Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reggio Emilia - Another Fine Italian Import Interpreted by Daniel Bigler

Daniel Bigler, previously a guest blogger here has graciously returned to explain Reggio Emilia. Daniel is a former Reggio Emilia-inspired teacher and eloquently explains more on this education modality or philosophy.

What is the Reggio Emilia philosophy?

It might be best to understand the philosophy within the context of its birthplace: Reggio Emilia, Italy. Reggio Emilia is a small region in northern Italy and after the devastation of World War II, many of its local communities and parents began to realize that the way to move beyond this violence laid within education. So among the war-torn rubble, mothers literally began to piece their communities back together by coming around their young children and building preschools for them. Loris Malaguzzi was a young journalist and educator at the time and impressed by the parents' efforts. He helped them build a system of schools that would ultimately support their different concept of how to exist within the world.

In many respects, it's hard to separate what's become known as the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education with their larger philosophy of life. If I had to try, though, it'd be characterized by these things:

* A respect for children and their capacities and curiosities

* An emergent curriculum that comes from the children and their inquiries about the world, which often manifests in in-depth project work

* A belief that children can learn through different "languages" and art mediums, and that representing and exploring learning through these is central to true understanding. Thus, at the center of every classroom is the Art Studio

* A sense of harmony and connection between the classroom and the broader community, the natural world, and others

* A letting go of time, of hurriedness and unnecessary expectations as part of an attempt to get back to the joy of learning. "Nothing without joy," as Loris Malaguzzi once said.

There's probably many other defining characteristics of the Reggio Emilia philosophy and each person I've found working in it is drawn to the philosophy for different reasons. I can only explore and share what Reggio Emilia is to me – though many others, like Lella Gandini, Louise Boyd-Cadwell, and George Forman have done a truly fantastic job at introducing Reggio Emilia's philosophy and practices to American audiences. There's a wealth of wisdom about education and "the Reggio Emilia way" in their books, if you're interested.

I understand it is more of a guiding philosophy than a methodology or set curriculum. Can you explain that?

Reggio Emilia's philosophy about education can really be summed up, I think, with this question: What is your Image of the child? Do you view children as capable, competent, strong, and wise? Do children have something to contribute to broader society? Are they able to be in charge of their own learning?

I wonder if you really have to be in the right place mentally, to work in a truly Reggio-inspired way: a conceptual place where you no longer place any "value" on education in the sense that you expect it to do certain things, and produce pre-established sets of knowledge and skills. This approach requires you to take a step back and do away with all the adult expectations of what children "should be learning" and instead just allow and encourage the children in front of you to learn what comes naturally to them. The emphasis is really shifted from the system to the child.

It's often mistakenly assumed that the Reggio Emilia philosophy requires less work of the teacher, because you don't have a curriculum; but really, it is the opposite. As a teacher, you're asked to be constantly and deeply engaged with the children you're among, and constantly reflective of where they are at mentally, emotionally, physically – fully aware of the possibilities of where their learning might go from here.

It's sort of as if you're committed philosophically to making everything up as you go along, without the past theorists and wealth of knowledge about "child development" to fall back on and get in the way of recognizing the children as they truly are. You're certainly engaged with these ideas from the broader culture, but you take nothing for granted. Instead of some checklist handed off from above or an abstract theory a guy wrote in a book once of how and what children learn, the children themselves become the benchmark for whether you're doing it right.

Reggio Emilia touches on our connection to each other, the community, the food on our plate, etc. Why is relationship and connection so important?

I'm certain some of this is simply reflective of the Reggio Emilia philosophy's Italian roots: the Italians emphasize family, simplicity, enjoyment. Their worldview is one of living life slowly and appreciating it fully, with others close to them. In that way, the way Reggio Emilia does "education" is a natural extension of how they do "life" altogether.

