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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Competent Child - The Competent Teacher

Uppdaterat: 3 aug. 2022

Over the years I found that I swing from having great faith in educators to suddenly feeling overwhelmed and that we are never going to achieve true democratic classrooms/learning where there is participation and respect and real learning for all. And in this I mean not just in early education but throughout school.

To be honest it's not really the educators I have issue with... I think 98% strive to be the best they can for the students/children they work with - unfortunately there are that 2% (maybe more) that really should not be in a classroom... they don't enjoy their work, they don't seem to like children and invest little to no energy/interest to inspire learners. Sadly, such teachers have interacted with my own children... and this has not been just my personal opinion about them, but one held by the other parents and children (and even some of that teacher's colleagues)

I think there are teachers that sometimes find their groove and just stay there, they do not take the time to reflect - but maybe it can be that there is not the time to truly reflect - both self reflection and also reflection together with others.

I also wonder about professional development... over the almost 30 years I have worked in education the vast majority of courses and workshops have had little deep-impact on the preschool/school setting where I have worked. The teacher attends, feels a spark of motivation... but then is not given the time or the means to apply this new found motivation to improving, changing, developing the setting where they work... or does not have the time, or capability, to motivate colleagues that would be a necessary part of the change. This has been a big reason why when I do workshops with preschools I prefer to do at least two with a few months in between so that the educators can put some ideas into practice and then we do a follow up together.

Directors/principals/head-teachers are essential in the development and direction of a preschool/school - to ensure that it is not just some professional development here and there, but that there is a real strategy so the development is continuous and connects the staff with each other... so that they can become a team - and not just a string of teachers/educators that happen to work in the same place (which I think happens more often than we think - just as children often end up being a series of individual learners sat at desks instead of a learning community).

Providing our children with a one day, or afternoon session in a learning area is not going to have the same impact as allowing them to learn in many different ways, making use of the 100 languages, over a period of time, and reflect on this together as a group... the teacher being the facilitator...

Educators need the same to extend their ability to meet the needs of children. To continuously evolve in their roles. They need permission to play with ideas, fully explore the process and not just have professional development treated as a product that they acquire through attendance.

if we want to talk about the the competent child/learner we need to fully explore what the competent teacher - as this must, surely, be a mutual relationship?

Over the years I have entered many dialogues about this. What if competence is purely about believing in the capability of each child - that we should see their capabilities and what they can do and evolve rather than on what they cannot do and need to acquire, I mean this is something that my son has struggled with throughout school due to his autism/ADHD that teachers have focused on what he cannot do or has not mastered yet (as he has his own timeline to develop, especially socially and also sees the world differently) and this has made him feel incompetent it has made him lose faith in his own abilities because they constantly remind him of his failings and are blind to his capabilities - his competency; would this mean teachers would have to develop a different kind of competence to be able to see the child half full rather than half empty - and by focussing on what the children are capable and scaffold the expansion and exploration of these capabilities allowing them to learn new skills and master them and become competent in the sense we use the word with adults. This approach requires a greater respect of the process, and to give permission for children to be who they are rather than fitting the normative template of what a child should be and what they should know and can do at specific ages.

Our observations of children enable us to better understand their competence, and what they are already capable of, as their foundation of learning, and to facilitate the child to build on that. These observations enable us to be more competent as teachers. It is an essential part of being a play-responsive educator.

So how do educators become competent observers?

How do educator become competent at documenting and analysing the documentation to better understand the competence of children?

How do educators become competent at creating democratic learning environments where the adult does not sit with ALL the power?

How do educators become competent at weaving play and learning into the lives of the children?

How do educators become competent at interacting and intervening rather than interfering?

What skills, what knowledge, what interactions, what time and resources are needed for educators to become competent facilitators of competent children?

I think it needs to start with how we view the child...

