I ended my last blog by saying that I was going to suggest ways to implement a Reggio Emilia approach at the high school and college levels. I will, but first it’s important to acknowledge that simply “implementing ideas” is a half-measure. It is merely a way to tweak how classes are taught within the current system.
I detest doing things halfway, but meaningful strides do evolve from baby steps, so I will do as I promised. Before I suggest some concrete ideas, though, allow me a final bit of rhetoric.
Since posting my last blog, a question has been haunting me. If the Reggio Emilia approach is so great, why hasn’t it been adopted all the way through elementary school, high school, and college?
Aside from the fact that Loris Malaguzzi didn’t begin implementing the Reggio Emilia approach until the mid-twentieth century, the simplest answer is that adopting Reggio Emilia as an educational philosophy requires that the current system be replaced. Not repaired–replaced entirely, which means abandoning a system that feels both like a prison and a security blanket. Most of the structures and mechanisms that educators know, grew up with, and have learned to navigate would go away–leaving what? Reggio Emilia is not a system. Classes do not have predetermined learning outcomes. There are no grades, no levels, no standardized systems of measurement. Which means what? Students just go to school until they believe they are ready to leave and join the workforce?
And why not? Why not allow people to exit the educational system when they choose to and with the specific skills they have chosen to foster?
Fear, I suspect. Compared to what we have now, Reggio Emilia probably feels like jumping from an airplane without a parachute. So, fear, yes, but also money. Too many people have invested too much money in the current system for too long. Thus, it has become an ancient behemoth whose course no one in his right mind imagines he can alter. Forget about replacing it with something new! You may as well recommend that the work week should start on Wednesday or that the Electoral College should be abolished. Ain’t happening, folks.
If we can set aside our fears and our money concerns for a moment, though, what would replace the current system–you know, if we were willing to take the leap together?
As I see it, Reggio Emilia schools should feed naturally into apprenticeship programs and on-the-job learning opportunities. When a person feels she has satisfied her desire to be a student and is comfortable and confident choosing a career path, she will move into an apprenticeship program, become an intern, a resident, a junior associate and learn by doing, by having real-world responsibilities that she can take pride in fulfilling.
Speaking for myself, I learned quite a lot about grammar and composition and rhetoric in school, but I didn’t really need to know any of it until I was responsible for teaching what I knew to others; then I went back and reread everything with a focus I never had in school. If I didn’t know my craft, I would be exposed and be bad at my job. And that’s all the motivation I needed to learn my craft and be good at my job. And, no, my behavior is not exceptional. I reject that argument; all people desire to make something of their lives; sadly, it’s often the system, itself, that serves as a barrier to satisfying their desires.
So, here is what I am proposing should replace the current system of education (a portrait painted with broad strokes, I admit):
- All people, until the age of 18, should be legally recognized as students. This legal status will afford all people access to free, public education at a Reggio Emilia school of their family’s choosing.
- Until they are 18, all students will engage in general education, studying core disciplines like language arts, mathematics, engineering, science, technology, history, anthropology, the arts, and so on. The key, here, is they will study these disciplines, but they will not be expected to earn a 4.0 GPA while doing it. GPA won’t exist; it’s a meaningless measurement, and good riddance! The direction of each course will be determined by the students, themselves, and guided by their teachers, school community, and parents. See the previous blog for more details.
- What we now think of as colleges, universities, and graduate schools can be replaced by higher-level, more narrowly-focused Reggio Emilia schools. Like the colleges we all know, these Reggio Emilia colleges will not be free, either. They will function much the same as Reggio Emilia schools for students under 18; parents, however, will no longer be involved in decision-making. Students will be free to stay in school and study for as long as they desire to do so, and can afford to do so. If a person takes off like a rocket and shoots past the limits of her school, she is free to leave and pursue her career–and with no derogatory marks on her record. No matter how successful a person becomes, if they don’t finish school, that’s a shame that never fades. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Billionaire dropouts.” That label marks a person all the way to the grave–and for what purpose?
So, I say, let it go. Let the fear go. Let’s be brave, instead.
When I was a graduate student and no one took me very seriously, I was invited to attend a workshop for faculty members who taught non-language arts classes but who were given a new teaching responsibility: teaching writing within their discipline. No, not essays! So, these teachers–art teachers and business teachers and chemistry teachers–gathered weekly to discuss the challenges they were facing now that they had to assign essays and had to grade them. One teacher complained that she failed, on average, 95% of the essays she read. “They are all terrible!” she said, exasperated.
“Why?” I asked, forgetting I was a graduate student. “Why are they all terrible?”
“Who are you?” was this teacher’s response.
After making sure I knew my place, she explained that she required her art history students to write formulaic 5 paragraph essays, but hardly anyone ever followed the formula correctly. The results were rarely what she envisioned, and she was constantly disappointed with her students’ inability to follow her instructions.
I took a deep breath and steadied my nerves.”Your students aren’t the problem,” I said. “Your assignment is the problem.”
To her credit, the woman whom the college had hired to implement the new Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in Disciplines (WAC/WID) program, the woman who had invited me to the workshop, bolted forward in her chair as though charged with electricity. “Stop,” she said, before the art history teacher even began. “He’s right.”
I don’t tell this story to enlarge my ego. My point is this: perhaps, like that art history teacher, we all need to take a deep breath and let go of needless structures, like the 5 paragraph essay. Just let go. And have faith in people. And when you lack faith in people–because you will–go stand in front of a mirror. Ask yourself if you needed someone to decide what you learned and how you learned it. Ask yourself if you needed to be graded to know you were capable. Ask yourself if you might have become someone braver, bolder, and better educated if you had been encouraged to follow the paths that you knew were best for you, without being constantly judged against a norm (which is just another four-letter word).
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Okay, the next blog will be something concrete, I promise. I’ve been cooking up an English 1B syllabus, designed using Reggio Emilia concepts. Given the current system and given the need to assign grades, an English 1B class can only, at best, embrace certain Reggio Emilia principles. Some is still better than none, though. Onward!