A New Way to Think about Learning: Subjectivity
Before ever going to Reggio Emilia, I had already made great attempts to defining learning and knowledge. This is a core concept. In my opinion, if you work in the field of education you must be able to define what learning is and what knowledge is. How can I be a teacher, if I can’t succinctly and clearly define what I do or how I do it?
Up until being in Reggio Emilia, I was confident that I was a left-leaning progressive educator who had a strong idea of what education was. That is, until I heard Daniela Lanzi define her understanding of knowledge and learning. After hearing her, I realized that I had been defining learning by simply describing traditional teaching practices and invalidating these practices. Before hearing her speak, I could not articulate clearly the alternative.
Before Daniela Lanzi spoke, I agreed with William Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I also agreed with Dewey’s notions that learning is an active process rather than a passive reception of knowledge from the teacher to the student.
And so I interpreted these notions, and used them to devalue traditional schooling. I believe I did this because I wanted to challenge people to think differently about what education could be like. Yet at the same time, I hadn’t clearly defined in my own mind what education should be like, I only know that I don’t like the way I was schooled.
Daniela Lanzi spoke to us about a concept that is not her own, nor does it belong to Reggio Emilia. In fact, Reggio Emilia doesn’t take this concept for face value either, and they interpret it and hybridize it within their approach which synthesizes and pulls together many different theories.
The concept is the idea of subjectivity. I had heard about subjectivity before, but I think it just flew over my head, or perhaps I wasn’t ready to receive it. Or maybe Daniela’s explanation of it came at the right time and at the right place. Who knows? I just find it curious that I was able to come to a new understanding about this very complex idea from an Italian person and an interpreter.
At this point I would propose that I would paraphrase what Lanzi spoke to us about, and to interject with my thoughts and reflections.
She begins by talking to us about the image of the child and starts with a very provocative idea: “The child only exists to the extent where a community recognizes them.”
Each of us has an image of the child, are children weak, incompetent, needy? Or are they valuable?
Are children citizens of the future? Or are they citizens right now?
Are they public subjects? Or are they subjects of privacy?
First, I most definitely believe what Lanzi says about children only existing to the extent that the community recognizes them. In fact, I could even rephrase that statement in sociological terms of power dynamics to say that adults have tremendous power over children, and children are outright marginalized and hidden from the society. Second, if you’ve studied the Reggio Emilia approach, you’ve probably encountered the term image of the child before. There’s nothing that she’s said so far that’s really mind altering for me. But she’s still setting it all up to explain subjectivity.
Whatever your image is, it will determine how you work or interact with children.
Whatever you’ve encountered in life, it will influence your image of children.
We have heard for years that children are empty vessels that need to be filled.
We have heard for years, that adults can draw out theories from children, and that also influences us.
But everything I have said so far underscores something important: These people do NOT think of children as a researcher and they tell us what children are NOT capable of doing as opposed to what children ARE capable of doing.
The problem isn’t whether or not these theories and ways of thinking are correct. The problem has to do with the implications that they have for practice.
Wow. Right away, I am given insight into her way of thinking. For someone who has such strong convictions about education, she does not disrespect in any way theories or ideas that she disagrees with. She certainly infers what she believes in, but does not diminish the validity of another’s point of view. She tells us that it does not matter whether it is correct or not. What does matter is how it is applied. I am reminded of what Rinaldi (2006) called “one of the highest achievements of Malaguzzi’s thought.” (p. 56) Rinaldi describes it like so:
The traditional relationship between theory and practice, which designates practice as consequent to theory, is redefined and, therefore, surpassed. Theory and practice are placed in a relationship of reciprocity, but one in which, to a certain extent, practice takes precedence over theory. (p. 56)
I don’t want to continue on this thread of the relationship of practice and theory too much, but the point that Rinaldi articulates shortly thereafter is that if we simply apply theoretical premises as conclusions without reflecting or thinking or creating, we simply remove ourselves as teachers as being responsible human beings. A person who simply believes that you could apply a theory as a pedagogy would also believe that a robot could be a great teacher. Rinaldi didn’t say that last part, but I did.
Let’s get back to subjectivity
So there is a new way that we had to describe learning, because we know from practice that children have enormous potential.
First, understand that science tells us that there isn’t one version of truth. Truth is not the same for every person.
Every person individually builds understanding based on their experiences and the world around them.
We build relationships that apply to things, to the world, and to people (*** more on the idea of relationships to things later!)
Which means we are all unique and unrepeatable.
We all PRODUCE knowledge and original points of view.
If this is our idea of learning and knowledge, then each person in the world has the right to be heard, listened to, respected.
Just as importantly, this means that children PRODUCE knowledge and are thus competent.
Just another wow moment. This explanation of subjectivity gives so much insight into this attitude of a teacher as a researcher. How can anyone’s voice be discounted if you are operating under this schema of learning? If you believe in subjectivity, then you also can’t discount other people’s point of view. Everything is valid, and at the same time, everything is worth questioning. What you know or think or put out into the world as knowledge to be shared is subjectively yours, and can be open to interpretation. It makes so much sense, then, that Maddalena Tedeschi described the approach to be a vast soul that harmonizes different theories and schools of thought as opposed to pulling them apart. Synthesizing and hybridizing as opposed to fragmenting and compartmentalizing.
This idea of subjectivity also has great implications for what we believe about children. Children are producing knowledge and subjectively interpreting the world around them. This is an entirely different way of thinking about learning that requires a complete repositioning of my approach to my role as a teacher. As I said in my introduction, I walk away with more questions now about my role as a teacher operating in this way of thinking than before.
This is an alternative to what I consider “traditional schooling.” And I’ll put myself on the record and say that I will not spend anymore energy diminishing or devaluing any kind of pedagogy. Any other person’s practice is subjectively a production of the knowledge that they have and what they have encountered in the world. I will, however, question and critically analyze any pedagogical concept, because there may be something worth adding into my own understanding or approach to education.