I don't know how much of this transfers easily (especially to America), since so much of it is worldview, but I do think there some important truths here. For instance, if we want kids to really explore an interest deeply and passionately, mindful that it's largely the process and not the content that matters most in children's cognitive development, then we have to give them ample time to do so. We have to value unstructured, unhurried days and not be bound to the clock. We have to let kids continue to play and build, even though our adult heads might say it's time to put away the blocks and sit down for lunch. Children need to be able to depend on and expect a certain continuity to their work – they have to be able to trust that they can revisit, for instance, their pretend dinosaur play or pirate ship block building the next day and the next, and not be hurried along to another thing on some curriculum list somewhere.

Likewise, if we want our children to truly know the value of human life and learn how to work and collaborate together then we have to emphasize and build *real* communities, and we have to set the structure and culture of our classroom so that everybody in it (adults and kids alike) truly rely and depend on each other, with an equal investment in the community as well as self.

In the same way, the children *have to* be connected to the broader community, woven into the fabric of the broader social life happening around them. They shouldn't be shoved aside in a child care classroom, guarded by a gatekeeper, while the adults of a community go off to work and live. Children need to be present and an active part of the life of a community – they need to be known and accepted at the local farmer's market, the park, area businesses.

This idea of fostering true community among children and integrating them into the broader community might be the biggest obstacle for American schools hoping to transplant the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Our strong individualistic tendencies and emphasis often get in the way of children truly learning to be a part of a broader classroom, community, or world. We often want our children to "develop" enough and become "educated" enough, become autonomous enough before we weave them into our society. But if we stop and think, this is a rather silly way of doing it. If we what we're after is empowered, capable, strong learners and thinkers who can go out into our society and make the world better, then we absolutely need to have them be an integral, welcomed and supported part of that world first.

I think most Italians would be appalled at our "child care" centers – aghast especially at the idea that we treat children's care as an economic good. Children have become little more than add-ons to our lives, not connected in any meaningful way to the broader cultural life and community. Until they are quality, purposeful early childhood education in America can never be fully realized.

How is the role of the teacher different in this setting?

Most education occurs within a deficit-oriented, authority-based paradigm. Teachers work to put knowledge and skills out into the classroom, making them accessible to children "at their level", so that children can become filled up with those (very culturally-bound) things. It's a future-oriented setting, always with the teachers looking onward at what children need to know next, looking for ways to impart this knowledge to them. Simply put, most education has children as passive bystanders in their own education.

In the Reggio Emilia philosophy, the opposite is the case: teachers believe that children are natural learners and inherently empowered individuals capable of incredible thinking and inquiry. The world, as Reggio-inspired teachers see it, is rich enough for children to learn from – and unless they've been taught out of it, children have a natural and insatiable curiosity for knowledge and understanding. Children are encouraged to experiment and make mistakes, to explore their own interests, The teacher's role is simply to support this, taking their cue from the child himself.

It's easy to mistake this as doing nothing, but in actuality there's a lot more work involved with this kind of teaching paradigm. One of the main new roles of the teacher is as observer and documenter: teachers listen to children's dialogue and questions, observe their play and activities, and root out their deeper passions and interests. Then in documenting their observations, teachers give themselves something to reflect on, an insight about further "provocations" and subtle changes they can offer, that might add a richer, deeper dimension to the children's exploration and activity. You slowly see the classroom's curriculum "emerge" this way, with teachers using their observation and documentation to reflexively introduce just "one more thing" to the classroom at a time – careful not to get too ahead of the children, but at the same time artfully scaffolding their experiences.

There is, of course, many other role implications to such a drastically different teaching paradigm. The teachers are collaborators with children, and don't necessarily provide them the answers, rather they encourage open-ended inquiry. At its core is this different concept of relating to children.

What is meant by the expression, The Hundred Languages of Children?

