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This year, we have been fortunate enough to join the Sabot Preschool faculty for their monthly conversation about The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation. Recently, we joined them in reading the chapter entitled "Is Beauty a Way of Knowing?”

The chapter’s author, Margie Cooper, suggests that the next big step in education, the element that is currently missing, is the aesthetic dimension. She argues that because we, as humans, are drawn to beauty and feel satisfied by beauty, we can use it as a tool for understanding, for expression and for connection. She quotes John Dewey:

“In order to understand [emphasis in original] the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens…The man who poked the sticks of burning wood would say he did it to make the fire burn better, but he is nonetheless fascinated by the colorful drama of change enacted before his eyes and imaginatively takes part in it.” (Dewey, 1934, p.3)

I have to admit that upon reading the article’s title I was skeptical. Beauty? A way of knowing? The future of education in this country is at a crossroads and in order to choose the right path we need more beauty?

But a quote from Vea Vecchi, atelier in the Diana Preschool, caught my attention.

“It is quite difficult to say simply what we mean by the aesthetic dimension. An attitude of empathy toward things around us, perhaps comes first, an aspiration for quality that makes you choose one work over another or one piece of music over another or the taste of one food over another. This, with other more complicated things, is an attitude of care and attention towards things. So perhaps the aesthetic dimension could be defined as the opposite of indifference or conformism and it could be defined as the opposite of the lack of participation and involvement. Thus, a conscious awareness together with the presence of the aesthetic dimension would raise the quality of learning processes…”

With these words in mind, I looked through our cache of classroom photos from this year and noticed that two students, whose names do not often appear in our conversation transcripts, have quietly been creating beauty all year long. They do not often raise their hands to speak during circle, but their creations show ‘participation and involvement’ and an ‘attitude of care and attention towards things.’

When I was able to look at the children’s work with fresh eyes, I could see that the attention to detail, color, shape, line, and symmetry all combined to create a complex representation of an experience; an understanding that did not necessarily need to be voiced.

During the second week of school, one of the children spent a considerate amount of time drawing each number on this worksheet. Erasing try after try, she was adamant that each number look exactly the way she wanted it. We could see that her desire for each number to look perfect led her to experience the worksheet in a different way than other children who had simply rushed through it.

Cooper argues that an atelier and studio thinking is necessary for an educational approach that is worthy of children. She writes,

”A biological part of our makeup is to think in a complex way. If part of that complexity is not recognized, then our ways of thinking and our learning processes will be impoverished.” (Cooper, 301)

When we, as teachers, find the time to notice and encourage beauty, we begin to create a “rich normality,” an appreciation for each moment that makes up the human experience. We model for children the time and care that our best work demands, and feel satisfied by the energy we devote to representing the complexity of our understandings.

About the Author: 

Mauren, a Sabot Preschool alumna, is excited to begin her second year at Sabot, and her first with the Kindergarten. Having received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Archaeology from the University of Virginia, Mauren has discovered a passion for teaching and is committed to making a difference in education. She is inspired by the collaboration and community among Sabot at Stony Point students, as well as among the faculty and staff.