Reggio Inspired

An explanation of the co-op's pedagogy and how it has been inspired by Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Approach is a complex way of approaching early childhood education. It differs from many other early childhood philosophies and curricula in that it is not prescriptive. There is no book detailing the specifics of how to work in the Reggio way. I have heard teachers from Reggio when asked by American teachers what they should read to help them learn the approach, answer to read the latest in research on the developing brain. Their teaching still evolves as they learn more about how infants-preschoolers think and learn. At its core, it is more of a mindset or a set of values that give direction to teaching and how a school will take shape. They started with a collection of engaged teachers eager to create schools that recognize and honor the rights of young children and who build from children’s natural curiosity to create an atmosphere of wonder and discovery. Their way of doing school has steadily evolved over the last forty plus years as a result of constant collaboration, research and exchange of ideas. Vea Vecchi, one of Reggio’s original Altelerista says “Reggio’s educational philosophy is based on subjectivity, dialogue, connection and autonomy. Learning is a process of knowledge building, recognizing that knowledge so produced is inescapably partial, perspectival and provisional and not to be confused with information.” The end goal is not some form of college prep, which is inappropriate for this age, but has gained a lot of momentum in our society as parents’ thinking has tended toward mistaking accumulating information with building knowledge. Their goal is more focused on facilitating their students’ development into thoughtful and engaged citizens who are able to reason with empathy. We believe this type of intrinsically motivated foundation serves as better preparation for life and school than an early childhood education focused on memorization and checking boxes.

The Co-op has its own history of motivated, deep thinking educators who have established a school culture of child empowerment and creativity. The Co-op’s history and culture reflects those of Eugene, much like the schools in Reggio Emilia reflect their community’s culture. Their belief that a school is an extension and reflection of the community it serves is one reason they prefer others use the term “Reggio Inspired,” if they choose to adopt some of the ideas behind their schools. When Suzie, the Co-op’s first director, first heard about the work done in Reggio, she was just that, inspired. She saw a pedagogy that was vibrant and inventive, but that seemed to be a natural evolution from where the Co-op was at the time. The extreme respect and appreciation for childhood resonated with the staff and the way they structured their teaching and environments to support inquiry gave the Co-op inspiration to start the next chapter in its history.

Since that time the Co-op has adapted many of the fundamentals for Reggio-Emilia to our own context. I will attempt to paint a picture of the work we strive to do on a day to day basis as informed by these fundamentals. I say “strive to” because, as I said this is hard work that requires daily planning, reflection and improvisation. The constant drive to do our work better and to live up to our ideals is what keeps us motivated as a staff and what keeps our turnover so low in a field that averages over 30% annual turnover. In their application, it is hard to separate the fundamentals, so I will put them in bold as I go through describing our work.

At the foundation of our work is an acknowledgment of the rights of children. Every publication lists a different collection of rights, but it boils down to an acknowledgment that children from birth are capable, curious individuals deserving of the same rights and respect we expect for ourselves. This shows itself in a lot of different ways in our center on a day to day basis, but most of all in our intention to include children in choices or decisions that affect them. We believe they have the right to have a voice and be heard. There are certainly times when the teacher takes the lead and makes decisions that are different from what the class might decide, but in those cases, it is our job to communicate our reasoning to the children so they can understand, even if they do not agree.

Traditional models of education stress the teacher as the center of the classroom and the bearer of knowledge. The Reggio model is different. A good metaphor for our image of the teacher is the absence of a teacher’s desk. The pulpit style, top down teaching model does not foster an authentic educational experience. This kind of instruction can result in successful memorization of facts and information, but we seek a less finite, more humanistic education that builds from children’s natural curiosity and desire to construct an understanding of the world and their place in it. We acknowledge children as the protagonists of their learning. When children have a question about how something works and why, it is not our role to have all of the answers. We see the teacher’s role as a guide or facilitator. We accept that children will not always find the objectively right answer the first time they are faced with a problem, so we aim to facilitate their thinking around the question. We encourage them to draw from their past experiences, the class’ communal creativity and what they discovered in our provocations to construct an answer that satisfies their wonderings and is consistent with their current understanding of how the world works. If their answer is not “right,” they will eventually be confronted with things in their lives that do not gel with the understanding they have constructed and forces them to reevaluate and construct a new understanding that gives space for the new reality they have encountered. This process is not unique to childhood. It is the dialectics of life. We are in a continual state of trying to wrap our minds around this world and how to live in it. We live according to the answers we have created and evolve deeper understandings as we are faced with new problems. Vea Vecchi touches on these ideas when she writes:

It is important to society that schools and we as teachers are clearly aware of how much space we leave children for original thinking, without rushing to restrict it with predetermined schemes that define what is correct according to a school culture. How much do we support children to have ideas different from those of other people and how do we accustom them to arguing and discussing their ideas with their classmates? I am quite convinced that greater attention to processes, rather than only the final product, would help us to feel greater respect for the independent thinking strategies of children.

