Advocating for a Reggio Emilia Approach to Education at all Levels

When suggesting a solution to the problem of modern education being outdated and intolerable, I aspire to suggest a replacement that will not need to be replaced, itself–an approach to education that is student-driven, that is constantly evolving, and that nurtures every person’s desire to know.

Adopting the approach I will outline in this and subsequent blogs will mean rejecting certain foundational elements of Western education. What I am going to suggest is not re-tooling the system, but rather re-inventing it. This time, however, the system will not be constructed to support the demands of the Industrial Revolution, which ended in the mid-20th century; the new system will be constructed to nourish the mental growth of all people, who are the most valuable resource that human societies have.

What I am suggesting is the adoption of a well-documented strategy: the Reggio Emilia approach to education. Conceived by Loris Malaguzzi in post-WWII Italy, the Reggio Emilia approach (named for the village in which it was first adopted) was created as a form of early childhood education. Perhaps you’ve noted that I’m not using the word model to describe Reggio Emilia; that’s because this approach to education rejects the idea of educational models.

It’s an Approach to Education, Not a Model

A model is an example to follow, to imitate. Models are helpful for many things, but Loris Malaguzzi didn’t believe they were all that useful as a pedagogical tool. He preferred an approach to education that encourages constant variation, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and invention–not a dogmatic devotion to a pre-existing model or a cluster of models. According to the Reggio Emilia philosophy, school should be a constantly evolving entity, not a collection of static models. Fundamentally, every act of teaching should be based on the students doing the learning. The philosophy is best described by Malaguzzi himself: “What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing as a consequence of their activities and our resources.” This philosophical rejection of models will likely make Western educators uneasy, but bear with me, please–and remember just how much you detest being told there is only one right way to solve a problem and how stifling it is to know that any product you create that is not arrived at by a prescribed process will be discounted as suspicious and untrustworthy.

Power of Children

To accept Reggio Emilia as an effective approach to education, one must first accept another belief: children are people–powerful people driven by the desire to know, as well as the natural abilities to grow, learn, and construct their own knowledge. To be plain, educators must accept that students are not pre-adults; they are people, and they have the right to interact and communicate with each other and with adults who respect them and desire to foster their natural abilities. Furthermore, the current generation of adults, the educators, need to accept that their role is to provide the current generation of students every opportunity to develop their own potential–not whatever potential the adults have chosen for them based on their experiences. “Influenced by this belief, the child is beheld as beautiful, powerful, competent, creative, curious, and full of potential and ambitious desires” (Hewitt, 2001).  The student is also viewed as being an active constructor of knowledge. Rather than being seen as the target of instruction, students are seen as having the active role of an apprentice (Katz, 1993).

This view of children–this view of people, in general–is not unique to Reggio Emilia; many are aware of educationalist Sir Ken Robinson because of his TED talks and RSA animate videos, advocating for a more creative approach to education–one that encourages creative and divergent thinking and that fosters the natural genius of all humans, which is the desire to know and the ability to learn (when not crushed by a needlessly dehumanizing system of education). If you wish to know more about this view of human potential, relative to educational environments, I encourage you to follow the hyperlinks, above, and see where Ken Robinson’s ideas lead you. You may also be interested in this lecture, given by Randy Pausch (who created the Alice project to teach computer programming); as well as articles like this one about Australian high school students who discovered a method to produce the active ingredient in Daraprim (Pryimethamine), the drug that Martin Shkreli acquired the rights to so that he could raise the price and fleece people who need the medication.

100 Languages

The Reggio Emilia approach to education embraces the many forms of expression in which humans commonly engage–not just the narrow set of forms approved by the current system of education. Reggio teachers encourage students to express their evolving understanding of ideas through a variety of symbolic languages: drawing, dance, sculpture, drama, writing, and so on. Teachers facilitate and observe discussions regarding the students’ projects, challenging them to debate how well their final products fulfill their stated goals. The discussions and debates are meant to inspire revisions; teachers encourage this collaborative revision process to help students understand the foci of their studies better. The evolving products form a growing archive of collaborative learning for that class of students and for the school, at large.

The Roles of Reggio Emilia Teachers

The roles that teachers play in a Reggio Emilia school are varied. Two things they don’t do, however, are follow predetermined curricula and assign grades. Yes, you read that right! Classes are not designed around codified course outlines of record, for the content of the courses is meant to be determined by the students, not the teachers. Furthermore, grades are not assigned because the products of the learning process are not intended to be judged on any kind of standardized scale; the products are symbolic representations of the learning process, which is never meant to be judged or graded. At the end of each quarter, semester, or school year, the students’ share their projects with the larger school community then archive these projects as records of each class’ collective learning experience.

