Francesca Antonacci and Monica Guerra
Touch, smell, taste and sight – , and is mainly associated with artistic production. To foster the imagination so defined, it is critical to promote and spread an educational model that provides opportunities for live and Our educational and teaching experience in direct contact with schools and teachers strongly suggests that we can no longer ignore the need to rethink the current system. In the paper, we’ll outline what we believe to be the key characteristics of a school that aims to maintain and further develop its functions. The school that we have in mind is open to the world, and therefore in dialogue with both the environment and the society beyond its own confines. This contact with the outside context spontaneously raises questions, facilitating the use of an educational method that investigates the world, with its intrinsically interdisciplinary character. Nature is the guide par excellence. Learning must be underpinned by a search for meaning, on the part of each individual subject, teacher and student. Teaching is oriented towards developing students’ desire to explore (Guerra, 2013), research and transform, with a view to building a habit of inquiry that will prompt the learners to conduct their own in-depth investigations of the world and of knowledge. This kind of school prompts a complete revisiting of existing educational programs, because subject areas therefore become contexts in which to have experiences and to interpret what one has experienced. Teachers too should embrace the practice of evaluating and self-evaluating their work and their pupils work documenting projects and processes. All of children’s experiences at school should be informed by the dimension of play, because play is intrinsically an experience of growth, understanding, and amplification, which takes place under the aegis of freedom (Antonacci, 2012).Therefore, school, as we envisage it, sets out to be radical, poetic and utopian: it is a school in which nobody is afraid to try out something completely new, or to say or do something that might appear to be meaningless, useless or unproductive. The paper concludes with examples of educational projects implemented by the authors.
Una Scuola (A School)
This paper has been developed by two educational scientists, assistant professors at the “Riccardo Massa” Educational Human Sciences Department of Milano Bicocca University and actively engaged in research and training in the field of education.
The concept of Una Scuola (http://unascuola.blogspot.it/) stems from the authors’ professional experience, but also from their passionate conversations about how to concretely embody a potential model of school, which many good practices, in Italy and internationally, prove to be feasible, and which needs to be expanded, updated, and further developed.
Una Scuola is a school for children between the ages of 3 and 13 years, thus spanning the levels of preschool, primary and lower secondary education.
Una Scuola recognizes the roots of teaching and learning to lie in the educational models of the past. Proposing an innovative model does not mean rejecting history, but returning to it and rethinking it, in order to reaffirm its non-negotiable aspects and recover those that have been most detrimentally overlooked and abandoned.
We do not wish to innovate for the sake of innovating, but to define, in the past as in the present, the forms of the structures and relations designated for learning, as a symbolic and material space in which culture in its various forms is preserved, re-elaborated and handed on. At the same time, Una Scuola looks to the future, because it is open to change and receptive to innovation processes, understood as the means by which the world that is, may be transformed into the world that will be. We believe that it is no longer possible to ignore demands to rethink the existing, which today have become structural and need to be interpreted, not through self-contained micro-interventions, but by bringing to bear an overall re-reading of what school should be, if it is to go on fulfilling its mandate to educate and form.
In the first place, in order to facilitate the flow of thoughts, ideas and knowledge and minimize access barriers to education, school must be a shared experience. Hence, it must actively promote the participation of all its actors, both adults and children.
The central focus of such a school is on the dimensions of community and group, rather than on the individual child. Personal wellbeing is in constant dialogue with collective wellness, without prejudice to personal freedom: thus, the individual will be more focused on how to create a better world than on being satisfied or dissatisfied with his or her own educational path and development (Fielding & Moss 2011). The core emphasis of the educational offering is not on individual needs, but on how to enable a model of community that values the resources and safeguards the fragility of each of its member.
Relationships are therefore key, and the group is the dominant dimension of experience, not because there is no scope for individual enquiry, which may always be freely undertaken, but because the group is the place in which all members come together to share, analyse in depth and discuss their findings, and to share the joy of learning, with the aim of building a community. And because knowledge is, invariably, generated together with others (even when we study alone, we stand on the shoulders of the “giants” who have gone before us).
