Friday, October 9, 2015

Last post...

It's all over for this forum. A busy year running a centre plus study put it on the back-burner. Now I've migrated to Facebook for my rants. Come visit me there: The Kids are Revolting - ECE Aotearoa.

Thank you for your support and for those who continue visiting, I hope what you find is of some use to your practice/learning as a teacher.

Ngā mihi,


Friday, September 19, 2014

A Brush with Steiner...

I've never worked in a Steiner/Waldorf centre and my reading about them is limited to some critical articles, hearsay, and brief mentions during my time at Uni.

Prior to starting a new job where a couple of the teachers indicated that they were either Steiner trained or strongly influenced, I read the classic 'Free to Learn' by Lynne Oldfield which, while very rosy in its portrayal of Steiner Education, offered me enough to hopefully build pedagogical bridges with my new colleagues

What I discovered was that the good stuff is easily recognisable and becoming quite mainstream in New Zealand. For instance:

The ideas around routine and natural rhythm are familiar to those who follow Pikler/RIE philosophies where following a child's natural cycles of eating, sleeping and playing rather than working to a time schedule offers a more respectful, relationship based way of working/learning with tamariki. Happy children, emotional stability, increased learning opportunities. Tick.

Candles, flowers, karakia, real plates and cups, natural wood etc all work towards setting the fixed points in the day/place as a ritual that is both magical and grounded - a point in learning itself rather than rushed through to get on with the next 'activity'.

Freedom of movement is again strong with Pikler/RIE as it is generally with what is now considered best practice in ECE. No high chairs or other restrainers and a hands-off approach to teaching that allows for natural physical development.

Another core philosophy that reflects the era of educational thinking that Steiner was exposed to is Free Play. There are numerous criticisms of this constructivist approach to learning learning, mainly based around the limitations on a child's knowledge-base when no intentional teaching is occurring. I've written oodles about this here on this blog. Yet Steiner does try to balance this position with daily teacher-led activities but unfortunately this fails spectacularly in my opinion. Moments of intentional teaching are tightly controlled experiences with no input from the children as to content and direction. For example, wet paper painting with primary colours only and puppet stories - they appear almost identical in any Steiner centre in any country and are a tightly controlled 'Steiner best practice'.

However, at the other end of the intentional teaching spectrum...

Steiner practice the concept of 'good work' whereby teachers model life in a functioning community - they bake food, garden, repair, clean etc - they keep pretty busy as teachers and the potential learning opportuniest are fantastic. I'm totally into this. Closely related to all this work in the gardens is celebrating the seasons and this is another example a practice that is becoming mainstream.

So we have beautiful natural centres, bake bread everyday, awesome gardens, festivals and the children roam free for most of the day....

but there's the homogenised learning experiences, no reading books, and no black or brown paints and pencils because they are inferior colours....  Steiner... 1930's Germany... a hippy take on contemporary eugenics ideas that proposed several stages of reincarnation to become a white person... oh dear.

Yes Steiner is very 'white and middle class'. He was essentially a fucking nutcase and gave us the educational version of Scientology complete with Atlantis, goblins and aliens, but he stole most of his educational ideas like all the great educationsalist did/do. Pikler, Tolstoy, Ferrer, Montessori, Froebel etc were all active in this period and their ideas merge in many areas. Yet Steiner has serious baggage, lots of it. The main problem with this baggage however is that the movement tries to keep it secret - the racism, the weird spiritualist take on Christianity or 'Anthroposophy' as he coined it which is deeply infused in all the teachings, the anti-science and technology stance...

So I'm not at all interested in claiming to be 'influenced by Steiner' - there's just  no need to be linked with all his bullshit. Take the good bits and call then your own,  I like a lot of what Steiner does - but I'm not 'Steiner influenced' - I seek best practice.

We're having some very interesting discussions at work and on a pedagogical level it's sweet.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Teaching: an anarchist perspective

A question received via email:

"I am currently struggling with how to develop thoughtful activities that promote the ideas of anarchism for not only our son but the community that I serve of children and families. How do you manage to find balance between all the ec pedagogues in your work and with your children?"