While there are times when our teachers offer direct instruction, the best, most natural teaching tool for young children is free exploration, or play. Scientists believe “free play is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving.” (Wenner) Free exploration does not mean directionless craziness, but it is important for teachers to give space so children have time to enter their own processes, individual and social. It is the times when children get immersed in their inner dialogue and forget for a moment about anything outside of their play that they really start to access and develop their true sense of self. When most people think about their favorite memory of childhood, it rarely involves a parent or an adult. It is these free times when children start to take ownership of themselves and their experience in the world that makes children feel most vibrant and alive. Having this foundation of self and social awareness developed through play has been proven to result in a more successful ability to autonomously navigate the complexities of adulthood. A 1997 study of children living in poverty showed that “kids who enrolled in play-oriented preschools are more socially adjusted later in life than are kids who attended play-free preschools where they were constantly instructed by teachers. By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools. And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had.”(Wenner)

It is important for us to create the environment, both physical and social, for this free exploration to happen safely and successfully. The indoor and outdoor environments should serve as a third teacher, inspiring and facilitating new explorations, while reflecting current and past interests. The environment should be organized in a way to “encourage encounters, communication and relationships.” When an environment is designed and maintained well enough to truly function as a third teacher, it gives teachers ability to focus on individual or small group work and the space to observe and document the life of the classroom. The teachers should always be close enough to redirect when needed or to jump right in and progress the play with a question, a material provocation, or by folding into the dramatic play. The teacher should also be really listening to their play to find the interests and themes that are being explored amongst the children for possible use later in the classroom. Teachers then take what they have learned from their observations and participation in free play and create provocations or projects around them. This is often referred to as following the child’s interests, but the specific interests are important mainly because that is where the child’s thinking is. We continually work to make our teaching meet children where they are thinking, instead of trying to drag their thinking to our teaching. The aim is to give children an opportunity to dig deeper and develop a greater understanding around their curiosities and, in doing so, establish a love for the process of learning.

As teachers facilitate children researching their interests, they enter their own research of the child or group’s learning process. This is what Reggio refers to as children and teachers as researchers entering into co-inquiry, or negotiated curriculum. The term negotiated curriculum is referring to the back and forth evolution of project work between the students and the teachers. We often use the metaphor of a ball being thrown back and forth. The game of catch can be initiated by either the students or the teacher. Usually it starts with a question asked or discovery made by the children, which ignites their curiosity. The teachers then catch that ball, formulate the next step and throw it back to the children in the form of a material provocation, a reading or a group discussion aimed at giving the children an opportunity to discover or create something new or deeper surrounding the original idea. The teachers then reflect on the project and what was discovered and chart the next step accordingly. This continues until the curiosity has been satisfied or a more dominant interest has captivated the hearts and minds in the classroom. Other times, teachers will start the negotiation process based on either a theme they are seeing in the children’s play, an issue in the classroom they need the children to address or on something they think will strike the class’ curiosity. Once they throw it out to the class during reflection circle, or during a project, the ball is back in their court and the negotiations continue.

When we approach developing a new idea into a project, we search for opportunities for the children to use the 100 languages of children to construct a fuller understanding of an idea than would be possible with only verbal language. Reggio educators refer to the 100 languages as “the different ways children (human beings) represent, communicate and express their thinking in different media and symbolic systems; languages, therefore, are the many fonts or geneses of knowledge.”-Guidici They refer to the idea of using a variety of languages to build knowledge as “trans-disciplinarity, the way in which human thinking connects different disciplines (languages) in order to gain a deeper understanding of something.”(Vecchi) This idea was in part a response to what they saw as mainstream education being obsessed with just two languages: reading and writing. The 100 languages “came out of political discussion in Italy in the 1970s about the reasons for and consequences of privileging these two languages from the many available to children. The theory relativizes these two, not devaluing them but situating then among a much wider range of languages, all of which have an important role to playin learning and life.”(Vecchi)

