Upon a visit to Reggio Emilia, Italy
When I first learned about Reggio Emilia’s approach to learning, I was forming my research questions for my final Action Research project to conclude an M.Ed. at George Mason University. I was interested in finding a variety of ways to capture the conceptual understandings of my students who had not developed sufficient English language ability to express themselves, as they would have liked. My professor recommended that I check out the work of Loris Malaguzzi and The Hundred Languages of the Child. The deeper I delved into the resources I found about the municipality of Reggio Emilia and its approach to learning, the more I wanted to be a participant in an International Study Group. This April, I was able to attend along with one of our ECC teachers and what an inspiring experience it was for us both.
Values and Beliefs
We saw the positive impacts of the goals set by the community of Reggio Emilia back in the late 1940’s at the close of World War II; goals to build a community that created new identities and new rights for women and children. This was based on a series of choices; cultural, ethical and political in nature. These goals were intended to foster community participation and innovation in education to make the child a priority in order to build a positive, respectful community for the present and future. A new life, a new way, new values and a new community by committing to the commons, values for the common good.
As the school I’m working at is currently walking through a combined CIS/NEASC self-study, our staff is in in the process of re-evaluating our mission, vision, beliefs about learning and teaching and the roles we play as leaders and teachers. We are searching for the impacts of our endeavors, reflectively searching for evidence and pondering actions we might take. Have we achieved our mission? Are we on the road to achieving our vision? These are big questions and require a lot of thought.
This experience at Reggio Emilia enabled to me to see concretely what it looks like when a school system and the community work together to achieve their goals out of a common vision and commitment . The people of Reggio Emilia that I encountered were caring, respectful and helpful. They have a multitude of programs to reach children (0-12th), the elderly and for interaction between all age groups. Their annual municipality budget sets aside 13% for the early years programs. This community reaches out and welcomes visitors, immigrants (17%) and anyone who engages with their community.
One strong value of the Reggio Emilia educational project was to make visible the educational contexts and children’s learning inside the schools and outside in the community. Learning is visible wherever one looks in the early childhood centers and schools. The materials and partially constructed projects left accessible in the ateliers, piazzas and classrooms show the thinking and understandings that are forming. The learning panels published and posted on the walls demonstrate the pedagogy (why), the process (how) and the conceptual understandings (what) the students have developed as a result of the progezzione (project). Publications are produced annually about the projects completed and gifted to parents. Projects are shared with the community in a variety of creative ways.
Parents are welcomed into the schools to demonstrate the value of participation. They are encouraged to come into the piazza, casually drop their children and chat with teachers about life to pass along important information or ask questions. The face-to-face interactions are highly valued and emails are avoided. Parents elect leaders to work alongside the teachers to promote learning and participation within the community. They can suggest field trips and assist with projects while in process and in the publication or presentation of projects to the community.
We had the opportunity to learn about two very important projects: the rights of the child and the hospital through the lens of the child. Both projects involved the community and resulted in action that impacted the community positively. Why? The community used the children’s ideas to publish and display these rights in all the schools as well as to make them available to the public through buttons and postcards. At the hospital, the children decided to gift their thoughts to make the hospital more welcoming. These thoughts were organized and artistically displayed by the Reggio Emilia atelieristas. Now patients in the hospital can get some respite from their fears by reading the thoughts of the children, thoughts that provoke smiles.
Learner and Teacher Agency
The PYP is releasing enhancements to update their framework and align it to the current research on learning and teaching. There is a new focus on agency and the learner’s voice, choice and ownership. I’ve been pondering this as I wondered what it looked like in action as well as what shifts our staff would have to make to say we both value and empower agency.
The teachers of Reggio Emilia value the child to the extent that is agency in action; it is embedded in their practice. They listen to the voice and ideas of the child, documenting the learning process and thoughts through pictures and anecdotal notes. The documentation guides the decisions about learning. It is visible in the centers on clipboards, binders and portfolios.
Teachers are knowledgeable about childhood development; stages of development and take research seriously but do not allow that knowledge to limit their ability to personalize the education for their students. They do not categorize their students into developmental boxes. It does not become a barrier. They honor and respect the child and the fact that each child is unique. All decisions appear to stem from their values and beliefs about the child. They allow their students to develop strategies for finding knowledge and support them throughout the process within their zone of proximal development. They allow their students to spiral back to what they know naturally as they attempt to spring to a new level of development.
Teacher agency is visible through the professional development time they use to collaboratively discuss their experiences each week about the learning that is happening. They work together to overcome difficulties, challenges and find the best way to respond to the ideas and thoughts of the children as they thoughtfully steer the projects through provocations, discussions, reflections and time for experimenting. They work together to consider ways to re-launch a project that may have stalled slightly and continue extending the project to build new understandings. This belief statement resounded with me deeply, “I learn with you and you learn with me.” It is an atmosphere that does not value hierarchy but rather cooperation and collaborative reflective practice.
Creativity, Motivation and Curiosity
In this environment, creativity abounds. The walls and displays are student made. Beauty is everywhere. It is fostered and the children’s innate need to make things beautiful is honored. I never saw any child bored or acting out. The environment was relaxed, not tied to a rigid schedule, but allowing children the freedom and time to explore their curiosity. Children actively engage in projects for extended periods of time. The content is relevant and is founded in questions the children have so their interest is peeked. They investigate answers through concrete experiences with materials, field trips and experiments. Technology is a tool that is used when they find themselves unable to solve problems without it. The environment is rich with materials and places to explore the answers to their questions.
They foster creativity by pursuing creativity themselves. At Reggio Emilia, collegiality is the key to sustaining creativity. The teachers read about it, surround themselves with creative materials, attend museums and art exhibits. They discuss ideas together and allow ideas to flow uninhibited. The children are their allies in creativity and are prompted to join in the discussion.
