On Listening to Children

by Jane Nolan

Last spring, I was lucky enough to be one of 150 educators from the United States to be invited to attend a conference - a study tour - of the schools of Reggio Emilia. Reggio Emilia is a city in northern Italy which has what is viewed by many as the best early childhood education system in the world. There are many principles underlying the Reggio Approach. The importance of the environment; exploring children's ideas through project work; an emergent curriculum based on the interests of children; the importance of parent involvement; documenting the work of children; and working in multiple mediums with children are some of the foundations of Reggio.

As a staff, we have studied and been inspired by the ideals of Reggio for a number of years. The ideas of Reggio dovetail so well with what we at Park West already believe and strive for.

One of the focuses of last spring's study tour was the pedagogy of listening. In order to know how to set up an appropriate learning environment or situation, to know what to teach and how to go about it, one first needs to understand what does the learner already know, what does the learner what to know, how does the learner best learn. An educator can begin to understand these things by listening. Just as important as listening to understand someone' s thought process or learning style, or foundation of knowledge is the vital importance of listening to create and maintain and nurture a relationship between teacher and child, to validate the importance of the ideas of children, and to learn from them.

I feel this pedagogy of listening is one of the things we do very well here at Park West. And it is what I'd like to address for a few minutes here tonight. Those of you who have heard me speak before or have read some of my newsletters to parents will already know the mind of the young child is qualitatively different from that of adults.

Children do not have the logic or the experiences that adults have. We believe that children need to construct knowledge for themselves by being actively involved in constructing knowledge. We also believe this happens best in an atmosphere of trust and social interaction. Teachers need to be active listeners of the ideas of children in order to know what children are thinking about, what ideas they are curious about and working to puzzle through. I should also say that young children's cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development are inextricably intertwined. When you address one, you are addressing the others by the very nature of their symbiotic relationship.

One way that teachers last year listened to children and helped them think through some issues was by making books with children based on teachers' observations of what children were interested in and thinking about. A child lone class brought her blanket with her to school every day. We refer to this blanket as a transitional object - a source of comfort to help that child make the transition from home to school, something that gives a child a sense of security and emotional support.

One day a teacher overheard another child ask the child with the blanket, "what will you do with your blanket when you grow up?" This question was startling for the blanket child. It was a situation in the future she hadn't considered before. The teacher realized the import - the emotional and cognitive impact of the boy's question. So the teachers approached children with the idea of bringing their blankets to school and making a book about blankets. Children took to the idea and began to take turns bringing in their blankets, having their pictures taken with their blankets, and then telling teachers about their blankets so teachers could write down their words. Teachers complied these pieces and made a beautiful, compelling book with them.

This may seem like a small thing to adults, but to the children it had tremendous impact. Something so precious to them as their blankets was important enough that teachers spike with them individually about it, took their photograph, and even made a book for their class about it. This is good teaching. Listening to children and understanding what is important to them, and then figuring out a way to address it to allow children to think more about it, share it with others, and then maybe think about it again in a different way.

The teachers hadn't planned on making a book about blankets. When they met and discussed what would happen in class, what activities they would offer children, what they would pursue, a book about blankets was not in their planning. But listening to children, being attuned to them was part of the plan. And so an unexpected, maybe even somewhat casual remark by one child to another was picked up on. A teacher was paying attention, and truly understood that for these young children thinking about their blankets and what they mean to them, should be pursued. I might add that teacher's goals of addressing social interaction, and cognitively exploring literacy was addressed in a way that was authentic and of interest to that particular group of children.

In another class last year, a teacher noticed how often children were working with blocks making complex structures, working as a group toward a common goal, negotiating through differences of vision and ways of working, and using these block structures for elaborate play scenarios. The teacher decided to document the work of these children by taking photos of the process of their building efforts and the play that resulted from it. Many children do work here at school that is readily visible.

Work that leaves a trace, work that they can take home to show parents or have put up at school for friends, teachers, and parents to see - painting, dictated stories, glued collage constructions. But those children who spend time, thought, and energy with the blocks don't really have anything to bring home to be able to say look this is what I did, this is what I worked on, see, that an intricate thing I made. Due to the constraints of our space, block structures usually get taken apart at the end of class. The teachers in this class saw that those students were making a huge investment in blocks and building. It was a big part of the curriculum children had set for themselves and this building and play was addressing their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Teachers wanted children to be able to revisit and remember what they had accomplished, how they had worked, who had been involved, how their work building had evolved and changed.

So teachers made a book of building with blocks. A book of many days, weeks, and maybe months of what children did with blocks. This book made the work of those children visible. It validated their efforts. Once again teachers were listening to what children were interested in. Teachers worked to figure out ways to extend children's thinking on the subject, find an avenue to help children pursue their ideas, and reflect those ideas back to children, helping them extend their thinking and then make that thinking visible to the children themselves, to teachers and parents.

One of the ways to listen to children is to watch what they do as these teachers did. We cannot just listen with our ears. We also need to listen with our eyes - to watch what children do, how they look, how they act and react. We need to listen with all of our senses, in the same way that children learn with all of their senses. Often adults try to make children learn or evaluate what children know through only words - speaking, reading, writing. On the bulletin board on the first floor is a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the schools of Reggio Emilia. The poem is called The Hundred Languages.

The idea behind this poem is that children don't just use the languages of reading and writing, but rather children use 100 languages: the languages of building, moving, stroking a blanket, singing, playing music, and on and on. For young children the sense of touch, of physically interacting with the world to figure it out is an important way of listening and learning. On the bulletin board with the poem we have set up a photo display some of the ways children last year were listening to the world, exploring it, to figure it out. We decided to just have photos of the hands of children. I hope you will all get a chance to really look at the photos. By really looking at them you will be listening to children. You will see what is of interest to them, what they pursued here at school.

Listening to children means following their lead, perhaps changing your plan or your preconceived idea of what children know, and trusting that children know where their interests are taking them. The adults need to help children get where they are trying to go, learn more about what they are curious about.

One last little story. Last year in one of the JK classes a child made a comment about there not being any grown ups in the class. This remark took a teacher by surprise. So she - Cele, actually - asked the child, " what about me and Shannon, and Corie?"

"Well," replied the child, "you can't be adults because you don't boss kids around. So I guess you're just old teenagers." What a compliment to those teachers - to not be seen as impediments or adults who boss kids around, rather to be seen as helpers, co=workers, maybe cheerleaders (to keep the teen analogy) of children and their ideas. That child understood that teachers here pay attention to and value the ideas of children. Teachers here understand and follow the pedagogy of listening.

Quotes from Our Park West Family

"When I meet prospective parents, I always say how life changing the school is."

—Susan K., former parent