I am part of a group of educators in the Vancouver School Board, considering various inquiries about aspects of Reggio Emilia inspired practice. We came together with other like-minded educators in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to participate in a school visit to Opal School in Portland, Oregon during our Spring 2018 vacation. Ninety British Columbia teachers converged on the Portland Museum where this model of Reggio inspired educational practice is housed. We had three days of intensive presentation, observation, engagement, reflection and discussion. In trying to make sense of the myriad of perceptions and information, I sought out books. Fortunately, Portland is also home to my new favourite place – Powell Books. This bookstore of all bookstores, takes up an entire city block, has new and used titles and is staffed with knowledgeable readers. I found what I needed for the learning to continue.
Reggio Emelia Classrooms started in Northern Italy just after World War II in an effort by educators, parents and the municipal government to “produce a reintegrated child, capable of constructing his or her own powers of thinking through the synthesis of all the expressive, communicative and expressive languages.” (C. Edwards, L. Gandina, G.E. Foreman, eds. 1993, p.305). Essentially people came together in the belief that providing rich experiences grounded in basic human rights for children from 0-6 years old was the best strategy to prevent another emergence of fascism. Building connections and respectful relationships between child, parent, teacher and the community was a foundational premise. Although it is widely accepted that it is not possible to transport educational ideas intact from one culture to a totally different context, there are ways to implement certain principles and ideas inspired by the Reggio experience.
Loris Malaguzzi, the father of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education, developed a metaphor that is very instructive in understanding the Reggio approach. His premise is that the relationship between the teacher and the student is much like throwing a ball, or as Vygotsky framed it, providing “scaffolds” to support young learners. The teacher must be able to listen and catch the ball thrown by the child, then toss it back in a way to extend the learning and maintain the motivation of the child to continue the game, aka for the child to continue to ask and answer the questions he or she cares about.
An exhibit toured the United States in 1987 called “The Hundred Languages of Children” that provided the context and the educational process of the Reggio Emilia schools with a display and explanation of photographs, samples of children’s paintings, drawings, collage, constructive structures and explanatory scripts and panels. In 1996, editors Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman brought together a collection of essays and perspectives by influential thinkers and educators in what has become “a bible” of Reggio Emilia thought in a must-read book called The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education. The “hundred languages of children” refers to the multiple ways that young children grapple with their questions and create meaning, including drawing with various media (crayons, coloured pencils, pastels, charcoals, sticks…) on various surfaces (paper, glass, sand…), painting, plasticine, clay, murals, photographs, plays, skits, water, mud, wood, mirrors, light table and … , as well as with oral language. As Malaguzzi emphasizes “(t)he wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences” (p. 73). Malaguzzi likened setting up the atelier, or space, for stimulating and meaningful centres of activity, to the setting up of ‘market stalls” where customers look for the wares that interest them, make selections and use them for their own purposes. With familiarity exploring the materials, comes the possibility of them being used as a tool for communication.
In Reggio Emilia schools, students are encouraged to ask questions and set up investigations or projects to find answers. “(T)he actual theme or content of the project is not as important as the process of children thinking, feeling, working, and progressing together with others.” (p 194) However there are some general guidelines and principles in Reggio project work (p.210)
- Groups of 5 or less activate the most intense learning and exchange of ideas
- Establish and maintain reciprocity / a sense of “WE”
- Graphic and verbal exploration
- Teachers work collaboratively to develop the project questions, comments and interests of the children involved
- Ample time for students to come up with their own questions and their own solutions
- Bring the knowledge and experience of the small group back to the other children and adults in the school.
The educators at Reggio Emilia schools invest heavily in documenting student work. This documentation may include recordings, observations, transcriptions of children’s dialogue and photographs of key moments. One of the purposes is to reflect back the learning process back to young children to help develop their meta-cognitive thinking. In addition, the “systematic documentation allows each teacher to become the producer of research, that is someone who generates new ideas about curriculum and learning, rather than being merely a “consumer of certainty and tradition.” (p. 157) Regular meeting and discussions happen between teachers to assist in selecting documentation for display to parents, program planning and problem solving. Intellectual conflict is valued and understood as the engine of all growth in Reggio for both teachers and students. “Children’s work (drawings, verbal transcripts, symbol making) is incorporated into the classrooms and school hallways by means of large and dramatic displays, and reflects the serious attention adults pay to children’s ideas and activities.” (Lillian Katz, 1990, p.217)
Reggio Inspired Opal School is both a private pre-school with two classrooms and publicly funded Kindergarten to Grade 5 Charter School with four classrooms. It represents an “ecosystem” or a Reggio inspired approach to learning based on the core belief that each child is capable, competent, creative, and filled with skills we need in the world. There was a very respectful way in which adults talked and interacted with students. They took the time to slow down the interaction with the purpose of trying to understand the child’s perspective and helping the child to ask the questions and come up with a plan to understand.
