Creating New Language: Communication in Learning

Student-driven curriculum, relationship building, and communication lie at the heart of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, an approach that originated in Reggio Emilia, Italy soon after World War II.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Reggio Emilia approach or have not read The Hundred Language of Children, it provides excellent insight into this approach to learning, and will most certainly change the way you think about the classroom.

Reggio Emilia aside, if you really think about it, in any approach to teaching, communication truly lies at the heart of all student learning.  

Without external experiences, our consciousness would be nothing, and in order for our consciousness to materialize, communication with some outside source is necessary.  In most cases, when we hear the word “communication,” we tend to think about it interpersonally.  We think of words or symbols that allow two individuals to communicate and exchange ideas or perhaps even intrapersonal words or ideas that allow us to have an inner dialogue. From this exchange of ideas, new entities materialize, easily classified as “learning.”  I’ve begun to think that this process could, in fact, occur in more ways than just communication between two people. Communication could be generalized to interaction. Children are able to interact with many types of media, and in essence, they’re able to speak many different languages.

photo (6)Take this crazy idea as an example: The child who builds a tall tower out of wooden blocks is actually communicating with gravity when they balance blocks and try to keep their tower from tumbling to the floor. The child learns gravity’s language, through its feedback and through each block that falls, and in turn, speaks to gravity more effectively the next time she adds a block.  Each time this exchange occurs between the child and gravity, the complexity of her structure grows, creating the aforementioned new “entity”–the new tower–through each period of communication.  Likewise, in another context, a child who is painting learns to speak in color.  He mixes red and yellow, and before his eyes, he witnesses the two colors communicate to create a new language: orange.

We are so apt to fence learning into an absolute of an exchange between two beings, one where there is a unidirectional exchange of information, only allowing one of the parties to benefit, but when true learning occurs, the child decides to interact, and an entirely new entity is created–one that may communicate back to the child.  The “learning” itself takes on a shape or life of its own, creating a new language in which to speak, and a new mode for learning for the future.

Learning By Doing: A Framework for Mediated Action

Engagement is difficult in the classroom.  In fact, I remember many times feeling like I was jumping through hoops of fire in order to keep my students engaged, until one day I realized that it wasn’t me that was the problem.  I realized there wasn’t really one “teacher personality;” instead, there were many types, and a no type made a teacher more or less effective, necessarily.  Since this wasn’t part of the problem, I decided it wasn’t really part of the solution either.

While we want students to enjoy learning, this isn’t the only purpose of engagement.  Engaging students allows them to internalize content so that it sticks.  Having said that, generally speaking, engagement and enjoyment strongly correlate, meaning if your students enjoy what they’re doing, then they’ll be engaged.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that engagement and enjoyment don’t imply doing parlor tricks to hold their attention.  If this was the case, you’d constantly be coming up with new parlor tricks to keep them engage, as they would quickly grow weary of the old ones.

Instead, I want to argue that engagement lies in action, specifically action through interaction with media.

Engagement in a child is readily observed when they are in action.  Action is the concrete display of the abstract thinking that is occurring in a child’s head.  When we sit and lecture to children, learning is more unlikely and rarely visible, because we are not requiring them to act.  While it all begins with the stimulus, the steps after that are even more critical than the stimulus itself.

Copyright 2014.  All rights reserved.

The Framework for Mediated Action (© 2014, Paul France)

(1) Stimulus – An engaging learning experience starts with a stimulus.  Broaden your mind to expand that term “stimulus” to anything, not simply a worksheet.  It could be a video, a piece of artwork, a number cube, a street corner… anything!  One of the reasons that children need a chance to explore and wonder is so that they’re exposed to as many experiences as possible.  These experiences could possibly become significant signal experiences for learning and open the floodgates to something extraordinary.

(2) Interpretation – After the child observes the stimulus, they are likely to interpret it.  The depth and degree of the interpretation varies, of course, which is heavily dependent on the child’s interests and how the stimulus is presented.  Just yesterday, I watched a toddler as he saw a dog from a 20 feet away.  His eyes lit up, a clear sign that he interpreted his stimulus (the dog) in a positive way.  This next step was also clear through mere observation.

(3) Decision – If a child decides to do something with their interpretation, then the chance of learning occurring is much greater.  Children are always interpreting, even when they are simply identifying something they’ve seen before. However, learning doesn’t always occur because the child decides to take no further action; it’s either a familiar stimulus or one with which they’d rather not interact.  For the toddler, he decided to build upon his interpretation of this dog by moving closer to it.  He had made the decision to go play with it.