Jesper Juuls writes

"When I say that children are competent, I mean that they are in a position to teach us what we need to learn. ..... To learn from our children in this way demands much more than that we speak democratically with them. It means we must develop a kind of dialogue that many adults are unable to establish even with other adults: that is to say a personal dialogue based on equal dignity." The Competent Child Intro

We need to take a step back and relearn how to enter a dialogue in a democratic manner. This is where philosophy with children has been such a great source of learning for me as an educator, it has enabled me to better understand the power that we adults wield, and how to reduce it and empower the children. This kind of thinking is an essential component of Original Learning - this belief in the competence of children, the belief in play, and also in the belief in a community of learners. That we need to provide risky play, a myriad of experiences - a 100 languages for the children to build upon. If we do not provide this then it means that we are failing to provide the circumstances for the children to learn... we see them as empty, but worse than that we are failing to give them what they need to fill that void... Facts and isolated experiences to fill the child with knowledge is not, for me, an optimal teaching strategy. We need to give children permission to fully explore the teaching we are providing - that is the true process. It should not be about filling the children with facts so they can be tested to gain a grade, in other words seeing the end product as the most important part of education.

Jesper Juuls mentioned that children are often viewed as potential rather than as people - what does this mean? What about all the talk of children's potential and supporting them to reach their full potential? I don't think that is what he means - I think he is talking about children not being valued as children, as people ALREADY, but the fact that they are potential people, to-be adults! We need to value children for who they are right this moment. To see what they are already capable of, and to learn from that. We need to learn too. As adults we have the chance to re-learn everything. To get new perspectives on life and our own personal truths - if we allow ourselves to be open enough to listen to what the children are saying and showing us...

Annika Månsson describes "competence" as "potentials, to avoid the essential view on children, where the ability and the power to act are embedded as natural instinct" (The construction of the "competent child" and early childhood care.) So what does this mean? We have returned to the word potential again. But this time it is referring to each child's potential to be who they are, the need for support and guidance to attain that... and that we should not think that competent children means we can leave them to their own devices and they can work it out for themselves. We are needed to help them be 100% of who they are - maybe this is another way of interpreting the 100 languages, to learn in a way that permits you to be wholly yourself? Månsson goes on to describe the importance of giving children permission to be active in the daily routines to allow children to try out all their competencies. Over the years I have heard many teachers discuss their dislike of daily routines - eating, washing hands, toileting and nappy changing etc as getting in the way of the "real" learning - but I think that the routines are a part of the pedagogical day... they are opportunities for learning, opportunities for the children to develop their own skills, their own abilities to do things for themselves as well as help others. It is the time of day when children can learn about responsibility, about co-operation, about patience, about hygiene - and also to feel a valued member of the preschool when they are allowed to help with setting the table, tidying up, setting out mattresses for rest time etc... These routines I think should be about giving children permission to participate in the daily process of life - they should not be lessons to achieve the product of an independent child where the child is forced to engage in something that they have no interest in and thus disturbs their natural learning flow. Tidying up and scraping plates are maybe not always the most essential things for very young children to do in order to be seen as "competent" unless this is something that the child is wanting to do. There are many years left in life to practice how to scrape a plate when their physical development is probably more in tune with the actual activity. Routines are just as valuable as the learning activities/lessons... they are not gaps between the learning. Learning happens all the time - not when the teacher is teaching - as John Holt said

"We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions - if they have any - and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

"In a practice where children are allowed to and able to act, they can explore, experiment and investigate different possibilities that confirm or contrast their own notions and thoughts. Dunne argues that this pedagogical attitude toward children’s strength and potential is opposite to the one that turns children into consumers and teachers into intermediaries." Månsson As teachers we should not be intermediaries ensuring we fill the children with knowledge and skills, but should be on a learning journey together with the children, using our experience and gathered knowledge to serve as guides. We want children to be active learners not passive learners... this means we have to provide situations that enable the children to learn - by believing in their competence to learn. But if we do not believe the child is competent then there will be the tendency to do the learning for the child and then expect the child to acquire it by listening to the the teacher - resulting in the fact that they are being taught (empty bucket being filled) rather than their learning being facilitated...