In Aotearoa we are fortunate to have a national curriculum that is built upon a Māori worldview - so it's already challenging dominant western ideas right from the word go - with a framework that allows for a myriad of interpretations as to how these are reflected in practice.

The title, Te Whāriki, refers to a woven mat and is meant to represent the holistic way children learn. We have the overarching Principles: Empowerment, Holistic Development, Family and Community and Relationships.

These are then woven with the 'Strands': Well-being, Belonging, Contribution, Communication, and Exploration.

Within each of these there are goals to guide our practice that range from "an ability to determine their own actions and make their own choices" to "the ability to enquire, research, explore, generate, and modify their own working theories about the natural, social, physical and material worlds."

So for a Western curriculum, it's foundered on some great ideas! The key factor in turning all these fluffy left-wing platitudes (as the authors were) into practice that is more radical in its intent, is that the document is descriptive and really offers no 'how to' advice, but instead relies on individual interpretation. This is a double edge sword of course as it relies on teachers personal discourses etc to shape the outcome - and there is talk of the neoliberal Govt (1980's) at the time accepting it because they believed that their neoliberal rhetoric was now strong enough within society to covertly determine how the curriculum looked in practice. (They still fight today to get it more prescriptive and more defined in its intentions (esp numeracy and literacy) as lefty teachers continue to spin it their way).

So as an anarchist I'm fortunate to have such a guiding document (which is a legal requirement of all licensed centres) that allows me to flavour it my way - to "reflect the local community context" as they say.

From this base it's simply a matter of adding on those pedagogical extras to fine-tune the curriculum - hehe.

Emmi Pikler and her 'freedom of movement' philosophy draw upon people like Tolstoy, Francesco Ferrer's Modern Schools, and other European educationalists (esp the anarchists) with their radical notions on the rights of the child.

This 'image of the child' as a competent leader of their own learning who is living in the 'now' rather than preparing for some distant goal like school is now widely accepted in Aotearoa. Children are seen as equals with the same rights as adults to determine what happens to them.

I also draw heavily from the Reggio Emilia approach which was born out of opposition to Fascism and is again a coming together of radical ideas about the image of the child and their rights as an equal member in society. They build on these foundations with there enquiry/project approach to learning. It's highly critical and promotes observation, hypothesing, reflection, re-representation, and that the 'hundred languages' of a child are valid and to be respected.

For me, widely respected and accepted ECE Pedagogies such as these which are empowering, liberating, child and community centred are further supported by educational luminaries such as John Holt, Matt Hern, Ivan Illich etc who all offer radical new thinking to how children learn, and how we as teachers can help this process.

So building a working pedagogical base for my practice as an anarchist teacher is not really that difficult. At the core: I always promote the notion of interdependence over independence (a powerful western neoliberal concept if there ever was) and always include cooperative work/activities/challenges that get children working/playing in groups with problems to solve.

To argue for this approach pedagogically I draw upon Vygotsky and the ZPD ideas - we learn so much more with the help of another.

Art is an area where it is shown that working in small groups is one of the best working environments to learn. We talk, share ideas, model skills, copy, modify, refine, reflect etc in a manner that truly reflects the ideas of socio-constructivist thinkers - have a read of 'Why Art' on this blog. Art should be at the heart of your centre.

Caring for the environment, growing and preparing food, maintenance, art, tidying, recycling, up-cycling, music, dance, conversation etc are all core activities to be a member of society and are things I model all the time. I give my time, my energy, my heart ... freely to the children.... our relationships are unconditional.

Steiner (a nutcase and dodgy in all sort of areas) talks about this 'good work' and this type of being with children. We are not 'teaching' but being with them as guides, mentors, facilitators, memory-banks...

Anarchism is all about relationships - respectful, reciprocal, honest and real. That's easy. Teaching as an anarchist does not require any extra effort - it's simply what I've come to expect in my world.

Dealing with management however requires a little more effort...

