Explore v Show
One of the topics that arose during our open house Grammar of Drawing meeting was the idea of do we show children how things work or do we allow children to explore and work it out for themselves. Nona, Roberta and I decided that writing about “explore v show” would be a good way to respond to that.
Personally I am not keen when we pitch ideas, thoughts, or pedagogies against each other because it tends to push us into defensive corners or forces us to make decisions that are more black and white than maybe what they should be. But the reality of our world is that much of what we do, especially in education, ends up being defined in these sort of specific ways - we are shown two (maybe more) ways of doing something often with a focus of one being “more right” than the other. What I would like to advocate for, and I know that both Nona and Roberta are with me on this, is a more explorative way to think about the way children learn, the ideas we have and the pedagogy we provide. Which in a way, my very reaction to this title, starts to explain my views of what explore and show can and might be - where explore is a kind of freedom and show is more prescriptive.
And yet both words are more nuanced than that. Exploration is only free if adults' attitudes align with permission, play, curiosity and risk. Sometimes I see educators limit children’s ability to truly explore because there are concerns about safety (and sometimes quite rightly so) or that there is a time agenda that does not permit the children the temporal space to freely explore as they must reach a conclusion of sorts within a fixed number of hours, days, weeks or months. While the idea of exploration is free, the practical process has become prescriptive. The word show is equally complex - it could mean that the adult is showing “this is the way to do it” and the children must comply. Or the children have asked the adult to show them something, or that the educator shows them by simply placing the right things in the space for the children to discover, or even the idea that I brought up in the online meet-up in early October that adults are just doing their thing and it is not always a deliberate showing but more the children observing. In many Indigenous homes, and also in bygone days, children saw their parents busy at work or doing chores and their play would then incorporate their observations - and this could include aesthetic processes - woodwork, needlework and much more. The children were free to explore what they saw their parents, and other adults, doing.
Today an increasing number of children are being separated from the adult world, especially when we think about early childhood and schools as childhood institutions. There are no adults busy doing various crafts, or other jobs, for the children to watch and explore through play. Instead the work of the adults around them is to show them how to be a part of the world while being separated from it. This means children are dependent on the skill of the adults taking care of them to provide a broad repertoire of experiences to explore. Where, historically, children would have been raised by the whole community, and probably the freedom to wander from one location to another, depending on age, the children would have naturally witnessed many different adults doing different things. Today the children will see the same adults teaching. This is not a “everything was better before” kind of post. Because it really wasn't. Children are much safer today than they were; it is much more inclusive (even if there is still a long way left to go for true play/learning equity and social justice) and the whole “children should be seen and not heard” is not the dominant view any more. What I am trying to write is that we need to be constantly reflecting on how we are showing children things - so that they can learn how to keep themselves safe, practise new techniques and that what we show is relevant, meaningful and complex in easy to understand ways - complex is not the same as complicated - it is merely providing children with the understanding that often there is more than one way to do something. And when it comes to exploration we are being true to the value of autonomy to satiate curiosity both individually and collectively. Instead of limiting the exploration we provide the skills, knowledge, materials, space and time so that children can maximise their explorative powers safely.
The image above shows two children in the latter stages of creating large scale self portraits - after a year of exploring many different ways to create self portraits - with the intention of getting to know and feel comfortable with themselves, and also discover that there is not one way to do something. The techniques that they were shown, given time to explore were also used in their play - as there was enough time and resources made available for the children to deepen their own personal relationship with the materials and techniques and to possibly evolve them with their own creativity.