(4) Action – After the child makes a decision, he or she will act on that decision.  He or she will speak, read more, write, move, and from there interact (our next step) with the medium, making their learning and thinking visible with other learners in the classroom.  Their learning, and in turn, their engagement will be visible to the teacher, as well.  The child in the park acted on his decision by going to play with the dog, and when he got to the dog, he ran his cute little fingers through the dogs tight curls of hair.

(5) Interaction – Now, I’m still trying to figure out if you can have action without interaction, but while I’m pondering that, we’ll leave these two discrete categories.  Learning needs a medium, which is the whole idea behind “mediated” action (Wertsch, 1991).  It cannot happen in a vacuum, and in order for a child to learn anything, he or she needs to be interacting with something.  Vygotsky states in his research that the “social dimension of consciousness” is first, implying that the individual must interact with the environment, the culture, and/or other learners within that setting before any synthesis can occur (Vygotsky, 1979; Wertsch, 1991).

Sidenote: At first sight, this does not account for intrapersonal communication, in which a student might have an internal dialogue.  I would still argue, though, that this is interaction; it’s simply an interaction of opposing ideas in a child’s mind.  An exchange of ideas occurring, an exchange of ideas that had to come from an original stimulus or signal experience.

(6) Modification – This process ends with a modification of the original stimulus through the child’s interaction with it.  Modification, though, doesn’t necessarily have to mean the object’s shape or state has changed.  This most certainly can happen; however, in many cases, it won’t.  The child in the park didn’t change the shape or state of the dog.  In fact, if he had, he might have elicited quite a different response from the dog.  Instead, he took the stimulus and assimilated it into his prior thoughts about animals.  Because this “thought” was now in the context of everything else he knows and has experienced, the idea of “dog” was changed only through its fusion with his other experiences and knowledge.  The child just underwent the act of synthesis–of assimilating new thoughts into his mind.

Learning builds like a coil, one rung on top of the other.

Essentially, by the end of this process, the child has created a new stimulus, as the original thought or interpretation of the medium has been modified.  This new stimulus acts as the catalyst for a new learning experience, one where they go through all of the steps in the Framework for Mediated Action again.  As they continue this cyclical process, each of the cycles build upon one another, much like the coils of a spring, until they’ve built a sturdy, yet flexible, cylindrical structure, representative of their learning.

Next time you’re concerned that your students aren’t “engaged,” consider the Framework for Mediated Action, and help them interact more with the environment around them. You’ll be surprised at how much it will change their experience… and yours.

Vulnerability . Process . Possibility

So I did my ten days of actively practicing gratitude, and I’m glad that I did.  Transitions are weird, but with the right mindset, anything is conquerable.

I’ve teetered back and forth on whether or not to write personal things on this blog, as it started as a blog only about teaching.  I’ve gotten some feedback, both positive and negative, regarding the personal nature of some of my posts, and at times, it makes me wonder if I should be combining my personal thoughts with my professional ones.  But for me, it feels right to combine them. Teachers are not compartmentalized beings; we don’t leave our jobs at work. Instead, all the parts of us are fused together, and that is the package that we deliver to our students every day.  Actively practicing gratitude–or actively confronting any sorts of emotions–makes me a better person, and in turn, a better teacher.  I find presence while writing. I find a “flow”–one that I do not want to give up and one that I want to pass along to my students.

photo (4)(1) I’m grateful for vulnerability. Through this blog, I’ve let myself be seen, and by letting myself be seen, I’ve learned way more about myself and who I want to be.  Sometimes, it isn’t pretty, and sometimes it’s awesome. But because I’ve learned how to practice that vulnerability–because I know exactly what it feels like before, during, and after–I’ll be able to nurture that in my students when I see it unraveling before my eyes.

(2) I’m grateful for process. Process is hard to identify, as even within a process, you are completing these microproducts day in and day out.  It makes it hard to balance between focusing on the goal and focusing on the process of completion and the process of learning.  Sometimes, though, during the process, we feel lost, we’re not sure what we’re doing, and so we gravitate toward what “feels right.”  I’m not sure where else this blog, this journey in California, or some other journeys I’m embarking upon are going to take me.  So I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll invest reason in this process later.  Can’t wait to do it, too.

(3) I’m grateful for possibility. Because within a process, there lies great possibility.  Chicago felt completed to me. It felt like a “product,” if you will, and it left me, in some ways, barren of possibility.  But here, I feel like the world is at my fingertips, which is both exciting and terrifying.  It feels like it could slip away or be firmly within my grasp at any moment.

But it’s what’s going to make me the best version of me yet.

