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.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pikler and the Older Child

This is an old post that I'm revisiting as my thinking around the relevance of Pikler's principles of learning in the context of older children continue to change. A lot has changed.

To refresh: the theories of Emmi Pikler are not original, but rather a convergence of principles that together weave a pedagogical base that exemplifies best practice. These theories can be extrapolated as:

  • an image of child as a free and equal human being to be treated with dignity and respect
  • attachment or primary care - a secure emotional base is 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
In transitioning from an infant care model that incorporates these principles to an older age group we must look at each thread.

Image of the child.

As I said earlier, our image of children and childhood reflects both our own journey and contemporary discourses. Pikler (and other philosophies such as Reggio Emilia and Anarchist) considers the child as a free and equal human being, but it's easy to see how these rights can quickly erode as the child approaches formal education. There is significant downward pressure from the primary school sector to 'prepare' children for school – essentially to make their job easier, so we get lots of mat-time and literacy / numeracy lessons. In the minds of politicians, many teachers and parents, ECEC is essentially 'pre-school' where children are in a state of preparation for their adult roles as economically viable workers. ECEC is seen as an investment and the true purpose and intent of the education system - homogeneity, social reproduction, obedience etc - is beginning to rear its ugly head.

Too often children move from a position of being trusted, respected and valued as an autonomous individual in the infant years, to being disempowered and forced to succumb to an adult agenda of 'education'. Can we maintain the trust that a child can initiate, control, develop, and succeed in learning challenges that are authentic, meaningful, and contextual? Of course.

I continue to feel that this is the core principle of Pikler and one shared by many others. Is there any reason to abandon such ideals? No.

Routine becomes Ritual

Many infant programs have been based on a model of care and education that aligns with an institutional version of attachment theory where a primary caregiver is critical for emotional stability - the foundation for all learning. While older children still need security and predictability, they are not in the beginning stages of developing basic trust and a sense of self as are infants and toddlers.

The concept of continuity of care refers to the practice of assigning a primary infant care teacher to an infant and (ideally) continuing this relationship until the child is three years old or leaves the program. Many centres find this model unworkable as the child gets older and 'the group' become increasingly mobile and disperse about the centre. Despite this, maintaining a strong relationship with children remains crucial – as all of you know!

Pikler positions the building of a secure emotional base during caregiving moments such as toileting, feeding and sleeping where close one-on-one interaction occurs, but as these times diminish with the increasing independence of the child, there is a need to look to other ways to create space for this relationship building.

This is where we witness the transformation of other daily routines into rituals that allow for the continuation of this relationship process. Routines can be described as an obligation, a job or chore where we do things 'to' a child rather than 'with'. A routine is often not considered a period of learning, but an interruption and can be seen occurring throughout a typical Kindergarten day.

On the other hand, a ritual conjures images of passion, love, willingness, extraordinary, creative and caring. In a ritual you are present, giving full attention with the 'head, heart and hands'. The ritual continues to have the structure we associate with routine, but its purpose takes on new meaning as rather than a chore to be gotten through, it is the base for the building of secure relationships.

Routines that come become rituals in the centre include periods of relaxation, group gatherings, and mealtimes. Thus ritual becomes the heart of a child's day and provides the children with structure and stability with play the space for exploring the unknown as the child's confidence in briefly leaving the 'safe spaces' grows. In the ritual we have rhythm and predictability, we have space for rich authentic relationships that feed the soul and leave an emotional imprint.

The time I spend with the children in my primary care reduces as they grow older. I still assist in toileting some, I sometimes find myself at the kai table with them, I check in throughout the day to see what they are up too, and I try to create instances of intentional teaching that specifically target them. I closely follow their learning progress and liaise with parents.... yes the links are there, but they are getting more difficult to maintain from a practical perspective: they are more mobile and their learning journeys are more individualised - and of course I'm stuck in other places, not strictly bound by staff rostering but still often unable to move freely to follow 'my' children.


Play-based learning and the role of the teacher:

The social-constructivist argument for increased teacher involvement in children's learning is a central tenet of contemporary teacher training. Rather than planned outcomes, teachers embrace the uncertainty of allowing children to lead the learning process with the teacher repositioned as a co-constructor with access to resources, skills, ideas etc. Yes a teaching agenda exists. Knowledge has been chosen as of having value and worthy of children learning. We seek to enhance numeracy, literacy, mathematical, socialisation skills and knowledge through strategies such as open ended questioning, co-construction, scaffolding and manipulation of the environment.

I agree with this position and this is where I find myself abandoning Pikler.

Pikler is an infant model focused primarily on physical development and aligns perfectly with Piaget's developmentally-inspired constructivism where the teacherwants-nothing, a reference to the need to let play develop from within the child, to having no set outcomes or agendas which turn play into an 'activity'. We 'teach'' through the environment alone by providing ongoing challenges. Through secure relationships we build trust, security, safety and a deeper connection with the child that allows to better support their learning.

Yet things change as the child grows. They can run, climb and jump. They feel secure, have a good self-esteem and love learning. Yet now this learning is more conceptual, more about ideas, the world about them, fundamental questions arise about life...

Research shows that the learning of language, mathematics, music, science, art etc can stall without more expert input than that of a child's peers. Lillemyr (2003) identifies research that questions the level of learning happening in the free-play environment. They found that “sustained conversation or play, highly complex play, and purposeful involvement leading to creative, exciting discovery”, were rare in the free-play environment. So how children can access more advanced knowledge and skills if restricted to only learning amongst their immediate peers?

We can critique the types of play we are witnessing and find those moments when an empowered child briefly invites the participation of an adult: periods of practice, manipulation, supported struggle, representation, discovery and inquiry, all present moments where teachers can introduce concepts and ideas that are outside the child's immediate world.

And so we arrive at co-construction – the central teaching strategy of social-constructivism and a long way from Pikler. Here the expert is working alongside the child to construct new knowledge. There is another post that looks into this in detail. You can find a link on the right hand list.

This is a fundamental departure from Pikler. Yes we maintain our image of the child, but no longer is learning an individual journey.

Environment as the Third Teacher

This role of the teacher remains important even though it is no longer the principle path of teaching that it once was with infants.

An environmental structure – be it resources, vegetation, sand, water, places to hide etc, need not have negative connotations of being prescriptive and the result of choosing 'correct' knowledge, they can be sources of infinite possibilities if we keep their purpose open-ended with the ability to become more complex. A well planned environment can incorporate concepts of mathematics, science, art, language etc in ways that inspire questioning from the children.

If we are now following this type of programme, can we still refer to it as Pikler? We could also ask why? If we consider the context of Pikler's original working environment – a state orphanage filled with disabled infants – should we really use this title? Sure we may be based on Pikler's learning principles, but we are developing a local context that reflects our need to honour the ongoing pedagogical research and practice.

Emmi Pikler picked the best of contemporary practice – we are doing the same.