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 One Hundred Languages (of Learning and Teaching)

Loris Malaguzzi wrote a poem called The One Hundred Languages of Children, and a Hundred, Hundred More.  In it, he described his vision for how children learned through and in a hundred languages interweaving their ways of meaning-making and finding out about the world.  The poem continues to say that, school steals ninety-nine of these ways of learning; a metaphor, I think for saying that certain ‘languages’ are perceived as more privileged than others.   It continues to say how school also taught that subjects and disciplines did not belong together, but should instead be separated and isolated and whereby imagination and fantasy did not belong to the process of learning.

In this foul world of school as perceived by Malaguzzi , I would imagine that assessment procedures take on a similar form of separating and privileging some subjects over others.    In this world of assessment we would enter the scary place of levels, grades and assessment bands that would become, if we were not careful, drivers of pedagogy where the assessment procedure dominates what teachers do. It could lead to situations where we know in our hearts it is wrong but we press on ahead regardless in order to meet the grade or level or band.   We could end up teaching to the levels and its goals, and it would seem an imperative to progress in this linear fashion and as fast as possible to reach the narrow and lifeless goals.

In this foul world, when learning might be considered as ‘slow’ or not making the ‘right’ level of progress then it could lead to panic in the face of not making the deemed level of requirement.  Teaching could quickly become a mode of delivery, instruction and correction where nobody thought anymore to question the levels, or to even think if they were appropriate. Teaching then could take away that playful and imaginative strategy of children to research and make-meaning and might lead instead to stressful situations where learning is forced and prescribed and chdren’s mental health begins to suffer.  I wouldn’t want to live in that foul world, would you?

When we really observe children to see how they learn (and I mean to observe and not what it has often become, as a practice of assigning children’s actions to lists of curricula outcomes) then we see how they are interested in finding out (researching) about the world that they are a part of, they form theories about this world and their relation to it and in elaborating their knowledge they build upon their theories and come to find out more.  For example, they find their way into code systems, symbols and signs though multiple ways, through playing with the ideas of writing, through drawing in symbolic ways, by imitating older children or our own actions and behaviours, and their innate curiosity creates the researchful instinct that children have to begin to learn how to form letters and words because they desire to discover ways of communicating in meaningful contexts. Gunilla Dahlberg of Stockholm University says of children’s desire that:

“Our starting point is that children are exploring the world and trying to create meaning. Being attentive to their creation of meaning creates desire, and when children have desire, they also learn other factual knowledge.”

As teachers we must find a multitude of ways (our own hundred languages) to support these desires so that the process of learning meets with the ways of how children, indeed all humans learn.   If children have a hundred languages (and more) then as teachers we must teach in a hundred languages (and more).

Yet it is happening… this foul world exists, and it exists increasingly for many children and teachers and educators who often dream of a different reality…  so it is with joy when I receive stories, when people are brave of bucking this trend and share what they do, and when I see in practice those places that has at its heart, a committed and practiced set of principles that asks of themselves how learning happens within a living system and what the effect of that learning process is on their children.

A group of schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus Plus strategy and spanning four countries England, Sweden, Spain and Romania are going to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live and the environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that Loris Malaguzzi described.  We are calling the context of learning as transdisciplinary and reference the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson who indeed influenced the thinking of Loris Malaguzzi.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses boundaries of subjects and invites methodology(ies) of working together from different perspectives and points of view to create NEW conceptual ideas, ways of knowing, of being, that combine, integrate and move beyond the capabilities that a singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of relationships.  It is complex, it is a tangle of spaghetti, it is a knotted, nest of noodles.

We are also encouraged by Gunilla Dahlberg who asks of us to problematise that which has become overly familiar, that which we take for granted, so it is important for us to also to step aside and see anew from different perspectives that which we have considered as the type of learning that supports children in their meaning-making.  So we are also interested in why the role of imagination and fantasy seems to be so important, why metaphor seems to accompany children’s learning, why the poetics of learning (the Hundred Languages) that we see in what has become known as the Reggio Approach are considered as essential processes of children’s learning.

Our aim is to richly describe from a transdisciplinary point of view, learning/research/living (and I deliberately group these elements together as one) that is of itself transdisciplinary and to find the possible new ways of describing, observing and evaluating this learning/research/living that sees children and ourselves as within this living system of education; as whole beings, interconnected, and always in relation to each other and the context we find ourselves in.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to an education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the data or crunched number sets that the foul world tends to see them as.