Understandably, it's not a literal expression and it's also not meant to be limiting, as "the hundred" might suggest. Instead, the expression "The Hundred Languages of Children" encapsulates the idea that children discover, learn, do, and exist in endless ways. Think of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences: it's the notion that children learn and achieve literacy about a topic through multiple ways, many different languages. The Hundred Languages is meant to communicate this open expanse of opportunity about how learning can happen.

It's also meant to engender a certain respect and acknowledge for each child as a gifted, thoughtful, and unique individual. A child may be naturally gifted at dance. Or a child might choose to sketch a drawing to express his understanding of how leaves form and maybe resemble the "skeleton bones" in our hands. The visual arts, physical movement, speech, music, hand work, dance, dramatic play... all of these can be languages of learning for children. Reggio-inspired teachers recognize this, and work with children to open these languages up to them for their use. This is why the L'Atelier – the "Art Studio" – is at the heart of any Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom. Through developing a proficiency in and meaningfully using these languages, children can – on their own, in the very truest sense of empowerment – deeply engage and explore topics, ideas, and inquiries in very real and concrete ways.

From a scientific perspective, allowing and encouraging children to explore one topic or object through a diverse variety of physical media increases and enhances the neurological connections centralized around that topic or object, deepening a child's schema of understanding about that thing. Representing and exploring things in different ways allows our brains to fully, comprehensively understand and appreciate those things in a way that simple bookwork would never allow.

How does this approach address matters of balance (academic, emotional, social, physical, etc.)?

You know, I think there's just a natural holism to the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers approach children as a whole, and I don't think that many people who work in this approach tend to think much about these matters of balancing the social, emotional, physical, cognitive domains. It simply comes rather naturally.

I sometimes think we, as adults break children's lives and experiences down too much. We narrow a child's life to such precisely defined parameters, that I wonder if we lose a part of it in the process. I don't think that the Reggio Emilia approach neglects any of these aspects of life. In fact, I think the balance is a lot richer and deeper than most educational approaches – but it's not something we spend any particular effort in doing. When you discard any adult expectations of how children should be, and view them simply as they are, it's much easier to meet children's needs.

How does the approach take sides in the debate of play-based education or early learning education in the younger years?

I don't know if the approach particularly does take sides. For its part, the Reggio Emilia philosophy is largely about culture. At its core it's a way of thinking about children, acknowledging their abilities and listening to them. There's a decent amount of mutual respect involved, but how this approach might actually "look" depends drastically on the individual community it's in and a part of.

Naturally, some classrooms may be more play and exploratory-based, while others might seem more "serious"; it simply depends on the children, the culture and experiences they bring with them, and how their interests manifest in the every-day activity of the classroom. Often this is through play, but sometimes it's through arts-based representation and exploration, project work, or other ways. As adults, we just try to let it happen, whatever it is and support it however we can. Of course as teachers we're kept incredibly busy but our roles change, from say, instructors and traffic monitors to observers, documentarians, provocateurs, and co-learners.

At the preschool I worked at – with many of our parents being working professionals – we had the children for a good portion of the day. We spent much of the morning engaged in more "focused" work, spending a lot of time in our art studio, either exploring and practicing different art media, or continuing long-term projects if we have any going on. The larger part our day has a natural, relaxed ebb and flow to it. We try to minimize transitions and group or adult-directed times during the day and children mainly work and play in small groups with their friends. The "curriculum" and activity of the classroom emerges from their own thoughts and ideas. In this way, "education" becomes a living, breathing thing, when put in the hands of the children themselves.

Is it only for younger kids?

Not at all! One of the very best (elementary) schools I've seen was a charter school in Portland, Oregon, that worked out of a Reggio-inspired philosophy. They had a preschool program, yes, but they also had grades above that – up to 5th grade, the last time I was there. It's very much a philosophy that largely transcends both age and, for that matter, culture.