If there is no curricula to follow and no grading, what are teachers expected to do? Here is an overview of their many roles:

  • Expert: Reggio Emilia teachers are experts in a field or fields–gardening, sculpture, modern dance, linguistics, rocketry, and so on. Their purpose is to function as living resources, as human libraries. When students desire to know, teachers guide them toward the knowledge they are seeking.
  • Guide: As guides, teachers do not prescribe the route their students will take to acquire the knowledge they seek. Teachers, instead, direct students to existing data, introduce them to long-standing debates, encourage discussions and arguments and critical thinking. To put it another way, teachers attempt to present a current map of human knowledge–the landscape of facts, obstacles, existing theories, and so forth. They do not, however, determine how the students will navigate that terrain; the students negotiate and decide their course amongst themselves, even if that means the class fractures into different groups with differing destinations and trajectories. In fact, as guide, a teacher’s role in a divided classroom is to actively support all endeavors and to encourage discussion among the groups.
  • Co-Learner/Collaborator: As experts in their fields, teachers do not facilitate learning by establishing precise learning activities and grading the outcomes against predetermined standards–rather teachers plan activities and lessons based on their students’ stated interests; they present questions to encourage critical thinking; then they participate, themselves, in the learning process. They are not external judges of the students’ work; they are learning partners, and  “As partner to the child, the teacher is inside the learning situation” (Hewett, 2001). For students, then, the process of learning is a collaboration with peers and with teachers–not a competitive endeavor that atomizes them and punishes them for perceived mistakes or deviations from predetermined standards.
  • Researcher: Teachers should be skilled observers of their students in order to inform curriculum planning and implementation. Perhaps the most crucial role of a Reggio Emilia teacher is that of researcher–charged with the mission of constantly improving their own understanding of the students whom it is their desire to teach. While collaborating with students on learning projects, teachers seek to improve their students’ learning process by collecting data about the process, itself, and the students’ involvement with it. The teachers’ observations and reflections are meant to ensure that the students clearly understand what they are learning. This research and reflection process extends beyond the boundaries of each classroom; teachers partner with colleagues and parents, too. They share their research in order to discuss their observations as part of an ongoing dialogue about student learning. This constant process of research and reflection allows teachers to be flexible in their plans, preparations, and teaching approaches.
  • Documentor: Reggio Emilia teachers are observers and documentors. Teachers record discussions and group activities, so they can meet weekly to discuss their observations. Teachers and school directors review the documentation with the goal of understanding the interests of their students. What the teachers and the school, at large, learn from the documentation and the discussions informs activity planning. This process of documenting and discussing the learning process encourages teachers to foster their students’ interests and to gain insights into their individual personalities. Rather than making judgements about their students, teachers use this process to listen closely to their students. They study the thinking and feeling of their students in order to gain insight into their understanding. Furthermore, the documentation process forces teachers to evaluate their own work and refine their curricula accordingly. Lastly, it supplies parents information about their child’s learning experience while also creating an archive for the class and for the school.

The Role of the Campus Environment

At Reggio Emilia schools the environment, itself, is a teacher. The physical environment is designed to provoke curiosity, stimulate learning, and foster knowledge acquisition. The importance of the environment lies in the belief that students create meaning and understand their world through environments which support “complex, varied, sustained, and changing relationships between people, the world of experience, ideas and the many ways of expressing ideas” (Cladwell, 1997). To this end, Reggio Emilia schools are typically home to indoor plants and climbing vines, to outdoor gardens, and to lots of natural light. Classrooms open to a central quad or piazza; all kitchens are open to view; and all classrooms feature wall-sized windows, courtyards, and doors to the outside world. Campus entrances are designed and maintained with the goal of capturing people’s attention through the use of mirrors that reflect their own image back at them, photographs, and examples of student work, accompanied by multi-media documentation of their discussions regarding the displayed work. These same features characterize classroom interiors, where projects are displayed alongside collections of found objects and classroom materials. In general, the environment is constantly maintained so that it informs, provokes, and engages.

At Reggio Emilia schools, the environment also includes ample space for supplies, frequently rearranged to draw attention to their aesthetic features. In each classroom there is a large, centrally located studio, as well as an array of smaller workshop areas. The environment, itself, creates a variety of opportunities for students to interact. The central quad that all classrooms face features a large, communal studio space, and all classrooms are connected with telephones, passageways, or windows; lunchrooms and bathrooms, too, are designed to encourage community.

