It is 13 years since I last visited the Reggio exhibition. Education and childhood have evolved dramatically in that time. I was interested to see how the schools of Reggio Emilia have adapted to meet the interests and fascinations of this new generation.
The projects and learning I observed 13 years ago embraced the physical world. Investigations were made through exploring physical objects and environments, through discussion and experimentation, using art, photography, written and spoken word. The documentation of more recent projects followed a similar pattern, except for one key difference. The schools of Reggio Emilio are now embracing technology as a tool for learning and artistic expression. This is not a piecemeal attempt to use technology to teach concepts, but rather a way of using new ways of investigating and deepening knowledge and curiosity, that were not possible before. They have fully embraced it as one of the hundred languages.
Take for example, investigations that occurred during the building of the Malaguzzi centre. The children were taken into the space. They ran and danced around the pillars, making patterns of movement. They were then invited to design their own pillars. Once the designs were completed, they were projected onto a large screen containing an image of the Malaguzzi centre. The children saw, that in the image of the Malaguzzi centre, some of the pillars looked smaller than the others. “Were they smaller?” they asked, “or did they just appear that way?” The children’s pillars all looked the same size when they were added to the image, so they used Photoshop to shrink some of the images and make a realistic picture. I have often seen images of how the Reggio schools use projectors to aid learning but the addition of computer technology added a whole new angle to the learning.
In another project, the children were fascinated by the sound their feet made on the metal stairs. They decided to give the gift of sound to the stairs. To achieve this, they tested ways to make different sounds by changing shoes and using a variety of movements. The sounds were then recorded.
The children decided how they might be able to annotate the individual sounds and used the symbols to create a sequenced map of sound. The children drew a picture of the steps and scanned it into the computer. Using music software, they added individual sounds to each stair to create their desired sequence.
I love the way these projects can take an idea further than they ever could before. In the past the discussion and investigation would have been similar, representation in art would also have been used, but it would not have been possible to make a working model.
Many educators would uphold the Reggio approach as an example of why technology isn’t necessary in early education. Yet, when it is used as one of the hundred languages, it enriches the learning experience without reducing creativity, curiosity or discussion.
It makes me feel sad that schools are often encouraged and expected to use technology more in the classroom, but I rarely see it used in a creative or enriching way. I mostly see teachers using screens to impart knowledge or show examples. I have never seen teachers use music software to investigate the science of sound, use photoshop to create art projects or see it in any way as a tool for the children. It has certainly made me contemplate how we might ‘play’ with technology at home too.
Yesterday, in the wake of the US election, I was filled with questions. These were not questions about my role as a parent or about my future as a resident of the US but about my role and responsibility as an educator.
My core educational philosophy is to encourage children’s critical thinking and creative expression. Children should be valued for who they are and children, teachers and parents should work collaboratively, in an environment of respect and dialogue. I draw inspiration in my thinking from Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the preschools of Reggio Emilia. He worked with the community, to create new schools in the aftermath of World War II that would bring hope for a new generation. He created an environment that encouraged critical thinking and creative expression, and a culture of working together with respect for one another. Malaguzzi achieved his goal with a community of like-minded individuals.
Yesterday, a key question for me was; if I only work with liberally minded families is there really anything to change and am I really making a difference? If I want to encourage a different way of thinking, shouldn’t I be helping children who have not been encouraged to think in this way?
I struggled with the juxtaposition between encouraging critical thinking and respecting family beliefs and cultures. I believe that it is our duty to create an environment of tolerance and open-mindedness, and to promote a culture of children who think for themselves and whose opinions and emotions are valued. However, I also believe that we should work alongside families, respect their beliefs and work together for the good of the child.
More questions arose.
Can you do both and is it even possible to foster a new way of thinking if there are opposing values at home?
If a family believes something is a fundamental truth should I give the child the tools to question their world or would this be disrespectful to the families beliefs?
Perhaps it is my own issue and not theirs and I should instead seek to understand them better and why they uphold those beliefs?
Yesterday, that is where I left it, but today things are clearer, particularly in regard to the final question.
When there is hatred, unease and unrest in the world it is because of misunderstanding, ignorance and lack of knowledge. I can criticise people if they believe in things that I find fundamentally wrong, but should not condemn them until I have listened to their story, understood why they feel that way and looked into the contexts of their beliefs. America is divided; there is a clear feeling of them and us, but who is looking to understand why the other side holds their beliefs and the reality of their lives?
I grew up in Wales. In Wales we dislike the English because we are fed a history of English wealthy landowners who treated the working classes badly and took away our language. We see the English as arrogant toffs who think they are above us. Of course this is ludicrous and there is as much diversity in England as there is in Wales,but if you rarely cross the border, ignorance prevails. The same is true here. Liberals see Trump supporters as racist, bigoted individuals and people outside of the cities, see city people who are ignorant to their way of life and take away their values and livelihoods.
I think I now know my role. All children should have their minds opened. This isn’t only about questioning and critical thinking, it is also our duty as educators, to partner with other educators from other parts of the country and the world, to help them understand what the world is like for others. Show children the diversity of the world, teach them to ask questions of one another. Do they have the same questions? Do they think the same things as me? How are they different and how are we the same? We have a new opportunity in the world of the internet and social media to open children’s eyes so that they will not grow up in ignorance and fear.