I hope this has been of some help! Feel free to ask me to expand on any ideas.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

There are contradictions...

Ann Pelo, my new-found hero of 'pedagogy meets practice'...

"There are contradictions...  yes talk and be quiet. Learn the names and marvel without knowing names... there is no easy distillation of how to be in a place with a child. With Dylan at the blueberries, sometimes we discussed their sweet tang, sometimes we just savoured the fruit, sharing purple smiles. There were times through the winter and spring when I talked with Dylan about the bushes' cycle of rest and growth; sometimes those explanations sounded like foolish jibber-jabber, and sometimes I nailed the right balance of contextualising information. The only instruction for how to be in a place with a child, it seems to me, is to be wholeheartedly, attentively, genuinely present. Which means, sometimes, conversation and sometimes, quiet. sometimes naming and sometimes marvelling. Being present, together, all the time, in a generous and interested relationship with each other and with a place."

From 'The Goodness of Rain - developing an ecological identity in young children' (2013) an awesome book I will return to shortly as I explore ideas around a nature-based curriculum.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why art?

So, why are we so focused on art – both pedagogically and in our practice? It's a question I have asked myself recently, just why as a teacher does so much of my day involve art. Not just 'doing' art in the traditional sense, but thinking, observing, and acting in an artful way.

The lens' that generally guide my assessment/planning process of 'notice, recognise and respond' cold be described as scientific, learning dispositions, social skills, creative expression a la 'the 100 languages', and fostering self-esteem – but I'm now realising just how much 'art' is threaded through these different areas of learning. There is of course nothing ground-breaking about the notion of 'art' moving beyond the realm of paint, clay and pencils. How about considering...

  • Science with its creative thinking, hypothesising and experimentation that are daily generated by those glorious fundamental questions children ask - “will the brown grass go green again?”
  • Nature-based learning in which observation and exploration engage all the senses and provides endless opportunities for artistic play and representation. We garden, study leaves, bark and moss, follow spiders and ants trough the grass, lie back and watch the clouds...
  • Socio-dramatic play where real and imaginary props and narratives can be described as both process art and producing artistic representations.
  • Music and dance...
  • Story-telling...
  • Life...

Art is a response to living and everybody consciously or unconsciously engages in it to some degree. Art is everything and anything – if we have our art 'lens' on that is ...

At our centre we draw upon the teaching and learning philosophies of Reggio Emiia which has at its core a concept developed by Loris Malaguzzie referred to as 'the one hundred languages of children', a reference to the myriad of ways children express their understandings of themselves and of the world about them. The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education is internationally acclaimed for its empowering image of the child, the child-led project approach to learning, an exhaustive documentation process that often includes public exhibitions, and the fact that it is focused on creative art as it's primary vehicle for learning...

But... Reggio Emila is unfortunately also renowned for the awful academic nature of its literature which can be difficult for lay people to understand. What does 'The Reggio Emila approach' mean to parents and many of the teachers tasked with leading this approach?

Probably fuck all right?

Personally, I (a teacher and a parent), stopped reading anything directly to do with Reggio Emila a long time ago as I found it largely inaccessible and so removed from my context of work as to be more confusing than helpful. Ann Pelo and Susan Wright are now my principle guides when it comes to art and my role as a teacher. (In saying this, I do however recommend the Reggio publication In the Spirit of the Studio, by Lella Gandini which has a more practical focus and worth seeking out.)

Pelo advocates intentional teaching to develop foundational skills and draws strongly from Reggio practice (I highly recommend her very accessible and practice-orientated book, The Language of Art, 2007) and describes art as “a process of engagement with a range of materials that is sensual and reflective, creative and deliberate, and which deepens and extends children's learning.”

In answering my question Why Art?, Pelo proposes that “as children become more comfortable and skillful with these media, they are able to use them to communicate their understandings, emotions, and questions. Their fluency in a range of art 'languages', in turn, opens new possibilities for collaboration and dialogue, for taking new perspectives, and for deepening their relationships with each other.”

