A Reflective Look at Education I: Reggio Emilia

Wikipedia gives a great introduction to Reggio Emilia:

“The Reggio Emilia Approach is an educational philosophy focused on preschool and primary education. It was started by Loris Malaguzzi and the parents of the villages around Reggio Emilia in Italy after World War II. The destruction from the war, parents believed, necessitated a new, quick approach to teaching their children. They felt that it is in the early years of development that children are forming who they are as an individual. This led to creation of a program based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum.” 4

I’ve had several people mention to me over the years when they realized my interest in education. After the third or forth person mentioned it, I finally started looking into it. What I found filled me with hope. In it’s original form, Reggio Emilia is a value filled education. To evaluate it from a thoughtful perspective I want to look at several aspects of this philosophy: how it views the child, how teachers are involved, how the environment plays a role, where parents fit in, and finally what that may mean to Christians trying to live a faith-filled life.

In Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Care it says that “children are valued as a child, not just for his/her potential. They are individual and communal members, involved in negotiated learning.”2 So what does that mean? Children in Reggio Emilia are central. They come to a school especially prepared for them where every space has been thoughtfully prepared. Not one area has been neglected, “The room is full of natural objects that delight the eye…” , “Spaces should have context, a story to tell, a reason for being” 1 Children are active collaborators and communicators in their own learning.

A typical day might start with a time for open exploration and visiting as the children arrive. After a time, the teachers and children would gather for an unhurried time for chatting and visiting. Something interesting to note is that while one teacher is facilitating, another teacher or assistant is taking notes on what and how the children express themselves. Reggio Emilia believes in paying close attention to what children say. When this time is wrapping up teachers and children come up with options for the day. It may be to finish projects from the day before or start with a new idea they decided on while they were chatting. Children decide what they want to do, divide into groups by interest and go to that area of the classroom. Teachers facilitate what the children are doing. They may teach them a new technique needed for some form of art, they may help them think through an idea, or they may just listen to what meaning they child is giving to whatever project he/she is working on and even help them evaluate whether the intended meaning is coming through or not. The Reggio Emilia approach calls they many ways in which children express themselves The Hundred Languages of Children.

“As children proceed in an investigation, generating and testing their hypotheses, they are encouraged to depict their understanding through one of many symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpture, dramatic play, and writing. They work together toward the resolution of problems that arise. Teachers facilitate and then observe debates regarding the extent to which a child’s drawing or other form of representation lives up to the expressed intent. Revision of drawings (and ideas) is encouraged, and teachers allow children to repeat activities and modify each other’s work in the collective aim of better understanding the topic. Teachers foster children’s involvement in the processes of exploration and evaluation, acknowledging the importance of their evolving products as vehicles for exchange.”4

Parents are integral to Reggio Emilia. They are “partners, collaborators and advocates for their children”4 Many volunteer at the school and many implement the school’s philosophy back into their home. If you want a visual of what this philosophy looks like, take a look at the YouTube video: Film om Reggio Emilia (It doesn’t show a school, but the essence of what a Reggio Emilia school would feel like. It’s a great clip!):

There is so much more to Reggio Emilia, that this just scratches the surface. (I’ve included a few resources if you want to explore further. Bringing Reggio Emilia Home would be my recommendation to start.) So what does this mean for people of faith? I have three kids and I can virtually guarantee that none will attend a Reggio school. Here are some things, however, that I’ve gleaned and reflected upon.
Children are valuable! I’ve known ever since I became a parent that my children don’t really belong to me. I can see myself in them, but they are separate people with wills and souls of their own. I’ve felt the weight of the trust placed upon me and I take that as a spiritual mandate. Christ reversed the status of children himself when he said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Mark 10:14 NASB) If the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, they obviously are of great value to God. Reggio Emilia definitely values the child. They structure the environment around their needs, they provide quality materials for their learning experiences, and most importantly they listen to them in depth and with respect.

Formation is an active calling (with a twist.) God has endowed all of us with the ability to learn. If you’ve ever watched a child learn to walk, or observed them in their second year while their language is exploding daily, you would realize how much the ability to learn is within them. We were designed that way. So in view of this a good question to ask is, do we need to educate our kids at all? Can’t they learn most of what they need to by observing around them? Well, in many ways, yes. But would you want them to? Nobody lives in a vacuum. Left to solely observe, kids will most often emulate the dominate culture. They are being taught, passively, all the time. So the real question is do you want just the world to teach them or do you choose to take an active role? Now here’s the twist: how active do you become? In Bringing Reggio Emilia Home, they talk about the role of the adult,
“I began to understand the delicate role of the adult in allowing the child to take the lead while also encouraging the child to wonder, notice, and make the relationships that would allow a new level of understanding to develop.”1
Essentially it is a balancing act. You want to value what the child brings with them while at the same time providing them with quality information and material that will allow them to explore and learn. Each family will look at this differently (and rightly so since all children are unique), but remember if formation isn’t part of family life, it is happening somewhere else.

Relationships are core to who we become. In Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Care, they characterize learning relationships in this way,
“Children learn procedures for interactive learning or a style for learning which they are eager to ask questions and solve problems with others. Everyone expects to learn together.”2
In the Reggio Emilia approach everyone interacts with each other, listens to each other, values the other and learns from each other. Through successes and mistakes. And even mistakes are just a jumping off points for new learning. Think this through, and then jump back to the gospels. What was Jesus’ relationship with his disciples? Did he tell them stories like we do with our children? Were they with him as he worked? Did they have the chance to observe how he interacted with the culture of the day? When the disciples made mistakes how did Jesus react? Was his relationship with them formative? If we look at our own children (and even our own lives), what relationships are forming who they are becoming? What are they learning about the culture? How are they learning to view the world? Now a word of caution, I’m not saying that relationship that don’t fit into our world view should be censured. Talking through differences can often be the most powerful learning situation, as long as we are listening carefully to our children. And who knows? Our children might just help us form into a better person as well.

1. Bringing Reggio Emilia Home, by Louise Boyd Cadwell
2. Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Care, by Lella Gandini & Carolyn Pope Edwards
3. YouTube – Film om Reggio Emilia, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8egkhQB4_-k
4. Reggio Emilia on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reggio_Emilia_approach