Sunday, December 9, 2012

A pause in the theory - keeping it real...

I want to give my learning journey from Pikler to a more socio-constructivist teaching position a more practice-based context – to move on from all this academia and get real. And that context is art...

It was a discussion about play and the role of the teacher that first made me question the wisdom of Pikler's learning principles and the needs of the older child. I was at a centre that was (and continues to be) very much inspired by Pikler. A teacher and I were in the art space, but it was empty of children and activity. My colleague commented with a sigh that 'somehow it's just all different with art'.

It may be a coincidence, but my personal pedagogical journey has been primarily shaped by art.

Teacher practice in New Zealand remains firmly under the sway of constructivism – a legacy of Kindergartens, the pedagogical vagueness of our curriculum Te Whāriki, and the widespread confusion about implementing socio-constructivist practice. Vygotsky's socio-constructivist theories gets talked about a lot at university, but in my experience new graduates often lack a clear understanding of the actual teaching processes involved. Many (and I include myself here) who are introduced to Pikler/Gerber theory in infant papers are seduced by its apparent ease and quickly fall back to the default teaching methods of older colleagues. For instance I made it through my degree thinking that 'co-construction' referred to the fact that there were two people involved in creating new knowledge – a visibly stunned lecturer explained in our final weeks how wrong we were – it refers to the social and culture influences working together...

The rise of Pikler in infant care is having wide-spread implications – both positive and negative. On the downside, constructivism is re-emerging as an acceptable position for the teaching of older children – our traditional pedagogy is being validated by ‘cutting-edge pedagogy’ and many teachers feel that they are 'off the hook'. Professional development is big business and there is a surge in Pikler/constructivist orientated teaching/learning here in Aotearoa. 

One such workshop I attended was hosted by Pennie Brownlee and focused on art and creativity (Brownlee is the author of the very popular art education book 'Magic Places'). Brownlee's message is essentially constructivist – not (I must stress) a criticism of her personally as she is very highly regarded in New Zealand as an expert on infant-toddler care and has been instrumental in the up-take of Pikler philosophy in New Zealand centres. 

Now, Brownlee made a comment during the workshop that made me question her overall message: a centre she knew had yet to 'produce any significant art'. I also knew this centre and I could see how their constructivist approach to learning and the role of the teacher leaves the art area to 'free-play' where there is no adult involvement. I had already explored this situation with the teaching team about how the art space seemed 'lost', and that while we actively helped children decipher other symbol systems like letters and numbers, we had relegated art to the sphere of free-play – a place where we considered children brought all their experiences together to be something 'bigger'. At the time I asked: how do children get the practical skills and working theories to utilise this area of expression?

I left this workshop with more questions than answers so I went looking...

Susan Wright (Children, meaning making and the arts, 2003) confirmed to me how a laissez-faire approach to teaching art remains attractive to many teachers who believe that children should be provided with an attractive array of materials, and then allowed unfettered freedom to explore and express. Such a constructivist approach to learning is echoed in Pennie Brownlee's work despite vigorous critique from social and cultural perspectives that question the reality of learning in isolation. Wright asks how is it that freedom of the individual is equated with non-interventionist practices in art, but not in such learning areas as literacy or numeracy. As teachers we are successfully weaving an image of the child as an empowered competent learner with socio-constructivist theories of learning that sees children exposed to strategies of modelling, guidance, scaffolding and even moments of intentional teaching – yet art as a curriculum area is seemingly left behind to sink or swim according to 'natural development'.

Wright describes how in art children depict themselves or others, play out events from real or imagined worlds, and symbolically express emotional and aesthetic qualities. They need time to problem-solve in relation to their depiction of objects and events – both literally and metaphorically – and that this is often achieved alongside what Vygotsky terms the 'competent other'.

Here we have a child's peers or an adult acting as guide, facilitator, protagonist, co-artist, instructor, model, master, and apprentice (Wright, 2003).

Well that was a breath of fresh air.

Then I attended a lecture by renowned art educationalist Ann Pelo from the USA. She is a socio-constructivist through and through and had no time for 'a laissez-faire approach to teaching art'

According to Pelo, art is an expression of participation in life rather than product. As teachers it’s not a particular skill we teach, but the act of participating and engaging in the world. Thus art is not planned but a response to living - responsive and reflective teaching is now possible to open an inter-subjective space for co-construction.

The idea that art is a language resonates with Reggio Emilia teachings about the '100 languages of children'. From here it is easy to see the contradictions in our teaching of other 'languages' – be they spoken, written or symbol-based. As Wright (2003) states, we are happy to act as 'guide, facilitator, protagonist, co-artist, instructor, model, master, and apprentice' in helping to build a child's 'normal' language skills, so lets do the same to ensure children have the skills to utilise the language of art as a means of expression and meaning making.

For Pelo, practice looks like this:

  • Invite and build relationships with the various art mediums - this can be days or weeks... and should be ongoing.
  • Skill comes through practice which is often not the end result of play, but the product of teacher directed provocations.
  • Use art to explain our own actions and thoughts. Model and inspire.
  • Fit the medium to the question/idea - power...... use colours to express this concept?
  • Move between the mediums to advance ideas.
  • Honour the courage of creating.
  • Move from individual to collaborative work.

Here are some examples from my teaching journal to highlight this shift in my practice:


Inspired by Ann Pelo, today I engaged in deliberately inviting children to the art space and working closely with them in building a closer relationship with the materials and build a foundational skill level from which to develop meaning making.

I have had a concern that work with the clay had stalled - it was more often than not unattended - and that perhaps the children had gone as far as they could in a free-play exploratory stage.

With the toddlers we practised squashing, rolling, and poking holes into the clay. Together we sung a song to describe our actions that engaged all the children present and helped maintain a focus for a considerably long time. When I had to leave I noticed that the play quickly disintegrated with the children dispersing to other play.


Today I invited **** to come and paint with me. He agreed and we set up the water colours. We soon had company and together we explored a step-by-step process of washing our brushes, selecting a colour and painting before washing again....

This was a situation of endless repetition with very young children - some of whom got the sequence and others who would need more coaching. Pelo describes this foundational skill building as a prerequisite to using art as a language in meaning making.


When one of the children had stopped working on a picture and was making to leave the table, I asked if they were happy with what they had produced. Susan Wright (2003) writes how teachers should draw attention to the product as well as the process and that children can critically evaluate their work and explore if it expresses (or not) what they want. Teachers are then in a position to work with the child in either re-working the picture or planning for another one.

I inquire about naming the piece and placing it away to dry, but am told “I don't like it”.

I make a spontaneous decision to focus on the product rather than settle for process learning.

Why don't you like it?

I just don't.

Is it the way it looks? Are the colours not right?


You know we can change them by adding different colours?

The child returns to the picture and I help him add a dollop of white paint to the picture. He works this paint into the picture.

Do you like how it looks now?


Shall we save it?


Shall we write your name on it?


So for me the art space is no longer 'lost' to whims of free-play and the environment as the third teacher, but a site of intentional teaching with the goal of helping children develop foundational skills with which to use the art materials to express meaning.

And I'm pretty sure that these instances of intentional teaching remain true to the core principles of Pikler: respect, trust, empowerment, relationships...

What do you think?

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