Reggio Emilia Revisited

More than a decade ago I was invited by the director of my son’s awesome preschool in Santa Monica, Evergreen Community School, to join her on a trip to Reggio Emilia in Italy.  Years later I am thrilled to hear a buzz about Reggio Emilia half way around the world in our school in Hong Kong.  Recently I found a copy of the speech I gave at a parent night after our trip to Italy that describes some key elements of the philosophy and approach to learning.  In case you’re curious what it’s all about, here’s an excerpt from that speech. If your kids are older than 6, this probably won’t be directly relevant, as this is designed specifically for the early years.      

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I have a quick list of five jewels I picked up in Italy that have changed my perspective in some way that I want to share with you.  Before I get into the list, let me set the scene and tell you a little about Reggio and what’s going on there.

Reggio Emilia is a town in northern Italy famous for Parmesan cheese, proscuto, balsamic vinegar, Ferraris and Pavarotti (did I mention we saw Pavarotti in concert?…).  The town of Reggio has about 140,000 people.  Within the town there are 21 preschools and 13 infant/toddler centers supported and run by the Municipality of the town.  These specialized “Reggio Schools” grew from the period of liberation after the Second World War.  As a reaction to fascism and in a push to develop a growing women’s movement in the region, community members, spearheaded by women and an enlightened leader, Loris Malaguzzi, began to fight for the rights of children, the most fundamental of which, they believed, is the universal right to quality education, without exception.  What has grown out of that struggle is a community with a deeply rooted commitment to children, education, research and experimentation that takes early childhood education more seriously that I could ever have imagined possible. 

Here are five key aspects of Reggio Emilia:

  1. Rights of the Child – The first thing that struck me as being highly-developed in the Reggio formula for education is the ultimate belief in the fundamental rights of children and the way that this is demonstrated in the classroom on a daily basis.  A commitment to the rights of children does not mean that children have the right to do whatever they want at any time, to run amok around the schoolyard without purpose, or treat others in a disrespectful manner.  Rather, it’s a more subtle understanding and commitment to the idea that every child has something of value to share and should have the opportunity to develop his or her own potential, whatever that might be.  Teachers in Reggio Emilia believe that when children are respected and made to understand that differences are ad judicable and can be negotiated in a way that recognizes and respects the independence of other children, they are more likely to develop their own understanding of compassion and empathy.   But the most important point is that the process of this justice is the key, not the outcome.  Process is where teachers choose to focus their attention.  Not on which child is “right” or which child had the toy first, but on how the children can work together to come up with a solution.  Ultimately, this emphasis on process and respect for children as people with independent beliefs and ideals best cultivates human intelligence and compassion, those things that are most essential in a successful community.  
  1. Pedagogy of Listening – The second concept that is a core of the Reggio philosophy is what they call the “pedagogy of listening”.  This was not an easy concept for me to grasp as, even the word “pedagogy” doesn’t translate well from Italian.  After two days of trying to figure out, intellectually, what they were talking about, I had to ultimately give in to a more intuitive sense of the word.  A wonderful speaker, Carla Rinaldi, helped to express this idea in a more philosophical way.  She said, “To understand is to be able to develop an interpretive theory that gives meaning to the events and phenomenon of the world.  We’re all builders of theories, including our 3 year olds.  We’re born with a “why” in our mind.  In fact, she points out, even “Our first cry is a why”.  She says you can’t live without theory because you can’t live without meaning.    As we observe with our own kids, Children constantly ask “why” as they continuously construct and reinvent their ideas and understanding of the world.  Rather than a burden, this curiousness should be nurtured and celebrated.  Our role as educators and parents is to continually ask ourselves, “What kind of human beings are we trying to help create?”    Listening is the key to this, and I think as you look around the classroom you will see that teachers focus their attention on listening to what kids say.  They transcribe conversations, repeat statements to other kids to bring them into the discussion, they take video so they can review the conversations again and again and, most importantly, they make eye contact, interact and engage the kids.  Listening, when done right is an active, reciprocal act.  This is a lesson we could all probably use a little refresher course in.  It’s a real skill to listen to people, but you know how good it feels when you know you’ve actually been heard.  Think of the confidence boost this gives to the children.   
  1. Role of the teachers – This leads directly to the third idea, and that is the role of the teachers in the classroom.  Unlike traditional educators, teachers in RE see themselves as equal partners with the children in their discovery of the world rather than as their leaders.  Teachers are not there to impart information to the children, rather, their role is to help the children develop their own theories of the world.  This is not lip service.  The teachers really do believe that children have as much to teach as they do provided they really take the time to listen and understand what the kids are saying.  Their goal is to respect the child’s ideas and to help him develop it, not to give answers. This can be a difficult concept in practice.  It’s much easier to just give an answer to a question than to spend time helping kids find their own solution.   But by stepping back and letting them discover things for themselves, they gain a greater sense of accomplishment and an approach to learning that will serve them the rest of their lives.  The Reggio Emilia philosophy does not take problems away from the children but instead attempts to help children deal with them imaginatively and directly.  By creating an environment of support and encouragement, the teachers give the kids a comfort zone to try out ideals without negative consequences like bad test scores or shame.  Consider this.  The more consequential a situation is, the narrower learning will be.  As one expands and makes learning less consequential, broader learning can happen.   If a child does not feel threatened or as though so much is at stake, they will be more willing to take a chance and maybe be wrong.  Teachers help facilitate the formation of groups and to make connections between the children. 
  1. Role of documentation – The fourth thing that was made clearer for me was the role of documentation in the classroom.  I had seen all the storyboards and books of information related to children’s activities around the school, but I never really fully grasped the significance of those, beyond decoration of the classroom and reassurance for the parents.  What I learned in Reggio is that documentation is a tool used to really listen to children.  By documenting what the kids are doing the teachers are making the children’s work visible and also giving it value.  But documentation alone is not enough.  Our teachers don’t just record what they see, they review it several times, argue about it, work hard to understand the underlying principals and theories our kids are developing and then put together the story boards that succinctly tell the story for our benefit and, more importantly, for the benefit of our kids.  Through observation and interpretation, the documentation process enables the teacher an opportunity to re-listen, re-visit, re-see, (alone or with others) events and processes in which she was protagonist either directly or indirectly.  For children, documentation offers the opportunity for reflection, self-assessment, social assessment and remembering in the learning process.  And, it gives parents the opportunity to better understand not only what their child is doing in school, but also what underlying concepts their child is exploring.   
  1. Role of Parents –  The final point into which I can shed a little insight is the role of parents in this process.  I have to say that our kids are in such good hands it seems there’s not much left that we have to do.  In fact, parents play a significant role in continuing at home the community building efforts ongoing through the work the teachers start in the classroom.  I’d send you with these brief ideas to try to implement in your own home:
    1. Don’t give your kids the answers.  Let them draw their own conclusions.
    2. Be an equal partner with your kid on the learning path.  Recognize that your kids have their own theories about the world and see what you can learn from them.
    3. Instead of asking your kids what they did at school that day, try asking what other kids in their class did.
    4. Get involved with the school, even if it just means being aware of your child’s surroundings.  Find out why the dress-up corner is located right next to the kitchen.  Ask questions, read the documentation and participate to the extent your schedule allows.

 

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