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Education Reggio Emilia Reggio Emilia Study Group

What’s the point of provocations?

(These lions are an immediately recognizable symbol of Reggio Emilia for anyone who has been there – apparently children both local and visiting love to climb on them because their backs are worn smooth)

Provocations: deliberate and thoughtful decisions made by the teacher to extend the ideas of the children.  Teachers provide materials, media, and general direction as needed, but the children take the ideas where they want. This allows children to develop skills of creativity, inventiveness and flexibility in thinking, planning and reflecting.  http://journeyintoearlychildhood.weebly.com/the-power-of-art.html

Provocations are common in American childcare settings that use Reggio Emilia approach; I’d venture to say that after lots of wood and wicker baskets in the classroom environment they’re probably the most-used part of the approach – although the word “provocation” actually never appears itself in The Hundred Languages of Children or in a recently released book of Loris Malaguzzi’s (the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach) speeches and writings.  The closest Hundred Languages gets is a description of teachers “leading group meetings and seeking to strike a “spark” by writing down what the children say, then reading back their comments, searching with them for insights that will motivate further questions and group activity” (Hundred Languages p.153)

I’ve used provocations to some extent myself, acknowledging that they aren’t perfect – one of the more recent ones was inspired by a length of pipe I found on the side of the road, rather than by Carys’ specific interests.

While I was in Reggio Emilia I started thinking: Who decides what provocations to put out, and why?  The pedagogistas who lectured during the study group suggested I read Jean Piaget’s work on this subject, as well as John Dewey’s, so I did so in an attempt to answer this question.


clay reggio emilia


Dewey’s approach: Learning based on the child’s interests

Dewey supports the idea of provocations that are based on the child’s interests:

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. (Mooney p.16, quoting Dewey)

Further, Dewey provides criteria that educators can use to judge whether or not an experience can be called educational:

  • It is based on the children’s interests and grows out of their existing knowledge and experience;
  • It supports the children’s development;
  • It helps the children develop new skills;
  • It adds to the children’s understanding of their world;
  • It prepares the children to live more fully. (Mooney p.26, quoting Dewey)

All well and good so far: if a provocation is based in a child’s interest and is designed to help the children to learn something about the world (rather than just being something they might find fun to do), then it is “educational.”


Piaget’s approach: Learning as a result of developmental change

Things got a bit more complicated when I started reading Piaget (which, I understand, things are wont to do when one starts reading Piaget).  Firstly, in support of provocations:

This principle (that learning occurs through the child’s activity) suggests that the teacher’s major task is to provide for the child a wide variety of potentially interesting materials on which he may act.  The teacher should not teach, but should encourage the child to learn by manipulating things.

Acceptance of the principle of active learning requires a considerable reorientation of beliefs concerning education.  Teachers (and the public at large) usually consider that the aim of education is to impart knowledge of certain types.  According to Piaget’s theory, this conception is in error for several reasons.  First, teachers can in fact impart or teach very little.  It is true that they can get the child to say certain things, but these verbalizations often indicate little in the way of real understanding.  Second, it is seldom legitimate to conceive of knowledge as a thing which can be transmitted.  Certainly the child needs to learn some facts, and these may be considered things.  But of then the child does not learn facts if the teacher transmits them; the child must discover them himself. (Ginsburg and Opper 221-2)

So manipulating things is a better way of learning than via lectures (sounds good to me).  And in support of basing provocations on the child’s interests:

Piaget’s proposition is that the child’s interest is aroused when an experience is moderately novel; the experience is not so radically novel as to be unassimilable into current cognitive structure; and it is not so familiar as to surfeit the child.   This principle is relativistic: the experience does not contain in itself any intrinsic properties of interest.  Rather, interest derives from the interaction between the state of the child’s mind and the thing to be known. (Ginsburg and Opper 223)

So provocations that slightly extend a child’s existing interest are most likely to be successful at sustaining further interest to discover more.

