Sunday, 25 August 2013

the competent child...

 The competent child

This child is a central part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy - but have you paused to reflect upon what it really means?

I view this child as capable - capable of doing many things. A competent learner - given the right environment that allows growing.

Jesper Juul writes
       "When I say that children are competent, I mean that they are in a position to teach
       us what we need to learn. ..... To learn from our children in this way demands much 
       more than that we speak democratically with them. It means we must develop a kind
       of dialogue that many adults are unable to establish even with other adults: that is
       to say a  personal dialogue based on equal dignity." The Competent Child Intro
Jesper Juul also talks about how this equal dignity should not be confused with experience - an adult clearly has more experience and should use this to support a child. I remember listening to one of his talks (online) and he described how children do not have the experience to know the difference between what they WANT and what they NEED and that is how we as adults need to guide them, to ensure that the balance is right and that they are getting what they need and not just what they want, as part of our democratic dialogues with them. For example... allowing children to stay up late, night after night, because they want to, does not mean that you are giving them respect to make their own decisions as a competent child, but that you are depriving them of the sleep they need to be the competent child that they are... You can of course still enforce a bedtime routine that is of benefit for the child in a respectful manner.

BUT what is competent?
The Oxford Dictionary gives the following explanation


  • having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully:a highly competent surgeon 
     [with infinitive]:make sure the firm is competent to carry out the work
  • (of a person) efficient and capable:an infinitely competent mother of three
  • acceptable and satisfactory, though not outstanding:she spoke quite competent French
  • (of a court or other body) accepted as having legal authority to deal with a particular matter:the London Stock Exchange is the competent authority under the Financial Services Act
  • Biology & Medicine capable of performing the normal function effectively.

I also noted that the word derives from the latin "competere" which means "be fit or proper" and interestingly "competere" is also the root of compete!

competent to use real tools...

Essentially, though, we are talking about the child that is born and lives in the world with the "necessary ability, knowledge, or skill", but lacks the experience to know how to use these. They are NOT empty vessels, as Carla Rinaldi describes as the opposite of the competent child, but that children ARE competent and just require the right circumstances to allow them to develop the experience that will hone their abilities, knowledge and skills. (see film at end)
If we do not provide risky play, provocations or listen to the children.... then we are doing the opposite of "filling the empty vessel with knowledge" we are actually taking away learning opportunities from the children  - opportunities to create their own knowledge, their own understanding, to test their own abilities and develop their own skills.
We should not be taking away from the children. We need to be providing these opportunities - allowing them to be competent and capable in accordance with their experience and abilities.
Jesper Juuls mentioned that children are often viewed as potential rather than as people - what does this mean? What about all the talk of children's potential and supporting them to reach their full potential? I don't think that is what he means - he is talking about children not being valued as children, as people ALREADY, but the fact that they are potential people, potential grown-ups!
We need to value children for who they are. To see what they are already capable of, and to learn from that. YES, we need to learn too. As adults we have the chance to re-learn everything. To get new perspectives on life and our own personal truths - if we allow ourselves to be open enough to HEAR what the children are saying and showing us...
Annika Månsson desribes "competence" as "potentials, to avoid the essential view on children, where the ability and the power to act are embedded as natural instinct" (The construction of the "competent child" and early childhood care.) 
So what does this mean? We have returned to the word potential again. But this time it is referring to each child's potential to be who they are, the need for support and guidance to attain that... and that we should not think that competent children means we can leave them to their own devices and they can work it out for themselves.
Månsson goes on to describe the importance of allowing children to be active in the daily routines to allow children to try out their competencies. 
Over the years I have heard many teachers discuss their dislike of daily routines - eating, washing hands, toileting and nappy changing etc as getting in the way of the learning (the latest at the conference at Boulder Journey School this summer when I was talking with other participants - this is what I said to them..)
The routines ARE a part of the pedagogical day... they ARE opportunities for learning, opportunities for the children to develop their own skills, their own abilities to do things for themselves as well as help others. It is the time of day when children can learn about responsibility, about co-operation, about patience, about hygiene - and also to feel a valued member of the preschool when they are allowed to help with setting the table, scraping their plates, setting out matresses for rest time etc... 
 The routines are just as valuable as the learning activities... they are not gaps between the learning. Learning happens ALL the time - not when the teacher is teaching - as John Holt said
     "We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn 
      and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far 
      as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering 
     their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are 
      most interested in.
competent - to be a part of the routines such as tidying up and cleaning equipment

 We need to think about the difference between children's rights and children's needs - children need love, food, sleep etc - they have the right to be respected, the right to be valued as a person, the right to be provided with situations that will support their learning and development etc
        "In a practice where children are allowed to and able to act, they can explore, 
        experiment and investigate different possibilities that confirm or contrast their 
       own notions and thoughts. Dunne argues that this pedagogical attitude 
       toward children’s strength and potential is opposite to the one that turns 
        children into consumers and teachers into intermediaries." Månsson

As teachers we are not intermediaries ensuring we fill the children with knowledge and skills, but we are on the learning journey together WITH the children, using our experience and gathered knowledge to serve as guides. We want children to be active learners not passive learners... this means we have to provide situations that enable the children to learn - by believing in their competence to learn. But if we do not belive the child is competent then there will be the tendency to do the learning FOR the child and then expect the child to acquire it by listening to the the teacher - they are being taught rather than learning...

It is just to look at the children involved in the learning experiment of Sugata Mitra where as an adult he provided the learning environment for the children... and they rose to the occasion... they learned, without adults, to navigate the computers and to share their growing knowledge with each other to develop their understanding of the computer and also of the the world ... the children were competent learners... they just needed the right learning environment/ resources. (Hole in the Wall experiment)

So what is "the competent child"?
Possibly we could define the competent child as a child with limitless potential to expand their learning and understanding of the world around them. A competent child is not a child that can do everything and know everything already but is the child that has the potential to achieve this... teachers we need to provide the circumstances that allow children to be who they are, to allow them the right to follow their own path of learning, and that we, as teachers, are travellers with them making suggestions about which road to take, pointing out the possibilities, challenging their choices so that they do not ALWAYS take the path of least resistance, so that they can reach their own personal destination/ potential - and then to begin to explore that...

 And as promised some films to watch...
a film of Alex Cruikshank from Boulder Journey School talking about the competency of children


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