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Education Reggio Emilia

Notes from a Study Group in Reggio Emilia

Regular readers may recall that Carys and I recently returned from two weeks in Italy; one week backpacking in Cinque Terre and the other on a Study Group in Reggio Emilia.  I had been planning to hike Cinque Terre at some point during the year (opportunities for self-supported hikes with very short mileage are in somewhat short supply) and around the same time I was learning more about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.  One day I thought to myself: “Cinque Terre is in Italy.  Reggio Emilia is in Italy.  I wonder how close they are?”  Turns out they are about two hours apart by train.  And there was an “anyone can go” Study Group in Reggio Emilia scheduled for April (most study groups are geared toward people from a specific – not always English-speaking – country), and I wanted to hike in the shoulder season to avoid the crowds.  I’m not sure there could have been a better opportunity to combine two things I was so interested in doing!

I can’t tell you how big was the sense of anticipation when we got off the train in Reggio Emilia after a somewhat difficult journey from Florence. (I stopped by the fast train counter to buy a ticket, not realizing it was the fast train counter, only to be told the trains were all full until much later that night.  I trailed over to the bus station – only a block away, but down a flight of stairs with a 60lb duffel bag and a sleeping toddler in the backpack – to find there weren’t any buses for the next two days.  Back to the train station, and I realized that there’s a second ticket counter for slow trains, which were by no means full…)  I definitely had the sense that I was coming to a place where amazing things have happened in children’s education, and while I was excited I was also a little nervous that I wouldn’t do any more than scratch the surface in terms of my observations and thinking about the approach.

It was a little odd to be one of three non-teachers in the Study Group, and the other two women I met who were there in their capacity as parents were actually teachers as well…an Israeli who actually had a good option for a democratic school but needed to figure out the intervening preschool years (the opposite of my problem!), and a Montessori teacher from London to whom I was introduced at the very end of the conference and we never got a chance to talk in-depth (Heema, if you’re reading – please get in touch!).  Everyone was very welcoming, but the majority of conversations began with “So, where do you teach?” and most people were pretty surprised to hear that I don’t.  Of course, this created all the more learning opportunities for me – with a 90 minute lunch break each day the Study Group was clearly designed so we could spend time getting to know each other as well as just attend the lectures and visit the schools, so when I met someone new I would always try to find out what was their area of expertise and how they might be able to shed some light on the issues I’ve been pondering.

I went into the Study Group with a list of questions, and of course learned a lot more besides most of the answers to these.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the best way to share all of this with you, and ultimately decided on a series of posts that group ideas in a logical (to me, at least!) way, rather than attempting a chronological recollection or just answering the questions I posed before I left in one post and lumping “everything else” into another.

So I want to start with this post giving an overview not so much of what is the Reggio approach, which has been well described elsewhere (e.g. here and here), but of some of the theory behind it and why I came away from the town more convinced than ever that some version of it is what we want to use for Carys’ “education.”

Reggio Emilia Piazza

A Foundation in Respect

The idea that struck me the most from the early part of the conference was the emphasis on respect for the child which, of course, fits like a hand in a glove with our existing respectful Resources for Infant Educarers approach to parenting.  Three guest speakers spoke to us early on in the Study Group:

  • Luca Vecchi, the town’s mayor opened the conference
  • Carla Rinaldi, Pedagogista (Pedagogical Coordinator) and President of Reggio Children (the international center with a goal of promoting the study of the philosophy of Reggio Emilia)
  • Peter Moss, Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the University of London

All three emphasized the importance of respect for all people, but especially for children.  Luca Vecchi talked about putting people at the center of politics and policy, and said he believes that one “can’t have ideas about the first people [the adults] in the community without having ideas about the rights of the last people [the children].”  Carla Rinaldi built on this by explaining that in Reggio Emilia the infant-toddler centers “recognize the rights not of citizens of the future, but of citizens of today.”  So while other communities see children as people who don’t really have a voice yet, in Reggio Emilia they are full-fledged citizens from the earliest age.  We already recognize Carys as a citizen in our house who has a right to have her voice heard.  That’s not to say that we never say “no” to her, because we do – but we hear her opinions and we respect them and we don’t say “no” to them without considering them first.

Peter Moss brought up the idea of “the image of the child,” which was repeated in several contexts throughout the Study Group.  Moss quoted Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio approach to early childhood education: “a declaration [about the image of the child] is…the necessary premise for any pedagogical theory, and any pedagogical project.”  In other words, if you want to teach children or think about teaching children, you have to have an idea in mind about what you think children are like, and how you think they learn.  It seems to me that the image of the child in a traditional educational system is one of a passive recipient of knowledge, where the teacher knows what needs to be known and the child opens his mind to receive that knowledge.  To make sure all the children are learning the same things (and the “right” things) they are tested on a regular basis and compared with all the other children,  under the assumption that different children learn at the same rate and are thus easily comparable.

By contrast, Moss says that Malaguzzi saw a child as a person with “unlimited and unknowable potential,” and that a top-down educational approach based on making sure all children know the same things is a “humiliation of children’s intelligence and potential.”

It seems fairly obvious to me that nobody knows everything, and a bit hubristic that anyone can tell anyone else what they should know to ensure their success in the world two decades from now.  I could probably calculate (but haven’t) the number of hours I spent in school memorizing facts that I’ve never used.  But I quite clearly remember the moment I discovered critical thinking – and it came late.  I did a Psychology A-Level (a level of classes between high school and university), which basically consisted of spending each class reading the teacher’s handwritten notes and highlighting the parts we most needed to be able to recite in exam essays.  We were reading some theory about behaviorists and I said “Wait, isn’t this the exact opposite from what you told us yesterday about what Freud thinks?”  The teacher said “Yes – that was one way of thinking about how the brain works, and this is another.”  It was the first time I’d realized that I could make new connections and form my own opinions by questioning what I read, rather than simply regurgitating it.

I was 17.

Imagine what I could have accomplished if I’d learned this a decade earlier.

A North Star

As I delve more deeply into the theory behind the Reggio approach over the next few weeks, I think it’ll be helpful for me to keep my eye on a North Star.  Essentially, I want Carys to grow into an adult who loves to learn, and who sees learning not as a separate thing that must be done to achieve certain goals, but just as a part of living.  I want her to be prepared for the life that she decides she wants to live.  If that includes going to college, then I want her to be prepared for that.  And if college won’t be a part of her life, or at leas not on a traditional timeline, then I want her to be equipped to make her own way in the world in whatever role she wants.

The world has changed so much over the last twenty years and traditional schooling has failed in preparing young adults for today’s work, which is one reason the age 16-24 unemployment rate consistently tracks 6-10 percentage points above the age 25+ unemployment rate.  The world is going to change more than we can even imagine over the next 20 years, and nobody can know what specific knowledge will be needed to succeed in that environment.  But I believe we can predict the kinds of skills that will be needed, and these include a lifetime love of learning.  A capacity to ask questions, the ability to find the answers, and the motivation to actually go and find them.  The ability to work with and learn from people from all kinds of ages and backgrounds, with respect for their knowledge while maintaining confidence in one’s own knowledge and skills.

As I work through my understanding of what I learned in Reggio Emilia and from my reading after it I may tack back and forth a bit between theories supporting unschooling and those behind Reggio Emilia.  But at this point I don’t see how I can have my eye on the North Star I’ve just described and believe that traditional schooling is the path that will get us there.

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