A Hundred Languages for Describing What is the Reggio Approach

I have been motivated to write this blog post after a few recent events and conversations that have provoked me to think about the language we use to describe our educational experiences with children, especially those that are specifically ‘Reggio Inspired’.  It has made me reflect on how Loris Malaguzzi described what he saw happening in the Pre-Schools and Infant Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and how I see it often being described and contested in places that consider themselves as ‘Reggio Inspired”.

To begin with, I want to say how I prefer the term we use at Sightlines Initiative (The UK Reggio Emilia reference network) that is to be ‘in dialogue with Reggio’ rather than being ‘Reggio Inspired.’  For me, the difference lies in the values of this approach that is dialogic and co-constructivist in nature.  It is an approach that evolves and is alive to the constant elaboration of knowledge as we as adults learn about the learning processes of children and indeed of human beings in relation to the world of ideas and thinking.   It is not about having baskets or open shelves, or provocations or loose parts, mirrors, white walls, open spaces or wood. Nor is it about being ‘Reggio Inspired’ in the right way or wrong way.  It is however, about how we relate to children in the educational experience and the task we have as teachers to encounter and be alongside children as they construct and re-construct knowledge about the world in which we all live together.  Learning and teaching is therefore considered as a process of research by both children and adults alike.

Inspiration is problematic for me as it can imply, in some cases, a more pick and mix approach of educational methods and ideas which I think is contrast to the deep and complex values that are implicit and at the heart of Loris Malaguzzi’s original thinking.  As Reggio is a values based approach to learning and teaching (see Sightlines description of it here) and NOT a methodology of teaching and specific resources it is worthwhile to spend our own time thinking for ourselves what Malaguzzi meant when he said we have to think about what our own image of the child is to understand what our approach to teaching is.   These two things are relational and connected and affect how we teach and how we prepare our environments in readiness for children.  It also affects how we talk about children, teachers, learning and the approach of Reggio itself.

For me Reggio is not about a child free approach to learning as everything is to be considered in relationship of each other.   We have set up our environments even if they are available for children to access freely, we take them to specific places to play, we hold the conversations we have and there is an implied hierarchy in that – so nothing, absolutely nothing, is ever neutral or free. Loris Malaguzzi described teaching and learning as a game of Ping Pong where one bats the ball back to the other.  This is a relationship where the energy is preserved for keeping the ball in play; for keeping the learning alive. It requires both the presence of the adult and the child together in a process of exchange and reciprocity.

Malaguzzi’s poem “No way! The Hundred is there!” if anything begs for us to think about learning and teaching in its poetic and complex figurations and not in the reductionist, binary or quantitative formats that are normalising the landscape of education.  I suggest if anything, through being in dialogue with the approach to learning that is Reggio Emilia that we seek for ourselves the poetry and complexity in describing children’s/humans sociable processes of learning rather than to continue with a language that defies the very values and principles upon which the Reggio Emilia Approach has grown out of.

In the UK context and in many global contexts of the world we are in danger of being tied into using a specific language to describe learning that is fast becoming the norm. Child led, teacher led, child initiated, scaffolded learning, teacher framed, free play, purposeful play… often these descriptors are languages that are set in polarised positions of each other, replicating binary frameworks that are reductionist in terms of the complex meaning-making that young children are capable of.  It is not a matter of just being either/or with nothing in-between but instead, one where there is often a spectrum of possibilities that are constantly shifting and evolving when thinking about how to describe children’s learning that is, in its own state of constant and dynamic movement.

We are also in danger of being tied into thinking about education as something that is wholly measurable and quantifiable, where children’s learning is reduced to simplified percentage points on a scale of normalcy.  The march of the datafication of children’s learning is fast becoming the everyday, habitual action of teaching through a pedagogy of testing.  I ask, can we describe learning in these ways when learning is itself a living system?

Adult led, child led, what does all this all actually mean? Loris Malaguzzi described the relations of a pedagogic approach such as Reggio so well when he said: 

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning and how to learn.”

Malaguzzi, L. 1998, ‘History, ideas and philosophy’, in Edwards, C. Gandini, L. and Forman, G. 1998, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach, Ablex Publishing, Greenwich (p83).

We need to reconsider and challenge our descriptors and perspective from alluding to Reggio in terms of adult/child led ratios, or one that is scaffolded or framed to one where we use the poetics of language that speak instead of relationships, exchange and reciprocity.  Malaguzzi’s famous metaphor of learning being like a tangled bowl of spaghetti that encompasses both the learning of the child/children together with adults is a challenge to those who insist on evaluating Reggio in these quantitive, individualised and often polarised views.  These common phrases of being led, and thus the implication of following are therefore not attuned to a pedagogy of relationships that is in itself described by Malaguzzi in the form of his poem called “No way. The hundred is there.”

The idea that we are all constructing and re-constructing knowledge from a myriad of sources in this tangled bowl of spaghetti is so eloquently put here by Rinaldi and Moss:

“Learning is not the transmission of a defined body of knowledge, what Malaguzzi refers to as a ‘small’ pedagogy. It is constructive, the subject constructing her or his own knowledge but always in democratic relationships with others and being open to different ways of seeing, since individual knowledge is always partial and provisional. From this perspective, learning is a process of constructing, testing and reconstructing theories, constantly creating new knowledge. Teachers as well as children are constantly learning. Learning itself is a subject for constant research, and as such must be made visible.’

