Learning From the Past while Moving Forward on our Journeys: Thoughts on Circles, Interests and Inquiry

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have recently been delving into “How Does Learning Happen?” Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014) and thinking deeply about how I can use this document to guide my practice. This is a document that asks educators to challenge the status quo. It suggests we engage in critical reflection because as described by John Dewey, learning happens through “reflective action (action given careful consideration and justification) as opposed to routine action (action driven by habit and routine)”. We can learn much from John Dewey especially about taking a historical perspective when critically reflecting on the practice and profession of early learning. In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey states, “…knowledge of the past is the key to the understanding of the present. History deals with the past, but the past is the history of the present”.

John Dewey

According to “How Does Learning Happen?”… “When educators engage in critical reflection together, they discover multiple perspectives and deeper understandings” (p. 20). This according to the document is “collaborative inquiry”. This blog post is about taking a historical perspective and for me this is like coming full circle because as an undergraduate my major was history and as a Masters of Education student, my thesis was entitled “To Come Full Circle: Reflective Practice in Early Childhood Education”. In that paper, I critically reflected on the practice of circle time and sought to find the origins of this practice that from my experience was done routinely and without thought to its purpose and potential. I was intrigued when I learned that “circles” go back to Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) who is considered the “father of kindergarten”.

Froebel's Circle

Froebel emphasized the unity of each child’s cognitive, physical, and spiritual domains and the inner connection between children, the spiritual world, nature and humanity as a whole. To illustrate this concept in a concrete way, Froebel had children sit in a circle formation to experience songs and activities collectively. The circle, therefore represented the “connection between children, whereas the unity of each child was preserved by the space they filled in the circle” (Wehousen & Kieff, 2001, p. 6). When I think about circles from a historical perspective, I am driven to question current practices such as the use of calendars during morning circles. Froebel, too was influenced by the past and the work of others. He built upon the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) who was inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who put forth the notion that children were inherently good. All these great thinkers shared in the belief that children learn from their own experiences especially with the natural world. They were early proponents of what we now call inquiry.

To arrive at knowledge slowly, by one’s own experience, is better than to learn by rote, in a hurry, facts that other people know” ~ Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Another great thinker that has much to say about education that is still relevant today is Albert Einstein who famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” He also had something to say about inquiry.

Albert Einstein on Inquiry

Going back to Dewey, he espoused what is now considered constructivist theory as he emphasized the significance of experience in learning. Dewey (1916) stated, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (p. 46). He also advocated and used “the project method” and laid out four criteria for projects, which are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. Projects must:

  • Be of interest to children,
  • Involve thought,
  • Evoke curiosity and lead children to new areas,
  • Entail an extended period of time for investigation (Wolfe, 2000, p. 197).

I hear so much about children’s interests these days. I hear educators lament that a certain inquiry or project has come to a standstill because the “children are no longer interested”. I hear others question building curriculum from children’s interests (which is what we now call “emergent curriculum”) because children are non-verbal or too young to express an interest. For Dewey the key to programming based on children’s interests is focusing on that which is “absorbing” to the child. According to Wolfe (2000) who reflects on Dewey’s contribution to early childhood education in Learning from the Past: Historical Voices in Early Childhood Education:

The skills of the teacher were critical in being able to build projects with children that required in-depth study and thinking about a topic. The experiences needed to provide opportunities for growth of the individual. At the same time the child needed to be aware of the interdependence of all people in a society (p. 196).

Educators need to take responsibility for sparking children’s interests. An article that has been a useful tool for others is The Plan: Building on Children’s Interests which I recently shared on Twitter. I was thrilled when one of the #ReggioPLC community members, Anamaria Ralph was inspired by it and began a tower inquiry with her kindergarten class. I am so inspired by Anamaria and her skilful dedication to building on children’s interests. I see another giant and great thinker, David Hawkins reflected in her classroom and was drawn back to an earlier post that Louise wrote which was inspired by the work of Frances and David Hawkins and focused on interests and inquiry. In that post the words of another giant in early childhood education, Maria Montessori are featured.

Maria Montessori on Interests

In thinking deeply about interests I am once again taken back to the work of Pestalozzi and his insistence that children’s interests must be the motivation for learning. “He had great faith in children’s ability to learn if a teacher was sensitive to their development” (Wolfe, 2000, p. 67).

“I would go so far as to lay it down for a rule, that whenever children are inattentive, and apparently take no interest in a lesson, the teacher should always first look to himself for the reason” ~ Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

I too have great faith in the capacity of early learning professionals to be able to program based on children’s interests using inquiry and projects to encourage learning in deep and meaningful ways. This is the key message in my recently published textbook, co-authored with Beverlie Dietze, Empowering Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education.

Empowering Pedagogy

I am currently reading Giants in the Nursery: A Biographical History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice by David Elkind the author of The Hurried Child and The Power of Play and I am reminded that Elkind’s work is reflected in the words of Rousseau who addressed the issue of forcing children to grow up too quickly. Rousseau warned against premature instruction and was a proponent of focusing upon children’s interests:    

Rousseau on the %22Hurried Child%22

Another recurring theme in the writings of Rousseau was that children learn through play. He wrote of that for the child:

Work and play are all one to him, his games are his work; he knows no difference. He brings to everything the cheerfulness of his interest, the charm of freedom, and he shows the bent of his own mind and the extend of his knowledge ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I will be writing another blog post from a historical perspective and focusing on play and I am also thinking of one that reflects on children learning through nature as these are not new ideas to the 21st century. We have much to learn from the past.

7 thoughts on “Learning From the Past while Moving Forward on our Journeys: Thoughts on Circles, Interests and Inquiry

  1. I enjoyed reading your article this weekend. Thank you for the links to other worthwhile articles and sites. Particularly the article on My Plan: Building on Children’s Interest.
    Look forward to taking the time to delve into them deeper.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So enjoy your blogs, Diane. I will use parts of this to inspire reflective dialogue this fall at. My teacher in service weeks.




  3. Your blog and posts are amazing and just what I’ve been looking for to find out more about how to implement a Reggio/emergent curriculum approach to my preschool classroom. Thank you so much for all your thoughts!


  4. Pingback: Emergent Curriculum: Taking Interests to the Next Realm – Cultivate rather than Follow | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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