Tips from Reggio Emilia:
Dreams and Goals
Now that I have had this experience, I am pondering ways to share my experience with my colleagues; an experience that left me profoundly impacted. I consider the ways we as a team can change the way we see our roles to minimize the hierarchy and increase the amount of collaboration for the benefit of all stakeholders. I’m excited about the shifts in the PYP and can now visualize learner agency (students and teachers). Together we can explore more deeply what that means for our students, parents and to each of us personally. We can reimagine learning and work to increase participation of all – our students, our parents, our teachers, our support staff and our leadership team.
I wish to experience that value and idea of professional development….”I grow with you and you grow with me.” and I look forward to exploring ways to make my beliefs about the child visible to our community alongside my colleagues.
As a concept-based inquiry teacher, I am fascinated with ways in which we can guide students to use their critical thinking skills to find the big idea or produce their own unique generalizations to express understandings about the unit of inquiry. While working with grade 5, I explored the use two different tools to draw out those understandings. I wanted to know if they could produce a generalization that extended the central idea since they had already been exposed to it. Secondly, I wanted to know if they could generate a generalization about the transdisciplinary theme, How We Express Ourselves.
To address my first goal of extending the central idea, I gave each student a concept wheel (see figure 1). Because this was their first experience with this tool, I guided them through each step. Together we decided on the concepts we had learned about and used those as our categories around the concept wheel. I observed the students thoughtfully engaging with the engagement which meant we had reached that synergism of thought connected to the 3D curriculum (see figure 2). They were able to write a variety of statements, demonstrating both conceptual understandings and knowledge gleaned from our inquiry around the question posed in the center of the wheel. I then asked them to write a big idea using the concept wheel as a starting point. This was too difficult and I got a lot of thoughtfully confused looks. So, I wrote the central idea on the board:
People express ideas, emotions and reflect social issues through their art.
But I challenged them to extend it. I asked them the questions, why and so what? This resulted in some nice generalizations but it would have been better if they had never seen the central idea in the first place. I would like to try it again without the central idea on the wall and see if we come close as a class to writing the intended understanding. I will repeat this exercise with grade 5 at the end of this upcoming unit to see if there is a difference.
The following day, we thought about our transdisciplinary theme and how it related to each student personally. I developed a tool with questions drawn from our central idea and lines of inquiry with our TD theme at the center (see figure 3). This was also the first time I tried to draw out their new understandings of the TD theme. I am still in the process of developing my own understandings about the best way in which to do this. I realized some of my questions were difficult to answer for some of my students. I realized it is important to continue to develop metacognitive thinking skills in order to learn and know more about themselves. so not all of my students were using enough reflective or metacognitive thinking to be able to interact with the graphic organizer. It will be a skill that I would have to continue to build with them.
What is my take away? I see that learning to use these types of tools and becoming a CBCI teacher is a learning curve that takes practice. Each time will get better and as I learn to scaffold the thinking better, the results will get better. It also means more collaboration with other teachers pursuing the same approaches to learning. Discussing our attempts, reflecting together and finding ways to improve together is much better than trying alone. I encourage you to make connections with others who are also working to improve their skills and understandings about CBCI.
"The Big Idea," Global Women Network, Eva Smith, 2014.
Erickson, L, Lanning, L. and French, R. (2017). Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom, 2nd ed. Corwin: Thousand Oaks.
During our staff orientation, we decided to look at building a common understanding about teaching and learning through the question of why. This approach to analyzing our beliefs, our school's belief and the International Baccalaureate's (IB) beliefs enabled us to write common belief statements and became a part of our staff essential agreement. Simon Sinek's idea of changing the order of thew way we sell things from the what we do to the why we do what we do is far more sellable (2011). This approach to building a common understanding strongly appealed to me for several reasons. When we, as educators, agree to work at a school, in essence we are agreeing to promote the mission of that school. In addition, when that school is IB PYP, there is an additional agreement to consider and that is the mission and vision of the IB. Finally, every educator has his/her own philosophy of education which is a strong influence on pedagogical decisions about teaching and learning. I saw this approach as the means of bringing the three ideas together.
We began this journey by using a Venn Diagram with three circles to collaboratively analyze the following:
MEF IS beliefs
IB PYP beliefs
The step was for the staff to discuss their personal beliefs about teaching and learning together in collaborative groups. These beliefs were recorded on the circle for personal beliefs. Then I asked them to read the MEF International School mission statement and vision to identify the beliefs of our organization. Afterwards, everyone read the mission statement of the IB. When all the beliefs were identified, I asked them to begin to find the common themes and write those in the center. From those ideas in the center, I asked them to write one big idea statement. These belief statements were recorded and posted in the center of our concentric circle under 'why.'
Throughout the remainder of our orientation we reviewed the school's expectations about teaching and learning, policies and procedures as well as the nitty gritty of teaching. Details about 'how' and 'what' were slowly added by the staff as an exit ticket each day. Below you can see how our draft appeared at the orientation as well as the Venn Diagrams. It was a worthwhile process from which we were able to create a printed version for everyone to post in their classrooms as a reminder of what we believe about teaching and learning as a staff. It strengthened our commitment to implement both the school and IB mission statements.
Sinek, S. [Tedx Talks]. (2011, April 6). First why and then trust [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VdO7LuoBzM
Tunguz, T. (2015, July 13) When selling, start with the why [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-selling-start-why-tomasz-tunguz/
As an international educator, I work with colleagues in my local and global network regularly to implement concept-based inquiry. It is a journey of discovery, learning and growing our own understandings about the ways children learn.
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