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.


A European Transdisciplinary Learning Research Project: Making the Parts ‘Whole’

IMG_1503I am part of an international group of researching schools funded by the European Union as part of the Erasmus + strategy.  It spans four countries (England, Sweden, Spain and Romania) who are just beginning to research how children aged 2-7 learn/research/live in environments that are supportive of the kind of learning/researching/living that we are calling transdisciplinary.   

We are referencing the ideas and thinking of Gregory Bateson, Nora Bateson, Edgar Morin and Loris Malaguzzi amongst others who each share ideas about learning that see it as, complex and tangled, without a beginning or end point, and that challenges ideas about learning and of seeing the world in separate subject areas (parts) with a simple linearity of progressional thought.  

In this way of documenting learning we are involving ourselves not just with languages of expression and learning but also with languages of evaluation.  I like how in Reggio Emilia, to evaluate, means ‘to give value to’… therefore, we are going to work with and give value to a living education system that see’s learners as the living human beings that they are and not the objectified data or crunched number sets that the world of standardised assessment and testing tends to see them as.

Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (2007, p,37) warn us of the kind of abstract maps that we make out of theories of child development that, “…make us lose sight of what is really taking place in the everyday lives of children and pedagogues, since reality is more complex, contextualised and perspectival than the maps we draw, the descriptions we make and the categories we use…The child becomes an object of normalization… with developmental assessments acing as a technology of normalization determining how children should be.”

We are greatly concerned with this global problem of the normalisation of children through standardised tests and assessments that determines how children should be and denies them the complexity of being living and breathing subjects of a living system of education.  At the time this blog is being written the English government is considering how best to introduce, implement and administer a standardised test for four year olds whilst globally, PISA is developing and about to trial a standardised test for five year olds.   It is evidence towards a manipulating education system that values conformity and denies subjectivity and pre-packages children into discreet parcels of sameness that is considered as the norm in society.  Anyone who falls outside of this package, is excluded,  considered as in need of intervention, weak, and abnormal rather than having a differing point of view.  Dahlberg, Moss and Pence, cite Foucault (1977) who names this behaviour as dividing practices.  

Vea Vecchi (2010, pXV) describes transdisciplinary as, ‘…the way in which human thinking connects different disciplines (subjects) in order to gain a deeper understanding.”  It differs from interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary in that it is not just about connecting and  combining different academic subjects at the same time but is more about what happens when you do, what difference does it make, and what is it that is new, that arises from it? For Vecchi it results in a deeper understanding, for me it is like a new way of seeing in increasing complexity that sees the child and educator as rich, strong, subjective, relational and connected with a multitude of ways of constructing and expressing their own perspectives and learning within a living system.

At the moment, we understand transdisciplinary learning as something that crosses and connects perceived 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 a supposed singular subject or point of view could offer.  It is a context of rich and complex border crossing of subjects, perspectives, and disciplines that is built upon and within a rich, transcontextual milieu of interrelationships.  It is neither to see the parts in insolation (separation) nor rather to regard the wholeness as what is important to study.  It is rather more likely to be the differing contexts, interconnections, and the relationships that are integral to the whole.  Nora Bateson (2016, p,157) describes this as systems thinking. She tells us:

“At the core of systems work is a search not just for details, but for patterns.  This is not easy with the epistemological limits of western culture, where the habit of applying notions of cause and effect has been rewarded over several centuries of cultural, technological, and theological development.  Systems thinking require us to see past those old scripts and into the world of interrelations.  To think in terms of systems is to suspend the version of reality of the wise scholar who looks through his binoculars or microscope and classifies parts of nature as he objectively sees.  This arcane character is replaced with another sort of scholar, one who is willing to see in several directions, seeking patterns of interaction.

I like this idea of being a researcher who is not searching for a certain truth but rather one who is able to see in transopic ways ie across multiple fields and contexts and is the opposite of myopic, the narrow and short fielded kind of vision, who is seeking to understand the variables of interactions and interrelations.   Nora Bateson continues to remind us that the complexity is in the ambiguity of parts and wholes:

“It is both correct and incorrect to outline parts and wholes.  Maddening though that paradox is for doing research, it is the only transcontextual way to account for the variables of interaction over time and in complex systems.” (p,160)

Nora Bateson then radically asks instead, “what happens if we begin to ask if perhaps the world is not made of parts and whole?  How can we describe it, study it and in fact … what is it?”  (p,162)

It is in this place of deep and complex uncertainty, that I now find myself in and am looking to describe with colleagues across different international contexts what learning is, how it happens and how it is best fostered and generated. The project itself is called Making the Parts ‘Whole’ and it is the first time that I am beginning to question this relationship of parts and wholes.  It is all rather fuzzy at the moment, but I feel that it is a good place to be as to be certain is to think I know the truth.  It makes me question such things I have seen as unquestionable such as child-centred and holistic learning and the relationship between teaching and learning (as if there is only one directional relationship).  All of it makes my mind swim, but I am excited nonetheless.  For anyone interested in hearing more about this project, and what it looks like in practice, then please let me know in the comments box below or by way of email to debikeytehartland@mac.com as there is an opportunity that as part of this project, we will be building a separate website where our shared learning as a research group shall be able to be explored in more depth.  


Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Dalberg, G, Moss, P. & Pence, A. (2007).  Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care:  Languages of Evaluation.  2nd edition.  Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Bateson, N. (2016).  Small Arcs of Larger Circles:  Framing Through Other Patterns.  Axminster England: Triarchy Press.