Project-based Learning

Reggio Emilia schools value long-term projects as vehicles for student learning. To explain the thinking behind this approach, I will defer here to the authors of the Wikipedia page about Reggio Emilia (because when you can’t say it any better yourself, quote):

“The projects that teachers and children engage in are different in a number of ways from those that characterize American teachers’ conceptions of units or thematic studies. The topic of investigation may derive directly from teacher observations of children’s spontaneous play and exploration. Project topics are also selected on the basis of an academic curiosity or social concern on the part of teachers or parents, or serendipitous events that direct the attention of the children and teachers. Reggio teachers place a high value on their ability to improvise and respond to children’s predisposition to enjoy the unexpected. Regardless of their origins, successful projects are those that generate a sufficient amount of interest and uncertainty to provoke children’s creative thinking and problem-solving and are open to different avenues of exploration. Because curriculum decisions are based on developmental and sociocultural concerns, small groups of children of varying abilities and interests, including those with special needs, work together on projects.

“Projects begin with teachers observing and questioning children about the topic of interest. Based on children’s responses, teachers introduce materials, questions, and opportunities that provoke children to further explore the topic. While some of these teacher provocations are anticipated, projects often move in unanticipated directions as a result of problems children identify. Thus, curriculum planning and implementation revolve around open-ended and often long-term projects that are based on the reciprocal nature of teacher-directed and child-initiated activity. All of the topics of interest are given by the children. Within the project approach, children are given opportunities to make connections between prior and new knowledge while engaging in authentic tasks.”

Community Support and Parental Involvement

Within the Reggio Emilia philosophy, parents are considered partners in education, collaborators, and advocates for their children. The teaching community is a triad: the campus environment, the classroom teachers, and the parents. Considered each student’s primary teacher, parents are involved in curriculum decisions. While parents commonly volunteer in Reggio Emilia classrooms, their involvement extends beyond the classrooms to their home lives, where the same principles regarding learning are encouraged and supported. The parents’ role mirrors the community’s. Parents are expected to take part in discussions about school policy, pedagogical concerns, and curriculum planning.

Why I’m Advocating for a Reggio Emilia Approach to Education at all Levels

The current system of education is inflexible and intolerable; consequently, it stunts creativity and intellectual potential. Teachers and students need freedom to innovate and adapt, yet they are disadvantaged by remaining locked into prescribed, standardized tracks. I’ve participated in seemingly innumerable talks about “closing the achievement gap” and “removing barriers to student equity.” Well, achievement gaps exist, in large part, because quantitative, merit-based models of education are fatally flawed. The standardized measure is always biased, and the ubiquity of needless structures creates gaps in achievement and barriers to equity. A merit-based model of education requires standardization–which is the root cause of so many of the current system’s core problems. Making education student-based (not-standardized) rather than system-based (standardized) will accomplish what so many educators are discussing: it will satisfy the equity agenda in the most thorough way possible. Inequities will always exist in human societies, but the Reggio Emilia approach minimizes the harm they cause within the educational system.

Without standard measures, how does anyone verify that student work is meritorious and taxpayer money is well-invested? The answer: education shouldn’t operate like a business because people are more complex than products are, and they all acquire knowledge differently. Also, being comfortable making mistakes and taking risks is useful when one is trying to learn something new. Again, I defer to Wikipedia:

“Teachers in Reggio Emilia assert the importance of being confused as a contributor to learning; thus a major teaching strategy is purposely to allow mistakes to happen, or to begin a project with no clear sense of where it might end. Another characteristic that is counter to the beliefs of many Western educators is the importance of the child’s ability to negotiate in the peer group.

“One of the most challenging aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach is the solicitation of multiple points of view regarding children’s needs, interests, and abilities, and the concurrent faith in parents, teachers, and children to contribute in meaningful ways to the determination of school experiences. Teachers trust themselves to respond appropriately to children’s ideas and interests, they trust children to be interested in things worth knowing about, and they trust parents to be informed and productive members of a cooperative educational team. The result is an atmosphere of community and collaboration that is developmentally appropriate for adults and children alike.”

The Reggio Emilia approach does not stigmatize mistakes. It acknowledges that real teaching isn’t about judging, tracking, and grading–these are bookkeeping practices. Being a teacher is a mindset anyone can have, expert or parent or student. Being a teacher is not about being right and inculcating someone–it’s about serving as a guide, without ego, for those who desire to know.