Support . Fear . Friends

I’m having a bit of writer’s block this morning, and I tend to believe that, when we have writer’s block, it’s because we are not allowing ourselves to be either open, honest, or vulnerable.  It’s almost as if there is some sort of fear behind it–fear of writing something silly or stupid, fear of being judged.  I’ve actually been sharing my blog links–mostly ones from the past–with lots of new people, and I think that combined with this week’s newness has sent me into that post-vulnerability hangover–the one where you worry if you said or did the right thing, the one where you wonder if everyone loves you or hates you.  Or if they just don’t care at all.

photo (3)

Because this is what I do when I have writer’s block. Map’s cool, though, right?

Fear and worry are very real.  One time–and I can’t, for the life of me, remember exactly when or what it was about–someone very offhandedly told me that I had an irrational fear, dismissing my feelings and rolling their eyes.  While fear and worry are very real, they are simultaneously irrational, due to the fact that what you fear is something that has not happened yet.  You can’t predict the future; however, our past is our best predictor of the future, and so, as a conscious species, we rely on it to help us move forward.

But it’s a balance.  A life dominated by these fears and worries is a life unlived, and a life neglectful of our fears and worries is a frivolous one, which is why I’m grateful for a number of things this morning after finishing my first week of work in a new place.

(1) I’m grateful for my support systems, even though they are not immediately present beside me. Because words go a long way (like… 2,000-miles long) when you’re feeling unsure, and I’m grateful that my friends’ and family’s words have given me that boost of courage to keep on moving.

(2) I’m grateful for all of this week’s fear and worry.  I’m not really one to say that everything happens for a reason, but I’m glad that I can invest reason into the fear and worry retrospectively.  Being afraid is very humbling, and we all need that sometimes.  It’s important to remember that we are fortunate, and having a fear is simply another indicator of how grateful we are for what we have.  We just can’t let that fear dominate.  Instead, we can lean into it, acknowledge the feelings, and continue on.

(3) I’m grateful for new friends. As I walked out of happy hour yesterday, after a long week of work, I watched as my new friend hopped into the cab in front of us.  It dawned on me then that all of these people–the people that are slowly and surely going to shape this new version of me and become another extension of my support system–were merely faces on a screen a week prior.  I read their bios, humbled by the opportunity to work with them, increasingly anxious to join a team of such high caliber.  Bringing those faces to life was scary–for reasons already mentioned–and exhilarating at the same time, because it shows that in order to take that risk and find a new life, it’s essential to leave our old ones behind in some capacity.  Before we know it, though, that new life, those new people, that new setting…

They all seem like they’ve always been there, waiting for us.

Movement . Purpose . Fridays

A week ago this morning, I woke up for the first time in a new city, and it seems like it took that much time for the reality of all of this to set in.  I think when any big change occurs, we more or less go into “survival mode,” where we channel our instincts.  We pretty much do whatever we can to keep afloat and keep moving.  I’ve begun to feel a bit overwhelmed, not necessarily by anything in particular, but more so by the newness and uncertainty of it all.

(1) I’m grateful that I’m afloat and that I’m moving. Someone once told me that, when in a time of self-doubt or really in any time of need, one must talk to oneself in your most compassionate voice.  For me, this most compassionate voice comes out when I’m talking to my students.  When they’re overwhelmed, I tell them that they’re doing their best and that they’re right where they need to be.  So that’s what I’m telling myself.

(2) I’m grateful I have purpose. I’m already jumping into some great projects at work, and it’s really helping me to find my footing.

(3) I’m grateful that it’s Friday. Because I need the weekend. For sheezy.

Logic . Love . False Dichotomies

A dichotomy refers to subject matter that can be easily classified into two discrete groups.  I’ve been exploring this a great deal and in many different contexts.  For instance, the “subjective” and the “objective” are generally seen as two opposing ends of a pretty clear dichotomy.  Many believe that an experience or thought can either be classified as subjective to varying thought or objectified by proven fact. (Remember learning about fact and opinion?) Likewise, many are apt to classify decisions into “right” and “wrong.”  This is a generally accepted and relatively clear dichotomy: There are certain things you do, and there are certain things you don’t.

photo (2)However, most of us know that this dichotomous perspective, while ideal, is not the way the world works.  Things don’t fit into neat categories, and life is not a flow map, laid before our feet, dictating all possible scenarios and painting clear paths along the way.

The idea of “dichotomy” can also be dangerous, in my opinion.  If we begin to classify ourselves into categories, we also begin to classify ourselves into non-categories, limiting what we are capable of, which in turn creates false dichotomies.  For those of you that are teachers or parents, this can be especially challenging for children, as they struggle to form and make sense of their own identities.  While the original intent of a dichotomy is more so to help us, as people, categorize and organize, just like anything else, one must achieve a sense of balance with dichotomy.

