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A Hundred Languages in encountering Reggio's Approach ...
We are currently preparing new introductory days for UK educators, introducing the work of Reggio Emilia's public preschools.
Debi Keyte Hartland, one of our preparation group, has reflected on some of the perils, pitfalls and possibilities in how this can be approached. Here is her article:
Recent conversations have provoked me to think about the language we use to describe our educational experiences with children, especially those that are specifically 'Reggio Inspired'. It has made me reflect on how Loris Malaguzzi described what he promoted in the Preschools and Infant Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and how I see it often being described and contested in places that consider themselves as 'Reggio Inspired".
To begin with, I want to say how I prefer the term we use at Sightlines Initiative (The UK Reggio Emilia reference network) that is to be 'in dialogue with Reggio', rather than being 'Reggio Inspired.'
For me, the difference lies in the values of this approach that is dialogic and co-constructivist in nature.It is an approach that evolves and is alive to the constant elaboration of knowledge, as we as adults learn about the learning processes of children and indeed of human beings in relation to the world of ideas and thinking.It is not about having baskets or open shelves, or provocations or loose parts, mirrors, white walls, open spaces or wood. Nor is it about being 'Reggio Inspired' in the right way or wrong way. It is however, about how we relate to children in the educational experience and the task we have as teachers to encounter and be alongside children as they construct and re-construct knowledge about the world in which we all live together.Learning and teaching is therefore considered as a process of research by both children and adults alike.
'Inspiration' is a problematic term: it can imply, in some cases, a pickn'mix approach of educational methods and ideas which I think is contrast to the deep and complex values that are implicit and at the heart of Loris Malaguzzi's original thinking. Reggio's is a values based approach to learning and teaching (see Sightlines Initiative's collection of Introductory Articles) and NOT a methodology of teaching and specific resources, so it is worthwhile to spend our own time thinking for ourselves what Malaguzzi meant when he said that we have to think about what our own image of the child is, in order to understand what our approach to teaching is.These two things are relational and connected and affect how we teach and how we prepare our environments in readiness for children. It also affects how we talk about children, teachers, learning and the approach of Reggio itself.
Reggio is not about a 'free' approach to learning: everything is to be considered in relationship of each other. We have set up our environments even if they are available for children to access freely; we take them to specific places to play; we hold the conversations we have and there is an implied hierarchy in that - so nothing, absolutely nothing, is ever neutral or free. Loris Malaguzzi described teaching and learning as a game of Ping Pong where one bats the ball back to the other.This is a relationship where the energy is preserved for keeping the ball in play; for keeping the learning alive. It requires both the presence of the adult and the child together in a process of exchange and reciprocity.
His poem 'The Hundred Languages ...' begs for us to think about learning and teaching in its poetic and complex figurations and not in the reductionist, binary or quantitative formats that are currently normalising the landscape of education. We can seek for ourselves, through an attitude of being in dialogue with Reggio Emilia's approach to learning, the poetry and complexity in describing children's/humans sociable processes of learning, rather than inadvertently perpetuating a language which defies the very values and principles upon which the Reggio Emilia Approach has grown. In the UK and in many other global contexts, we are in danger of being tied into using a specific language to describe learning that is fast becoming the norm. 'Child-led', 'teacher-led', 'child-initiated', 'scaffolded learning',' teacher-framed', 'free play', 'purposeful play' … often these descriptors are languages that are set in polarised positions of each other, replicating binary frameworks that are reductionist in terms of the complex meaning-making of which young children are capable. It is not a matter of just being either/or, with nothing in-between but instead, one where there is a spectrum of possibilities which constantly shift and evolve when thinking about how to describe children's learning (which is itself in its own state of constant and dynamic movement.)
We are in danger of being tied into thinking about education as something that is wholly measurable and quantifiable, where children's learning is reduced to simplified percentage points on a scale of normalcy.The march of the datafication of children's learning is fast becoming the everyday, habitual action of teaching through a pedagogy of testing. I ask, can we describe learning in these ways when learning is itself a living system?
'Adult-led', 'child-led', what does all this all actually mean? Loris Malaguzzi described the relations of a pedagogic approach such as Reggio so well when he said: "Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning and how to learn." Malaguzzi, L. 1998, 'History, ideas and philosophy', in Edwards, C. Gandini, L. and Forman, G. 1998, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach, Ablex Publishing, Greenwich (p83).
We need to reconsider avoid considering Reggio's experience and approach from mundane, technical perspectives (e.g. alluding to Reggio in terms of 'adult/child led ratios', or one that is 'scaffolded' or 'framed') to one where we use the poetics of language that speak instead of relationships, exchange and reciprocity. Malaguzzi's famous metaphor of learning being like a tangled bowl of spaghetti which encompasses both the learning of the child/children together with adults is a challenge to those who insist on evaluating Reggio from quantitive, individualised and often polarised perspectives. The common terminologies of being '-- led', and (thus the implication of following) are not attuned to a pedagogy of relationships which Malaguzzi calls for in his poem "The Hundred Languages of Children".
The idea that we are all constructing and re-constructing knowledge from a myriad of sources in this tangled bowl of spaghetti is so eloquently put here by Rinaldi and Moss:
"Learning is not the transmission of a defined body of knowledge, what Malaguzzi refers to as a 'small' pedagogy. It is constructive, the subject constructing her or his own knowledge but always in democratic relationships with others and being open to different ways of seeing, since individual knowledge is always partial and provisional. From this perspective, learning is a process of constructing, testing and reconstructing theories, constantly creating new knowledge. Teachers as well as children are constantly learning. Learning itself is a subject for constant research, and as such must be made visible." Rinaldi, C. and Moss, P. 'What is Reggio?', in Children in Europe: Celebrating 40 years of Reggio Emilia - March 2004. Scotland. Children in Scotland (p2)
In this exploration of how to describe being in dialogue with Reggio and to avoid perpetuating a 'small pedagogy', as Malaguzzi describes it, we first must ask the right question ... not ask 'is the approach we take Reggio inspired or not', nor whether it is adult-led or child-led. Instead to ask ourselves again and again, how is it that children learn, what is our image of the child, how we will position ourselves as a learner/teacher/researcher in relation to that image? In beginning over with this, we can begin to understand what it is to be working in dialogue with the principles and values of Reggio Emilia.