The students’ families are partners with whom to discuss the school’s guiding principles, following a dividing out of roles that leaves no room for ambiguity about respective educational responsibilities: the school’s overall cultural aims and lines of development are the outcome of broad consultation, while choosing the specific educational and teaching methods to be implemented is the task of the professional teaching staff, who assume full responsibility for this aspect of the school’s functioning. In this regard, ad hoc communication and documentation tools are used to clearly illustrate the school’s educational programmes and offerings, in keeping with its emphasis on participation, coeducation, and partnership. This documentation is intended to be an ongoing work of translation of needs and requirements, of rights in dialogue with duties, and of freedom in relation to the responsibilities of individuals and groups.
The relationship with the broader community has the aim of sustaining dialogue between internal and external forms of school, so that the school can make an impact both internally and externally. Thus, the life of the outside world enters the school, for example through a focus on work, politics, the environment and the local area, while the life of the school enters the world, so that all the subjects envolved can renew their political vocation.
Learning paths are intentionally developed around spaces, in keeping with subjects’ natural inclination to inhabit the world, and to ask questions about the contexts in which they live that are prompted by the needs they encounter and by their personal curiosity.
For this reason, a key role is attributed to learning contexts, which are the core element of teaching presenting knowledge method. These settings must be complex, intriguing, varied and imbued with passion, as well as speaking through different languages. Spaces that co-exist side by side, are complementary and functional to one another, and offer instruments chosen because useful to enquiry. Places, in other words, drive the generation of questions, their exploration, and their in-depth analysis: in places, children, adolescents and adults find situations and materials that allow them to put their own hypotheses to the test, assess their ideas, and develop theories through experimentation. They are places with similar characteristics to the world of everyday life, but differ from life in that they are always accessible and transformable, display properties of reversibility and may be returned to again and again and for as long as deemed necessary. Among the materials available in these learning spaces, we find both state-of- the art modern technologies – to be used for both research and experimentation purposes – and books, which independently of their format, represent a key part of the research experience. The opportunity to be exposed to different support materials and instruments allows individual students to identify the most useful, not only in relation to their current line of enquiry, but in relation to their preferred learning and study modes in general.
For the same reasons, rather than traditional class groups the students are organized into fluid groups, at times same-age and at times mixed-age, that is to say, without rigid and stable divisions: separating pupils into classes by age is a “laboratory” procedure that tends to standardise learning processes, whereas natural life has always taught us to help and support those younger and to observe and imitate those who are older. Furthermore, working in open groups defined around goals of enquiry allows individuals to nurture their own personal needs together with others who have similar requirements.
Likewise, timetables are fluid in the interest of promoting dynamic movement and enquiry on the part of the children, without interrupting learning processes just because the lesson-time is over and the bell has rung, along the lines of a Fordist factory.
The purpose of treating spaces, groups and times as open dimensions is to enable children and adolescents to authentically construct their own learning paths, with a view to fostering students’ personal leanings, by making it possible for all pupils to explore different areas of knowledge in a variety of non-homogeneous modes.
The school that we have in mind is open to the world, and therefore in dialogue with both the environment and the society beyond its own confines. Here, children and adolescents have the opportunity to recognize themselves as part of that Nature to which they belong: daily contact with the environment leads them to develop a respect for the world that only knowledge and familiarity can give. This contact with an outside context that spontaneously raises questions facilitates the use of an educational method that investigates the world, with its intrinsically interdisciplinary character: experience in Nature contains all languages simultaneously and allows the subject to move across different spheres in a way that is characterized by continuity rather than by sudden breaks. In addition, through Nature, the students discover that they belong to a place and to a community, leading them to exercise their natural social leanings, but also their social responsibility.
For all of these reasons, Nature is the teacher par excellence: the time spent outdoors is therefore equal in importance but also equal in amount to that spent inside the school building. That is to say, going outside is not limited to break-time or recreation, but is an opportunity for active and intentional experience, in which body and mind work together, in which the teacher can play a more secondary role, and in which children and adolescents – and adults too – find a context that naturally stimulates their intelligences and abilities.
Learning must be driven by a demand for meaning, on the part of each individual subject: teacher and student. And the quest for meaning is closely related to the exercise of freedom. However, freedom must not be understood as the unrestrained quest to satisfy our own needs: it is not a question of being free to do what we want, as in the liberal paradigm, but of being as free as possible of all prejudices, preconceived ideas and preconditioning that restricts our potential to authentically experience the world. Contact with knowledge fosters our awareness of the relations between the individual on the one hand and others, the world and things on the other, thereby increasing our possibilities of making mindful use of our freedom.
