Unsettling Ourselves and Living in Uncertainty

melting snow in rocky cedar valley

Parts of this segment are from the full version of an article I wrote called: Theorizing a policy ecosystem for licensed childcare forest school within the anthropocene (unpublished).

There are a growing number of educators in Ontario who are trying to create their own methods of conducting classroom research, by paying attention to different things than they once did. Ontario’s Provincial Centre of Excellence for Early Years and Child Care and Ontario’s Indigenous Centre of Excellence for Early Years and Child Care are currently hosting conversations with educators in the Early Years to grapple with some of the ideas I introduce in my blog posts, and I would encourage readers to connect with them to gain opportunities to hear insights from brilliant educators and Knowledge Keepers from across the province.

Challenging ourselves to consider new perspectives with the openness to shift our practice with the new knowledge is vulnerable, scary work. Some of my colleagues often reminisce about the shift from theme-based learning to emergent curriculum, and remember grappling with letting go of old ideas that no longer serve us, and moving forward to engage children based on their curiosities. Most educators who have been through this shift will tell you that it was a difficult, but very much worthwhile pursuit!  We must remember that teaching is a practice. Therefore, there is no manual. This work around unsettling our commonly held notions of early childhood education and human-centered learning “requires us to let go of the certainty that humans are the only knowing subjects and the nonhuman world is the object of our knowledge” (Taylor, 2017, p. 1455). By learning to pay attention to places, stories through more-than-human understandings we can learn to foster:

  • a sense of tenderness
  • specific responsibilities within the places we find ourselves
  • an essential form of resistance and refusal of settler-colonial and white supremacist ideologies (which normalize the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples in stolen lands across North America)

(Todd, as cited in Nxumalo,Vintimilla & Nelson, 2018, p. 447).

Those who have already made the shift toward emergent curriculum, such as educators in Ontario, are well positioned to do this work, and children can lead the way through their spontaneous, embodied and relational learning and their openness to engaging with more-than-human relationships. Many educators, in seeking ways to transition from standardized theme-based to emergent curriculum, have turned to Reggio Emilia for inspiration. This educational philosophy shifts to a new understanding of the role of the educator as someone who is always watching, listening and documenting children’s ideas, explorations and interests in order to respond and create ongoing opportunities for extending learning and digging deeper, based on the original motivation of the children’s interests.

Reggio Emilia’s three main tenants are ethics, aesthetics, and politics, so this becomes an excellent jumping off point from which to delve into ways that emergent curriculum could become more ethically and politically situated. Nuxumalo et al (2018) explain that shifting away from depoliticized understandings of a romanticized child-centred approach, which can too easily be influenced by materialistic, consumptive forces, toward ones that pedagogically cultivate conditions of emergence, can be a way of attending to racisms and settler colonial politics of place that can be present in normative understandings of emergent curriculum (p. 434). My hope is that through increased conversations between Indigenous and settler people, a new decolonial approach to early years education will emerge, and rather than, or as well as, borrowing from an Italian philosophy, educators in our country will someday be able to take their inspiration from Indigenous ways of knowing. This will take committed efforts towards tangible acts of reconciliation, including supporting and valuing Indigenous knowledge in new ways such as centering Indigenous voices in educational conversations.

Haraway suggests that educators can choose to adopt an ethic of “staying with the trouble” (as cited in Taylor, 2017), where we can take more serious efforts to notice the small, every day actions that connect us more deeply with the world around us more (Taylor, 2017, p. 1459) – something children do already. In addition to paying attention to what children say, we can also become more attuned to how children respond to more-than-human relationships, in ways such as “paying attention to the movements and actions of the worms, ants, water, rain boots, fingers, sticks, rocks, mud, pebbles and dust” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2015, p. 514) and view these acts of noticing as pedagogical work. We can think with children about our shared vulnerabilities and learn to “live with each other for survival” (p. 520). As we respond to children’s actions, interactions and relationships with the more-than-human world, we can become more aware of the ethical and literal impacts on the future of the earth.

An ethic of ‘staying with the trouble’ is certainly not the easy way forward, but by viewing these ‘acts of noticing’ as our pedagogical work, we can begin to imagine a way to prepare children for their futures by strengthening and deepening their understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. By ‘staying with the trouble’ we will help them to live in a new way from that of their parents, grandparents and ancestors. Viewing educators work it in this way creates an important call to action for educators to deepen their own understandings of the world around them, while also becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable place of not knowing. Together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and children can create curriculum that is relevant, emergent, and transformative.