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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


This summer I read a chapter in the third edition of The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation that blew me away.  The chapter was called: "The Pedagogy of Listening: The Listening Perspective from Reggio Emilia" by Carlina Rinaldi.  This chapter has forced me to ask serious questions about what it means to listen in the classroom.

According to Rinaldi, listening is a reciprocal endeavor in which the outcome in the "listening context" is not predetermined.  It means participants suspend judgement and are willing to change their point of view after hearing the other's ideas or thoughts.  Participants must not be so invested in their own point of view that their only purpose is to sway the other to his or her way of thinking. That means when I am listening to you, I am not just going through the motions so I can figure out a way to bring you on board to my way of thinking.  My ultimate purpose is not to convince you that my way of thinking is right; in dialogue, I am willing to try to understand your ideas by asking questions first rather than immediately responding with my thoughts.  In fact, we may continue to disagree, but in true listening exchanges, we come to appreciate each other's point of view. Rinaldi states: "To be open to others means to have the courage to come into this room and say, 'I hope to be different when I leave, not necessarily because I agree with you but because your thoughts have made me think differently.'" (p. 236).
So what does that mean for listening in the classroom?  It is not simply to talk at the children and expect them to listen.  In fact, that type of listening shows little respect for the children's competencies and simply asks them to be obedient, to be "a good listener."   If it is indeed reciprocal, then I need to engage in dialogue with the children as they search for meaning in their thoughts and in their actions.  My job is not to give them the answers, but to question, challenge, and accept their ideas.  By doing so, I show respect for their capacity to make sense of their world.  By the way, listening does not happen exclusively on the verbal plane.  Just as there are many languages or ways for children to express themselves, there should be many ways to listen and show we are listening.  Some of that comes in the form of documentation because by documenting the children's work, the children feel we value their thoughts and "...we give value to them as unique individuals who are saying something important; they feel how important they are to us." (p. 242)

When I look over my documentation for an example of listening, it is not so clear to me.  I offer the following video as a possible example.  It first appeared in a post from April 2011 called Horizontal Channels and the Infectiousness of Play.  The video starts with one boy vigorously rolling his car back and forth over the sand.  As he does that, one-by-one the children at the table around him notice and quickly join in until there is a crescendo of joyful activity and sound.

Infectiousness of Play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Does this represent the children listening to each other or simply following another child's lead? There is really no overt reflection on the part of the children.  Is that an important part of listening?

As you can see, I am still left with questions.  Here are a few more.

     *What does reciprocal listening look like?
     *Can this type of listening be both active and passive?
     *How does a teacher foster or encourage reciprocal listening throughout the classroom?
     *Especially in the non-vebal realm, what are some of the different forms of reciprocal listening?
     *Does there have to be a connection/relationship before participants can listen to each other?
     *Do you need common ground for reciprocal listening?

As the new school year begins, I will look for ways to listen to the children and to show them I am listening.  I will also look for ways children are already listening to themselves and to each other. And hopefully, we can discover multiple ways to dialogue and reflect on each other's thoughts and actions. If we are able to do that, we will build a learning community as we construct our knowledge of the world and of each other.

As a teacher I can't tell you how many times I have said to the children: "Thanks for being a good listener."  My colleague and mentor, Lani Shapiro, who has visited Reggio Emilia several times, pointed out that this teacher phrase is essentially praising the children for being obedient.  (How would you feel if someone asks you: "Are you being a good listener?")  Since I am not looking for obedience, I will discard this teacher phrase.  What will I replace it with? Maybe I don't need to replace it; being a good listener is what I need to do.


  1. I tend to agree that we as teachers place a lot of value on chlldrens' listening skills. Instead of merely praising children for being "good listeners", the emphasis is better placed on modeling true listening on the facilitator's part. A part of that is repeating back to the child what you think you heard (active listening.) And giving the child the opportunity to think, clarify and expand on her ideas. As you keep going through that process, a real emotional connection is made and isn't the basis for any learning? Lots of luck with your new school year. I share your blog and ideas with many of my colleagues! Eileen

  2. I like what you said about giving the child an opportunity to think, clarify and expand on her ideas. That is what I will be looking for from myself for this year in the classroom. I have told parents for years that the most important part of education in the classroom is building relationships. It does not happen without the emotional connection and that does not happen without truly listening to the child.

    Thank you for sharing my blog. If you ever have an questions---I don't think I am always clear---feel free to ask me. Then you can judge to see if I am a good listener.

  3. Tom, I always enjoy your way of thinking out loud using your constructions for children's explorations. They have seemed like a kind of dialogue between children's questions, the properties of the materials, and your thinking. Now, adding your reflections on listening to the materiality of listening that you typically do brings a new and interesting layer to your work. I am interested in seeing where it goes.

    1. Thanks Jeanne for your kind words. I always vacillate between asking the adult question of what is the child thinking or simply being present as the child demonstrates his thinking by his/her own actions. I cannot stop myself from interpreting a child's actions, but maybe I can be more present and have the child do some of the reflecting. I, too, am interested in seeing where it goes.

    2. Every time I read something of yours or see a new construction, I am inspired. I'm sure I'll send more photos soon of something else build using your ideas.

      Thank you!