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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Children need platforms not pedestals

I truly believe in the competence of children, but also understand the importance of being supportive so that we do not let them get out of their depth.

For me the competence is about what they can do now. What they are capable of, and that they have experiences and knowledge than can contribute to expanding our own adult experiences and knowledge. There is mutual learning.

I am very aware that as an adult I have accumulated more experiences, collected more knowledge and amassed a better understanding of the world around us and how it interacts with us... and that this is a continuous process of learning. The older we get the further we see, because we have tried and tested it before and know the patterns of consequence and cause and effect.

Children are very busy testing these out for themselves all the time in a multitude of ways... and some of those ways feel like they are in action to test our patience (which some probably are...)

In early childhood education (and school education) there is much talk of ensuring children (young people) have agency... actually I think this word is used more in early childhood than it is later on...

We are busy in the early years, especially here in Sweden, to enable young children to have agency, to be able to act independently and make free choices - only for this to be usurped by the power of the school teacher later (not necessarily the fault of the teacher, but the fault of the system).

So there is this push for children to speak their minds, but then when they do adults do not know what to do with this power that the children have... should it be silenced or put on a pedestal? There is a problem with both of these responses. The first one is obvious... silencing them means their opinions are not valued - and sadly this is how many schools must function in order to fulfill the task of completing the curriculum, there is a need to move from one subject to the next and from topic to topic within each subject... there is seldom time to truly find out what the children know or think about these topics - here are the facts, learn them, be able to prove you know them in a test, move on to next facts...

Putting children onto a pedestal means that the child is being valued, but almost in a novelty sort of way... a pedestal makes it easy to observe the child, but not necessarily with the intention to truly listen. The pedestal is also a good way to individualise children and isolate them from each other (or anyone put on a pedestal) it makes it harder to share the limelight... and times this can be a very important thing as many voices together are more powerful than one voice on a pedestal.

Can it be that the school system is so much about the individual that it makes it hard for society, as a whole, to not do this, to elevate certain individuals. Is this something that society needs, or that society has created?

I reflect on the group work that my children have done in school and wonder why they do group work at all when it is still about the individual... my children complain that when the HAVE to do group work there is nearly always one or more people in the group that are not interested in doing the work. This means that to get the grade that my children want they have had to do extra work... despite complaining to the the teacher (I have also experienced this at university level in Sweden) no alternative or support is given to the situation... so what is learned... that some people in the group can get a grade by doing virtually nothing, while others get the same grade by picking up their slack... nothing is learned about working as a group.

So shouldn't schools actually work on enabling children to work as groups... to give them the skills they needs, to learn how to take responsibility, to participate, to listen and to give value... wouldn't this make it so much easier for later for children (and adults) to be able to communicate and have dialogues... to find a platform.

The platform I have been using is philosophy with children... I have worked with children from the age of 1 until 13 - and also with adults using this technique. Supporting the children to become good listeners. Enabling them to participate. This means not just the actual philosophical dialogues, but other activities that support the dialogues... for instance to sit and talk requires that you have the core strength to sit... I find more and more children are lacking the core strength they need to sit and use their energy to listen... instead energy is being used on trying to sit in a manner that is approved by the teacher.. or enables listening. Being able to self-regulate. Being aware of how your own words and emotions impact others. Being aware of how to play with ideas... and this can mean feeling socially safe. If the classroom (or early years group) lacks social harmony then not all the children are going to feel confident enough to express their opinion.

What I have observed is that many preschools are getting this right... the children have a sense of agency, they listen to their peers, there is a sense of respect, value and democracy. Then they start school... and these values become something that is taught on the first week of school and when issues arise, instead of being a constant part of the curriculum.

If all preschools worked with philosophy with children, this ability for children and teachers to talk with equality and to explore ideas together... to create a community of learners - and that this was then continued in school on a weekly basis I think this would positively impact how children and youths value and listen to each other... AND then in the future when they are adults they will value others including children in the same way they had been valued by teachers in school.

When I worked last year with Gästrike Water Authority and the Board of Children what became clear is that the children aged 8-13 realised that older was not better or necessarily wiser... that we could all learn from each other if we opened ourselves to that possibility. The 13 year old was amazed that she could learn from an 8 year old... that was something she had not expected. This is something that she will carry with her... that young children are competent and also bearers of knowledge.

The Board of Children was given a platform to share their thoughts... with each other and also publicly - you can read more about my reflection of this project here

I believe that IF we are to make a difference in the world - social, economic and environmental sustainability then we need to teach children how to listen - to truly listen. Not how to listen to answer... but to listen to understand - this does not mean they have to agree with everything, but at least try to understand why others think the way they do - and if we are ALL doing this then we stand a better chance of saving this planet of ours - to create more peace and less climate change.

It means children need to learn how to collect knowledge, how to fact check, how to connect these facts for deeper understanding and how to express their opinions about the facts they have found, and also how to challenge others respectfully and to be open enough to change their own mind if they realise that someone else is sitting on better information. I think many people are so busy defending their point of view that they do not listen... they merely hear the words that are being said. I think this is part of the problem where debate and grades are the main source of teaching in schools, rather than a genuine community of learners.

So as educators we can help our children find their platform by teaching listening. Communication is 40% listening, 35% talking, 16% reading and 9% writing - and yet schools' main focus is the reading and writing... some talking and virtually no time is spent on the listening.

What is the point of children learning to talk and communicate their opinions of there is no-one capable of listening properly.

This is why I have been blogging about listening for the last six years - sharing what I learn about supporting children to listen to each other... it is no good us teachers/educators becoming better listeners to the children... all we are doing is continuing the process of the children listening to the adult and we listening to the individual children. By supporting the children to listen to each other, they become empowered... they do not need me, the adult, to listen to them in the same way - I am no longer the only person listening. When the children know they are being listened to by their peers it makes it easier for them to share their opinions. I also observed that this was not just the case during the philosophy sessions but also throughout their day in all their interactions... including interactions with their parents at home (I was told by all the parents about how their children were able to argue their case rather than whine).

This is not an overnight success story. This was a period of four years with the same children aged 2 until they started school at age 6. Play, activities, dialogues, art... and play play play... were key elements. The children learned to trust me, trust each other... and I trusted them. We did philosophy sessions every week... we did other activities to support their ability to listen - all through the medium of play.

My work with Gästrike Water Authority was once a month over a period of 15 months... I felt that it was first after six months that the group felt the trust they needed to talk freely. We also used the medium of play to enable the children to build the trust they needed to communicate without inhibition. The older children enjoying the play just as much as the younger... maybe sometimes even more, because they had less access to this kind of creative play. The board of children did not see each other between meetings... I can only imagine how empowered the group could have been if they all went to the same school and we engaged in these kind of activities on a weekly basis.

There is research available about the benefits of philosophy with children in school settings... how grades in other subjects go up, because there is another level of curiosity and also because the children have a higher level of trust in the group and can more easily settle down to the work. So this approach is socially and cognitively sustainable for a school environment.

This is Original Learning - how play and learning is woven together to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding through a community of learners. How learning is connected from one experience to another... from one fact to another... linking and interconnecting.

The above statistic vary depending on what study about communication you check... but the ratios are more or less the same regardless of study. The above one come from Leeds University.

Links to other posts I have written

below are some listening quotes...

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