But here’s where things get tricky.  It seems that the crux of Piaget’s theory is that:

…development does not occur as a result of learning in the narrow sense.  Instead, true learning occurs primarily as a result of development.  That is, the child can appreciate the meaning of an external reinforcement or new experiences in general only when…his cognitive structure is sufficiently prepared to explain it.  In this sense development explains learning, and not vice versa. (Ginsburg and Opper p.176)

Piaget demonstrates his theory with a series of experiments, in which he asks children questions.  On the subject of nominal realism, Piaget first asks a child: “Having made sure that the child knows what a name is, he is asked to give his own name, and then “the name of that,” “and of that” (as various objects are pointed to)…he is next asked [this is “Question 2” referred to below] “How did names begin? How did the name of the sun begin?” (Piaget p.62)  The answers reveal the basis for Piaget’s theory:

The first question, that of defining a name, is solved from the earliest age.  Question 2 gives rise to 3 groups of answers corresponding to three stages.  During the first stage (5 to 6) children regard names as belonging to things and emanating from them.  During the second stage (7, 8) names were invented by the makers of the things – God or the first men…During the third stage, which appears about the age of 9 or 10 the child regards names as due to men of no particular identity, whilst the name is no longer identified with the idea of creation. (Piaget p.63)

Exactly what is known at what age isn’t important here, and neither is the specifics of the idea of nominal realism – Piaget goes on to set up the same approach to animism, the concept of “life,” the origin of the sun and the moon…and neither is the idea that we might ever set up a provocation about naming.  The key point is that with some variance, children seem to adhere to a roughly similar schedule at which they can make certain logical connections.  Piaget did not test this theory across children from many socioeconomic and educational backgrounds but when he did look at a few children from places other than Switzerland he did find some variation in the length of time spent in each stage (children in Paris might be found to understand how a bicycle works a year earlier than children in Switzerland) but no stages are skipped.

Which brings me to my overarching question: if children can’t be taught in any meaningful way, and if they don’t “learn” as much as their brains develop and they become able to comprehend new information, why do we set up provocations?  What do we think the child gets out of the experience?


panda infant toddler centre reggio emilia

Provocations in Reggio Emilia

In Reggio Emilia I saw video documentation in which children are presented with different colored papers and different colors and types of markers, including pencils and charcoal.  The children start drawing; some draw with white markers on white paper and thus don’t see any markings.  Some use markers on corrugated cardboard and see lines where they drew between the corrugations and dots where they drew across them.  At one point a child announces that he has drawn a wolf.  What is not clear from the video is who decided on the starting point and the ending point.  What was the aim of the provocation?  That the children learned about what colors of crayons show up on what colors of paper, an activity designed to extend their knowledge about how to represent their knowledge – which could then lead to a provocation on wolves?  Had the teacher assessed that the children were ready to extend existing knowledge about how to make marks and determined this activity as the next in a series of logical steps?  The video leaves these questions open, and it is not clear if this is a failure on the part of the documentation or of the initial provocation.

On one of the preschool tours in Reggio Emilia I observed four ~3 year-old children seated around a table, each with an artichoke in front of him or her.  Each child spent some time attempting to draw the artichoke (some appeared to be drawing flowers); at a certain point the teacher brought some slabs of clay from an adjacent table and provided some instruction in Italian (that I didn’t understand) and I assume the children began to attempt to represent the artichokes in or on their clay (they mostly seemed to be poking at the clay).  It seemed as though the entire thing had been set up in advance; the children seemed barely interested by the drawing and clearly (since the clay had been set up in advance) were not the ones who lead the shift from representing through drawing to representing through clay.  Again, what was the aim of this provocation?  There were two teachers in a class of around 18 children that day; one teacher was engaged in documenting (photographing) the examination of an artichoke with magnifying glasses by three children in a separate room.  This left the other teacher with 15 children spread between at least three different activities – so she could not have supported the drawing/clay-making children’s understanding in any greater way than she did as she had to bounce between the different tables and activities.

So why do we set up provocations?

Returning to my balls and tube provocation, I find that Piaget describes four stages of children’s beliefs regarding attributing consciousness to things:

For children in the first stage, anything that is in any way active is conscious, even if it be stationary.  In the second stage consciousness is only attributed to things that can move.  The sun and a bicycle are conscious, a table and a stone are not.  During the third stage an essential distinction is made between movement that is due to the object itself and movement that is introduced by an outside agent.  Bodies that can move of their own accord, like the sun, the wind, etc., are henceforth alone held to be conscious, while objects that receive their movement from without, like bicycles, etc., are devoid of consciousness.  Finally, in the fourth stage, consciousness is restricted to the animal world (Piaget p.173).