Moreover, the Reggio Emilia approach fosters diversity among schools, which cannot possibly be mirror images of each other. One school can never simply replicate what another school is doing; nor can any class replicate what a previous one did. At Reggio Emilia schools, every class’ learning experience is unique, for it is driven by the interests of a unique grouping of students. As in genetics, diversity in schools will lead to innovation and growth and, ultimately, a more independent, creative populace. People will not be mirror images of each other, either, for the system will encourage what the 21st century needs most: diversity and divergent thinking.

Since Reggio Emilia is already well-documented as an effective approach to early childhood education, subsequent blogs will propose ideas for implementing the Reggio Emilia approach in high school and college environments.

The S.O.L.E. of Modern Education

To begin, a claim about human nature: “All men by nature desire to know” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1:1).

Aristotle claims that the desire to know is essential to our human nature. Setting aside recent political examples of willful ignorance and the widespread distribution and acceptance of fake news, I agree with this conclusion. In fact, I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever met who wasn’t possessed by a desire to know something.

Education, then, must be the largest systematized method for delivering knowledge to people—right? There are other systems for delivering knowledge, but the educational system, in general, is surely the largest.

If we can agree on this point, my aim here is to briefly describe the Socratic method and the work of Sugata Mitra with the goal of asking a big question regarding education at the end.

uwasocrates_gobeirne_cropped

Let’s add in Socrates, first—specifically the Socratic method, whose core principle is argumentation—not bitter yelling, but refutation, testing, and scrutiny of beliefs: reasoned debate, in which students challenge opinions by investigating the premises supporting them. The fancy word for this process is “elenchus.” The teacher presents an idea that is ripe for debate: something difficult, contradictory, perplexing, vexing, or just plain wrong. The presentation of this idea provokes students to confront their own ignorance regarding the idea and the context surrounding it. Once these students realize that they don’t know something (because the first step to knowledge is recognition of one’s ignorance), motivation then exists to pursue answers—in theory and (I can attest) in practice. Educators have employed this Socratic strategy for hundreds of years because it works to stimulate curiosity, to stoke our shared human fire: the desire to know.

sugra_mitra

Now, enter Sugata Mitra. If you have seen the film Slumdog Millionaire or read the novel it is based on, Q&A, you already kind of know who he is by way of the fiction he has inspired. For years now, Sugata Mitra has been researching the efficacy of self-organized learning environments (SOLEs). His early research includes The Hole in the Wall—a project in India that demonstrates children can teach themselves and others, given a suitably provocative question and no interference. What Mitra’s work proves is that children are driven by curiosity and a desire to learn—but also that they are mostly capable of doing the learning on their own. They do need a few things, though: they need a big question, they need access to information, they need to know that they don’t know something, and they need the teacher to step back and let them experiment: that’s when the magic of learning happens. Mitra’s most effective teaching technique—by his own admission—is saying, “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” In one example, he recounts presenting Tamil-speaking children in a remote Indian village with data on DNA replication, written in English. When their curiosity led them to ask what it was, he said, “It’s very topical, very important. But it’s all in English.” So they said, “How can we understand such big English words and diagrams and chemistry?” His response: “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” And he left without assisting them, at all. When he returned months later to test their progress, the children were able to explain to him that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease. This is just one of many examples. In sum, Mitra’s body of work confirms Aristotle’s claim: all people by nature desire to know. He takes it a step further, though. Confronted with a problem to solve, provided with access to reliable information and no interference regarding the learning process—people are capable of realizing their desire to know without the instruction of a teacher.

Here comes the question I promised, the launching point for our elenchus: In creative writing classes, it’s common to hear that a writer who knows the ending to the story he is telling will write a boring, lifeless tale. Why? Because, for him, the writing process didn’t involve invention, discovery, and learning—and when that is the case, a lack of interest bleeds into the writing. The writing feels rushed, mechanical—it lacks heat and vitality. Thus, a common bit of advice is to write about what you know, yes, but to write about what you don’t know about what you do know. Writing about the unknown is exciting. It’s a journey. And your reader will feel this in your prose and in the story that you tell.

