The Competent Child - The Competent Teacher

June 7, 2019

Over the years I found that 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.

 

Really its not the educators I have issue with... I think 98% strive to be the best they can for the students/children they work with - 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 no energy or interest in inspiring learners. Sadly such teachers have interacted with my children... and this has not been just my personal opinion about them, but one held by the parents and the children (and even some of that teachers colleagues)

 

I think there are teachers that have found their groove and stay there, they do not take the time to reflect - but at the same time it can well be that there is not the time to truly reflect - both self reflection and also reflection together with others.

 

I also wonder about courses... over the twenty something years I have worked in education the vast majority of courses and workshops have had little 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 change. This is 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 a course here and there, but that there is a real strategy to the professional development of the staff that is continuous and connect 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.

 

In the exact same way that we provide continuous learning opportunities and connections for the children. Giving our children a one day, or evening session in a learning area is not going to have the same impact as allowing them to learn through multiple 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.

 

 

Over on Facebook in The Reggio Emilia Approach group... I have just started a series of dialogues... the first one being about "the competent child" - where I shared 5 questions, one being what is a competent teacher... I mean if we are talking about the competent child, surely we must think about the competent teacher too? or are these two concepts very different?

 

in one of the comments I shared

"Maybe then competence in this sense 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 acquireI 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"

It's a kind of seeing the child half full rather than half empty - and focussing on what they are capable of to expand and explore and allow them to learn new skills and master them and become competent. But it is our adult view of seeing the child as being able, rather than focussing on what they cannot do and seeing them as vessels to be filled with knowledge and skills they need to acquire.

 

That our observations of children allow 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.

 

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 not 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

 

 

So 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.

 

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 - he is talking about children not being valued as children, as people ALREADY, but the fact that they are potential people, potential grown-ups!
We need to value children for who they are. To see what they are already capable of, and to learn from that. YES, 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 HEAR 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.
Månsson goes on to describe the importance of allowing children to be active in the daily routines to allow children to try out 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 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, scraping their plates, setting out mattresses for rest time etc... 
 
 The 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 - they are being taught 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. For I do not believe that this is so, especially as I try to create a community of learners, with co-dependence rather than just independence. The children can help each other out, it 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. 

 

When we refer to children being competent, are we really thinking about them as competent children, or are we actually putting adult expectations on them... after all a competent adult is very different from a competent child... or is it? An incompetent adult is one that is not capable of making their own decisions or is lacking skills... is this not something that children have problems with... because they do not have enough experience they have not learned enough about the consequences of their actions?
My dad used to say that the older you get the further you see... and I guess to get the balance right in life you need to be able to see further, to see the consequences, but you 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 at looking far 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? Don't we want them 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... something I think cripples adults and prevents them 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 just not expect children to adapt our 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).
This got me really thinking...
Why are we then in such a hurry to make children "competent" - when often the competent means doing adult things... scraping plates, putting on own clothes etc etc etc... to the extent that we are working hard to enable the children to be independent (competent) to do these specific things... are we, possibly, taking away play opportunities from the children? Are we then actually taking away children's real learning - play - because we want them to be competent? Shouldn't we be serving them for as long as possible to allow these YOUNG children to PLAY as much as possible? I know... now I am saying something completely different... before I mentioned how the routines are learning opportunities... and I still agree with this, but making a child scrape their plate everyday from the age of 1, is that really believing in their competence? or should be giving them the space to scrape their plate if this is the focus of their learning... and as educators we know how children inspire each other so the chance is that if one starts others will follow. I have witnessed young toddlers scraping their plates and everything goes all over the floor instead of in the bucket... does this make the child feel competent? or is it just a routine that is being done? How can we empower the child to master the skill of scraping a plate, rather than it being a thing that is done in the name of "the competent child"?

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 just the one skill - 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 other, or how to cope with the noise or... yet for some reason as adults we sem to think it is just the scraping of the plate...

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-depentent 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 what is a competent child? What is a competent teacher? Does the word competent mean the same thing in both cases?
is it about our attitude to what children and teachers are capable of? Is it the focussing of what the can do rather than what they cannot? Is it about being co-learners, co-researchers, co-documenters, etc? About creating a space of equity where all have the chance to be who they are now, and to reach their own potentials, as children and as adults?

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com