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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Participation, Pedagogical Documentation and the Design of Empathetic Learning Contexts

remida_piazza_prampolini_2005aAt the weekend I attended our Sightlines Initiative conference entitled “All Our Futures”.  Sightlines Initiative for those who might not know is the UK reference point and member of the International Network of Reggio Children.  We are an independent organisation promoting creative and reflective practice in early childhood education. As an organisation we promote the values and principles of what has become known as The Reggio Approach to learning to our members who work in many different types of settings, organisations and schools across the UK together with friends connected throughout the entire International Network.  Too see more about our work, see here.

There were fabulous and thought provoking presentations by Moira Nicolosi, a pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, and Louise Lowings, head teacher of Madeley Nursery School in Telford. Both spoke passionately about the ways in which participation of families in the life and being of schools is a necessary condition for the educational experience of children which included how we use documentation as traces for parent participation.

Carlina Rinaldi was quoted underlining the difference between taking part in something such as education and school as opposed to being a part of education and school.  The latter being the experience to strive for.

Working in an Ecology of Connection

We were shown several small projects and traces that revealed that learning is always in a state of relationship.  One revealed how a young child formed two lengths of wire in clay into curves, with both ends secured into the clay, producing a double loop.  This gesture was named by the child as ‘cat’.  Another child, in response to the cat, took a piece of clay and placed several wooden rods into it in a vertical position declaring this gesture to be ‘rain’.  A further transformational idea in relation to the previous two ideas was when the child who made ‘cat’ picked up a tissue, and carefully spread it out and balanced it upon the cat,  declaring it was now ‘covered cat’.

These small and powerful gestures started out as a small idea but were transformed in dialogue with materials into a bigger and shared idea.  This is turn was documented and made visible, and it is in this act that, “The beauty of the small gesture if we make it visible becomes more powerful and thus makes it more generative” ie, that it is more likely to happen again (L. Lowings).   In this way, as L. Lowings continued, it reveals how it is that, “Children are working in an ecology of connection.”  Connection to ideas, each other, to the world, to everything.   Nothing is separate, nothing is isolated, it is always in relationship and connective.  Indeed what we may think is ‘off topic’ often is not, but rather a possibility of a different way of thinking.  (V.  Vecchi (2010)

Designing Contexts Empathetic to Children’s Ways of Learning

Vea Vecchi in her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia (2010) speaks about the way in which children establish intense relationships with the reality being investigated.  Another short project shared was an investigation into children’s reality and relationship to chairs in restaurants.  It was a part of bigger project in which children’s graphics were to fill spaces and places within the city. Each school chose a place in the city, for example a coffee shop, or restaurant or a shop and made a graphic gift in relation to that space.

In the particular project explored, the challenge was raised together with families and children about the issue of sitting at a table in a restaurant.

 

Many conversations were encouraged with children, designed to find out about their relationship to restaurant chairs.  Many comments were collected (documented) and then analysed to find familiar threads and points of research that could be explored further.  In this example there were three possible threads, one that was about the boredom of waiting, a second about ideas for play and third the pleasure of relationships.  All of these threads could be researched with the children but the choice of the boredom of waiting was chosen.

Starting from the words of children they thought about what they could relaunch and it was the central idea of transformation that connected ideas about how children transformed table objects, how chairs could be sat upon in a variety of ways, something that they called dis-assembled sitting) and the transformational idea of the chair itself and of what else it could become.

The role of the adult in these situations of learning were described as:

  • designing and setting up experiences and provocations to encourage discussion with the child
  • to realise contexts for children to exchange ideas and thinking with each other
  • choosing ways to put together the group
  • to revisit previous discussions and drawings made to verify, evaluate and reflect upon
  • to document strategies of learning for discussion, comparison, exchange and interpretation

The Choices of Documentation

On the second day, a small group of conference attendees stayed on to share work and questions with Moira Nicolosi.  Although those sharing were exchanging thoughts and artefacts that were  personal and pertinent to the participants and settings involved there were several threads arising that related to the relationships and choices of pedagogical documentation.

Documentation of course begins with observation.  But there is a choice to be made before documenting regarding HOW you are going to document and WHY, and for what purpose.   Different languages require different approaches.  For example, it is difficult to document musical or movement based experiences with a written form of documentation alone. We have to choose not only our tools but also our approaches.  Will someone document the experience whilst another acts in the role of teacher, will the educator involved combine both teaching and documenting, will you focus on everything that is happening, or do you base it on a hypothesis you are forming or have.

We then make choices as to how we use our observations (our narrative traces of the children’s experience) to talk about their strategies, their interests and motivations to decide what to propose next.  You need to know how to start from your observations, you have to think about how you choose to document these experiences as well as choose how to group children with proposals relevant to their own research.

It maybe an approach to make choices of what materials and provocations you maybe using but it is another to choose learning contexts that support the generation and elaboration of ideas and thinking amongst the group(s).  It is a constant dialogue between the mutual contexts of learning between materials, languages of expression, the children themselves and the ideas being explored.

There maybe times when we get stuck… the times where nothing seems to be happening (although I am convinced they are but we are just not seeing what is directly under our noses).  At these times we have further choices. They could be:

  • to offer another language of expression to see what that raises up
  • to go back into your documentation to find common threads and traces of experience (these in turn become your hypothesis
  • to co-work with another, to gain another perspective)
  • to go back and revisit previous project threads
  • to be in exchange with other children, in other groups, to share ideas, messages, stories with each other to find out further questions and motivations
  • to mix up groups, so that children can be gathered in groups according to interest and common research questions

It was wonderful two days and I hope that I have been able to articulate well some of the thoughts and ideas arising out of the annual Sightlines Initiative conference that always holds connection with the ethics, values and principles that are of the Municipal Infant Toddler and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.