I can hardly believe I’m lucky enough to write this, but Carys and I are going to Reggio Emilia. Yes, the Reggio Emilia – the town the Reggio Emilia approach to education was developed.
To say I’m excited would be just a bit of an understatement.
And it kind of came about accidentally – you might recall that I was looking for places to go hiking this summer. I’d considered hiking Cinque Terre in northern Italy last year but rejected it in favor of the Dingle Way in Ireland, figuring that one day I would need a trip where I was only on-trail for a mile or two at a time.
Sadly, that time has come.
While we can still do longer hikes supported by baggage transportation, when it’s just Carys and I our distances are getting severely limited. She and five days worth of diapers and really the absolute minimum amount of clothing we can possibly bring weigh about 45lbs, and I can only carry that weight so far. (About two miles, actually.)
Cinque Terre means ‘Five Lands’ in Italian, and refers to five small towns along the Italian Riviera connected by a series of hiking trails. So I was planning this hike, 11 miles in total connecting all five villages which most people bust out in a single day, but instead we would just hike at a pace of one village per day; lingering and exploring to our hearts’ content.
Then I started learning about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education and one day I randomly decided to put the name of the town into Google Maps.
I found that Reggio Emilia is about two hours by train from Cinque Terre. Channeling my inner Chandler Bing, I thought: Could it be any more convenient?
I discovered that the organization that runs the schools, Reggio Children, invites groups of people to visit during Study Groups. Most of these are organized for delegates of certain countries (probably to reduce language difficulties, since I think most of the teaching starts out in Italian), but once a year there’s a United Nations-type study group that anyone can attend. This year that Study Group is in April; not too long before I’d already been thinking of doing our hike. I applied for and was accepted into the Study Group and adjusted our hike plans to match – so we’ll be in Reggio Emilia in a little under a month, and will spend a week in Cinque Terre after that.
I’ve been putting some thought into the things I want to learn while I’m in Italy. I figure I could just let it all wash over me but then I might actually end up coming back with more questions than have been floating unarticulated in my brain for a number of months now. So I’ve started to compile a list of questions that I’d like to try to get answered while I’m there, either by the instructors or by talking with some of the educators who are attending the sessions. I’ve been learning a lot about unschooling lately as well so some of the questions particularly focus on the intersection of that topic with a Reggio approach.
The list is a work in progress and will be added to over the next few weeks. What do you think I’m missing?
To what extent is Reggio compatible with unschooling?
Loris Malaguzzi, who founded the Reggio Emilia philosophy, said (regarding how projects are selected and undertaken): “The teachers need only to observe and listen to the children, as they continuously suggest to us what interests them, and what they would like to explore in a deeper way” (The Hundred Languages of Children p.65). The adults then support the children in making predictions and hypotheses to generate ideas and organize the work. Malaguzzi goes on: “All through the project, adults should intervene as little as possible. Instead, they should set up situations and make choices that facilitate the work of children. The adults have to continually revisit what has been happening, discuss the findings among themselves, and use what they learn to decide how and how much to enter into the action to keep the children’s motivation high” (ibid). Another pedagogista (educator), Tiziana Filippini, put it like this:
If the child has gone from point a to point b and is getting very close to c, sometimes to reach c he needs to borrow assistance from the adult at this very special moment. We feel that the teacher must be involved within the child’s exploring procedure, if the teacher wants to understand how to be the organizer and provoker of occasions…We must be able to catch the ball that the children throw us, and toss it back to them in a way that makes the children want to continue the game with us, developing, perhaps, other games as we go along. (Filippini, 1990, cited in Hundred Languages, p.151)
As I understand it, the unschooling parent wouldn’t monitor the children’s motivation or necessarily care if it dropped. If the child decided not to pursue an interest any longer then that’s their decision – if understanding a topic ever becomes a critical stepping stone to something a child wants to do, then they will be motivated to learn that topic, and it’s not a parent’s or teacher’s job to step in and try to ‘keep the children’s motivation high.’ So, to what extent can these two approaches coexist on this particular topic?
2. How critical is group work to children’s education?
Small group projects are central to the Reggio approach, and:
The teacher establishes classroom routines, furniture arrangements, emotional excitement, and small-group composition that encourage children to talk among themselves. The teacher works not to be the hub of a conversation…The teacher helps the group become both a competent audience and a set of expressive thinkers. Group dialogues are often documented and can become starting points for re-launching an exploration or starting a new experience. (Hundred Languages p.375-6)
Can a Reggio approach succeed in a homeschooling environment where the child is not completely isolated (many homeschooling groups exist in Berkeley and get together for park visits and other outings), but where she does not have the opportunity to have discussions day after day on a single topic with a small group of other children?
3. To what extent is it important that the child finds the ‘correct’ answer to a question?
Especially early-on in the exploration of a subject, there is a great deal of tolerance in the Reggio approach for ‘incorrect’ answers. For example:
In talking about what happens to the sun when it’s dark outside, the children said:
“It goes night-night.”
“It goes in its house, but it’s yellow and far away.”
“At night it goes on the earth, inside the earth, inside the sea, and the stars come out and then in the day the stars go in the sea.”
“At night, there’s the moon.”
(Hundred Languages, p.151-2)
None of these answers is “correct,” and the teacher does then provide opportunities to probe the children’s theories and knowledge, but it isn’t clear to me at what point (if at all) we expect the children to understand the “correct” answer to the question posed.
4. How much ‘leading’ of a child in achieving new knowledge is desired, acceptable, or necessary?
In Hundred Languages, Malaguzzi says:
…the Russian psychologist [Vygotsky, 1978] tells us about the advantages of the zone of proximal development, which is the distance between the levels of capacities expressed by children and their levels of potential development, attainable with the help of adults or more advanced contemporaries…we seek a situation in which the child is about to see what the adult already sees. The gap is small between what each one sees, the task of closing it appears feasible, and the child’s skills and disposition create an expectation and readiness to make the jump. In such a situation, the adult can and must lend to the children his or her judgment and knowledge. But it is a loan with a condition – namely, that the child will repay. It is useless to answer that the readiness of children is too hard to observe. It can indeed be seen! (Hundred Languages, p.58)
So the Reggio approach sees a clear role for a teacher to help the child bridge a gap in knowledge, when the child is ready. But is there a difference between readiness and a desire to bridge the gap oneself? If I’m understanding unschooling correctly, can we say that if the child really wants to understand the thing then she will seek out the teacher, and thus there is no need for the teacher to observe and act on this state of readiness?
5. To what extent can or should I be creative around Carys?
I read Penny Brownlee’s excellent booklet Magic Places a while ago (the NZ-based publisher just went out of business, possibly in part because it would have cost me $20 to buy the booklet and then shipping would have been another $20, so beg, borrow, or steal a copy if you have to), which says that parents shouldn’t show their child how to draw, because then the child will realize that the parent’s drawing is ‘good’ and theirs is ‘not good,’ and then they will only want the parent to draw for them.
Carys is making marks with crayons at the moment and isn’t yet attempting to represent anything with those marks. But I’m learning to draw, and I’m getting better than I thought I was (or could ever be!). What if she sees my drawings and thinks they’re ‘good’ and hers are ‘not good’?
A neighbor of ours is an accomplished jeweler, but she says her son has resisted experimenting in the medium – perhaps because he’s intimidated by her ‘good’ work. I knit, sew, stencil, embroider, patchwork, applique, and generally make stuff. To what extent should I surround Carys with creativity, and to what extent will it hamper her own explorations?