Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pikler and Co-construction: bridging a theoretical divide

This post continues my series on Pikler's learning principles and the need to take a critical social-constructivist view of its developmentalist foundations. I'm a staunch advocate for Pikler. I must confess that I was initially attracted to Pikler because it seemed to bypass the complexities of the learner/teacher relationship. Just as I was getting a handle on co-construction and such, bam – Pikler seduces me, pulls me across this chasm of messy theory and lets me take on a 'wants nothing' position (thank you Janet Gonzalez-Mena for making this role sound so bloody nice!).

Now however it is the image of the child as a free and empowered learner that I find most appealing about Pikler and, paradoxically, what I don't like is its association with constructivist ideas on development which see learning as an individual journey that requires no 'interfering' with by teachers. We are products of our cultural and social worlds – there's no denying that and socio-cultural views of learning reflect this. Do we have an unbridgeable chasm here? In my last post I explored content knowledge – go read it now if you already haven't (in fact go right back to Pikler Revolution 1 so you get the whole picture – and my evolution of thought). Now I want to keep going with this inquiry and explore possible ways of imparting new knowledge to learners while respecting their rights.

First up: a central tenet of my personal philosophy is an image of the child as being an active, self-initiating learner with the fullest of human rights who wants and needs to engage in play. I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. No teacher-led transmission of knowledge stuff like in a classroom – and sadly in many centres. Play is the vehicle for learning.

Contemporary theories of learning have evolved from Piagetian constructivism to focus on Vygotsy's social-constructivism which recognises that all learning occurs within a social and cultural context – we are not isolated, nor 'coded' to learn as constructivism would have us believe. Learning and learners are not moving on a linear path to a homogenised universal truth. Everything is inter-related. Evolving from this recognition of social interactions as the basis of learning, social-constructivism envisions a different role for teachers in considering children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted by more advanced and competent individuals through both informal and formal interactions (Hedges, 2010). Unfortunately, while Te Whāriki (New Zealand's early childhood curriculum) fully embraces this line of thinking in that it “emphasises the critical role of socially and culturally mediated learning and of reciprocal and responsive relationships for children with people, places, and things,” it hits a brick wall of traditional free-play practice that is compounded by teachers failing to fully understand social-constructivist strategies and interpreting them as being about teacher-led. This confusion results in teachers returning to a default constructivist-orientated practice – our happy place :)

What a fuck up right? And it just goes on and on. So we have a legacy of constructivist inspired free-play environments and a social-constructivist curriculum that rightly reflects the incredible diversity we experience. Throw into the mix the need to introduce new knowledge.

Tina Bruce (1991) describes how too often educators attempt to teach through play, where the teacher cuts into play situations in order to teach a concept that may have emerged as the children played. This interventionist approach to teaching devalues play, renders it useless by dragging the children back into a reality constructed by the adult. Play, and thus meaningful learning, is effectively suspended. This is just major theoretical/practice confusion and you can see it happening all the time at kindergartens.

Isenberg and Quisenberry (2002) describe play as a means for children to facilitate the understanding of skills and concepts, and to take ownership of new knowledge, that it is both a process and a product. The importance given to play as the leading factor in learning and development owes much to developmental psychology: Vygotsky considers play to be the space where children operate at their highest level of functioning and where they apply all they have experienced – their working theories, their funds of knowledge (Bruce, 1991; Hedges, 2010). According to Bruce (1991), what we broadly refer to as 'play' is actually an inter-connected process with foundational learning processes like struggle, manipulation, exploration, and discovery leading to competence and a sense of control. This control builds self-confidence, autonomy, intrinsic motivation, the desire to have a go, to takes risks and solve problems. Thus, rich and varied experience is a prerequisite to play where wallowing in ideas, experiences, feelings, and relationships, transforms the actual into the possible with new, meaningful knowledge the result. In pulling apart our concept of play and recognising that within play there are periods where more direct support is needed, Wood (2004) argues that teachers are better positioned to introduce discipline-based knowledge skills and understandings. My question is: how?

Children at play naturally behave like scientists in that they learn by doing things and asking questions. Children's questions are often fundamental, complex and not easily answered, and as a result, they provide a natural learning context for enquiry-based education (Jordan, 1982). Questions also serve as a useful guide to determining what is significant and interesting to them. Hedges (2010) refers to a child's funds of knowledge, their “unique family and community experiences” (p.28) as a possible framework for teachers to recognise and understand a learner's motivation for inquiry in everyday activities and interests. The pedagogical challenge is to move from “having information about children, to knowledge of children at a deeper level” (Hedges, 2010, p.35).

A socio-cultural view of learning places a great emphasis on culturally and socially mediated interactions and clearly defines a role for teachers in children's learning with the zone of proximal development highlighting the difference in independent problem-solving versus collaboration with more knowledgeable peers or adults. Hedges (2010) describes this adult-child relationship as intersubjective, in that it has “a mutual or shared understanding, a sharing of purpose or focus,” that allows for constructing new knowledge not predetermined or defined.

Can you see it? Space grows from respect and mutual interest (the child's inquiry and the teacher's response) and allows for new learning that is mutually constructed.

