July 23, 2024

The Best Kept Secret this Side of Italy

The best kept secret this side of Italy
Reggio Emilia has been an Italian success story since it reinvented early childhood education more than 50 years ago.
Learn how it can improve preschool education in the United States

Originally published in District Administration Magazine, August, 2002 by Gary Stager, Ph.D.

Note: Lella Gandini, one of the world’s leading experts on the Reggio Emilia educational approach has been added to the faculty of Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 13-16, 2009.

Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing a three-year-old wearing safety goggles and sawing wood or smashing tiles with a sledgehammer. Once you get over the surprise and realize that this isn’t a mistake, you might start to see the benefits of such an experiment. Welcome to the world of Reggio Emilia.

Reggio Emilia is the name of an Italian city and the informal name for a revolutionary approach to early childhood education. Reggio education, created by Loris Malaguzzi after World War II, is heavily rooted in the ideas of John Dewey and authentic learning. The Reggio Emilia approach is notable in its longevity, and its lack of recognition in American schools.

The early childhood centers of Reggio Emilia focus on the learner, are material-rich and reliant on reflective practice–both on the part of children and their teachers. Children are encouraged to engage in personally meaningful projects, reflect on their learning, and then do it again. Teachers are thought of as researchers trusted with making decisions that benefit kids. Each classroom has two coequal teachers who model all of the cooperative behaviors that they want the children to emulate. Two specialists, the pedagogista and atelierista, support teachers.

The Reggio environment is filled with materials, which the children may explore and use to construct knowledge and explore their world. Reggio schools aim for transparency so kids can learn about the world by being immersed in an open safe subsection of it. Students are respected as capable human beings, not empty vessels to be filled.

Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with three early childhood experts about Reggio education and how it could impact early education here. Lilian G. Katz is professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois [Urbana-Champaign], where she is also co-director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education. Douglas Clements is professor of education at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He is an author of numerous books and articles and an expert on how young children construct mathematical knowledge. Carolyn Pope Edwards is professor of family studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the co-editor of The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach–Advanced Reflections, (Ablex Publishing Corp., 1998) arguably the best book about Reggio education available in English.

How would you describe the current awareness level of Reggio education in America?

Douglas Clements: Unfortunately, it is quite low. American schools and teachers are, tragically, not given the time or culture to learn and reflect on different educational approaches, as they should.

While I realize that Reggio Emilia schools are not part of a franchise, are there Reggio schools here in the United States?

Carolyn Pope Edwards: There are many schools and programs in the U.S. inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. In some cases, the influence is strong and observable, when educators have worked together to study the Reggio Emilia approach and considered how to use ideas in their program.

In other cases, the influence is more partial, when one or more educators mainly focus on one or a few aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach, and how they might be valuable to try to apply in their context. As this approach becomes more widely known here, and as early childhood education professors teach about it in their classes, then its influence has the potential to be long lasting and profound.

I share your fascination with Reggio schools and their educational philosophy. What should American educators know about Reggio Emilia?

DC: “Should” is a strong word, here. Accepting it, however, there is just so much to say. There is a unique intertwining of the culture of caring of the city and the schools that may be difficult to grasp, and more difficult to duplicate. However, there are also many principles that are consistent with other excellent perspectives and research programs on early childhood education.

For example, the child is viewed as capable, competent and self-directed. Children build their knowledge from their own action, and interaction, with others. Indeed, the quality of the emotional, social and intellectual relationships children have with each other and with adults lies at the heart of their development in all spheres.

Children learn by representing and re-presenting their ideas to others and to themselves. Reggio Emilia pioneer Loris Malaguzzi calls this the hundred languages of children. [Children] do this in spoken and written/graphic forms, as well as by dramatization, song and other forms of movement.

What is an atelier?

CE: The atelier is a special part of the preschool that is a studio, workshop and laboratory for all the school to share.

The atelier contains a great variety of tools and resource materials of all kinds [materials newly purchased, recycled from local businesses, found or collected by children, made or contributed by parents]. It also displays the children’s work and project documentaries–all arranged to call attention to their aesthetic dimension and heighten their communicative impact. In Reggio Emilia, artistic activity is not viewed as a separate sideline of the curriculum but as intrinsic to the whole cognitive symbolic expression of the children’s thinking and learning.

