Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Reggio Emilia Approach

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I believe the Reggio Emilia approach can be used beyond the primary grades as a valid and successful method of instruction. Below I'll outline the approach and why I think it's valuable for children of all ages.

I'm reading this great book called, 'Bringing Reggio Emilia Home' by Louise Boyd Cadwell. She not only chronicles her experience as a teacher in a Reggio school in Italy, but documents the every day challenges to this revolutionary approach to education.

Cadwell moved her family to Italy in 1991 to begin her journey as a guest instructor at The Diana School in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This region of Italy is known to be rich in art, agriculture, industry and tourism and for a highly developed and well funded social service network, specifically in child welfare. It is this child-centered focus that allowed the Reggio approach to flourish. There are many state-funded as well as parochial schools in the area and not all subscribe to the Reggio approach. Once the children leave the preschools at age 6, they move to the state-run public schools or a parochial school. These secondary schools are more traditional and do not employ the Reggio approach. The fundamental principles of the approach are a combination of child-driven curriculum and teacher-as-collaborator. I'm summarizing below to the best of my sleep-deprived understanding:

  • The child as protagonist. The child is infinitely capable of connecting with their environment on many levels. 
  • The child as collaborator. This is based on the social constructivist model that says we form ourselves through our interactions with others, so the child should take an active part in the direction and focus of their learning.
  • The child as communicator. Children communicate through multiple mediums, including spoken and written word, as well as through art, building, music, play and make-believe. All methods are important and it is the job of the instructor to help make the child's thinking 'visible'. 
  • The environment as third teacher. The space in which a child learns is as important as the content they absorb. Beauty is an important teacher and motivator, so the spaces in a Reggio school will be architecturally interesting, light, airy, green and colorful. Children and adults are encouraged to care for and love the space.
  • Teacher as partner, nurturer and guide. The teacher is the co-planner, co-researcher and co-conspirator in learning. Teachers as probing questions to discover the direction of the child's interest and is responsible for providing a rich environment in which the child can explore that interest. Teachers are encouraged to go on learning 'journeys' together, documenting as they go along in any medium they choose. Many journeys are nature-based and take place around the school.
  • Teacher as researcher. Teachers engage in continuous discussion and interpretation of activity at the school. Ongoing training is a must, as well as thorough documentation of the 'work' done in collaboration with the children. Children are also considered researchers.
  • Documentation as communication. Carefully crafted portfolios of each child's work are created using all possible mediums available (written, photographic, video, art) and feedback and interpretation from all instructions is included after careful debate. This shows the parents what their child is learning, shows the child that their learning is important, and adds to the school's archive of learning.
  • The parent as partner. Parents are encouraged to participate in the child's learning, both in school and at home, in any aspect they can contribute. Parents and teachers work closely to exchange ideas and understanding of the child to create the optimal learning environment.
After reading more about the Reggio principles, the thought dawned on me that such a collaborative approach to learning is very similar to Democratic education or even Unschooling. Since these methods can both successfully employ collaborative learning between the parent/teacher and child through high school, why does Reggio stop after preschool? I can only deduce that that it would be cost prohibitive (since the state runs Reggio schools) plus the ever-present concern that a child will not receive the appropriate 'classical' instruction if left to their own devices. It's possible that they won't learn Latin in a Reggio-based instructional setting, but only because their interest might not lie in that direction. They will, however, learn their chosen topics at a depth that a more traditional curriculum lacks due to time constraints.

I especially like the principle of Documentation as communication. Love that a reason to document a child's work is to show the child that their learning is important and worthy of not only saving, but being documented to paint a larger picture of learning. This can also help the homeschooling parent to maintain an archive of educational artifacts should they need to present it later on for school admission at the elementary, middle, high school or college level.

Each principle above could have been written with homeschool in mind. Who is better suited to be a your co-conspirator in learning than the people who have spent your lifetime learning about you?

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