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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson


This week over in the Facebook group - "The Reggio Emilia Approach" I posted a question "What are provocations?" This is a word I often see used in connection with the Reggio Emilia Approach, and in ever wider circles too. What I have see over the years is that the word is often used together with a beautifully set out activity, and quite often that activity looks very teacher down... in the sense that the teacher has chosen the "correct" colours for the flowers (or other object) to be drawn or painted, or that it is extremely clear what the teacher's learning intention is. It is not so much an provocation as a learning activity or lesson with a hint of play... to me this is, dare I say it, fake play, or fake child-led... the teacher has very much made the decision as to what direction the child should be taking...

If I am to be brutally honest I don't tend to use the term "provocation" as part of my pedagogical vernacular - or the word invitation, as was brought up by several of the educators joining in the discussion on Facebook... but if I was to use the words I think I might describe them as Adriana Hollenbeck does... " I think that if the provocation is a path into a deeper journey connected to what is meaningful to learners, it’s a legitimate action. If it’s the teacher’s agenda in a disguised act of control, it’s unfair. If people think Vygotsky and refrain from being pushy, all will be right in the world. To me, this is even worse than fully disclosing a traditional approach. The middle of the road approach is complicated."

or as Elizabeth Hicks wrote "The word 'provocation' in Early childhood to me means...offering materials, or an idea that opens up a door to another way of thinking, or looking at something... something that may not have occurred to 'them' before. It means we as educators have to have deep curiosity about what the child may be paying attention to, or has misunderstood. Or are there any misunderstandings?... now there is a provocation!"

or as Roberta Pucci wrote "It is important to think of the meaning of words we commonly use, not giving them for granted.What's the difference between provocation and invitation? When I offer whatever materials or activity to children I "invite" them to try, meaning that they are welcome and free to do it or not. Then, while the process of children is going on, I can offer them a "provocation", that is connected to what is happening at the moment. "Oh, that is interesting... What would happen if...?"Of course both invitation and provocation, as every choice, are attuned to our hypothesis and objectives. This is how I use these words..."

I think what I try to do is offer children experiences and opportunities - as I know these will invite some children to test what they already know and, at the same time, provoke new thinking in others... I feel that when I work with a group of children that they come to each activity or space or experience with different knowledge, experiences, perceptions and bias, that I could never fully presume whether it is a provocation or an invitation that they are exploring... I feel that some will arrive at the activity as an invitation to play, and others will see it as a provocation to what they believe, understand or know... I do think that my understanding of the children (through observations and true listening) will mean I have an idea of how the activity will be experienced and I try to remain as open as possible to listen to the child once more - to see how I need to react (like Roberta Pucci wrote, questions to provoke more thinking - or maybe even support to encourage a feeling of safety to try something new, etc) the observations also allow me to think if I created something outside their interest or beyond their current understanding of the world - or too easy and they know already - so that I can better design the space and activities to meet the children as they evolve I think also the space and activities need to invite and provoke me as a teacher - to push myself out of my comfort zone, but also never too far that I flounder. That I use my imagination too. To create play and learning spaces and possibilities, and also to understand them. I am reading a book at the moment that hinted to the need to "make strange" - that we should not just see the obvious (as we always/usually see it) but enable ourselves to see it afresh and relearn... So I think provocation needs to be applied to ourselves as educators too...

Ray-Ann Miller also raised this, that teachers need to be provoked, and Mary Ann Mizal Hidalgo wrote of how parents are also provoked into new thinking about their children and their capabilities.

I think provoking children’s thoughts without provoking our own - or a lack of willingness or openness to be provoked creates an inequality in the relationship I strive for equality - we simply have different experiences and have had longer to amass knowledge - despite this the children will have experiences and probably knowledge that we do not possess. We need to remain humble to that fact.

Steffanie Bowles wrote "I noticed on the last study tour I went to that a. they never used the word provocations, and b. they talked about creating contexts. My interpretation of that based on the images they were showing and the context (!) of the presentation was that it related to the offerings presented to children, but that these offerings are contextual, not just the materials laid out nicely but everything that went before, the relationships between the children and the teacher and children and materials and children and each other. So where something is offered and how, and for whom, etc."

The more that I have reflected on what Steffanie shared the more I realised that this was what I have been doing, and also what I teach at Stockholm University on the "museum visit" lecture... that it is not enough to simply do something amazing to incite wonder and joy (I will return to those two words later) but that the museum visit needs to have context... I find visits to museums are much harder for children if they have little to no prior knowledge before the excursion, as there is just so much new - new place, new sounds, new smells, (just experienced a new journey) and then the room is filled with new information. I find often that children can be so excited by the actual journey (especially if trips out are infrequent) that they do not have the focus once at the museum... the museum could be used as a "provocation", but if the context is not right then it will not impact the children as planned...