With a view to promoting the exercise of this freedom from the very beginning of subjects’ education, the teacher at the school we are dreaming of will play a more subtle role than that traditionally associated with the teacher, one of pointing out, showing and suggesting, rather than imposing, ordering and administering. Una Scuola is not the place for appealing to a coercive leadership model, but on the contrary for proposing a model of authoritative leadership, that is expressed in the teacher’s capacity to make available his or her professionalism, skills and person, adopting a relational stance based on exchange and reciprocity.
Teaching is therefore oriented towards developing students’ desire to explore (Smith, 2012; Guerra, 2013a), research and transform, without separate subjects, categorizations and disciplinary “boxes”. The aim is to build a habit of enquiry that will prompt the learners to conduct their own in-depth investigations of the world and of knowledge, through the constant experiencing of things and ideas. The construction of open research questions, which each subject is encouraged to engage with based on his or her current competences, makes Una Scuola a naturally inclusive place, in which special educational needs are the educational norm.
All of children’s experiences at school should be informed by the dimension of play, so as to engage and maintain their attention, without becoming boring or frustrating. In all spheres of experience, we become bored when the tasks are presented are too easy for us, and frustrated when they are too difficult. The theory of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) makes us mindful of the fact that it is possible to calibrate tasks so that they maximise immersive engagement, as occurs spontaneously in play, though not because play makes learning less work, but because it teaches the child to making an effort that is driven by meaning. Play is intrinsically an experience of growth, understanding, and amplification, which takes place under the aegis of freedom (Antonacci, 2012a): the commitment involved in play is freely made, because a game by definition is the “voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles” (Suits, 2005). And so it should be in educational settings also. The complexity of learning and the effort involved should be the consequence of the students’ choosing to overcome their own limits and other obstacles and impediments, because they desire knowledge to transform contexts and situations.
Therefore, school, as we envisage it, sets out to be radical, in the sense that it has no interest in presenting itself as an advocate of sugary do-goodism, or as an ostensible champion of good feelings that in reality harbours the opposite feelings at the latent level.
Therefore, it must be ready to address all possible themes. At Una Scuola it is possible to speak about anything and any topic may be an opportunity for learning and education, denoting a freedom that is the antidote to hypocrisy and fear. There is no topic that cannot be discussed with the pupils, as long as it is approached in a way that is appropriate to their current understanding of the world and of relationships: it is possible to speak about friendship but also about conflict, inclusion and exclusion, peace and war, spirituality and the body, rights and duties.
Una Scuola is an ideal place for the practice of disagreement and difference. Not through once-off projects, nor on the basis of sugary, falsely conciliatory outlooks, but in the constant daily practice of a plurality of languages, cultures, and ways of thinking that allows both commonalities and differences to emerge. This plurality is debated by the school community, in suitable contexts that are both formally programmed and facilitated on a response-to-needs basis. All opportunities for establishing dialogue with what appears to be different from ourselves are welcomed and discussed, with the aim of getting to know it. Because what we know is no longer experienced as dangerous, and fear loses its hold over us when we are free.
Our ideal school is both poetic and utopian: it is a school in which nobody is afraid to try out something completely new, or to say or do something that might appear to be meaningless, useless or unproductive. The dictatorship of the useful already dominates the world outside of school. Una Scuola must therefore be the space for the exercise of passion, enquiry for its own sake and wonder, all things that are completely useless from an instrumental viewpoint, but necessary for the lives of children, adolescents and adults.
This kind of school prompts a complete revisiting of existing educational programmes, not in terms of their contents, but in relation to teaching styles, languages to be used and transmitted, and modes of acquiring knowledge and experiencing the world and others.
It is not a question of organizing teaching around “projects”, but of viewing knowledge as an organic whole that needs to be approached from different perspectives in order to be completely understood and valued, and of viewing subject disciplines as languages that help us to grasp a specific aspect of this whole. The world may be known by those whose development is transversal: the school’s educational offerings must take this into account, by not fragmenting the knowledge into subject areas, but rather allowing students to address their learning needs in all the complexity with which they manifest themselves.