Personally, I’m apt to classify myself into the logical/analytical category.  In fact, just the other day, someone said to me, “Think deeply, Paul, but don’t overthink.”  She hit the nail right on the head, because that’s what I was doing.  But hey, at least I’m consistent.  However, even classifying myself as logical or analytical limits me; likewise, removing this label would be limiting, which is why I think it’s important to embrace ourselves as a whole person, where we define ourselves not by the categories that we fit into, but where we define ourselves by our actions, our mistakes, and the lessons we learn from those mistakes.

Having said all of this, I’m grateful for somewhat of a dichotomy that exists within me today.

(1) I’m grateful for my logic.  I used to view my analytical mindset as a fault.  But sometimes it is okay to overthink, get lost in thought, and pick something apart because through this process, we get to know whatever it is we’re picking apart better.  By getting lost in our “overthoughts,” we find peace in either a solution or the acceptance that there is no discernible solution.  However, we’d never get there if we didn’t go through the process of overthinking and getting lost in our thoughts first.

(2) I’m grateful for my heart. Love is the other side of the logic dichotomy, and while the analytical corners of my brain are often firing at breakneck speed, my heart also beats with the same intensity.  I respond to impulse, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I like to believe I lead very vulnerably with my heart, especially in my classroom.

(3) I’m grateful that these two parts of me are really not parts at all.  My head and my heart are so intertwined–almost to the point of malignancy.  Tearing them apart would most likely kill me, which is probably why I love to teach so much.  Teaching requires an intricate mix of art and science, one that asks us to analyze, use what we know, and act pragmatically, while at times, follow our hunches, our values, and our hearts to provide the absolute best and most nurturing experience in the classroom.


Challenge . Listening . Time

I lied awake in bed last night, anxiety creeping up my toes, sliding into my heart, and pulsing into my brain.  My chest felt tight, my lungs tickling with nerves.  These nerves, I expected to feel Sunday night; in fact, I expected last night’s restless sleep on Sunday night as I buzzed with anticipation for my new job, but instead, my anxiety seems to have waited until last night to start to take hold.  Then again, I suppose it didn’t help that the newly discovered newborn baby was screaming at the top of her lungs.

I think it began yesterday while I was sitting in a company meeting when I realized–truly realized–for the first time that I was part of a business now, not just a school, and suddenly the “gremlins,” as Brene Brown so beautifully describes in her work, started creeping in.  For those of you that have not read her book(s), when she refers to “gremlins,” she is mostly describing those times when we feel shame or a lack of self-worth.

And so this is what happened yesterday, as I learned about new ways of thinking, truly immersed myself into a new culture, and in a sense, began speaking a new language of teaching, learning, and working.  At the very least, the experience has been humbling; at the very most, I’m sure the experience will be monumental in my development as a teacher and as a person.

(1) I’m grateful for challenge.  Someone once told me, “If you’re not scared, you’re not growing,” and I think there’s a great deal of truth in that.  Granted, too much fear is debilitating, and the last thing I want is to shut down. Luckily, these challenges are being presented by people who are “on my side” and wanting me to succeed, and that’s hard to remember when you’re in a new setting.  When the “gremlins” creep in, it’s easy to think that you’re in this by yourself, but you never really are.  The universe and those around you, for the most part, want you to succeed wholeheartedly.  Investing in others’ success means investing in your own.

(2) I’m grateful that I can listen… a lot. I’ve been kind of quiet the past few days, which is rather atypical for me.  I’m usually the one that can’t wait to get my thoughts in, and many times, in the past, I’ve noticed I’m the one dominating the conversation–a quality in which I never took pride.  I’m finding more value in listening than I ever have before, and not necessarily because of the stimuli in front of me, but more so because I’m learning that by listening, I’m allowing myself time to process, more time for my mind to open, and more time for others to share their knowledge.  That’s something I didn’t do enough for myself–or for others–in Chicago.

(3) I’m grateful for time… time to process and time to myself. I’ve had a great deal of time to myself recently, and I never thought that would be something I would love so much.  Every so often, it hits me that, for all intents and purposes, I’m alone in this big city.  Everyone I know and love with reciprocal lack of condition lives two-thousand miles away, but the time to fend for myself, problem-solve on my own, and invest into myself is incredible.

I’m not sure where it began, but I grew up that thinking that taking care of yourself before taking care of others was selfish.  This challenge that I’ve welcomed, coupled with my time to listen, process, and nurture my psyche, I think, is going to create the best version of myself to date–one that will be able to care for others and understand them more than I have before.  Then again, maybe it’s not the best, or the worst, or any sort of qualitative ranking; maybe it’s just another great version of myself that I can learn to love as much as I do the others.