The philosophy manifests itself in different ways at different ages, of course. When I was at this particular school, for instance, the 3rd and 4th graders were wrapping up these immensely impressive and elaborate projects on issues like civil rights, explored and represented through different media and experiences. They also didn't neglect the more "traditional" subjects like mathematics, although they explore them through holistic, interdisciplinary means, like integrating math with their other projects, for instance, or through kinesthetic and spatial means, like advanced architectural building with blocks.

The preschoolers, on the other end, had spent the year exploring issues of power and identity. The class had some unusually active young boys, and instead of having their unusually strong inclination toward rough-and-tumble play and pretend fighting suppressed, the teachers recognized its connection with another strong interest the children had that year – their interest in the animals that they saw at their semi-regular trips to a nearby zoo. The teachers magnificently wove both of these threads together, and, over time, these kids knew and, as unusual as it sounds, could innately sympathize with these animals on such an intimate level. Toward the end of the year, they spent several long weeks in the art studio, the children laboring intently over what would become these elaborately detailed, intricately painted paper måché masks that represented the different zoo animals. They finished them just in time for one last trip to the zoo, where the children donned their masks and truly, physically, emotionally *became* the animals on the other side of the fences. It's these transcendent moments that you only rarely get to witness that let you know there can truly be more – a lot more – to a child's education.

So the philosophy may appear differently at different ages, but it's very much for any age. If there's a central commitment to supporting children's inquiry, learning through arts- and materials-based representation and expression, and reflective, community-based teaching practices, then the Reggio philosophy can, in my mind really be taken anywhere.

How does the Reggio Emilia classroom look and feel compared to a conventional classroom?

In terms of the materials, I don't know if this is as defined as some would like to think. The philosophy can inspire any teacher or school – even those with few resources or funding – and it's really mostly the immaterial culture that stands in sharpest contrast to conventional classrooms.

I do think, though, that when teachers and adults are mindful about the environment that the children are in– "The Third Teacher," as the Reggio Emilia approach calls it, they find ways around resource limitations to imbue their environment with a certain spirit. Children learn just as much from the physical spaces and places around them, from the materials around them, so this is important. Even if a school is dirt-broke though, teachers can carefully consider what physically is allowed in their classroom, only permitting what they find to be meaningful or provocative to children's learning, in harmony with the children themselves and the spirit of the classroom as a whole. Teachers can foster attunement with the natural world by bringing in stumps, leaves, dirt, and so forth and they encourage resourcefulness and creativity by bringing in materials that are largely "blank" of their own accord in the beginning, but which allow children to project their own worlds and play onto them. In this sense, minimalism can often be a good thing – one of the best things, in fact. Children aren't distracted by the horrendously bright colors and flashy "educational" posters found in most conventional classrooms, and instead their classroom space really begins to take on, over time the simple lives and character of the children themselves.

It's this sense of harmony and attunement with the children themselves – not just some far off, distant concept of who the children are or should be – that I really can't adequately describe. It's very much a dynamic thing, changing over the years with different groups of children, and because it comes from individual children, it can never be replicated.

This harmony can in many ways be encouraged by setting a soothing, calm stage without distractions, by allowing the natural world in, placing live plants in and around the classroom, and by doing what is possible to let natural light in. This also means discouraging adult-designed or overly-specific toys or displays, and replacing the cute alphabet and weather posters with children's own artwork, carefully articulated documentation of children's learning, and photographs. Certainly, great attention is also given to the Art Studio, to make it a place of rich and diverse opportunity for exploring material languages and representing learning. There are a great many ideas and strategies that may physically set aside a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom from others. But in the end, it's the classroom's teacher who has the responsibility to mindfully this place.

This place will be different for each context, taking into account the culture, material resources at hand, and the children's lives – but we usually find that if teachers take the proper time out to think through the environment, not simply settling for the status quo out of a catalog but carefully considering the physical space in the perspective of this different philosophy of children and learning, then they end up with a classroom offering children much more meaning and spirit than a conventional classroom.

Daniel's blog can be found at

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