If we are just putting a series of beautifully arranged activity that are not connected to the children's thinking, play, interest or even the previous activity - then what exactly are we provoking or inviting? I actually designed my week as a way to "provoke" thought, play, perspective, understanding - that we would explore something with all 100 languages... or as many as I could manage without overwhelming... so whole body on Mondays, listening and dialogue (philosophy) on Tuesdays, art, science, technology (all the can happen in the atelier) on Wednesdays, outdoors on Thursdays and song and music on Fridays... this was just the mornings... in the afternoons tables could be set up with "invitations" to continue with the morning sessions (all the mornings) as well as plenty of time for freely chosen play and activities.

If I am not giving the children enough space to be free then I am not going to learn how the experiences, activities "provocations" impact the children... the whole process provokes my thinking and invites me to reconsider what i already know about eh children I work with, the materials that are available to us, and how we interact with the world around us...

I don't think I am suggesting that we should replace "provocation" with "contexts" - but I do think we should be considering contexts every time we set up an activity, and experience, design the the third teacher etc...

Joanne Marie Haynes wrote "An object or idea intentionally and thoughtful chosen and placed to invite curiosity, to provide a springboard for documentation and to inform learning design. Provocations are not stagnate but ever changing and informed by the thinking and ideas of both the educators and children and will involve critical reflective practice... by both"

I feel that this quote by Joanne ties in nicely with the idea of contexts... there is an intentionality about the decisions we make to provoke thought... and this will require a deeper understanding of the learning and development context of each child and the group. Emma Tempest also writes about curiosity "I think for me invitation is like preparing the area for optimal engagement. Having the blocks set out in an accessible way that makes it easy for children to find what they need for example. Whereas a provocation is something added to promote thinking, curiousity and wonder. For example, adding a pulley system to the block center that is not an every day part of that area."

She also mentions wonder... so this brings me back to those two words... wonder and joy... they are important words in my thinking about Original Learning

Sometimes I think science and “left brained thinking” ( to over simplify it) has lowered the status of wonder and joy in the learning process - they have become a part of play instead - which also has been demoted in the education system. So I sometimes feel that there are many educators disguising instruction as play - and these "provocations" can often be a source of that... this was raised by several participants in the dialogue - a genuine concern that activities that look as if they should be child-led are in fact adult directed, with a specific agenda. I strive to find balance - this is a HUGE reason why I am developing an idea of “Original Learning “ where play and learning are so interwoven that it is impossible to not have an equality in their status.

I am in no means against left brain thinking, I just think there should be a balance... especially in the very young children where neuroscience informs us that the right-brain develops first. This should indicate to us that we should have predominately right brained activities and introduce left brain activities, so that children can successfully access and process as much of the world around them as possible. The left brain IS developing at the same time, so we do need to continue to stimulate it. This is why it is important to listen to the children you work with... through observation and analysis of documentation... to understand how the children are processing the world around them so that you can set up appropriate experiences.

As I have explored the neuroscience of curiosity I learned that if we provide experiences that the children are already familiar with it will not excite curiosity, and equally if we provide experiences to far beyond their comprehension they will not develop curiosity. Children need to have enough knowledge and familiarity to feel that they want to learn more... wonder might be the gateway to curiosity but if it is "too wondrous" you will lose that flame of curiosity you hoped to ignite...

When I turned to The Hundred Languages book to check out what was said about "provocations" I found that the word "interventions" and "intervene" was used more frequently and interchangeably... see the photo excerpts from the books...

I interpret this as a balance between intervening, and provoking thought, and stepping back and allowing the children to get on with their thinking. A balance of hands on and hands off... this was something that I also witnessed in AnjiPlay early years settings in China... there were periods where the teachers took three steps back to observe the play, as well as times where the teachers actively provoked thought by asking questions - but NOT during their play, but later when analysing the documentation together with the children.

Ann Dickinson Scalley wrote "I was just reading Marla McLean's blog and thought about this post. In an excerpt from her blog, she says "Questions are asked with materials and experiences intertwined. They are together provocations for hypothesizing, wondering and synthesizing."... I think this is a wonderful example of " The interventions are careful and specific-designed to facilitate children's thinking, to "provoke" them to go further in their thinking....""

The blogpost she is referring to can be read here.

Michelle H. G. Lang talked about the importance of exploring what words mean, and I could not agree more... it is clear that there are many different interpretations of the word "provocation" and "invitation" and how the are set up, and how they should be used... and not used... that discussing what these words mean as a team is incredibly important at a setting to avoid confusion.

Malaguzzi wrote "Our Vygotsky"... implying this was how they, in Reggio Emilia, at that time, interpreted and used the theories of Vygotsky in their settings... what you need to do as teachers is find "our provocations" what does this word mean to you as a team, how are you going to use it, what is the purpose, how do they look, do they fulfil their purpose... etc

This is far from everything that was mentioned in the thread... if you would like to learn more then why not drop by the group (if you are not a member yet, remember to answer the questions if it is not clear on your profile that you work with children/education - this is to ensure we keep spammers out) - there are well over 40,000 members from around the world - each with their marvellous perspective on education, play, learning and the Reggio Emilia Approach, to help us broaden our own perspectives...

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