I can’t in good conscience write from any other teacher’s perspective, which makes it very difficult to make claims, to insist on truth or any dogma. Story-telling is like holding film up to the light to see an image. It’s in negative, you can get an idea of the reality it has captured, but you also know that it is not the reality, it is an encapsulation, and the next story-teller might see the same scene very differently.
Read more Author Snapshots, in which I review other authors who write or blog about education. Or head to my main Snapshots page, where I tell stories from my own classroom.
I am starting this little foray into ‘teacher writers’ with a teaching blog called ‘Cult of Pedagogy’. Although by now the blog has many contributors it was started by a teacher and teacher trainer called Jennifer Gonzalez. She wanted to ‘talk inspired teaching’ with an engaged community – something that had been lacking in her school staffroom – and blogging became her vehicle and platform to do this.
I stumbled upon Cult of Pedagogy a few years ago, when I was researching ways to improve my classroom management (i.e. stop yelling at my students). Not only did Cult of Pedagogy have an article about exactly this topic it immediately struck me as a different kind of teacher blog – a thinking space, rather than just an instructive space. The formula for most teaching blogs seems to be ‘Hey I did this thing so well! Here’s what I did and here’s a small freebie to get you started or you can buy my bumper pack for $5.’ And while I don’t begrudge the existence of these kinds of teacher blogs (there are many truly glorious ones) I think Cult of Pedagogy's approach is refreshing – and important!
Cult of pedagogy is divided into three parts. There is ‘The Craft’, which looks into teaching methods and classroom management and raises pointed issues such as Are we Meeting the Needs of Black Girls? and about Making Schools a Safe Place for LGBTQ students. ‘Go Deep’ looks at education theory, professional development and also includes great book reviews. And then ‘Teacher Soul’ which talks about attitude adjustment, collaboration and staying inspired. ‘Teacher soul’ also includes stories, of individual teacher’s journeys like this ‘diary of a first-year teacher’ as well as inventive initiatives like ‘How one teacher started an urban gardening revolution’.
Although the whole site is US-centric, which is a somewhat tiresome characteristic of most teaching blogs online, it touches on topics that are relevant to many schooling contexts – particularly around issues of reform, justice and equity. If you are a teacher, or even if you aren’t, I recommend taking a turn around this site. Enjoy!
You know a topic is picking up heat in academia when it is given an acronym. Nobody got time to say the whole damn moniker each and every time it comes up! TTT and STT stand for Teacher Talk Time and Student Talk Time respectively. Research into how they each occupy the classroom is a big topic in educational research.
One of the most crucial, now widely-recognised findings is that TTT tends to hugely outcompete STT in traditional schooling models. This can be easily traced to the conception of education whereby a knowledgeable source (the teacher) transmits information to a less knowledgeable or possibly even ‘empty’ receptacle (the student). Now this conception sounds pretty bad – and it really can be – but it is also very, very prevalent. For example, even though it is definitely not the only model I make use of in my day-to-day teaching, I can’t deny that it comes up. Because there are times when I transmit new knowledge to my students and simply hope that they absorb it. TTT.
Buuuuut ‘simply hoping they absorb it’ is a catch. I can’t pin my teaching prowess on that kind of hope – I am accountable, largely, for what my students absorb during their time with me. And even though this sounds like serious pressure (which it is) there are ways to deal with it that don’t just fall back on more TTT.
In fact, another really important finding in TTT / STT research is that – surprise, surprise – increased STT is actually the talk time that really impacts student learning. Well who’dathunk?
In my next SQ post I’ll be comparing some practical approaches to decreasing TTT and increasing STT. More specifically I am going to compare traditional and mainstream approaches (which are still predicated on a hierarchical view of teacher vs students, teacher having total authority, children being subordinate) with more radical, alternative and anti-establishment approaches that recognise children’s agency and the huge need for educational reform – and even overhaul.
Go to The Snapshot. Go to the SQ. Go to Start.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.