Growth in Context, Growth in the “In-Between”

white clouds over the Italian countryside

Context matters in development, both for things seen and unseen. Regardless of geographical location, demographic characteristics, and context of upbringing, each person is allotted the same amount of time in the day; yet, some approach the day given the assumption there is so little while others assume there is so much. Reflecting on her experience as a course assistant for an NYU summer course in Florence, Italy in July 2018, Jill Gandhi — third year doctoral student in Applied Psychology and Institute of Education Sciences-funded Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Fellow — describes ways in which Italians and Americans visiting Italy treat time differently, which she suggests might have its roots in approaches to early childhood education.

As I reflect on the two weeks I spent as a course assistant for a short-term study abroad course “Parenting and Culture” in Florence, Italy, I realize that what emerges from reflection is not what I would have anticipated prior to the experience. I expected I would fondly recall the visit to the center of Reggio Emilia philosophy and the guided art museum tours. While I do reflect fondly on those, the most salient memory is of waiting for the #25 bus to ferry me between the NYU Villa Natalia and the center of Florence. I’ll remember running to catch it, flanked by other Americans who were desperate to get on the bus—given the spacing between the buses, there was no way of knowing if and when there would be another one. The students and I seemed to be the only people in Florence who were anxious about waiting for the bus, and the only people running to catch it. We huffed in outrage when the bus would routinely stop at La Pira, and watched as the bus driver would step out and leisurely eat a sandwich. Every Italian seemed calm throughout this ordeal of attempting to catch the #25, adults and children alike.  

On a free afternoon, some of the students and I took advantage of our proximity to the famous Chianti region of Tuscany and took a wine-tasting course. We all smirked at each other when the winemaker informed us that wines of this particular variety should be opened at least a half-hour prior to enjoying to allow the fullest bouquet of flavors to open up. Some of us scoffed at the notion of waiting that long between opening a bottle of wine and drinking it. Could we even notice the difference? We joked about shortcuts we’ve heard about to achieve similar results, including running a bottle of red through a blender to aerate it faster. The winemaker was right, of course. We swirled, slurped, and swished the full-bodied wine, fragrant from the time it spent sitting open, seemingly doing nothing. I ended up buying an expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar after being told that the majority of balsamic vinegars available for cheap at the grocery are inauthentic—most companies simply can’t wait for 20 years for the vinegar to naturally mature, so they mimic the final product using refined sugar.

Through the ecological systems lens in which many developmental psychologists are trained, we develop within the broader cultural context of our upbringing; the laws, routines, traditions, history, and generations before us shape the people we become. Children growing up in Florence are undeniably shaped by the spacious, rolling Tuscan countryside, the unhurried pace of mealtimes, the languid heat of the summer, and the prioritization of community and familial relationships.

Of course, these are observations for which my developmental training has prepared me. I wondered what thoughts and expectations others in the course would have about how this experience would shape and teach them—both the students and the professor. Prior to my arrival in Florence, I discussed expectations for this trip with Dr. Catherine (Cathie) Tamis-Lemonda, the professor for the course. For Cathie, this trip represented a way to formalize what she’d noticed as culturally typical for her sister and brother-in-law raising a child in Italy. She described being struck by how children in Italy would eat whatever was placed in front of them and be expected to sit alongside their families over the course of a meal lasting several hours. In contrast, she noticed how American children were offered distractions, toys, a special menu, a space apart from the adults because they couldn’t be trusted to handle the pace of adult conversation. As we discussed Cathie’s hopes for this trip, she noted that being outside one’s context, even when the place in is different only in minor ways, encourages you to take a more metacognitive approach to observations. More than anything, she hoped that teaching this course outside of her own and students’ contexts might make the principles adhere more quickly—especially her overarching theme that “context matters.”

In preparation for my role as a short-term study abroad course assistant, I took a class on the practice and pedagogy of study abroad with several other course assistants. A reading from this class focused on the concepts of stress and disequilibrium central to the traditional theoretical approaches of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget. This article argued that in order to optimize students’ learning, study abroad students needed to travel to far-flung, completely unfamiliar countries in order to maximize their learning potential and fully understand the position of the U.S. in a global context; students should avoid studying in countries with a Western tradition, lest they risk stunting their potential for personal growth.

