A Provoking Post on Provocations

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. I am not sure exactly when I first heard the term provocation as used to describe a “Reggio-inspired” experience for children. It might have been five or six years ago. I found the use of the word troubling and I continue to struggle with it. I have resisted using it because I don’t understand its origin. In all my readings and research about the Reggio Emilia Approach I haven’t come across the term used this way. When I was working on my doctoral dissertation on emergent curriculum I wrote about the concept of provocation. I referenced Susan Fraser author of Authentic Childhood: Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom who suggested that the educators from Reggio Emilia are focused on provoking the voices of children to think more deeply or broadly about a topic (Fraser, 2000). I referred to Gandini (1998) who described provocation as something arriving by surprise. According to Fraser (2000) provocation is a means for provoking further action. In the last few years it seems to me that provocations are seen as something more concrete. When I see postings on social media about provocations, they are associated with an organized and intentional set up of materials often with a book or written prompt that asks a question such as “what do you see?” or “can you make a pattern?”. Others call this an invitation. What is the difference between an invitation and a provocation? I tried to distinguish the terms in a previous blog post because it is a question that I am often asked. I have attended three study tours to Reggio Emilia, and I did not hear the term provocation used so concretely to describe a set up. However, I did feel provoked when visiting the schools and experiencing the materials provided. During my visits, I thought deeply about the image of the child as competent, inventive, and full of ideas. I thought about the image of the teacher in a similar way – as a competent theory builder capable of prompting, proposing and provoking.

When I see photos of provocations shared on Facebook groups, I can tell that the teacher has taken the time to source out materials and artfully arrange them. But what happens during the experience? Does the teacher offer proposals and suggestions that can provoke deeper thinking? According to the dictionary definition a provocation provokes, arouses, or stimulates. Is it left to the set up to provoke or does the teacher take on this role? I propose that instead of seeing a provocation as a display for children, that teachers see themselves as “provocateurs”, one who “complicates” the child’s already complex thinking processes (New, 1998, p. 273). I worry that with so many images shared of tabletop displays labelled as “Reggio-inspired provocations” that we are perpetuating, a surface and concrete understanding rather than an abstract more complex appreciation of the complexity of teaching and learning. It is easy to do an Internet image search using the words Reggio-inspired provocation to see the preponderance of tabletop displays.

What makes these images provocations? What makes them Reggio-inspired? What does it even mean to be inspired by Reggio? For me it is about being in dialogue with the educational project that is the Reggio Emilia Approach and the principles and philosophy connected to it. I prefer not to use the word inspired because it needs to run deeper than that. I see myself as provoked by the Reggio Emilia Approach. It incites me to think deeply, to debate and discuss. When I last visited the schools of Reggio Emilia in 2018, I was listening intently for the use of the word provocation which I did not hear. I did hear the word proposal. A proposal is an act of putting forward or stating something for consideration. I am choosing to complicate what has become known as a provocation. I propose that instead of seeing the set up as a provocation to see ourselves as provocateurs. The problem with all these posts on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram showing provocations is that we can’t fully see the teacher’s role. We can’t see what happens over time. If new tabletop provocations are provided each day, something is missing. Time is needed for children to engage, experiment and express theories and ideas. Time is needed for the teacher to document and consider how to continue to provoke, arouse and stimulate. Do children need a sign with a prompt and a beautiful set up to be provoked? Are baskets of materials or shelves of blocks also enticing and stimulating to children? Are they not less limiting in terms of children’s experiences because they do not come with explicit instructions? Are they not provocations? Or are they invitations? Does it matter when it is the teacher that provokes? I am still struggling with the way that term has been used but I hope this post provokes others to help me understand the perplexing persistence of provocations. I look forward to your insights. Please offer some provoking producing comments!

19 thoughts on “A Provoking Post on Provocations

  1. To me a provocation is something that the instructor offers to the children after having observed their play over a period of time. Once the current play activity has lived out its ability to provide opportunities for growth, one should introduce materials? Questions? Information, to get the children to think further and extend their play. For example the children in my class were fascinated with stacking cups and building towers with them. Over the course of two weeks, the children became very familiar with all aspects of building with cups. Their play and interest was beginning to dwindle. In order to spark interest and keep them learning, various types of sticky tape was placed in the building center. This “provoked,” the children enough to continue and extend play activities with cups. Giving children time to explore in depth enables them to create their own learning and understanding.

