Friday, September 28, 2012

Beyond Pikler...

My journey to better understand my role as a teacher in today's learning environment has led me to move beyond the learning principles of Emmi Pikler and seek a more social-constructivist interpretation. Following on from my thinking in 'Pikler and the Older Child', I'm looking at 'what's next'? Here I re-cap where I stand with Pikler and how I see myself moving forward in a way that retains the core of this philosophy - the image of the child - yet increases opportunities for learning.

The foundational principles of Pikler are not original, rather a convergence of ideas that draw from the theory and practice of Rousseau, Froebel, Tolstoy, and Francisco Ferrer's Modern School movement. Together these weave a pedagogical base that exemplifies best practice. Pikler's principles of learning can be extrapolated as:
  • an image of the child as a free and equal human being to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • following the primary care model to build a secure emotional base as the foundation for all learning.
  • play-based learning that is initiated and directed by the player.
  • elevation of the environment as the third teacher and the principle path of teaching.

A corner stone of Pikler philosophy is that teachers adopt a 'wants nothing' position (Gonzalez-Mena & Widmeyer Eyer, 2009) that allows the learner freedom to learn and develop at their own pace and direction. Teachers do not interfere in this process, but through observation and assessment are able to manipulate the learning environment to present ongoing learning challenges. It must be remembered that Pikler worked predominantly with traumatised and disabled infants in a residential institution. Through observation and reflection Pikler found that the unhindered development of gross and fine-motor skill development of infants in an environment of trust and respect, turned the lives of these children around. By allowing the children to achieve developmental goals in their way and in their time, dispositions for learning are then embedded for future learning it all its facets.

The pedagogy and practice that have come from the early childhood centres of Reggio Emilia mirror Pikler in considering children as capable, confident learners who have the right to initiate and direct their learning journey. The need for secure relationships is also recognised as is the care taken to create learning environments to satisfy children’s innate interest in same and different.

Where the two philosophies differ is in the role of the teacher. The Reggio Emilia approach to learning considers the role of a more skilled and knowledgeable teacher crucial as child-initiated projects are guided and developed in ways that far exceed that possible by the children alone. Co-constructive strategies such as gradual facilitation and scaffolding utilise intersubjective space to take learning in unique directions where new knowledge (for both child and adult) is constructed. That children are not passive receptors of teacher-generated knowledge, but are able to construct knowledge based on their experiences and interactions with others, is central to the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers do not view themselves as leaders who are in front of the children, rather, they are with the children, exploring, discovering, and learning together.

Play-based learning.

Teachers with a constructivist orientation to learning such as that espoused by Pikler often hope that children will pick up knowledge and skills through free-play, but there are limitations to accessing knowledge outside ones lived environment (Wright, 2003). Lillemyr (2003) echoes this concern and identifies research that questions the level of learning happening in the free-play environment. They found that “sustained conversation, highly complex play, and purposeful involvement leading to creative, exciting discovery”, were rare in the free-play environment.

I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. When Hedges (2010) says that while free-play has the capacity to promote deeper learning, teachers must be actively involved for this to occur, as a neophyte teacher, I swing between the sacredness of free-play and knowing that deep, sustained inquiry within these environments is often lacking (Lillemyr, 2003).

A co-constructivist approach to learning such as that espoused by Reggio Emilia, places a great emphasis on culturally and socially mediated interactions. The role of teachers in children's learning lies within the zone of proximal development with learners collaborating with more knowledgeable peers or adults to construct new knowledge. 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.

As a teacher, both finding this intersubjective space and working within it, can be problematic.
Intentional teaching can be both planned and spontaneous, but it is within free-play that teacher involvement gets more complex if we are to honour the child's learning and refrain from taking control.

Gonzalez-Mena & Widmeyer Eyer expand on their default (Pikler-inspired) teacher role of 'wants nothing, but is available', to include strategies of selective intervention that supports problem solving. It could be argued that 'problem solving' is the core of all learning and that through supported struggle we become masters.

Tina Bruce (1999) looks closer at these moments where an empowered learner briefly invites the participation of an adult. Bruce identifies these areas as:

  • Periods of practice
  • Manipulation of resources
  • Problem solving and the process of struggle
  • Representation - the producing of a 'product' that is presented for comment
  • Games with rules
  • Discovery and inquiry – the child as scientist

These all present instances where teachers can scaffold the building of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills and introduce concepts and ideas that are outside the child's immediate world. However, in becoming involved in free-play we must be aware of cutting into play texts in order to teach a concept out of the play context or 'reality'- to count, label, or offer the 'correct' information etc. This incidental teaching devalues play, renders it useless by dragging the children back into a reality constructed by the adult. Rarely is this intervention to do with the suspended reality of free-play – more likely it is socialisation, discipline or cognitive development within a specific curriculum area.

To summarise my understandings:

Moments of intentional teaching seem to be more implicit within the Pikler philosophy. The close relationship between teacher and learner means that while infants are essentially left to learn at a pace and direction that reflects their individual needs, problem solving and struggle is supported, and the environment is utilised as the third teacher.

Reggio Emilia retains the core of Pikler's learning principles in that children are respected as equals to initiate and direct their learning, but promotes a more co-constructivist approach to this learning with extended projects developed that better suits the more socially and culturally mediated learning of older children.

The Role of the Teacher

Anne Epstein (2011) offers this as a starting point in framing the curriculum:

A consistent daily routine should provide a variety of child-initiated and adult-initiated activities that offer opportunities for children to work on their own, with one or two peers, in small groups, and in large groups. Free play (choice time) should occupy the majority of the program day. Children should be able to choose and carry out activities that interest them with diverse materials. There should also be short small-group times and large-group times that are planned by adults with specific learning goals in mind (e.g., in mathematics, literacy, science, motor skills, creative arts). However, even during these adult-initiated times, children should be free to use materials and interact with others in their own way. Moreover, whether an activity is initiated by children or adults, teachers should be intentional in scaffolding (supporting and gently extending) children’s learning.

Working from the information gathered (and the authors cited), I have developed a working guide for my intentional teaching, whether it be spontaneous or planned. While I consider the list to be evolving as I critically reflect on my practice, I feel it that it is foundered on best practice as promoted by leading contemporary educational practitioners and thus is a strong starting point to exploring my intentional teaching.

As teachers we step back when children:
  • Investigate how things work by actively exploring materials, actions, and ideas
  • Establish relationships on their own
  • Turn to one another for assistance
  • Are motivated to solve problems on their own
  • Are so focused that adult intervention would interrupt them
  • Challenge themselves and one another to master new skills
  • Apply and extend existing knowledge in new ways

Planned or spontaneous moments of intentional 

teaching present themselves when children.

  • Are unaware their actions may be unsafe or hurtful
  • Have not encountered materials or experiences elsewhere
  • Cannot create systems of knowledge - eg letter names
  • Are not aware of something likely to interest them – eg the smell of flowers
  • Do not engage with something they need for further learning – eg shape names in geometry
  • Ask for information or help, especially after trying unsuccessful solutions of their own
  • They can be present without being intrusive in order to sustain learning (introduce a resource etc)
  • Can be challenged over actions, ideas etc in a way to foster constructive debate
  • Invite us into the play space with a defined role
  • Respond to fundamental questions; help formulate hypotheses, asking what they need – even when you know a particular approach is not ‘correct’
  • Become the children’s partner, offering assistance, resources, strategies etc when they are encountering difficulties and frustration may create negative learning experiences.

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