Thus, subject areas no longer correspond to hours on the timetable or set classes, but become learning contexts and keys to interpreting what one has experienced. The disciplines therefore cannot be the starting point of the knowledge acquisition process, which is naturally transversal, spanning different spheres, but will be the end point of enquiry, to the extent that, in the course of in-depth study and research, specific languages and dedicated instruments have been called for, leading the student to draw on languages and instruments that are conventionally viewed as belonging to one or another discipline.
For all of these reasons, assessment must not be viewed as a weapon, nor still less as a tool, but as a way in which people in the school relate to one another and to things, things relate to knowledge, and knowledge to meaning. Assessment is an interpretative dimension that has to do with the meaning of things, a meaning that must be continuously translated in order to be understood by the different actors in play. Both younger and older pupils should be observed, listened to, questioned and valued on an ongoing basis, with the support of appropriate instruments: the key tool in this regard is the documentation of projects and processes, based on which it is also possible to build up an assessment. But teachers too should be continuously observed and listened to, and valued via permanent instruments and opportunities: the documentation of their own work should be developed in parallel with that of their pupils’ work. Teachers should also draw on self-observation and descriptive instruments to shed light on their own way of working and continuously relate it to the performance of their pupils. Finally, provision should be made for reciprocal observation among teachers, with opportunities for group supervision. None of the actors in the school should be assessed in terms of numerical or standardized ratings, but in terms of amplified, poetic and rich descriptions (Antonacci, 2009).
Assessment should therefore become an organic system of documenting processes, discussed in relation to the learning paths of the group and individuals, using ad hoc materials that help to bring into focus both strengths and critical aspects (Guerra, 2014).
The same perspective should be brought to bear on homework, viewed as opportunities for individual and/or group work aimed at expanding on the work done at school by searching for connections between it and the student’s everyday life. Homework assignments should be respectful of non-school time, during which students and teachers must be free to leave what has been done and learnt at school to sediment and attain its full potential, because knowledge too needs time and space to mature and grow. For this reason, Una Scuola prefers to see homework as a way of focusing the student’s gaze, with the aim of maintaining a high level of observation, curiosity and the habit of asking questions, outside of and in relation to school time, rather than as additional exercises or follow-up study which should be done at school, especially when children attend school for the whole day.
A truly great school must provide space for the exercise of students’ imagination. Imagination is a fundamental cognitive faculty that is often neglected at school. It is different to fantasy, that is to say, the quest for something inexistent, original and new. Imagination means understanding, learning and relating to the world through the medium of images, that is to say, with the mediation of the symbolic language of art: poetry, theatre, film, music, dance. All the arts must become a vehicle and language of learning and not a mere ornament decorating conceptual and abstract knowledge, to value learning thanks to aesthetic experience and beauty.
The body is a place in the school; there are the bodies of things, the bodies of Nature and the bodies of the students and teachers, which continuously interact, albeit for the most part at an unconscious level. In the school that we have in mind, materiality and the body are more frequently thematised and more active, in part thanks to the opportunity to learn disciplines that integrate body and mind, such as the performing arts (music, dance, theatre, circus) or martial arts, valuable for experiencing and managing emotions, but also meditation and yoga catering for the soul and spirituality (Antonacci, 2012b ).
The body also needs to be more valued in daily school life, at all times of the day and during all educational activities, because learning is dynamic and it does not only take place when we are staying still and sitting down, but also when we are standing up, moving around, lying down or standing on our heads.
At this school, technology primarily serves as an additional intelligent language that students may avail of in the course of their enquiry and which remains in dialogue with their multiple other languages. Technology is not seen here as a panacea for the solution of educational problems, as in many futuristic models without a proper educational grounding, but as an instrument at the service of documenting and transforming contexts, languages and relationships. At the same time, it is necessary to critically and reflectively think about the problems and difficulties that the rapid and irreversible transformation brought about by technology poses in every educational context, where it has penetrated the most intimate fibres of the relationships among children, adults and adolescents.
The school that we imagine does not provide for the teaching of religion but makes room for different belief systems. Space and time should be devoted to allowing each student to cultivate his or her own spirituality, as an individual in dialogue with other individuals and with the energies that inhabit the world, as well as with the deepest parts of him or herself.
