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Teaching: A Delicate Balancing Act

30 Jan 2019 3:11 PM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

Teaching: A Delicate Balancing Act
Sandra Burwell

As teachers working with children, how do we decide when and how to offer support that honors the power of children’s own discovery and learning? My journey with the Reggio Approach is changing the value I place on the children’s own process of learning. I don’t want my perceptions, viewpoint or knowledge to interrupt the children’s thinking. Despite additional intellectual insight from my Montessori study of the child’s competence in self-direction, I am still tempted to “instruct.”

I have always enjoyed exploring a new topic with children. If I know nothing or very little about it, then I am sure we will learn together, as happened when children began exploring “sewers.” From the very first day, it was evident that this had the makings of a long-term exploration and deep investigation.

How many times have you walked past the metal grill in the street next to the curb? Did you stop when you heard water rushing through? Did you look down, even get on your knees to look further? I have not. Neither had the teachers with whom I was working. But a group of children in their class were engrossed and delighted!

At the newly formed South Metro Documentation Lab, our group collaborated on this exploration of sewers, sharing photos, conversations and drawings. During our discussion, we recognized how very little we knew about sewers. Our follow-up research made our lack of knowledge obvious. It is humbling to think that because the children were calling them “sewers” we did too. We realized these were not sewers, but storm drains. We made a plan to offer pictures of different views and types of what the children had seen, to discover more about the children’s knowledge.

“In order to meet students where they are… you have to know the individual and collective zone of proximal development (ZPD) of your learners. ‘The ZPD is the distance between what children can do by themselves and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance.'"

-Eileen Raymond

We did not share graphs showing both sewers and rain run-off drains with the children, but saved them for possible use later. We discussed how we did not want to influence or discount the knowledge they were formulating, nor should we introduce our research and terminology until they were further on in their investigation.

We continued to observe, listen and think. One particular incident gave us a clue.

There was a depression near the drain that would fill up during periods of heavy rain and allow the water to seep slowly into the ground. The children talked about this phenomenon:

Al: We have two sewers in back. We heard water. I keep hearing water going.

An: There’s water underground in the dirt. It’s brown under there. It goes under the train. Now there’s leaves, not water. Garbage gets stuck and mixed up like a tornado. Sometimes there’s water by the railroad tracks and we can hear it coming down.

We realized that the children had made the connection between the drains and the water run off in the lowlands and something “under” the train tracks.

We offered materials: loose parts of tubes, small grates, boxes and fabric so the children could express

and develop their ideas by building different versions of “sewers.”  They drew map-diagrams and built constructions with blocks and other loose parts.  Increasingly, their focus was on what was underground, what they could NOT see.

After the teachers thought the children had advanced their work and thinking, we introduced a detailed and uniquely formatted book about all that goes on underground.The Street Beneath My Feetby Yuval Zommer seemed to us to be a resource that could further the children’s knowledge. They became more interested in possibilities other than just rain run-off.

We gathered the four most interested children to the art studio where we offered tubes, cardboard and other loose parts. We invited the children to represent their concept of what happens underground. There were several discussions and disagreements. At one point the children divided themselves into two groups and created an ‘’upper sewer” and “lower sewer.” Several times when they got stuck, they referred back to the map diagram that A. had drawn, paying special attention to clean water and dirty water and how it is kept separate.

When considering the teachers’ thinking and choices, one can see these are very new steps in our journey. We see a lot we could have done differently, but we are gratifiedin our realization that we were all learning together step by step. The children’s exploration continues.

“Observe and listen to children because when they ask ‘why?’ they are not simply asking for the answer from you. They are requesting the courage to find a collection of possible answers. This attitude of the child means that the child is a real researcher . . . Yet it is possible to destroy this attitude of the child with our quick answers and our certainty. How can we support and sustain this attitude of children to construct explanations?”

-Carlina Rinaldi


Raymond, Eileen as cited in “6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students” Rebecca Alber, TEACHER LEADERSHIP at edutopia.org 1/24/2014

Rinaldi, Carlina, “Relationship Between Documentation and Assessment” INNOVATIONS Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2004

Zommer, Yuval, The Street Beneath My Feet QED Publishing 2017

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