Reflections after a Reggio Emilia Study Tour
I first heard the term Reggio Emilia used as an approach to preschool education as part of Singapore’s recent focus on improving the preschool sector. Later, when I had to consider setting the direction for the preschool I am heading, I started reading up more about it. Words and phrases like provocations, hundred languages of children, ateliers and atelieristas floated up. It intrigued me as much as it puzzled me. When the opportunity arose for me to join a study tour with a group from North America, it was to help me appreciate the Reggio-inspired approach up close and personal.
Over the course of 5 days, from 18 to 22 October 2015, we heard about a diverse range of topics from the history of the Reggio Emilia approach to how their approach influenced the design of the Children Park at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, visited numerous infant-toddler and preschool centres, and also took part in a citizen atelier. The conversations with people who have differing journeys and starting points with the Reggio approach peppered the meal times and tea breaks with delight and insights.
A Sensibility about History, and the Future
The introductory talk was on the history that shaped the Reggio approach. ThIs approach got its name from Reggio Emilia, the place in Italy that adopted this particular approach to preschool education that has distinguished it from what others are doing.
As a preamble, Claudia the first speaker who addressed us, took pains to emphasise that what she was about to present is essentially an interpretation that has been deliberately chosen in order to give meaning to what we will soon learn about the Reggio approach. It is with this same sensibility which their aspirations for the future are spoken about – an aspiration that stemmed from the same belief that education is the right of every child, not just in Reggio Emilia but all over the world. Among other things, it has brought about the setting up of the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre, the place that hosted the study tour I was apart of, and many others from all over the world.
Loris Malaguzzi is the man who gave shape to the philosophy that guided the setting up and progress of the early childhood learning centres in Reggio Emilia. He has come on the scene at a point in time when the post-war efforts of women in setting up such education centres that are neither charity or church supported but are instead very much a communal effort. When the municipal took responsibility for such centres, Loris Malaguzzi was appointed as the head of pedagogy. He remains constantly quoted. His legacy is not only limited to these centres but has influenced the whole city of Reggio Emelia because of the emphasis on communal participation in the education of the young ones. In Reggio centres, over and above the active interactions with and participation of the parents, many initiatives have been undertaken to engage the whole city with the children’s learning. What stands out is that this not yet another series of programme but rather an organic and integral alignment with the Reggio approach to learning.
A Co-Creating Learning Community
This community believes that childhood is not merely a preparatory stage for a later part of life but rather that it is life itself. Children, including 3-month young infants, should therefore be given the space and opportunity to co-construct their learning, to create their own culture and to allow all of their unique genius to shine.
Teachers are not tasked to transmit knowledge but are instead conductors who orchestra combinations of materials, environment and questions to allow each child to flourish. While their centres have been purpose-built, there is nothing fanciful about the architecture. Instead, there is a clear consistency with the Reggio philosophy. an example would be the integrating the natural environment by designing each classroom to have their own access to the park or garden. Teachers often set-up activities outdoors whether it is playing with drift wood and plastic animals or walking on a garden path with different sound-making materials.
If I had to classify the materials, they are largely either what has been called “loose parts” or art-related though the distinction is not always so clear. Loose parts are materials that allows for and invite new combinations, and these could range from rocks and shells to bottle caps and glass pebbles. It is not uncommon to see a few displays of artful arrangements of such materials in every class, whether on the table, on mirrors or on light-boxes. I have observed children creating these arrangements in their own slow and deliberate way, seemingly having a plan and yet at the same time exploring possibilities and stories. It looks almost meditative.
Art materials include paint and very good quality paper, clay and again recycled odds and ends from scraps from printing firms to fabric swatches. A group might work with the cook to knead dough and cut-out cookies, and another might paint while sitting around an aromatic arrangement of cut citrus fruits though they are do not look like they are attempting a still life drawing. All these is part of what Malaguzzi has termed the “hundred languages” that children speak, and he sees the arts as presenting many forms of these languages.
It would seem to be as much about the children expressing themselves in these many languages as it is with them listening to the many languages that the materials and the activities are speaking to them, and also what is being said by their fellow learners too.
The children are often working with others in small groups of three or four, not necessarily working together on a single project but often doing their own work around a table. The teachers work in pairs, each class has two teachers. In each class, there might be between 15 to 20 children, and each teacher is usually working most closely with one group while keeping a look out for the others.
Ever so frequently, the teacher would be taking a photograph of a child in action and also writing notes of what she sees. This process of observing, interpreting and documenting is a vital part of the Reggio approach. The concept behind it is to make the learning visible in order for the teachers, the children, their parents, and even the larger community to be able to engage in a conversation about it. This notion is so critical to the idea of co-creating learning with the children. So, it is not so much as a tool for assessment or accountability as one which would help the teachers, and at times the larger community, to decide how else to enlarge what the children are discovering.
Typically, teachers would take the attendance of children to ensure they are present. If you would indulge me for a corny joke, I would say that in these Reggio classes, it is the teacher who must be sure they are present. The skilful Reggio teacher needs to be keen observers, and be very good at asking generative questions, both of which requires them to be very attentive to what the children are doing which is evident in the good documentation of the children’s activities, answers and questions. In turn, the documentation as visible records of the children’s learning becomes a crucial element that supports the useful conversation around learning that takes place among teachers, parents, children and even the larger community.
Of course, this sense of mindfulness extends to the children as well. The month of May is already near the tail end of the school year and it is mesmerising to see how the children have all become so engaged in each and every move they make, that they are so fully present with their play-work.
In Reggio centres, instead of mindlessly going through routines, both adults and children are fully engaged and mindfully present with their environment, their thinking, and with each other. They articulate their thoughts, their hypothesis and their questions, whether the young or the adult.
Marvel and Wonder
There is a clear sense of marvel and wonder that permeates the Reggio centres. So many fascinating investigations taking place and so many ingenious discoveries uttered by the children in fresh and often charming ways.
By staying true to the key ideas of respecting children and honouring their learning, the Reggio centres clearly demonstrates that learning is truly co-constructed, and it is heartening and inspiring to see how absolutely creative a process this can be. It is thus my opinion that to become more Reggio-inspired is about taking to heart this same attitude towards children and their learning, and so adopt a mindful presence as teachers, and to be aware of the danger that reducing it to merely replicating activities, structures and processes could very well run contrary to what Reggio stands for.