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    • I agree with Maria. The way my mentors taught me is the set-up, like the pictures in the blog post, is the Invitation. The provocation is a change in the environment, usually something thoughtfully introduced such as Maria’s sticky tape, to something they have already been working on that encourages the children to expand their play.

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    • I believe a provocation is to spark an interest but without an intention, something to extend their play. To create the awe and wonder (not objective led) However, I also believe the adult plays a crucial role and needs to engage in dialogue when facilitating conversations. I enjoy reading your articles and I love a critical stance to the power of language.

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  2. Love love love this post. It for me really gets to the heart of the missing part in most our thinking, mine included. The role of the educator. The role of reflective thinking. Why we do what we do? This way of being as you suggest as “provocateurs” requires time, an understanding of children as capable and competent and a strong curiosity in how to probe, to truly listen, and to be intentionally wondering with the child. Is the provocation then what the educator does to support a deeper understanding and curiosity in the experience?

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  3. I appreciate these thoughts, Diane, and your willingness to question language and the intention and meaning held by that language as it plays out in decisions and practice. These are not things we should get complacent about. We need to continually ask about and check assumptions and clarify ideas and revisit the gap that persists between what we say and what we mean. When I first heard the word, “provocation,” though I can’t remember where anymore — I do remember the feeling it gave me. It so accurately captured the energy I wanted exchanges in school to have. I thought, “Yes! School should be full of provocation – always striving to keep us fully awake — expecting to notice things we haven’t before so we can ask new questions and imagine new possibilities.” I hope it goes without saying that is as much for the adults as it is for the children — but I’ll say it, anyway. It is. In the years since, I’ve been disappointed, sometimes, by the reaction others have to that word. I’ve learned that people who perhaps more generally don’t like to be provoked themselves, don’t like the word associated with the classroom. I’ve had people ask me, “That’s not really what you mean, right?” Similarly, I’ve had people ask me if I really mean “conflict” when I speak about the value of a “conflict-rich” environment. And the answer is, “yes.” From my perspective, “yes.” Is is my intention to provoke by using the words, “provoke” and “conflict?” Maybe. Probably. So when Tiziana Filippini and I talked about the word, “provocation.” and she said that there was no real, direct translation for that word from Italian, and that the word “proposal” was more closely aligned to what they meant by “progettazione,” I was undeterred. I realized we were likely trying to describe different things — with different meaning and intent. And so I will continue to argue for the use of the word, “provocation,” but only as it means, really, to provoke and encourage teachers to be fearlessly provocative and doggedly curious. I hope teachers will use their own imagination and curiosity to create environments and experiences that invite children to play, as they intentionally provoke all involved to think and see and wonder things they haven’t before. In this sense, teachers take responsibility to prepare aesthetically rewarding environments that engage all the senses in order to observe children at play while listening closely to what they say. It isn’t a provocation if it isn’t intended to provoke new questions, new ideas, and new possibilities for everyone. So I hope teachers will create beauty and order and ask big questions — but most of all for the purpose of provoking themselves towards an ever greater image of the child, and of their own work as researchers.

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  4. Love this! And I agree, the educators or parents role in offering these experiences is completely missing in these snap shots. You have got me thinking deeper!

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  5. I worked in an IB school for a short time and the term provocation was used to explain the ‘invitations to learn’ about a particular theme or Inquiry unit.

    Boxes of Journals, posters, topic books, models were laid out for students to encourage deeper learning. Thought provoking questions were asked but students were encouraged to ask outside the box questions and we coached them in their journey in taking it to a different level.

    I also felt I needed to do some explicit teaching or guide done of the Inquiry because you were aware of the Learning that should take place eg what is a natural phenomena.

    What was really interesting was the wide scope some of the units Inquiry were asking eg Who we are? Brainstorming these open ended questions and statements was fascinating.

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    • Thank you, Diane for yet another deep reflective piece that brings us back to the essence of what it means to be Reggio – inspired, and away from all the noise that is social media, Pinterest, and so on. I couldn’t agree with you more, and would add that being Reggio – inspired is all about deepening the children and adult’s experience within their own context. That’s what we’re trying to provoke in a way. If our curriculum is the children’s lives, then replicating invitations from others takes away from this purpose. We see only products, not the process, context, or role of the educator.

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  6. My impression of a provocation is something added to a mix of materials that children have been working with that provokes further inquiry and expression. It could be anything as long as it comes from teachers observing children’s use of the materials before the provocation was added.