We will often start an exploration verbally, by bringing the idea to the class’ reflection circle. The teacher may share what she heard during their play or bring up something that happened during a previous day’s exploration. This initial conversation helps the teachers get a sense for where the class’ current thinking around an idea is. This is also an important time for children to hear from and question each other. Once this initial information gathering has taken place, the teachers will search for the best way to provoke their understanding further. They may first use markers or pens to get children expressing their ideas in another way. Sometimes photographs or other materials that represent the interest may be presented on the table to give the children context and inspiration for the project. Depending on what came from that experience, the next step may be to explore through song, blocks or dramatic play. As a project develops, teachers will use reflection circles as a way to check back in with the students about what they have been doing and what they are currently thinking about the subject. This also helps teachers from getting on their own track headed away from the children’s thinking. Projects rarely follow a completely linear trajectory, because the teachers try to stay true to the children’s input, while keeping the class pointed in an intentional direction. It is important for us to stay flexible while we go through this process. “The unpredictability of learning in this approach to education, arising from the synaptic dynamic of relationships and new connections, contests the idea of learning as a process of linear progress and development, in favor of learning as an uncertain, unpredictable and intensely creative activity, with new understandings created unexpectedly and shooting off in new directions.”(Vecchi)

To develop students’ fluency in the 100 languages, educators in Reggio created the position of atelierista. The atelierista “has an artistic but not educational background; she is more an artist than a teacher, but works closely with teachers in schools, both engaged with the processes of learning. Her contribution is to introduce an ‘aesthetic dimension’ or ‘poetic languages’ into the learning process…The atelierista supports connections, or ‘the dance’, between cognitive, expressive, rational and imaginative.”(Vecchi) Alison has been our atelierista for years and has developed her own way of supporting our classroom’s explorations. She works in all of our classrooms, one week at a time, supporting ongoing explorations with material provocations. She meets with lead teachers to get a sense of what ideas are being explored before she comes in. They collaborate on a plan for how she can spend that week developing the existing interests. Over time, her work promotes children’s learning the grammar of material languages, so they can grow fluent enough to autonomously access and communicate through the materials in their environment. Her work also helps our lead staff develop familiarity with poetic languages and how to use them to support or provoke thinking in the classroom.

To support this work with the 100 languages, we have developed an outdoor studio or atelier as well as mini-ateliers in the toddler through school-age rooms. Educators in Reggio view the atelier as “a place of research where imagination, rigor, experiment, creativity and expression would interweave and complete each other.”(Vecchi) These are spaces are filled with many open-ended materials accessible for the students and teachers as they pursue an exploration. We define open-ended as materials that may have been made for a specific purpose, but are flexible enough to take on various forms or meanings depending on the intentions of the user. This includes traditional “art” materials such as paints and clay, but also natural materials (stone, wood, and feathers), fabrics and found or recycled objects, just to name a few. Each material has different affordances and will therefore lead to an idea being expressed in a different way.

The key to teachers tracking and reflecting on their teaching and their students’ learning is documentation. The most visible forms of documentation at the Co-op are the panels and pictures around the Co-op that detail explorations and stories of learning. These panels are really the result of compiling, reflecting and editing the many forms of documentation that are used in our classrooms. We document the life of the classroom by taking photographs and videos, writing down children’s conversations and ideas, collecting children’s drawings and project work and by doing our own written reflections on the classroom. Teachers compile all these traces of learning and experience and use them as a tool for assessment and communication. Teachers go through these traces looking for moments or evidence of individual growth and development, patterns in classroom exploration and for areas of need or support. Teachers will use our mission to “inspire children to be intellectually engaged, socially confident and autonomous” as a lens to filter through and bring documentation into focus. Journey books are our primary method of individual documentation and assessment. They will be divided into three sections, each designed to track and monitor one of the areas of development mentioned in the mission. Teachers will use various forms of documentation to paint a picture of each child’s experience and progress in each category. Documentation of the class’ explorations and development are done primarily through panels displayed in the classrooms and hallways of the Co-op. They are designed to “communicate to children the value of what they do and promote their self-confidence and awareness of what others do. They also help parents and the public to become aware of their children’s experiences at the center and to acquire a stronger image of childhood.” (Gandini)

Other areas of the Co-op’s pedagogy that we will be working to define and communicate are: parents as partners and school as a system of relationships.