And that's about it from Pelo as far as the 'why' goes as her focus is on the 'how' of teaching art to young children. Get her book, it will be the only art book you will need as a teacher.

I know a teacher who bases herself at the art table at her centre because that's where it all the action is. Sure there's a lot of intentional teaching happening as she guides and models art techniques, but there's more to it than that and this is when I draw upon Susan Wright (Children, Meaning-making and the Arts, 2003) who takes an indepth look at why the art studio/space is the place for learning.

Briefly, this is why we 'do' art all day, everyday – and why you should too...

Art is a language and we want our children to be literate. It can be considered as stopped action frames which provide children with a pre-conceptual understanding of how they operate in the world. It is a symbol system for communicating ideas and experiences. This process of representation is all about creativity, about thinking outside the box. “Research indicates that a child who is exposed to the arts acquires a special ability to think creatively, be original, discover, innovate, and create intellectual property” (International Child Art Foundation). Art is an activity that engages all the senses and gets all the brain's synapses firing away as they draw from imagination, memory or in response to immediate stimuli – and don't forget that children think with their bodies...

Art builds fine motor skills as they learn to control a wide variety of tools and coordinate movement. From scribble to shapes to repeated and precise symbols with more complex meanings such as numbers and letters of the alphabet.

Art that is open-ended and (to a degree) process orientated offers endless opportunities to make choices, hypothesise about results, evaluate, reflect, and build upon this new knowledge. In art we behave like a scientist.

Art is a perfect outlet for children to process their feelings, thoughts and discoveries in a way that is often easier and more comfortable than words. Movement, image, colour, line and imagination all help children express themselves in multidimensional ways.

These are all wickedly important, but the clincher for me is that the art space is recognised as a prime location for collaborative learning amongst peers. Here we can see a group of children (and adults) who are emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products, and making meaning – an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning of others.

In groups we encounter: new perspectives, strategies, ways of thinking.

We learn to reflect, modify, extend, clarify, and enrich. Fantastic! It is an adventurous, enquiry based approach to learning where participation can move on from a traditional transmission style of education to one that can include the whole community.

Consider these further points from Krechevsky & Mardell (Four features of learning in groups, 2001):

While we acknowledge that learning is individual, we think it is critical to consider the social construction and existence of knowledge as well. Learning in a group supports a quality of learning that is different from individual learning. A focus on collective understanding – requiring constant comparison, discussion, and modification of ideas- makes possible learning that is not accessible to individuals working alone.”

Intentionally include adults in the learning journey – we do not leave the children to 'naturally develop their knowledge and skills'! Adults play different roles, but all engage in enquiry. The teacher's role includes listening, observing, providing provocations for discovery and joy, intervening at critical moments to model techniques. Rather than being seen as the sole or primary sources of information, teachers help children enlist the cognitive and emotional support of their peers. Teachers also serve as the groups memory, reminding children of earlier work etc.

So gather round the art table and explore meaning making...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Hiatus 2

Sigh... the intent, the ideas.... all there but the energy and time is not.... so time to officially declare a holiday! Life is just too busy, but I'll continue once a few other projects are wrapped up.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chasing Section B

Section B of Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum in Aotearoa, is written in Te Reo Māori and is designed to guide Kōhanga Reo and Māori immersion centres. I've been searching for an English translation for a while as I'm part of a team in my centre who are reviewing how well we are doing in implementing a bi-cultural ethos to all we do. We're taking a critical look at theory and practice and are delving into topics such as
Place-Based Education, Geneva Gay's Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Peter Moss's delightfully radical work on education for survival, Māori learning dispositions as a possible framework, work by Rose Pere, are just some on the reading list...

but I really want to know what our curriculum says we should be doing...

The Ministry of Education refuses to translate Section B. "Never have and never will" was the gist of their reply to my email. Having lived under the mess that the 'Treaty of Waitangi' (sic) has created, I understand how translations can profoundly alter meanings . I'm told it's surprisingly different and part of me wonders if there is a way to gain some insight while maintaining the integrity of the document.

Is my curiosity taking me across a line I have no right to be concerned about?