The school has a long wait list and entrance is determined by a lottery. It is extremely well funded and provides students with a wide range of materials to express their learning and many large professionally prepared samples of documentation. We were invited to be observers or listeners in the “ecosystem” and to look for examples of playful inquiry in the four K- Grade 5 classrooms, as well as adopt a willingness to be transformed. Popsicle sticks at the door controlled the number of observers in the room to keep disruption of the learning environment to a minimum.
The day started with a Morning Meeting time. Project work was introduced with a provocation, a stimulating event, question or activity to motivate students to consider the topic. Explore time or project work provided the opportunities for collaboration. Students generally worked in small groups exploring a topic while one of the two teachers was transcribing discourse on a laptop computer. There is no library, cafeteria or gym in the museum so the classrooms, playground and museum grounds need to fulfill these purposes.
All of the activity in the school has a learning intention to guide attention. “Intention setting keeps educators from getting too far ahead or falling behind the students” according to Opal School staff (March 2018). Learning in not theme based. The emphasis is on learning to learn, developing empathy and agency rather than learning content about the topic. It is a particularly strong model for developing project based learning with a proclivity to action. Students are encouraged to explore big questions that will motivate learning over time. Topics included:
- Impact of plastic water bottles on the environment
- Refugee Crisis
- Culture of Hate
- March Against Guns in Schools
- Contributing to the Vietnam exhibit in the Museum about Tet
Reggio Emilia Inspiration for Schools in British Columbia:
Although Reggio programs were designed for children from birth to 6 years, many of the principles holds true for older school aged students to be nurtured in the same supportive context by educators, parents and community partners. Many educators have embraced many of the principles and philosophies of Reggio Emilia Schools and they can be found in the New Curriculum in British Columbia. Yet, there are other aspects to consider as well.
- Student Centered Learning: I love the quote by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the program in Reggio Emilia: ” We wanted to recognize the right of each child to be a protagonist and the need to sustain each child’s spontaneous curiosity at a high level”. (p. 45) Viewing the child as competent and capable of learning is a large step away from the notion of the child as a “tabula rasa” or empty vessel.
- Inquiry: We can develop schools that encourage students to ask complex questions, plan investigations, and believe in themselves as capable and competent learners, even when faced with cognitive dis-equalibrium.
- Acknowledging the Role of Conflict: Reggio philosophy acknowledges the role of conflict in coming up with the best solutions. Students are encouraged to disagree, debate and problem solve independently. Teacher discussion is much the same with problem solving involving listening to all of the viewpoints presented. Deference to authority has not had any place in Reggio philosophy due to the WWII experience. I believe students and educators would benefit from more rigorous debate, lively exchange of ideas and problem solving opportunities. Decisions should be based on clear thinking not alliances.
- Learning Intentions: As we are dealing with school aged children, there is a curriculum that we as educators are responsible for covering with our students. Using provocations to engage students in a topic and teaching students to set a learning intention has benefits to both motivation to learn, making connections and considering a direction to pursue.
- Multiple ways to explore questions and communicate learning: In many ways our curriculum in British Columbia is doing just that. Inquiry is encouraged but the variety of ways to communicate not yet fully understood. An atelier (studio / lab) for exploration may not be a reality in schools in British Columbia, but the exposure and ability to explore questions using a variety of media is possible. In many of our schools, the accessibility of parks, beaches, forests and farm land provide access to materials not often readily available in urban settings. That being said, the funding to allow exploration of a wide range of artistic expressions would open up amazing possibilities.
- Communicating Student Learning: I believe the new ways of reporting to parents is continuing to be a positive development in nurturing relationship with students, parents, educators and community partners. Reporting from teachers continues to be important but one avenue of communicating student learning to parents. Mandatory student led conferences indicate the importance of student voice in learning. Parents are also frequently invited into informal events which allow them to gain greater insight into the learning process of their child. Large displays which documents student learning in diverse ways and sharing project outcomes and actions also brings a better understanding of the role of play and inquiry in the learning process.
- Documentation to develop Meta-cognitive Skills: Teachers currently use a variety of means to document student learning. However the documentation is frequently used for assessment purposes. There would be real benefit in putting a greater emphasis on using documentation as a tool to help students develop their metacognitive thinking skills.
- Professional Development: As John Dewey put it, educators are called to adopt a stance of “learning to learn”. Educators are involved in daily conducting of systematic research on daily classroom work for professional development, curriculum planning and teacher development. The obvious benefits of this process make it very worthwhile to facilitate common prep times in schools to allow teachers to meet for these purposes.
- Designing schools to facilitate collaboration: In Italy, there is high value placed on art and aesthetics. Historically, designing public spaces includes not only the aesthetic but the priority of facilitating social interaction. Our schools need to be designed or transformed into spaces and places to invite collaboration and indicate that we put high value on the education of our students.
- Creating Mutually Beneficial Community Partnerships: Creating the Opal School in the Portland Museum opens up a range of options to consider. Young Opal students were able to contribute to the curated Museum display teaching about the Tet celebration in Vietnam. What a powerful way to demonstrate the power of the inquiry project to the students, parents, community partners and the public. No wonder there is such a long waiting list to attend.