what matters to children
ReFocus Journal Issue
eight Spring 2009 (April 2009)
Forum Journal for promoting 3-19
comprehensive eduvcation (April 2009)
ReFocus Journal Issue eight Spring 2009
ReFocus is the UK network of early childhood educators, artists and others
influenced in their practice by the preschools of Reggio Emilia.
Review by Solveig Morris of
‘Learning: what matters to children’ by Diane Rich, Mary Jane Drummond
and Cathy Myer
Those readers who bought and valued the content of ‘First hand
experience: what matters to children’ (reviewed ReFocus Journal issue three),
will welcome this sequel, a continuation of the authors’ desire to develop the
theme of a rich curriculum diet based on the principle of what really matters
to children as active learners.
Using the metaphor of food and exercise, the new book is again arranged using
the format of the alphabet to lead the reader through a wealth of knowledge,
pedagogical thinking and learning stories, but this time the authors delve
more deeply into what learners do, emphasising ‘exercise- the verbs of
learning’ and their significance to help educators support both children’s and
their own learning.
To benefit from using this book, I would strongly recommend that the reader
reads and inwardly digests Part One, the introduction. Here the rationale of
the book is clearly laid out but it also gives a conceptual framework by which
an appropriate curriculum can be developed, whatever the age group. The
authors have extended the age group from birth to eleven years (previously
birth to 8 years) but their approach makes it fitting for all ages.
The book is based on sound key principles which are closely matched to those
of Reggio Emilia who believe that:
• children are powerful and active learners;
• educators think for themselves;
• learners are more curious, ask questions and continue to explore their own
Thus both children and educators (with parents and others) act as
co-researchers, belonging to a community of learners. The expectation is that
educators, to be effective, must think, question and be curious about life as
well as having sound knowledge of children’s cognitive development and
Part Two is a treasure box. The authors have drawn on their own research work
with children and educators, using additional material from the What Matters
to Children team – all respected consultants. I found myself being pulled in
by new material and learning stories, reminded of the words of past great
thinkers such as John Dewey and delighted by the connecting threads of the
authors’ thinking. So a new learning journey begins with different paths
followed with constant deviations and retracing of steps.
The book sits comfortably with the new Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum
– and the National Curriculum, but past experience has proved that the
interpretation of curriculum content can be extremely variable. For thinking
educators this books is more than a guidance, it’s an invaluable resource.
We hope that educators of children from birth to 11
will use this book to think with.
To think about what precisely?
About children as learners.
About what learners do.
About their own learning as educators. p115
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Forum Journal for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education
Volume 51 Number 1 2009
Review by Jenifer Smith
School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia
This spiral bound ‘alphabet of what learners do’ is an extraordinarily
attractive book which invites the reader’s active involvement in issues that
are of crucial importance to learners and educators. Its manageable format
perhaps belies the seriousness of its content, because this is a book that
excites the intellect, the imagination, and the desire to act. ‘Learning: what
matters to children’ builds on the work of the first book written by this
team, ‘First hand experience: what matters to children’ (2005) which is
designed to help educators think more deeply about children’s active learning
and the ways in which they might create the opportunities for ‘high quality
first hand experiences’. ‘Learning: what matters to children’ builds on and
extends that thinking by inviting the reader to look closely at the
characteristics of children who are actively engaged in learning and as a part
of that close examination to consider and reconsider the choices that they can
make to ensure ‘worthwhile learning’ for the children with whom they work. The
authors declare their commitment to the principle of educators who think for
themselves and have conceived and presented the book, it would seem to me, in
the same way that one might plan an inviting setting for learners from birth
to 11. As a reader, I feel free to navigate my way around its pages, to pick
and choose what I read and how I will work with that and so the experience is
stimulating in many different ways.
The organisation of the book combines careful patterning with serendipity. The
use of the alphabetic principle avoids a text which swells to a rhetorical
conclusion, but rather offers many facets of the things which the authors
openly declare to be important. Each chapter heading, shaped in part by the
alphabet, makes an assertion about what learners do: learn all the time, hope,
know more than adults think they do, make stories, take time. The authors
present a clearly defined and principled viewpoint which firmly sets aside the
view of a curriculum defined by subject areas and replaces that way of
thinking with four domains of children’s learning, ‘what matters to children’.
These are expressed in the open ended non-finite form: being, acting,
exploring, thinking. The necessity of first hand experience as the basis for
worthwhile learning is embodied in text which is redolent of a pleasure in the
world that children share with us –its beauty, its physicality, its challenge.
The text enacts ways of thinking. Verbs –actions- are emphasised; the
metaphors of food and exercise act as a vehicle for considering a child’s diet
and the opportunities to exercise their growing powers and ‘big ideas’
challenge readers to set all this in theoretical context.
The book begins with an adapted fairy story that reminds us that learners
continue to learn whether the experiences they are offered are rich and
challenging or meaningless and undemanding and ends with a review of the
whole. Each chapter is a patchwork of stories, questions, quotations,
introductions to reading, provocations and lists, defined by frames and
shading. The resulting juxtapositions and white space on the page invites
readers to make their own connections as they navigate an individual path
through the pages and between pages. It is possible to dwell on a single
section or to surf the pages in search of repeated elements in each chapter.
Twenty-one of the twenty-six chapters focus on what learners do and include
‘learning stories’; accounts of children’s activities which not only
demonstrate how looking at what learners do is a good way for educators to
learn more about learning but invite discussion and reflection. The stories
often challenge common assumptions and insist on the value of observing, and
noting, what might otherwise seem unremarkable. The setting of such stories
alongside other stories and the ideas of educators reveals the depths and
complexities of small moments. One of the things I particularly like is that
each chapter includes two suggestions for reading: one is always a book for
children and the other a book for educators. In this way, the authors point
the reader beyond the boundaries of the book, not only towards further
reading, but also in terms of thinking of other titles that, particularly in
the case of books for children, might at least be as good if not better than
those suggested! I was particularly pleased to find writers and thinkers
mentioned whom I was unfamiliar with as well as those whom I am glad to see
introduced to a new readership. Three of the chapters are devoted entirely to
the work of three such thinkers: John Dewey, Nell Noddings and Lawrence
Stenhouse. These chapters succinctly and enticingly introduce key ideas of
those thinkers and certainly have prompted student teachers to find out more.
One of the strengths of the book is its combination of easy reading (you could
start with a seventy word snippet) and uncompromising seriousness of ideas. It
is a bit like a high quality Hello magazine for the staff room, because you
can read a page or more quite quickly, but the snippets that you read provide
you with much more to think about and the desire to find out more. I find that
the format provokes thought in a very pleasurable way. I find myself impelled
to go to the library, to try things out, to talk to others and to dream in the
way I love to do when I am plotting and planning opportunities for learning.
It acknowledges that the educator reader may continue to possess that ‘thirst
for understanding….a veritable passion’ that Susan Isaacs attributes to young
learners. In acknowledging the potential passion that all educators may
possess the book provides an inspiration and encouragement to teachers who may
feel tied down by the curriculum or who may have forgotten what is possible.
This is an ambitious and generous book which includes a wide sweep of ideas
within its 120 pages. The authors draw on contemporary thinkers as well as
those writing at the beginning of the last century and it is instructive to
observe how strong is the influence of early years educators; and how one
might continue to hope that their influence will extend beyond the reception
classroom and into the rest of the primary years. It is also an immensely
serious book which rejects the word play for its frivolous connotations and
embraces the activities of children who are ‘profound thinkers, grappling with
challenging and complex ideas.’ Consequently it is an immensely exhilarating
book. Every educator’s home should have one!
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