The atelierista [`studio teacher’] is the specialist in charge of this area of the school.

What is the role of documentation in Reggio schools? Who does the documenting?

CE: Documentation is a systematic way of making the educational process visible-a subjective interpretation that allows for remembering, comparing, analyzing, discussing, reviewing and decision-making. Formal documentation is usually arranged and prepared by adults, drawing from the works of children and the educational process [photographs, texts of discussions, samples of children’s products]. However, children can also contribute to the record-keeping process and to helping keep permanent traces of the educational process.

How is this documentation different from portfolio assessment?

DC: Children’s documentation of their own thinking and feeling is a part of what adults document, and adults share much of their documentation with children.

CE: Portfolio assessment is a kind of documentation, but not the only kind. Portfolio assessment focuses on the progress of an individual child. Other kinds of documentation [such as displays about ongoing projects or books composed and elaborated by two or more children] are not focused on an individual and that individual’s progress over time.

Lilian G. Katz: The kind of documentation they provide in Reggio is such that it makes it possible for people who were not there to know and understand the experiences that children had been having. It also alerts the teachers to childrens’ progress and setbacks and informs their decisions about what to do next.

If a kid engages in a personally meaningful long-term project, how do you know that you’ve covered the curriculum?

LK: [You know] through observation, collecting and examining the work regularly. I also recommend engaging children in the evaluation of their own work. Not about whether it is `good’ or `bad’ or `right’ or `wrong.’

But encourage children, even the young ones, to develop criteria for evaluating their efforts in terms of whether it is, for example, as accurate as they want it to be, as detailed as they think it should be, as interesting to classmates as they would like it to be, or as clear as it should be. Even young children respond well to this kind of encouragement to look at their own growing mastery on important criteria.

In the Reggio Schools and other environments advocating a project approach to learning, won’t some kids just goof off?

DC: Occasionally, and sometimes that’s OK and a phase in development. More often, it’s a sign that the project was not child-centered or well designed.

CE: Most visitors to the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and to Reggio-inspired schools in the U.S. come away astounded and awestruck by the high levels of symbolic and representational skill that children across the full range of abilities and disabilities come to display when the children become competent and confident in the “hundred languages of children.”

They also find commendable the relaxed and comfortable school atmosphere. Children are provided the long stretches of time they need to work things through carefully and well. They spend long periods of the day concentrating deeply and focusing together on joint endeavors. They also play, eat, rest and enjoy life. The Reggio Schools in Italy are for children from birth to six years old. Are we really concerned that little children would try to shirk and goof off? Happy children are always energetic, involved and busy.

What role do everyday materials play in Reggio schools?

CE: Everyday materials are very important. The classrooms and the atelier always contain ample amounts of resources, carefully arranged and displayed, including found and collected materials.

The physical environment of the school should contain many familiar objects and pieces of furniture to make adults and children feel at ease and at home, and to invite parents to tarry and to want to become closely involved.

Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between adults and children in Reggio schools?

LK: On the whole–and I have visited Reggio Emilia 11 times now–I see the adults are dearly respectful of children. By that I mean that they talk to children conveying the expectation that children are sensible. They don’t use silly little voices or surround them with smiling animals and decorated letters of the alphabet and other ways of “Disneyfication” the environment. They treat children as sensible and naturally responsive to real beauty of form and texture. There is no excessive use of primary colors. The children’s work is carefully and beautifully displayed–because it is important.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Professional Media Group LLC

7 thoughts on “The Best Kept Secret this Side of Italy

  1. Gary,
    Very interesting article highlighting great early childhood education.

    One question… what might happen if a child experienced the Reggio Emilia approach until 6 years old… and then entered a typical American elementary school?


  2. Kids are resillient. You really should read a lot more about Reggio!

    My daughter attended a unique Reggio school for her 5th and 6th grade years. She was fine when she returned to a mediocre public middle school and high school. She just completed her third year at a fabulous liberal arts college, very much in the spirit of “Reggio.”

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