Hedges (2010) discusses three pedagogical strategies within the socio-cultural framework to guide teachers within this space: Scaffolding, Guided participation, and Co-construction.

Scaffolding refers to the technique of providing temporary guidance and support as a learner masters independence. Hedges (2010) claims that while often misinterpreted as direct teaching, the weight of control does remain with the adult. Guided participation sees children cast as apprentices, “active in learning through observing, participating with peers and adults to develop skills and knowledge” (Hedges, 2010). Again there is a gradual shift of power to the learner, but often involves outcomes that are predetermined by the expert. Co-construction however, “holds a potentially empowering approach to encouraging both adults and children to have an active role in the teaching and learning process” (Hedges, 2010, p.18) and it is this equity that elevates co-construction as a key strategy for teaching through play.

Bernstone (2009) claims that “teaching strategies are about the different degrees of control of power” (p. 6) and that teachers need to question ownership of knowledge. With co-construction, a shared approach to meaning-making is possible that is empowering for all. By acknowledging cultural and social forces that both shape and influence a learner, by engaging with inquiry processes and accommodating shared meaning-making, co-construction aligns with the goals and intent of Te Whāriki, as well as respecting the deeper drive for free-play.

Can you see the process that differentiates this strategy from others? It's not about learning to use the scissors or climb the big ladder, it's new ideas and concepts that fundamentally challenge and change. We build a community of inquiry that recognises the importance of children's funds of knowledge, activities and interests and the real questions that grow from this base. In responding to this inquiry - participation, intersubjectivity, shared purposes and goals - we co-construct new meaning.

Co-construction provides a pedagogical framework to guide the process of inquiry and I see this role of the teacher alongside a learner at play as an empowering one – principally because it does not seek power and this makes my little anarchist heart skip with joy :)

Well after all that I have to say that it's still all a bit vague. There is simply too little accessible and practical information out there for the average teacher to study. In an attempt to remedy this, a mate is dropping of Fleer's new book 'Early Learning and Development' for me to read over the holidays – apparently it's the latest and greatest on social-constructivism. We'll see where it takes us eh? As you were.


Bernstone, H. (2009). An exploration of teacher power and its place in negotiation as a
teaching strategy in early years. New Zealand Journal of TeachersWork, 6 (1), 20-27.
Bruce, T. (1991). Time to play in early childhood education. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.
Cahill, A., & Fleer, M. (2001). I want to know: Learning about science. Canberra: Australian Early Childhood Association.
Cullen, J. (2003). The challenge of Te Whāriki: catalyst for change? In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving Te Whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice pp. 161-187. Wellington: NZCER.
Hedges, H. (2000). Teaching in early childhood: Time to merge constructivist views so learning through play equals teaching through play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 25(4), 16-21.
Hedges, H. (2010). Whose play, goals and interests? The interface of childrens play and teacherspedagogical practices. In L. Brooker & S. Edwards (Eds.), Engaging play. Open University Press.
Isenberg, J., & Quisenberry, N. (2002). Play: Essential for all children. Childhood Education: Infancy Through Adolescence, 79(1), 33-39.
Nuttall, J. (2003). Exploring the role of the teacher within te whāriki: some possibilities and constraints. In Nuttall, J. (ED.), Weaving te whāriki: Aotearoa New Zealand's early childhood curriculum document in theory and practice (pp. 161-187). Wellington: NZCER.
Wood, E. (2004). Developing a pedagogy of play. In Anning A, Cullen J, Fleer M Early Childhood Education: Society and Culture. pp. 19-30. Uk: Sage Publications.


Alison said...

Can you see it? Space grows from respect and mutual interest (the child's inquiry and the teacher's response) and allows for new learning that is mutually constructed.

Yes I see it! I went to Budapest 2 years ago to the Pikler institute and returned to NZ with a new understanding about power in relationships. The co-construction you defined in your essay can only be truly understood through working with tamariki and whanau with a Piklerian approach. The belief that as EC teachers we are in a shared care arrangement with whanau (If we believe in viewing the child and their ako holistically) is a crucial aspect to positioning the teacher alongside whanau rather than the expert position some are so desperate to know.
I hear often the mantra that 'relationships are everything' and at times when I hear this spoken I believe I am listening to a kindred spirit. How disappointed I get when the words that I hear do not match the actions and practices of teachers.
Your essay discusses the difference between guided participation, scaffolding and co- construction. The truth is that ...It is all about power and I found your essay refreshing and a breath of fresh air.
I wish I could work with you..... Knowing that tamariki and whanau would be truly empowered.

ako said...

Thank you for comments Alison and I totally agree with your thoughts on power.

At the moment I'm trying to navigate this blending of theoretical positions - the stated (and practiced) philosophy at my new centre is Pikler and Reggio - a blessing in disguise I guess!

I'm working on a guide to help me reflect on my moments of intentional teaching to make sure I'm getting involved at the right space/time and in a manner that does not claim power. Very much a practical look at Pikler and co-construction. I'll put a modified version up here.

- and you are not alone in your thinking :) The Pikler posts on this blog are accessed everyday - several thousand readers for this one alone. We are the future :)