The question I have been leading to is this: given that the world is brimming with information (and a lot of it is verifiably true and accessible), should the process of education remain the same? Do teaching practices need to remain the same? To put a very fine point on it, are teachers—who have been saddled with quantifying learning by imposing grade-based, test-based, standardized learning processes on students—a problem, maybe the problem. I ask this as a teacher, myself, whose aim is not to belittle my own profession. I am eternally indebted to the great teachers who have helped me along my educational journey, and I cherish my own experiences as a teacher; however, I believe re-examining their role in the process of education is worthwhile. My concern is that our educational system is outdated, a relic of a bygone era that no longer stimulates that fundamental human characteristic, the desire to know. The current state of education is not the sole responsibility of teachers; quite often they are forced to teach and to grade in ways that are rigid and uncompromising. Nonetheless, the problem remains: the very outdated-ness of system will ultimately kill its efficacy, for when the tales told in classrooms are stale and lifeless and boring—because the answer is not only already known, but the process of arriving at it is also strictly prescribed, monitored, and graded—the education system has failed to achieve its core mission and has begun to defeat its own purpose.

If this is true—if I am outlining a problem that is real—I submit that solutions are needed because we can’t afford, as a species, to systematically extinguish the human desire to know by making the process of knowing intolerable.

* * *

The blogs that follow will address potential solutions. Please, send me your comments and ideas! I want to know what you think about any of the ideas presented in this blog.

 

The Teacher’s Oath: A Version of the Hippocratic Oath for Educators

In 1964, Louis Lasagna—Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University—re-wrote Hippocrates’ Oath for doctors. This is his modern version of it:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

In the spirit of Hippocrates and Louis Lasagna, I am proposing an oath for teachers:

The Teacher’s Oath

To the best of my ability and judgment, I swear to fulfill this pledge:

I will respect the hard-won intellectual gains of those scholars and educators in whose steps I walk and gladly share my knowledge with those who follow.

For the benefit of all students, I will strive to avoid the twin traps of over-burdening and engaging in educational nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh test scores, classroom performance, and deadlines.

I will not be ashamed to say “I don’t know,” nor will I fail to collaborate with colleagues when their skills are needed for a student’s success.

I will respect the privacy of all students, for their problems are not disclosed to me so that the world may know. I will especially respect the needs of students in matters of life and death. Above all, I must not mold students in my own image—but rather help them to discover their own self-image.

I will remember that I do not teach a lesson, a book, a philosophy, a system of logic—I teach human beings, whose intellectual growth affects their families and their economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for students.

I will prevent academic dishonesty whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to dropping, failing, or expelling students.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of educating those who seek knowledge.

 

Only Thinking Makes It So

At least once a day, I hear the voice of Prince Hamlet in my imagination. He’s bundled up on a crisp, clear, cold Denmark afternoon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his mates from college, puzzled by his moodiness, stand nearby encouraging him to lighten up, to have a more positive attitude. He believes Denmark is a prison. They don’t believe it is. And then Hamlet says it–that thing I hear, daily. He says, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Why do I hear this refrain every day? I work at Foothill College as an instructional associate; in other words, I help manage a high-volume tutorial center. Last quarter, this center served over 1200 individual students seeking help with reading and writing-related concerns. In short, those people whom it is my mission to serve are college students, struggling to learn new concepts–but also to score that most precious of labels: a high GPA. Before I began working full-time as an instructional associate, I was an adjunct faculty member in the English department; that is, I was the person judging their work, assigning their grades, and determining their GPA. I was the cause of their anxiety. Now, to a certain extent, I am meant to be the cure. Thus, Hamlet’s words have become my refrain. But, again, why? There are good things and bad things—aren’t there? Some ideas are good and some are bad, right? A comma before a conjunction is sometimes good but sometimes bad, right?

Well, the truth is, I don’t know. And the longer I think about the question, the more I am inclined to agree with Hamlet: no, there aren’t good things and bad things. There are only things—and then there are the words we have invented to describe them and the emotions we feel when we interact with them. In other words, everything is neutral until you think about it—only then does it become whatever you believe it is, whatever you define it as.

About now, you are likely wondering why this thought process matters–especially in the field of education? After all, aren’t educators in the business of judging what’s good and what’s bad? Without those poles, wouldn’t the system lack criteria for judging the students it seeks to mold?

It matters because students are people, first. They are students at Foothill College, and they are here to learn, to achieve, to grow, to transfer, and to be successful in their working life. But they are always, first, people. And when people feel that they are either right or wrong—good or bad—terrible consequences follow: anxiety, depression, even suicide.

My point, in the end, is this: the educational system is currently built to judge and place people (using GPA as one of the measurement tools). This kind of structure will inevitably make people feel good or bad, but we, the educators within the system, can do our part to remind students and remind ourselves that the world is neither good nor bad. Only thinking makes it so.