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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of... "excellent sheep"

I often write that preschool/school is an institution - with its walls around - and how we need to be jumping up to see over the wall... to see what other possibilities there are rather than just protecting what is within. I want to tear these walls down and create something new... something that some schools are already doing and are starting to to do. How often is learning seen as something that happens within the walls in a specific way... there is a push for learning to be encouraged more and more to happen outside - often in a space that is walled or fenced in - and there are those that are taking the learning out into the free nature (its not just forests, you know, it can be any kind of natural environment that can enable learning). Over the years I have worked at settings with and without their own outdoor playspace - and I have written about this many times... but will mention again that even if we are designing outdoor spaces for children, they are still fenced in - it is still that institution wall around it. Working without an outdoor playspace meant that we as educators and the children became a part of the society - not just within the walls looking out at the world around us, with excursions into it to give the children experience... we were actually out there in the world every day. No longer were we being told that one year olds cannot go out on excursions (which I have been told at just about every setting that has a outdoor space... and the 2 year olds get to practice going out before at age 3 they are really ready) - as we did not have a choice... what we discovered is that the adults had to rethink how the outdoors should/could be used, how we go on excursions, what is the purpose, what are the youngest children capable of, what are they interested in - the competence of children was illuminated by the adults having to rethink, and to look at the situation with fresh eyes. Over the years I have explored philosophy with children and how to include children with autism - and also exploring how to do this with the very youngest children. and I have come to the conclusion that the methods that are available out there might work fine with older children already "trained" in the school system, but for the youngest play has to be the main tool. I would like to think that if children were not being trained to see learning in a specific way, then the play approach would be the best approach for all ages as it is more about exploration - the whole child, not just certain cognitive parts... so how are we responsible for defining what learning is, and that it occurs is specific ways only? Has education become like herding sheep? We are herding them so they can excel at standardised tests, to think in a school approved fashion and lose their ability to think for themselves. A generation of excellent sheep.

I think this is a problem not only for the children/students but also for the teachers... I think they/we have been within this system of being "excellent sheep" that we follow the status quo, we forget to look over that wall and see that the grass is different on the other side... So not only do we need to encourage children to start thinking for themselves, the educators need this support too. This is why philosophy with children is such a great tool... by learning how to become a facilitator we are also learning a new way to be an educator... a more democratic approach. This philosophical approach, where play features heavily, creates a sense of equality... where we all listen to each other with respect... children and adults alike. What I saw, is that the children take these values they pick up during the philosophy sessions and started applying it to their play... I created play and learning situations that allowed them to practice the skills they needed for the philosophy sessions - the learning week was fuelled by play but interwoven - transdisciplinary - Original Learning.

Time is always an issue. Educators have a timetable of subjects and topics that must be done before the academic year is over. This will mean that they are prone to give the children/learners the answers rather than the time they need to discover them themselves. This results in a superficial understanding. As I have written before, it means we are not creating knowledge based schools, but fact-based schools. And if children are not given the time to process all these facts then they become disjointed and not interconnected as life and the world is... transdisciplinary learning is important because life is not divided up into neat and tidy subject areas.

This is why philosophy with children helps... it enables the teacher to slow down enough to allow the children to start thinking of questions... shifting the learning from product based (filling the child with known content/knowledge) to process based (exploring learning together). By starting philosophy with children in preschool children are gaining the skills (and the teachers at the same time) they need for critical, creative and empathic thinking... all skills that are repeatedly shared online as skills needed for the future. But it is not enough to just start with this philosophical approach in preschool, it needs to be continued throughout school. This approach not only allows children to explore learning, but also to learn how to socially interact with others in a positive way. What i noticed was that children with autism and other diagnoses did not have to adapt to the norm... instead the norm met them half way... all the children learned to accept each other... they understood that each child brought something different to the group, they learned how to listen with respect... and that included listening to the needs of a child with autism. I, as teacher, did not have to be the child's crutch to make sense of the world, the whole group did that with me. All the children took responsibility in ensuring that they were not adding to the problem (sensory etc) so that all children could participate. This of course did not happen over night... I was with this group of children for almost 4 years from when they were 2 and 3 years old until they left for school. it was a process...

and relationships was an essential part of this,

trust is essential -

and in the words of Jools Page - professional love is essential.