I think we also need to think about what we actually mean with the competent child, as sometimes I think there are those that confuse it with the independent child, and that children should be capable of doing everything themselves. I try to create a community of learners, with co-dependence rather than just independence. The children can help each other out, co-dependence does not just mean that the educator needs to be the helper. In this way the children become empowered with being the one who can help, support, comfort or teach others. This creates a more democratic atmosphere, where the adult does not sit with all the power of resolving problems that arise. I am not suggesting children should not have a strong sense of their own capability, and self-confidence - but sometimes I feel the word independent is too individualised and is resulting in teaching being focussed on ensuring everyone can do everything for themselves, which I think does a great disservice to the joy and importance of diversity and all our different abilities being made visible.

My dad used to say that the older you get the further you see... and I guess to get a life-balance right we need to be able to see further, to see the consequences, but we should not forget to see what is close up to... the now. Sometimes I think that adults can have a tendency to forget to think of now, to forget to think as children... and focus too much on looking further down the road and all the possible things that go wrong... do we really want children to be learning this skill at an ever younger age?

It's as if, as adults we are constantly being made to look at the product, rather than getting to fully experience the process! Maybe this is why so many adults dislike risky play so much because instead of being in the now we have jumped further ahead and seen the possible consequences and have decided this is not something for the children. This is, of course, a big part of our job as educators and parents, to protect children from hazards that they are not yet able to see, what we need to ensure is that we give children permission to make some of these mistakes themselves - those smaller ones that might end up with an ouch, or a hurt feeling, but the benefits of the process far outweigh the bruise product of the play. We want children to keep their sense of play, their sense of living now, their sense of not fully appreciating the consequences in their actions (and being able to trust in the adults around them to do that for them) - so that they can take risks, they take chances, they are not afraid of making mistakes... the fear of making mistakes is something I think prevents adults from trying out new things...

I think this is something that ties in with my thinking about time... that children experience time in a very different way from adults, and that we as adults should not expect children to adapt our adult experience of time as it interferes with their play and learning - their Original Learning.

Alison Gopnik talks about birds in her TEDTalk - comparing crows and hens and the length of childhood with the size/capacity of brains/intelligence... and that the longer the childhood the more intelligent the animal (this apparently occurs across the animal world). If children want to dress themselves, want to serve themselves, want to scrape their plate, then yes, we should be encouraging this... but, should we be making them do this? After all Alison Gopnik talks about children's learning in a totally different way from us as adults... that we as adults can focus and close off what we do not need... whilst children Alison compared to being like in love in a new city after three espressos... they see everything, feel everything, hear everything and have a harder time to filter to be able to focus on one thing - so maybe while they are scraping their plate what they are really focussing on is mastering how to hold two things at once, or how to stand in a line for the bucket, or learning how to express themselves to others, or how to cope with the noise or... yet for some reason as adults we seem to think it is just the scraping of the plate and therefore the child is not being scaffolded appropriately. If we are in a hurry to get children to focus - to be "competent" - are we then stripping them of their way of learning? Especially if competent is being seen in the lines of independent, or from an adult point of view. Are we robbing them of their way of being able to make sense of the world and deciding themselves what is important and what needs to be focused on... are we stripping their potential to be creative? Are we creating "competent" children at the cost of creative children?

So how do we empower children to be creative and competent, to be inter-dependent and competent, to be democratic and competent - to be competent in their own way? Can we allow the children to become competent in their own time... understanding that they are competent in their own learning - but maybe not on the timescale that is always expected of them...

and we return to TIME again. We need to give children TIME. We need to give ourselves, as educators, time, to be competent at understanding play, learning and children - each individual and the group/class so that we can support process and provide the permission children need in their play.

below are a series of quotes I feel connect to this post

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