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 an international educator, I work with colleagues in my local and global network regularly to implement inquiry through concept-based approaches to learning and teaching. It is a journey of discovery, learning and growing our own understandings about the ways children learn.
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