Piaget notes that on average the first stage lasts until the ages of six or seven, the second stage from 6-7 to 8-9, the third stage from 8-9 to 10-12, and the fourth stage “is not reached on average before the ages of 11-12, but several children of 6-7 were found to belong to it.” (Piaget p.186).  He goes on to describe children who actually regress back to a previous stage (“such contradictions are of as great interest to the analyst as they are the despair of the statistician” (!)), and posits that learning occurs in the following way:

It is usually just when an implicit conviction is about to be shattered that it is for the first time consciously affirmed…the youngest children are thus animistic, without being able to consciously justify the tendency.  But, directly the child comes up against a new hypothesis likely to unsettle it, the first time, for example, that it wonders whether a marble moves intentionally or mechanically…it probably adopts the animistic solution, for lack of a better, and by systematizing extends its meaning beyond the limits which its new and latent tendencies warrant.  Thus thought never progresses in straight lines, but, so to speak, spirally; the implicit motiveless conviction is succeeded by doubt, and the doubt by a reflective reaction, but this reflection is itself prompted by new implicit tendencies, and so on. (Piaget p.191)

So when Carys engaged with my provocation with the tube and balls, Piaget would say that if I had asked her and she had the words to be able to answer, she would have said that she believed the balls to be conscious.

Joy Pohlner, Master Teacher at Cannon Hill State School, points me toward a book that was published shortly before the April Study Group that we both attended: Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia: A selection of his writings and speeches, 1945-1993.  In it, Malaguzzi briefly explains his reservations about and criticisms of Piaget’s work:

‘What are our reservations and criticisms?  Briefly they lie with the Geneva child who is camped outside human history and society, a knower in one-directional, cumulative and linear ways, too caged in by stages of development in an inflexible order, too predictable and immune to affectivity, emotions and fantasies, too wrapped in excessive formalism; and this was also recognized by Garcia, who with Piaget was co-author of the last book which appeared after the maestro’s death. (Cagliari et al p.385)

Joy says that:

I think Malaguzzi’s image of the children as learners was one of children co-constructing as a social experience, who are not dependent on stages but provoked by rich complex interactions and environments. This is in contrast to Piaget’s solo constructor moving predictably through a linear series of stages.

This image is also supported the influence of Vygotsky on Reggio Emilia. Vygotsky thought that adults needed to be aware of the children’s thinking so they could help them to move to their next level of thinking by being provoked by interactions with peers and /or adults who were engaging at the next level.

So while the Pedagogistas in Reggio Emilia encouraged me to read Piaget on this topic, it seems that Malaguzzi himself had moved beyond Piaget’s narrow, rigid approach and embraced Vygotsky’s view that cognitive development stems from social interactions (and not solely from independent explorations in which children construct knowledge on their own).

One of Vygotsky’s key contributions to child development was the idea of the Zone of Proximal development.  Shaffer (1996) describes the example of a young child given her first jigsaw puzzle.  Alone, she is unable to solve the puzzle.  “Her father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the corner/edge pieces and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself and offers encouragement when she does so.  As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently” (cited in McLeod 2007, 2014).

In further support of Vygotsky’s idea of the ZPD:

Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which items of furniture should be placed in particular areas of a dolls house.  Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development) whilst others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget’s discovery learning).

Freund found that those who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task.  The conclusion being that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning). (cited in McLeod 2007, 2014)

The difficult part of this for me, coming from a RIE background in which we don’t show the child very much, is to ask “what is the value of showing a young child how to do a jigsaw puzzle?”  Does “improved performance” in a single session say anything about the quality of the child’s learning – in other words, would it be better to discover over multiple sessions by oneself?  Is there as much value in stacking the pieces on top of each other, or in laying them out in a row, as there is in assembling them in the way the manufacturer intended?  And if so, why do we show the child how to complete the puzzle?