    It can also be a teacher action. George Forman teaches that teacher as “troublemaker” is a provocation as well.

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  7. I have made a habit of getting to know the children thru personal one on one dialogue and finding out what they are interested in and what is important to them.
    Out of that dialogue which sometimes started to extend to other children who are listening to the conversation, came a brainstorming session on what we could do here in the classroom with materials available to us. Sometimes the process began with drawing ideas on a clipboard or making plans on how to concretely build their vision. I have witnessed great collaboration coming out of this amongst children who are freely sharing their ideas and taking turns with leading a project. Giving children more choices with material versus preplanned table set ups motivates them to expand on their own learning, driven by their interests and what they care about.
    By putting yourself in the child’s frame of mind, you can gain great insight for extending and broadening their experiences with ideas and materials.

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  8. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “provocation” as I see it used in many kindergarten classes. You have captured my feelings perfectly in your blog post. I’ve always felt that provocations were a bit too contrived and didn’t lead to open exploration, as is my understanding of the Reggio philosophy. I do understand as teachers that we want to guide our students into certain explorations in order to teach what we need to teach, but I would call these teacher prompted activities. I love your use of the the term proposal, as a sort of suggestion to explore certain materials.

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  9. Very thought provoking post Diane! I too struggle with just seeing beautiful tabletop displays and often wonder what is actually happening when children interact with them. What are the teachers doing? What are they wondering, asking (both to themselves as well as the children), how are they provoking the children to think of the materials in new ways, inviting deeper manipulation/exploration, scaffolding to the next level, etc.

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  10. I am retired now, and am seeing a range of implementations as I visit various schools in the role of consultant or friend. First of all, I’m pleased to know that many public schools are seeing themselves as “Reggio inspired.” Those lucky kids have rich experiences instead of ground-up curriculum led by a teacher all day. It’s tough for teachers to bridge the gap between authentic provocations–things that inspire children’s thinking–and something a teacher feels will bring fun or exploration into a set curriculum agenda. When I started teaching I was very lucky to be able to view many teaching frameworks. I student taught in a public school that was “British infant school inspired.” The teachers and staff from England who helped train us mentioned that Americans are very “form oriented.” They copied the structures they saw, and the materials as well, but the important features of the program were contained in the relationships between teacher and children–much harder to replicate due to the subtleties of relationship. I suspect that is what we face today as the rich pedagogy of Reggio is implemented in various places. Perhaps we need to view the adults as those who can benefit from the very perspective we are attempting to create with children and be opening ourselves as mentors to lead them into the deeper applications rather than judging. So hard to do!!! We do want the kids to get the “real thing.”

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  11. This is the challenge of social media sharing, I find. So much context is missing, and all of the pretty provokes shallow practice. I keep coming back to something Marina Mori shared during my last study tour, relevant to the use of materials and the role of the teacher. She reminded us of the importance of hanging questions in the air. How might we get better at this? And for my own work….how might I make this more transparent on the web? Is it dangerous to post and leave pretty pictures open to interpretation? I am struggling with this hard.

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  12. I love the part where you said that pinstress only shows the pictures. These images do not tel us how to pull from the children and get their ideas and thoughts and build on their knowledge by asking and prompting.

    I would much rather be sitting outside listneing to what children are saying to me and each other, like “is that bee dying?” or hearing a child hum their own melody, or watching a group build with blocks and trying to figure out why they keep falling down… we can pull so much more out from the children then the picture online. We can learn together about the life of a bee, or write music and lyrics to a melody, or research how to keep our buildings from falling down…

    I love the idea of setting up invitations based on these type of interactions, rather than me bringin in something that was my idea in the first place, or finding a photo online.

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  14. Pingback: Sparking Inquiry from Children’s Emerging Interests | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  15. I found this post ‘provocative’ in the sense that it made me rethink what is meant by a provocation. I spent a study week in Reggio Emilia in the mid 1990s and visited the Loris Malaguzzi exhibition in 2018 and every time, I learn from the deep thinking of the adults and children. There were things I questioned such as the ‘re-proposal’ of projects to children: I had heard Lilian Katz in the early 1990s describe a project, then when I visited a few years later, the same project was happening. I was told that the project was ‘re-proposed’ to the children. In 2018 I could not understand why one child’s interest in constructing something resulted in several children constructing similar objects???

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  16. Pingback: Thought Provocations: The Teacher as Provocateur | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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