Hailed by many as an exceptional pre-school model The Reggio Emilia Approach to education deservedly attracts worldwide attention. Phoebe Doyle discovers some of the philosophies, ideologies and beliefs of this inspirational educational approach.
Reggio Emilia is a thriving town in the hills of northern Italy famous f...or its vintage basil vinegars, Parmigino cheese and Lambrusco wine that that was devastated by World War II. The Reggio Emilia education approach was created in 1945 by Loris Malaguzzi, a young journalist and educator, with the help of parents in the surrounding areas. It was conceived as an antitheses to the authoritarian, church-dominated approach to education in this era, and holds at its core the guiding principles of respect, responsibility and community. In the war-torn rubble whole communities became involved in building preschools for the young children that were perceived as the key to a less troubled future. The Reggio establishments have steadily grown in volume, reputation and continue to be hugely successful. Today the community boasts around 20 pre-primary schools and 14 infant-toddler centres which together serve about half of the town's children under six. Teachers from all corners of the world flock there; galvanised and inspired.
Whilst some of the attitudes of the Reggio approach are similar to those of the Steiner and Montessori systems it differs from them crucially in that it holds no specific rules or beliefs. It is rather built around certain fundamental values; about children and child development. Today there are schools based on the Reggio principle worldwide, including schools and nurseries here in the UK. One such school is The New School, Lewes, Sussex. Their website boasts an ethos that aims to “nurture intellectual, emotional and spiritual development within a safe and supportive learning environment”. Community The Italian’s cultural view of children is that each individual child is the collective responsibility of the state and the community; firm believers in the old adage ‘ it takes a village to raise a child’. Adequate funds are provided to ensure each child receives the education they deserve. The Reggio system is for children under the age of six but it is the wider community which is also the beneficiary of and contributor to the system. As renound Reggio teacher Vea Vicchi said “bringing up children is a social phenomenon. You can’t build a good school without the community, without the society. Furthermore, all the different parts of society – the political, the social and the economic – must look at children in the same way, otherwise it’s impossible to do a good job in our schools”.
Family is important in Italian culture and full involvement is expected from parents, not necessarily just for their child or their class but also for the school at large. Parents are involved in planning, teaching, resource and assessment. “Timing and rhythms demand enormous respect” Malaguzzi explained. “Children need the support of adults in order to combat the accelerating pressures and haste to make them grow up, which is not only a treacherous sign of the subversion of biological, psychological, and cultural relationships this is currently in vogue, but also a sign of deep insecurity and a loss of perspective”.
First and foremost a Reggio teacher’s role is as a learner alongside the children. They are committed to learning about children, both in terms of the individuals in their care as well as in child development issues in general. In return for this intellectual approach teachers are offered autonomy in planning and teaching and given the respect and freedom which allows them to design and create a specific, unique curriculum. Far from this curriculum being set in stone and returned to cohort after cohort, the Reggio philosophy recognises that the world is an ever changing place. The Reggio curriculum is an ‘emergent curriculum’ that builds upon the children’s interests. Planning is a team effort with parents, children, teachers and the wider community all on board. There is a sense of purpose and progression without strict sequence, official targets and age-related goals. The approach has no time for unnecessary expectations; the ‘narrowing the goal posts’ so apparent in most educational methods.
Assessment of learning is rigorous and multi-faceted. Teachers in the setting take turns to take notes, photograph and record observations of learning. They often work in teams of co-teachers, a collaborative approach with constant reflection on teaching styles and methods. Despite children being expected to contribute equally to planning, teachers are in no way passive bystanders. Their role is complex and thorough. As they believe in the inherent learning from mistakes, they provoke ideas and essential to development, ideas and questions, provide problems to be solved and provide an atmosphere rich in opportunities creative, spontaneous learning. As a 2008 report into childhood education confirmed “if children do not have the competencies to listen, observe, participate, talk and problem solve, then they cannot function in a developmentally appropriate classroom or go beyond their developmental potentials”. Reggio teachers are firm believers that children are natural learners, with inquisitive minds capable of in-depth experimentation and investigation. They dismiss the authority-based pyramid where a teachers role is to pass knowledge down to the child; this entire concept is turned on its head.
After the parent and the teacher, the environment is seen as the third educator. The aesthetics of the school environment is viewed as an integral part of the learning experience. Schools are open planned with doors to the outside from every classroom; indoor plants and vines are used in rooms flooded with natural light. Teachers go to great lengths to organise different areas for small group study, areas for just 2 or 3 children as well as for whole class work. Displays of children’s work, records of outings and artifacts they have found are all around to evoke, recapture and inspire the children. Each centre features an atelier (art centre) and mini atelier (art corners). A professional artist is employed to help the children explore their hundred languages, which is how Malaguzzi described a child’s myriad ways of expressing himself. Malaguzzi himself urged “that the environment should act as a kind of aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and culture of the people”.
Specific projects are an important part of the Reggio pre-school approach. A programme of study is often decided upon after careful observations of spontaneous and explorative play. Projects evolve freely and whilst teachers may plan to pose certain questions or dilemmas it is always the children who lead the way. The teacher’s role is as the child’s aid, helping them to make decisions about direction and materials. As the projects evolve naturally they may just last for a few days, a week or for the entire school year. Lessons for all There are without doubt lessons to be learnt for all working in Early Years and Primary education, as one teacher told me “the Reggio approach makes you stop and take stock on what is important; what teaching is all about”. Yet to try and copy the approach would to go against everything it stands for. No matter how ideal the system seems it is rooted in and determined by the local community, cultural and environmental conditions.
A nursery in the West Midlands has incorporated the approach following a visit to Reggio and explain “far from trying to imitate the Reggio approach wholesale, the staff are keen to debate implications, including ideas about relationships between the child, the teacher and the school”. Key to teachers should be the individuals they are teaching, the environment in which they live and learn and the community to which they belong. Relflections Nursery in Worthing explain their emphasis on respect “we believe all children have the right to be understood as individuals and to be given time and opportunity to develop as creative, competent learners in a secure and beautiful environment”. Certainly an ethos all in education should aspire to.
Final Words… Rooted in a fascinating post-war history this Italian approach is internationally acclaimed. Planning and teaching is viewed as a constantly evolving process where all concerned are intrinsically involved. The result is community, parent and child working holistically in a way that benefits all.