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.

 

Drawing as Meaning Making

drawing-428383_1280From Reggio, we gain a perspective that the ‘Arts’ are equal and co-existing ‘languages’ of expression and communication alongside and together with other ‘languages’… of science… of mathematics… of written word… of other ways of knowing, describing and discovering the world.  Loris Malaguzzi’s poem,  “No Way.  The Hundred is There” is testament to this.

Materials in this context are referred to as languages that are capable of expression and communication.  However, it suggests that there is an ‘if’ there somewhere…

When working with early childhood educators, one of the things we jointly ponder is the issue of skills and if children must first understand the sensorial properties of materials such as clay, paint, charcoal, markers etc. to then be able to engage in representational, expressive and communicative purposes.  It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters what is this, what does it do… and then through working with it begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  It fits in a similar way to how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a slide between a realm of finding out and discovering something before using it to represent a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication.”  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts.”  Therefore children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

I have wondered for a long time about the process of meaning making in the act of drawing and in how that meaning can change across contexts.  For example, I once watched a child drawing and after a while she declared to me it was a cat.  Not five minutes later the same child, with the same drawing, told another educator it was a Beanie Baby.  I was left feeling a little confused, was I wrong in my understanding or was the child wrong?  Well it’s not going to be the child, it will always be me!  It seems that meaning making is far more complex, and more generative of multiple meanings that may or may not connect in a logical manner.

towards-outstanding-in-writing-the-importance-of-drawing-001

I find this particular drawing that I have shared in a TEDx talk here fascinating for many reasons.  One, because it ‘represents’ something huge and almost unimaginable neatly contained on a single piece of paper.  Two, because the narrative that accompanies it is a strong theory of how the sun and moon works, and three, because of the sheer beauty and aesthetic of it from such a young child.  But let us not (as my good friend and colleague Louise Lowings would say) get lost in the awe and wonder of it, for it might just dazzle us into doing and thinking nothing more about this,  thus remaining fixed and static in our thinking ourselves.

If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking.  The meaning as dictated through her words would be interpreted as singular and unchangeable.  But Sylvia Kind is suggesting that there is more going on.

Now I read this drawing as a generative act, of thinking in action; an active inquiry into the physics of the solar system.  She is not only actively trying to explain something but is also at the same time trying to understand it herself through the action of drawing and the movement of the material across a piece of paper.  It is rich in description, of texture, space, relations, and movement made in a social engagement between where the marker meets the paper, herself and the atelierista who was observing and listening closely to what she was doing and saying.  There was an interaction, it was intra-active.  An encounter between what she knew and what she was becoming to know.  She was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them (to paraphrase Pablo Picasso).  And of course there is the interaction with the audience, of who views the work and their own meaning making.

When viewing a piece of art, we the audience, are drawn into the world of making sense and meaning of that work, its materials, its presence.  The meaning making therefore does not just lie with the maker but simultaneously sits with the viewer too.  Therefore, this drawing is part of a complex creative process, what Sylvia Kind calls an object of encounter rather than just being a drawing that represents or communicates a fixed thought.  Rather it is relational and interdependent.

“…art as a state of encounter considers that meanings are constituted in the relation between things and in movements of disruption of previously held ideas.”

Kind (2010)

So, and with this is mind, I can now re-describe this drawing as an encounter or event as being:

Sociable – and in a process of exchange with others (those who were present but also those who are and become the audience)

Relational – in that it is situated with an interdependent system of meaning making where ideas connect with those in the making, a sense of becoming

Generative – of negotiating meaning, knowledge and understanding with and through the materials to hand

 

It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children

Hold an awareness – of our our positioning as audience or partner in drawing

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static

To act in researchful ways  – to listen and look out for the connections and interdependencies that become visible (or remain invisible) between the context – maker – audience that are not always logical in order, or sequence

To adjust our pedagogy – to see drawing and other forms of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions and not a simple linear journey from developing skills and understanding affordances to expression and communication of a singular thought.

 

References

Malaguzzi, L.  No Way.  The Hundred is There.  Accessed at http://www.thewonderoflearning.com/history/?lang=en_GB on 5th March 2017

Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.