Finally, in the school that we dream of, we would like particular value to be attributed to the word memory. While on the one hand, we are very curious about and attentive to innovative processes and instruments, at the same time we wish to conserve memory, which should not be a mere container of notions, ideas or recollections, nor a technique, but a truly cognitive process. Memory is knowledge, in the first place of one’s personal history, biography and personal transformation process made up of growth, regression, flights and returns. But it is also the process of understanding the (hi)story of the community, groups, societies and the world, as well as the means by which we can make sense of our belonging to the broader pattern of social living and of learning in the contexts in which we live.
Memory is also to be exercised with passion, because it is a technique of the heart (see the French par coeur or the English by heart meaning to commit to memory) and therefore needs to be nourished in and by the heart. Thus, we believe that in Una Scuola it is urgent to recover the ancient art of mnemotechnics for training the memory. This is a lost and forgotten discipline (or almost) which is in no way mechanical or meaningless, as it draws on the rhythmic, musical and poetic world of art, through poems, nursery rhymes, songs, counting rhymes and other games.
Approaches and Strategies
Some of the approaches and strategies enriching the overall educational offering of Una Scuola have already been implemented in the context of a field research and training model developed by the authors over many years’ delivering both formal and informal training programmes.
For example, the proposed exploratory approach has been piloted in the training of educators and teachers, who are invited to individually experiment with it in educational and school settings by offering it as a mode of research based on investigation and documentation that facilitates multiple parallel lines of enquiry. The method used is based on the work of the Canadian artist Keri Smith and her “explorations of the world”, initially presented in the book How to become an explorer of the world (2008) and further developed in several later volumes. Each exploration may be described as an open question, which focuses on an element or situation to be observed and documented, and is accompanied by instructions that are specific yet open to interpretation, facilitating both a highly personal experience and an intrinsically and progressively multidisciplinary approach (Guerra, 2013a). The fact that explorations generally start out from a “material” base, that is to say, require engagement with the physical dimension of the environment being observed and described, means that they are in line with the educational method of learning by doing, which is strongly rooted in experience (ivi).
Keri Smith’s suggested approach, as implemented with our trainee educators and teachers, is to make a personalized use of the proposed explorations, in terms of choosing the order in which to conduct them and how to interpret them: each exploration represents an opportunity that may be availed of, ignored or freely reinterpreted, and that the individual can choose how and when to experience. In line with the approach of Una Scuola, inviting teachers and educators to use explorations as part of their training allows them to think of and design educational and learning experiences as opportunities that the adult makes available and offers to students’ intelligences, to be used in whatever way works best for them. This approach allows both adults and learners to experience a method that comprehends the actions of observing, making connections and documenting, with the advantage of remaining open to unexpected developments or findings and welcoming mistakes as an opportunity for discovery.
Transferring an exploratory approach to education places children in the role of researchers, of “scientists” interested in getting to know themselves, the world and things, with a curious and open gaze oriented towards learning about the mechanisms underpinning all that surrounds them. In parallel, educators and teachers enter an empirical dimension that involves paying attention to the context and to the learning subjects; the adults’ task is to follow the developments that the proposed research question facilitates in the specific children or adolescents taking part in the exploration, choosing follow up activities on the basis of what the students themselves are interested in investigating in greater depth.
This same approach has also been piloted in the context of collective explorations conducted in collaboration with May (https://www.facebook.com/MAY-250719291788173/), a cultural association of educational scientists, architects, artists and researchers that designs collective actions in public spaces, with the aim of sharing poetic acts via temporary installations co-constructed with passers-by. In this case, the aim is to promote enquiry into, and in, places ordinarily experienced by their inhabitants, facilitating the activation of a new gaze on, and therefore new knowledge of, the familiar. For example, the task, formulated in broad and open-ended terms, of mounting temporary “museums” with recycled objects and materials generates collective enquiry in the course of which influences, contaminations and relations arise among participants. In other words, it becomes an educational undertaking despite taking place albeit in a highly informal context. What is more, this type of initiative exemplifies the network of relationships that is attributed such vital importance in Una Scuola, in light of the need for an active connection between the school’s internal and external dimensions.
Unstructured and natural contexts
The role of the educational setting in stimulating learning has been observed within two further lines of training-research focused on materials and spaces, respectively.
