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!