To share ideas, to challenge ideas, to learn from each other there needs to be a feeling of security. So philosophy is not just an academic training session or an event that you pop into the weekly schedule... it requires the whole child, the whole teacher, professional love. In a sense it is holistic... the child needs to understand themselves and be open to others, they need to develop relationships with the adults and children around them, and also develop an understanding of the world... philosophy helps with that, but the rest of the pre/school week also needs to support that.

Wartenberg talks about the teacher-centred model where teachers pour content into the empty minds of the student... in contrast, he articulates that we should strive towards a learner-centred model which recognises that children are people with the own interests, worries and perspectives. I have met many educators and centres that can talk the talk but not actually walk it. How do we support educators to truly create learner centred institutions when it is not something they have ever experienced themselves.

This is another reason for my desire to hold workshops that are hands-on for the educators, and also that I work several times with a centre or the educators. It gives them the opportunity to practice and come back with questions that we can then go through and explore together.

To avoid turning children into sheep, start with ourselves as educators, and also the preschool/school. I am influenced by Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia Approach - and the third teacher (the learning space as an educator) is an important part of that. it is not just about changing our understanding of children, learning and teaching... we need to rethink the learning spaces too... how do they encourage a learner-centred model rather than a teacher-centred model? How does the room encourage the whole child to participate, to develop relationships, trust and interaction? Are there a variety of spaces for meeting... and what do the children meet? Meeting each other, the world, materials, experiences, emotions... we need to be intentional in the design of the space as well to create a third teacher that encourages listening, critical, creative and empathic thinking, and also the sharing of ideas and learning.

“Why should we share?” This question, which may seem simple, can be answered in a number of different ways, each of which has been defended in the philosophical literature:

a.An authority told me to do it (relativism / divine command theory)

b.It makes my friend happy (altruism)

c.It makes me happy (egoism)

d. It makes everyone happy (utilitarianism)

e.It treats everyone fairly (deontology / rights-theory)

By choosing open questions that we educators cannot answer conclusively, we create space for children to explore ideas, and also for us as educators to become a part of the learning process rather than simply feeding a learning outcome. We can create a more democratic and equal community of learners where we are a part of the community rather than directing it.

As educators we need to be looking for process questions... questions, that we, as adults, cannot simply give a right-wrong answer... but gives room to explore ideas together as equals. This approach demands that as educators we get to know the children/students we work with so that we can better understand how to ask these questions. We learn their interests (as the question needs to be meaningful to those participating), we learn how they interpret questions, we learn what vocabulary they understand (as they need to be able to understand the question) etc... this might mean playing with questions during planning time - not only to find the right question to ask, but also to think of possible avenues the children might take and to prepare with extra questions to keep on supporting the children in their thinking... especially in the early days when the children need the educator to model this... eventually they become better and better at asking the questions themselves too. We also need to think about questions and the possible avenues, because as an adult you need to be prepared to talk about and support the direction the children take it... and some topics are harder for some adults than others (taboo, or sensitive... death etc). If you do not feel comfortable with that possible direction, then maybe another question should be posed (or another educator asks it) - so that it is the children that lead the the dialogues, and not the adult that is controlling it or steering it away from discomfort for the adult (we need to guide it, not control it).

The future of preschool needs to be about creating a child centred learning environment... about changing the role of the educator... and that it takes time... that the adults need to practice this approach for it to become second nature and for this democratic approach to learning really kicks into gear. it is OK to feel nervous about the approach, it is OK to make mistakes, as that is part of learning for children and adults, but we need to keep at it, to get better, to allow it to become second nature. Philosophy with children, for me, is not just about encouraging children/students to think, and not to be "excellent sheep" but also for the adults, the educators to break free from the "excellent sheep" approach... and once free from that it is so much easier to jump and look over that wall..

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