The first concerns the use in educational and school contexts of highly unstructured and undefined materials, or, more specifically, used materials, that is to say, materials that in relation to their original purpose have reached the end of their life cycle. Special attention has been devoted to industrial waste materials in particular, i.e., materials that are generated as surplus at the end of a production process, as a result of production errors or as remnants of other products; key characteristics of these materials include the fact that they are new but yet not intended for use, and the fact that they are partial and incomplete (Guerra, 2013b). Industrial waste materials in particular are still not widely present in schools, and are still more rarely used for educational purposes. What is more, their use is difficult to control, given that they were not originally designed for educational use, but enter schools from the outside world and its contemporary everyday dimensions; the fact that it is difficult to predict the outcomes of their use, sometimes makes them unpopular with teachers. Their a functionality – which paradoxically can become polyfunctionality when children play with them – and ductility (semantic rather than physical), which means that they can accommodate the large number of different meanings that children assign to them in the course of their explorations, as well as the more total form of experience that they provide, compared to the predetermined experience of more structured or at any rate more purpose-built materials, show that open materials can stimulate multiple parallel investigations on the part of the child. Investigations that in turn are of their nature multidisciplinary, but above all highly inclusive: if materials explicitly stimulate the intelligences of the learning subjects without demanding univocal actions or response, the learners will be able to conduct their own personal investigations, with each individual free, not only to follow the line of enquiry closest to his or her interests and inclinations, but also to do so on the basis of his/her own abilities, thereby enhancing self-perceived competence and self-esteem.
The fact that these materials are equally as unfamiliar to the adults as to the children, favors “democratic participation” (Guerra, 2013b); teachers’ inexperience with such materials facilitates them in playing a less directional and intrusive role in the investigations of the learning subjects.
A similar perspective has informed another line of training-research focused on making enhanced use of natural settings and therefore of the school’s outdoor spaces.
In line with a body of studies reported in the literature, our experimentation with educational projects conducted outdoors shows that the natural environment of its nature offers children and adolescents an ideal setting for conducting broad-ranging and complex investigations that provide them with training in choosing, organizing and expressing themselves, putting themselves to the test, taking risks, experimenting and making mistakes. Spending large portions of school time in the outdoors therefore allows students to live in enquiry mode, accepting the ongoing status of the question, and at the same time to maintain a sense of freedom that is practically impossible to enjoy indoors: all of this boosts children’s motivation to learn.
The learning that takes place outdoors, what is more, spans all areas of knowledge and is often as significant as that which takes places inside, potentially without any references whatsoever to the formal curriculum. The key difference is that outdoors the curriculum comes to life, becoming more credible, authentic, at hand, intriguing and thought-provoking.
Training-research projects conducted with educators and teachers in natural settings (www.bambinienatura.it) that involved periodically spending extensive time periods engaged in outdoor activity and reflection, have also pointed up the strongly interdisciplinary nature of outdoor schooling, because the environment raises questions that cannot be separated into discrete disciplinary aspects, but reflect the complexity that characterizes the world and should characterize all knowledge.
In this context too, the role of the adult takes on new dimensions, which mainly involve accompanying, observing, and making available the most appropriate instruments for deepening the investigations underway, while drawing proportionately less on transmissive and “school-teacherish” styles of intervention (Guerra, 2015).
This kind of experience are suitable for implementing the educational approach of Una Scuola.
Una Scuola also draws on an imaginative approach, in recognition of the importance of ludic imagination (Antonacci, 2012a) in educational processes. The first step in implementing such an approach is to define imagination in the broadest sense, i.e., as the capacity to know and learn through images, that is to say, as a cognitive capacity. All too frequently, in fact, imagination is confused with one, and perhaps the most superficial, of its component abilities: phantasy.
Bringing imagination into school does not simply mean stimulating creative and fantastic abilities, but conveying the understanding that the world of images represents an infinite source of knowledge for all. In this context, images are understood as all possible imaginative elements, not just iconic, but also musical, plastic, choral and theatrical. As a cognitive act, imagination involves all of subjects’ sensory experiences – hearing, ibrant contact with all forms of art. To this end, over the years we have designed and implemented a range of ad hoc educational and training programmes for children and teachers in schools and other educational contexts.