I think I’m trying to get at two major issues here: firstly the idea that at some point there will be “correct” answers required to questions, and secondly that as she gets older my job may need to shift from sitting back and letting her explore things to helping her to discover things rather than letting her simply learn by trial and error.  Taking these individually:

Since a provocation should support the child’s development and add to their understanding of the world, is it my job to set up provocations that attempt to show Carys her errors in logic?  Once she is able to explain that she thinks balls are alive because they move when they go through the tube, should I attempt to correct this misunderstanding?

Secondly, If Piaget believes that she will believe that balls are alive until she is age 6-7 because her brain is not sufficiently developed to have any different understanding before then, what IS my job in setting up provocations?  Is it to encourage her to express her “incorrect” assertions about the consciousness of things that move?  What does she gain from my documentation of her incorrect assertion?  What do I do with the documentation of her incorrect assertion other than wait for signs that she might be ready to move to the next stage of understanding and encourage that when it happens?  But if she is going to inherently move to the next stage simply by virtue of her brain’s development, what does it matter whether I set up a provocation or not?  And if we think through Vygotsky’s approach and see that other children could provide “scaffolding” for Carys as she makes discoveries then we realize that those children (in a same-age classroom; mixed-age classrooms are uncommon in the U.S. – and in Reggio Emilia, I might add) are likely able to scaffold her knowledge because some adult at some time just told those children the answer.  So my child’s learning experience remains “pure” at the expense of the other children’s experiences.

Piaget says very little about the education that the children in his study have received.  Piaget worked at schools (at the very least) in Geneva and in Paris, but he does not describe any aspect of the educational system that the children attend except for the briefest of acknowledgements at the very end of his book that the children’s answers “may have been due to the teaching (religious or otherwise) the child had happened to receive from its parents or from others…” (Piaget p.350), which does seem to contradict his earlier assertion about the inevitability of the stages of development.  In his book that I read, at least, he makes no attempt to explore the interaction between what a child has “learned” or “been taught” in school or elsewhere, and his/her current beliefs.  Is it possible that children would “learn” earlier that balls are not conscious if an educator attempted to teach them this sooner?  In other words, is the failure one of the educational system for focusing on reciting the order of the planets instead of whether or not balls are conscious, rather than attributable to a child’s brain development?  There is much still to ponder here and I’d be grateful for thoughts and opinions on this.


(Acknowledgement: Piaget wrote a lot of books, and I’ve only read three that are either authored by him or describe his work.  Perhaps the answers I seek are in another one of them?  If so, I’d love to know.)


References (links are affiliate links)

Cagliarim P., M. Castagnetti, C. Giudici, C. Rinaldi, V. Vecchi, and P. Moss (Eds). (2016) Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia: A selection of his writings and speeches, 1945-1993. New York, NY, Routledge.

Edwards, C., L. Gandini, and G. Foreman (Eds). (2012).  The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Transformation (Third Edition).  Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger.

Ginsburg, H., and S. Opper. (1969). Piaget’s theory of intellectual development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

McLeod (2007, 2014). Lev Vygotsky.  Simply Psychology, available at: http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

Mooney, C.G. (2013). Theories of Childhood. St. Paul, MN, Redleaf Press.

Piaget, J. (1951, 2007). The child’s conception of the world. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield.


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  • Reply
    June 16, 2016 at 3:51 am

    Interesting Jen. Again, my brain hurts a little bit. But my overall reaction to the topic and questions you raise is that by using the REI method, you are equipping Carys with the tools she needs to make the best decisions she can about life (especially when her parents are not around to help her). In this way, she will hopefully make decisions that lead to her own health and happiness. But, it would seem to me that you could add other teaching/ learning methods as she gets older for a good mix and match which helps develop the idea that there are many ways to reach the same end (like doing a math problem — lots of ways to get to the answer). Kind of like Piaget but introducing different ways to learn to her as she gets older. Whew, hope this makes sense! Never knew people had given raining children so much thought!!

    • Reply
      June 22, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      Oh yes; lots of people have done a lot of thinking and I’m (so far) scratching the surface on what there is to know and apply. There are probably several ways to achieve similar ends although the part I’m struggling with at the moment is that I’m constantly learning new ways to support Carys’ development and it makes me wonder ‘what am I missing that I don’t know I’m missing yet?’

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