Rinaldi, C. and Moss, P. ‘What is Reggio?’, in Children in Europe: Celebrating 40 years of Reggio Emilia-the pedagogical thought and practice underlying the world renowned early services in Italy. March 2004. Scotland. Children in Scotland (p2)

So in this exploration of how to describe being in dialogue with Reggio and to avoid his idea of a ‘small pedagogy’ we first must ask the right question … not if the approach we take is Reggio inspired or not, nor whether it is adult led or child led but instead to ask ourselves again and again how is it that children learn, what is our image of the child and how we will position ourselves as a learner/teacher/researcher in relation to that image.  In beginning over with this, we can start to understand what it is to be working in a dialogue with the principles and values of Reggio Emilia.

 

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The Languages of Drawing in a Context of Inquiry. An EARCOS funded Workshop in Beijing

It was my absolute pleasure and honour to be asked to prepare and present in this 2 day weekend workshop hosted by the International School of Beijing (ISB) with the passionate and dedicated Louise Lowings, who is the Head Teacher of the internationally known Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK which is one of the schools in the West Midlands where I live and work. Together we lead a group of 60 delegates in a journey of exploring and understanding the meaning-making and communicative strategies of children’s drawings.

We were keen to unpick the processes behind children’s drawings done both in group learning contexts and spontaneous and individual moments.   We considered the role of drawing as a mode of children’s research in the way in which they investigated the affordances of both the materials and the surfaces that received the marks; the narration that accompanied the drawing; and the theories that children were exploring when constructing and communicating knowledge about the world.  We acknowledged that children’s drawing was sensitive to the vitality of life, were deeply complex and rich in meaning and that originated in the world of aesthetics where children sought beauty, balance and harmony in the composition of their drawings.  It was important for us to underline what John Matthews states in his book (2003) “Drawing and Painting:  Children and Visual Representation” that drawing was the basis for all thinking and closely linked to subjects and disciplines beyond those traditionally associated with the arts.

On day one, I began with a theoretical underpinning that challenged the way in which drawing was seen as a developmental model beginning with a meaningless scribbling stage that developed through fortuitous mistakes that were developed over time until visual realism was achieved.  This is a deficit model in which to see children’s drawings operating within as it is based only upon western fine art traditions and lacks the emotional, social and individual and group contexts of experience that children exist within.   Contemporary research places drawing at the heart of meaning-making and sets it within the social context in which the sharing and exchange of ideas occurs.  Processes of map making, theory drawing, the role of the educator and visual thinking were also considered during this time.

After a discussion on drawings participants had brought with them, next up was Louise Lowings, sharing an example of group inquiry based work from Madeley Nursery School.  It focused around a group of children aged 3-4 years old who were displaying an interest in the woodlice they found in the garden.  This inquiry saw the children of this particular learning group evolve their own ideas and theories about ladders, lifts, boats and special lights that were needed by the community of woodlice they had found.  Drawing here was a modality that sat within a context of other languages of expression such as paint, clay and construction.  Drawings in this inquiry were both researchful and inventive and full of vitality of learning and expression.  As Loris Malaguzzi wrote; “In fact, drawing, painting (and the use of all languages) are experiences and explorations of life, of the senses and of meanings. They are expressions of urgency, desires, reassurance, research, hypotheses, readjustments, constructions, and inventions.”  (Loris Malaguzzi, 1988)

Their work on the subject was both beautiful and complex and revealed the strong need of educators to carefully, pedagogically document the unfolding experiences of the group of children.  It was not enough just to focus on the drawings themselves but on the connections they made in talk, in action, through the use of other languages of expression and in their playful encounters of real woodlice that the flow of children’s thinking in a context of inquiry was made visible.

In the afternoon, both of us lead workshops on unusual/unexpected drawing media and theory drawings.  These enabled educators to experiment and explore for themselves the mark-making possibilities of media and encouraged their own sense of critical thinking as they bounced ideas off each other in small groups when they thought how magnets worked.  They were then encouraged to draw their theories out, negotiating the form and shape and use of colour of their graphic explanations that used both skills of imagination and logic simultaneously.

Day Two began with me sharing work on the pivotal role between graphical instruments and the surfaces that received their marks.  I also shared various, generative contexts where children’s graphicacy could be explored within a frame of inquiry.  Lou Lowings shared a fabulous project on the graphical development of snail drawings from Madeley Nursery that occurred last year. We not only thought about the place of graphics in inquiry based work but considered too what inquiry itself looked like with children in ECE.   We also shared our thoughts on working with young children aged 1-3 and in contexts where children didn’t share a language between them or who didn’t share a language with the educators in their schools.  

In the afternoon a whole workshop focused on the relationships of colour.  This was a workshop that really exceeded any expectations that we had and where the unexpected was found to be rich and vibrant.  Educators were invited to create a series of hues of red where we suggested the names such as lip red, Beijing red, rose red…  We also provoked them to create a series of blue swatches, each different and asked for them to be named.  Memories, story telling, humour, iconography, symbolism and emotion were all displayed as participants negotiated and contested each others point of view on colour making.  Subjectivity and hearing of differing perspectives was rich.  It reminded us that there is no singular truth in the process of inquiry, only possibilities.  Maybe it was the sun and the beautiful clean air that made it all seem extra special too. 

Once again, a big, big thank you to the team at ISB, Karen,  Sherryl,  Jesse and OOL, who made this all happen and to EARCOS for funding it. It was truly an honour and we hope that in the future  we can share more about children’s creativity, their thinking and processes of inquiry in the near future.  For further information, please contact Debi at debikeytehartland@mac.com