Once a theme for educational enquiry has been identified, we offer a series of educational encounters in which works of art constitute the main instrument of mediation. Drawing on the methods of imaginal education (Mottana, 2004), these educational programmes for schools are based on direct contact with works of art, whose symbolic language allows the chosen theme to be approached in all its richness and complexity, without exhausting or simplifying it.
This kind of educational pathway is activated by directly engaging with art, which means allowing dedicated time for intense and prolonged listening to, contemplation of, participation in and consumption of the proposed works, in small groups. These works may be paintings, sculptures, films, pieces of music, videos, dance or theatre performances. Subsequently participants are invited to share what they have experienced in relating to the different works.
Each participant can freely describe what he or she has seen or heard, without drawing on technical artistic, or art history, knowledge, but giving voice to the symbolic potential of the images. One simply describes an image, so that it is the image itself that speaks. All participants are on equal footing, because they have all seen or heard the same things and are capable of describing their own sensorial experience. This is not a subjective reading, because it is the image itself, through its presence, which educates individuals. A system of rules is followed that helps the moderator to guide the group to speak without anybody straying from the task by speaking about their own feelings or stories. The participants are invited to describe the image in simple but precise terms, so as to draw out its various meanings, which are never univocal. At the same time, the moderator him/herself never describes the image, and never teaches or explains anything. It is the image that teaches, in all its poetic and symbolic potential. The group dimension of the experience is crucial because each person helps the others to see elements or meanings that they would not otherwise have noticed: this method enhances the ability to see, hear and perceive, which is initially taken for granted, but which little by little is shown to be a capacity that is in no way a given, but needs to be developed and enhanced if we are to look and listen actively and in depth. A further learning outcome is recognizing the difference between passive and active seeing and listening: participants realise how little they observe and listen in their daily lives, and how much experience they miss out on due to a superficial or rushed approach to consuming it.
After the discussion, which helps to draw out the cognitive elements of the images, participants are invited to take part in expressive and bodily activities in order to deepen and enrich the sharing of their experience, thanks to the use of non-verbal languages. At this stage, the moderator continues to adopt a non-judgemental, non-classifying approach, so as to protect and conserve the richness and complexity of the work produced. Thus imaginal knowledge acquisition can also involve corporeal and expressive dimensions through simple performative activities (drawing, mime, song, dance, etc.) that bring the body, mind, emotions and cognition into play all at once.
Imaginal programmes are suitable for addressing in depth broad and sensitive topics in educational contexts, such as corporeality, diversity, disability, mental health, food/diet/eating, our relationship with nature, anger and violence, affectivity and sexuality. All highly complex and multi-faceted themes. Approaching them through works of art, which never “deliver lectures”, but speak a symbolic language, allows participants to learn from the images, while suspending prejudices and maintaining an overall perspective on the ambivalent and contradictory aspects of the chosen theme, thus coming to appreciate its symbolic complexity.
In practice, imaginal sessions are conducted with small groups and organized around observation, listening, meditation and narrative activities; mind-body and expressive exercises; expressive reworking of the foregoing (Antonacci, 2012b).
These activities, and engaging with the symbolic language of works of art are accessible to all, given that participants are not required to possess any particular competences. In designing each educational encounter, particular care is taken in planning the introductory and concluding parts, which are based on key rituals helping participants both to recognize the limits of educational experience and to fully benefit from its transformative potential.
In these educational programmes, engaging with the work of art is presented as a magical moment, in which a mysterious and wonderful encounter takes place. Finally, once the cognitive process has been activated and stimulated, play is used to further reinforce transformation and re-elaboration of learning.
A key role is attributed to the ludic dimension (www.puerludens.it), because play provides extraordinary exposure to the different forms of experience, dynamics, relationships, and contexts, particularly in education. Play enables us to experiment, acquire knowledge, learn, change and create.
After stimulating imaginal knowledge acquisition, participants are invited to play with the images shared in the groups so as to create new relationships and dynamics capable of generating change in their behaviour and practices. This means bringing to bear ludic imagination (Antonacci, 2012a), a form of knowledge that frees resources for continuous transformation and change.
These imaginal and ludic educational pathways, as just described, give access to a poetic and symbolic form of knowledge, which is not composed of notions, but is rich in connections, sensitive and rich in emotions: it invites subjects to develop a complex and even contradictory knowledge, which however draws together the dimensions of body, mind, affect and experience.
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