Theory-in-use and Saint-Exupery's drawing

I am reading a new (old) book* and found a couple of nice things in chapter 12- "Learning to See the Boa Constrictor Digesting the Elephant: Preservice Teachers Construct Perspectives of Language, Literacy and Learning through Art" by Marilyn J. Narey.

Narey starts the chapter with a bit about this picture:

― Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ryThe Little Prince

Saint-Exupery ends this piece by saying "and thus, I gave up what could have been a brilliant career as a painter."
Narey points out that the adults in this story ignore the "visual traces of critical thinking and problem solving" that the child was revealing. I really loved this little illustration of the way adult assumptions can supersede children's intentions, and shut down not only their creative process, but their learning process as well.

This is something I work to check in myself as I reflect on my daily practices. It seems worthwhile to practice this, and to try to model for other adults, be they parents, new teachers or policy makers, as we all strive to become less trapped in our own point of view and to learn to be able to see the point of view of people who are different than us, including children.

The second thing I really liked in this chapter was the concept of theories-in-use. This comes from Donald Schon, who I didn't know coined the term 'reflective practice'. Theories-in-use can differ from espoused theory, which is how we say (or think) we do things. Theories-in-use are what we really do, not what we say (or think) we do. This seemed to me to be a new way to think about the image of the child. Does my espoused theory, how I say I view children, childhood and learning, match what I actually do and how I plan for and treat children? How many ways do our own experience as school children subtly subvert the theories we think we go by each day. This term has reframed my reflections lately. Am I doing what I think I'm doing?
It seems to me that the phrase theory-in-use could be really useful when talking about the image of the child. You could poll teachers or parent groups about their theories about school and children. Then those groups could analyse their behavior to see if the two match.

In the chapter Narey talks about theories-in-use about art in education. Some common theories are that art is about feeling and expression and that teachers are wrong if they interfere in children's artmaking process. However, we know that sometimes, for instance if we are drawing to learn about the natural world in a scientific way, it is important to draw a bird or a tree using accurate colors. But even if you can talk about these two ways of using art in the classroom, you might hesitate to interfere when a child is coloring from imagination instead of reality.
An educator could think that they believe that drawing, building and other visual media are as important forms of literacy as language and writing, and that children have the right to make meaning in multiple ways throughout their lives. But what kinds of questions are they asking about the work? Are they really enacting a different idea with the children they teach? "Language and literacy development remains focused upon written language, with emergent literacy seen as an early stage on the continuum." If "children's drawings and dramatic play" are seen as a means to the real end- verbal and written literacy, then the theory-in-use doesn't match the espoused theory.
So, this is my thank you to Marilyn J. Narey for providing me with food for thought this week.

*"Making Meaning: Constructing Multimodal Perspectives of Language, Literacy and Learning through Arts-based Early Childhood Education Springer 2009


Being Reggio

Have you noticed that there are a ton of Pinterest and Facebook posts about 'doing Reggio' these days? In one way it's great that so many people are looking for inspiration, but I worry that the exquisite praxis we can see in the infant toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia are being misinterpreted. Sometimes in talks educators from Reggio remind us to "look beyond the furniture", and I think that's good advice. At its root, the Reggio Emilia approach is a big old Ikea basket full of educational theory put into practice- put into beautiful, well considered and co-constructed practice, with lots of listening and the ethics that come from a deep respect for humankind backing it up. To me, the reason it's so worth looking to Reggio is that all of the beautiful work is carefully thought out and negotiated and presented so that it never, ever betrays the children.
Don't the practices and environments in all the beautiful photos of activities, tabletops and shelves lose their meaning if not accompanied by the careful thoughtfulness described in The Hundred Languages of Children? It seems to me that it's really all about ideas and relationships, rather than wood and wicker, fabric strips and bubble wrap. And no matter how many times I've arranged the materials in jars of rainbow colors, I know that they'll either stay up on the shelf in pristine sortedness, or get dumped out and mixed up, because that's what people do when they are looking for four matching bottle cap wheels for a cardboard batmobile.

How do you look for meaning in a learning experience?
I try to look for a big idea that can connect across time and subject area. Dewey's ideas about educative experiences (which connect) and mis-educative experiences (which are without context) can really help me. A mis-educative experience is one that doesn't connect the learner to the wider world. This lesson or experience might have some benefit for children (like practice with fine motor skills), might be "agreeable or exciting in itself" but doesn't lead to "richer experience in the future" (Dewey's words). By tying school experiences to relationships and big, universal ideas, the teachers in Reggio Emilia avoid banal, stifling mis-education. And so can all of us.

*(Praxis (process), the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized.) 


Beyond a nature shelf: Bringing the outside in

Teachers Elaine and Lisa (who teach 4 and 5 year old children) are interested in bringing the outside in to the classroom. Most classes at Sabot spend at least one day in the forest each week. The children in this classroom are taking care of some worms, snails, a turtle and an industrious tree frog that somehow scaled the building and wound up in their second floor sink. It's no wonder that the children have begun to talk about turning their classroom into a forest! Elaine and Lisa and I work hard to create a seamless flow between the studio and their classroom.
Here are some of the ways that I have tried to help with this project:
Children thought about what the animals might like
see and drew pictures for them to look at through their glass containers.

Building tiny forests with clay,
natural materials and cardboard



Making costumes and pretending to be worms, turtles, snails and frogs. 

Children transformed themselves into animals using photographs, drawing and computer. One of my research questions this year is how to use technology in a way that helps children take their ideas further. Below you can see a transformation in process.


If you want to read more about nature and children in wild places, check out this new book by the great David Sobel that features some work by me and another teacher at Sabot, Mauren Campbell. This represents a wonderful cycle as Marty Gravett was the first teacher at Sabot that took children outside the playground fence, and now her daughter Mauren has written about her experience with children out in the forest!