Classroom environments

Classroom environments play a decisive role in how social and collaborative learning occurs. Indeed, spatial arrangements of the furniture and bodies organize how children are able to move and whether they work together or independently. Time is also critical. It takes time to work with others, to deliberate, and to work through ideas.

Additionally, classroom environments communicate values through their aesthetics. Tarr (2004), for example, suggested that we consider the walls and how they express beliefs about children, important knowledge, and expectations. Her semiotic approach to wall space in classrooms and hallways suggests that the brightly colored, commercialized, and cartoon-like imagery often given preference in young children’s school environments communicates messages about children and their learning that favor transmission approaches to teaching. Furthermore, the use of brightly colored and cartoonish aesthetics are suggestive of simplistic and buffoonish childhoods. As Tarr (2004) notes, “classroom environments are public statements about the educational values of the institution and the teacher” (p. 2).

Environments also enact relationships with space, time, and, of course, materials which creates a direct impact on learning in the art classroom. In a Keggio-inspired classroom, this relationship is announced by the attention given to learning provocations. Here, the concept of learning provocation is used to describe 3-dimensional learning centers where meaningful engagement and exploration can be found in play that originates in the use of open-ended and carefully selected materials. As Shaffer (2018) describes, provocations are “opportunities to provoke thinking, spark interest, initiate discussion, encourage creativity, and arouse curiosity about an object or collection of objects as a strategy to engage children in making meaning about their world” (p. 41). Of key consequence here is that materials can be manipulated, controlled, constructed, and transformed. Like the environment itself, we might think of these materials as non-human cooperating teachers which share the principles and values of the school. Thus, provocations, as a non-human teacher, are but one aspect of the environment and yet critical, because of the capacity of these object to enact their own agency. As much as materials provide something for children to think about, so too do they provide something to think with. Thus, children’s relationship with things might be conceived of as one of many that link thinking and doing.

Methodological considerations

The stories of this research emerged from a multi-year ethnographic study of teachers’ transition to Reggio-inspired practices that began in the fall of 2016. This small school, located in the annexes of a Lutheran church, serves children from the proximal neighborhood in five classrooms organized by age: 18 months-2 years; 2-3 years; 3-4 years; and 4—5 years. The classrooms vary in size with the smallest space used for the smallest bodies and larger classrooms for larger ones. Each classroom is equipped with tables and chairs appropriate to the size of the children who occupy the space and are well resourced with natural and man-made materials, neutral play structures that can be reconfigured for varied use, and an abundance of manipulative, open-ended materials. While I spent time in each of these classrooms, my interest in this chapter is with children ages four and five, their drawing activity, and their classroom.

The study involved regular observation, formal and informal conversations, extensive descriptive field notes, and bi-weekly professional development seminars designed to address emerging questions, interests, and scaffolds neededto support teachers in their understanding and local adoption of Reggio’s principal values and practices mentioned earlier in this chapter. In the first year of the study, we placed a strong focus on learning the skills and affordances of pedagogical documentation. To do so, each Wednesday I spent time in one of five classrooms, documenting events of learning alongside teachers who were doing the same, which were later shared in our seminars.

I should pause here, briefly, to describe pedagogical documentation, as it plays a central role in the research processes of this project. MacDonald (2007) explains how pedagogical documentation includes photographs, video, and artifacts that demonstrate how children’s learning has taken place in their classrooms. She uses the term recursive, to describe a process by which these artifacts are re/vis-ited, interpreted, and negotiated to promote dialogue and reflection. Pedagogical documentation is teaching “in action,” not only showing the flows and rhythms of the classroom but also demonstrating how teacher choices and decisions are affecting the environment: choices about their curriculum, the way that they present materials to children, the way that they design the physical geography of the space, and the dialogues that they have with children and each other, affects the children in their classroom.

There were a total of 5 classrooms in the school, including four classrooms organized by age, and one atelier (or studio) that was used by all 56 children attending the preschool. For this paper I mined documentation, field notes, and photographs. I regularly photographed each space including the walls of each classroom, the materials within each learning area, and the hallways that children used to travel between spaces within the designated preschool area. At times, these spaces and materials were animated by the presence of children; other times were still in their absence. Such visual methods are often used in ethnographic research, especially when the methods are consistent with the technologies already shared in a space (Pink et al., 2015). Because of pedagogical documentation, for example, all of the adults and many of the children used cameras and smartphones frequently for taking photos, notes, and videos.

For this chapter, I used an abductive approach to consider relationships between observation and theory (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). Unlike deductive and inductive approaches to analysis, abductive reasoning allows for innovation by cultivating empirical findings against a background of theory. It finds them by attending to sensory modes of perception to find explanations of phenomena. “Abduction seeks a theory” proffered Peirce (1958), and thus I reviewed photographs and video, revisited field notes, and maintained a reflective journal that captured the iterative processes of making inferences grounded in observation which were then linked to theories associated with children’s drawing, environment as third teacher, and post-human possibilities. In what follows next, I present a narrative expression of this process as I describe the Otters classroom and its third teacher.

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