Reading this article, I took serious issue with the premise that a student could only experience personal growth in the context of complete novelty and through extreme culture shock. Couldn’t someone immersed in their own context notice subtle shifts in behavior, and wouldn’t this shine an even brighter light on how things in their study abroad country are just slightly different? As Cathie put it, “sometimes being aware of these little nuances can make you a keener observer.” The ultimate question was, as a short-term study abroad class of New York-based teachers, social workers, and academics, would this environment shape us? Would we grow into keen observers of developmental trajectories and be perceptive to the nuances of childrearing, even though we originate from a Western culture that shares close ties with our study abroad site?

It was immediately clear that, given the two-week duration of our course, the students had their eyes wide open to what they were witnessing in Florence and were applying concepts from class to the daily life around them. On a trip to Bologna, we all fixed our attention on a toddler throwing a tantrum in the middle of the square. This little girl rolled on the ground, screamed, and tossed her limbs around, all while her caretaker sat close by and looked on placidly. Pedestrians weaved a path around her, mostly ignoring the flailing child at their feet. Eventually, the caretaker scooped her up, the crying ceased, and they went on their way. The students began to excitedly describe how this interaction might have looked different at the grocery store in the U.S. and related this to what we’d learned in class about normative development and the development of self-regulation. Moments like these, when students breathlessly reported to me or Cathie the kinds of parent and child behaviors they’d witnessed while out in town, made me realize that Italy was helping this material come to life for them.

As for myself, I also expected some kind of transformation from this trip, or some kind of inspiration from our observations, particularly the visit to the Reggio Emilia International Center. The philosophy of Reggio Emilia values the child as a strong, capable explorer of their universe. Most prominently, there are no standards to meet or explicit learning goals—adults are not expected to give the child knowledge, but the child seeks knowledge through their own investigations. Walking through the Reggio Emilia International Center, we observed the children’s artwork and delighted at the unfettered creativity in front of us. Reggio children were given an array of raw materials and found objects and were told to use what they knew from their experiences to create something, without boundaries and without instructions. Children made art with barbed wire, nails, and other objects that many American schools would feel nervous putting into 4-year-olds’ hands. The scenes and stories they described were unlike anything that I’ve seen in the boundaries of a coloring book or in the artwork of preschoolers who were explicitly told what to create in fulfillment of a learning unit. The students in the study abroad class had nothing but questions for me following this visit.

The majority of the students in the class were teachers or social workers-in-training—direct practitioners who hungered for research that could support them in work and provide solutions for problems that have seemed immutable. Over breakfast they would ask me questions like “How do I ensure that my words aren’t harming any groups of students?” In response I would list studies and the names of researchers to investigate, blatantly ignoring the essence of their questions, which were asking for tangible solutions. I grew frustrated at myself, with all my accumulated years of classroom and research experience, that I couldn’t sufficiently address these questions. Although my participation in the Institute of Education Sciences-funded Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training (IES-PIRT) program equipped me to cite interdisciplinary researchers and point to causal evidence that might begin to provide relevant recommendations, I realized that I still wasn’t there and didn’t have all the answers. I found myself eager to skip ahead to a point in my career where I could leverage the research literature and condense it into practical, clearly understandable advice.

There are moments in my doctoral student career that I wish I could speed things up and skip to the finish, almost like I’m waiting impatiently for that #25 bus to arrive so I can get to where I’m headed. What I’ve learned most from my time in Florence, is the sheer value of waiting patiently and allowing the space between to invite growth. Much as the parents we observed in Italy don’t rush their children’s development and vineyards accept the time it takes for a good bottle of balsamic vinegar, there are unseen and unforced processes occurring between stages. Like Reggio Emilia students, I have my prior experiences, and I have the raw materials I’ve been given: Courses, peers, mentors, opportunities to travel, and my own curiosity. I’ve been tasked with something fluid, to produce something without a predetermined shape. As much as I want to rush this process along, I trust that in the end, something interesting will emerge.

Jill Gandhi is an IES-PIRT fellow and 3rd year PhD student in the Developmental Psychology program in the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU Steinhardt.