We are all different but in many ways we are also all the same – let’s celebrate that for a while instead of trying to outdo one another all the time.
This week one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Jerome Bruner, died at age 100. If you have studied psychology or education you will most likely have come across his teachings. It’s easy to forget what we have been taught once college days are over, so I have been reminding myself of his teachings and their importance to early childhood educators.
Bruner proposed the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the action that an adult performs to assist the child in learning something that would otherwise be beyond them. Examples of scaffolding include modelling, making suggestions,or structuring learning into manageable parts. As the metaphor suggests, the scaffold supports the child as they build skills so that it can eventually be reduced and removed completely.
The following video illustrates a number of points about scaffolding. Notice how the amount of scaffolding from the adult is minimal or non-existent for the eldest child (aged eight). Some scaffolding is offered to the three-year old in the form of suggestion and answering questions but lots of scaffolding is required by the one-year old. The children themselves also offer scaffolding to each other, as they watch what the others do and try things for themselves.
2. Bruner believed that learning was an active process and that children could discover complex concepts at any age.
“Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child,” he wrote in “The Process of Education,” “providing attention is paid to the psychological development of the child.”
This concept heavily influenced the view of the capable child in the schools of Reggio Emilia. Bruner was a regular visitor to the schools even into his 90’s.
3. His work was fundamental in raising the profile of early education and his ideas contributed heavily to the development of Head Start.
4. Spiral curriculum
This method focuses on revisiting learned content at set intervals and re-teaching it at a more refined and difficult level. Eventually, learned content from one subject informs more in-depth discussion of content in another subject. Learning through play allows us the luxury of visiting concepts multiple times in different contexts.
Studies are not isolated but intrinsically linked with a common thread running through them all. Bruner believed that learners should go beyond the information given and understand the process in order to generate ideas of their own.
With over 70 years of research, this list only scratches the surface. I found this video useful for understanding his key contributions.
There has been a common thread on early education forums recently about how best to share information with parents. Parents are the child’s first educators and most good early education settings will look for ways to share learning journeys with parents. There could be barriers; some busy parents want to rush away without spending time conversing, other families are hard to reach, English is not their first language or they may feel uncomfortable about talking to teachers but it is important to understand a child’s home background and to support learning at home.
Put yourself for one moment in the shoes of a parent who drops their child to your setting at the start of the day and won’t see them again until it is almost bedtime. Imagine you are a parent who has stayed at home with your child for 5 years to suddenly find them in full-time school. Most young children will find it hard to remember what they have done during the day, leaving parents feeling completely out of touch with their child’s world. I remember when my daughter started school for the first time and feeling sad because I was no longer in control of her influences.
Many pre-schools are really good at sharing information. The key worker system means that staff know the children well and nurseries are generally happy to invite parents into the classroom and spend time talking to them. As Karin remarks
Thanks to the thorough keyworkers and pre-school staff we knew everything that went on every day.
Karin talks about the new learning journey parents experience when their children start school as she is learning to be a big school mum and asks
‘ how on earth can we find out what they are getting up to?’
As a parent there are a few simple things that can help. Start by asking very specific questions – Did you like the story you read today? What was your favourite thing that happened today? Who did you play with at playtime?
Chat to the other parents in the playground, children usually tell different stories and you may start to piece things together.
Encourage your child’s teacher to help you to find out by suggesting some of the things below. Start your discussion with it would be really helpful if …
As teachers there are things we can do to help. When parents feel valued and a part of their child’s learning and fully informed about what, why and how their children are learning, it is less likely that there will be a feeling of them and us.
Here are some of the ideas I have seen working well in practice
In my opinion this is the most effective way of showing parents what their children are doing. Documentation tells the story of what children have been doing by representing the stages of learning, using photograhs, anecdotes from the children, examples of work and teacher analysis. In this way parents can see what their child is doing, what they are learning and why they are doing it. Carlina Rinaldi president of Reggio Children in Italy says,
documentation is more than simply assessing or displaying the work of the children. “One of my definitions of documentation is that it is first of all an act of love,”
This describes perfectly the warmth that emanates from the documentation in Reggio Emilia – it is like shouting from the rooftops – look at what our children are doing. Isn’t it fascinating? Come and join in. Many good examples of documentation of children’s learning can be found in the projects of Sightlines Initiative.
Learning diaries have been available for every Foundation Stage child (up until the end of their first year at school) in the UK since 2008. These show the learning journeys of individual children through photographs, children’s comments and teacher analysis of learning. The diaries are an excellent record of progress and should move with the children when they go to school. Parents should be made aware that they are available to be viewed at all times and encouraged to comment about learning at home.
Learning diaries work best when they are, as the title suggests, a record of children’s learning. My first encounter with learning diaries was when working with children with additional needs, as a way of understanding what was happening at home and how that translated into their behaviour at school. In my experience this shared aspect of the diary is sometimes missed. Emphasise that this is the child’s book and it is important that everyone involved with the child shares information to build up a complete picture of the child.
If parents are struggling to get information from their children about the day at school it can be useful to display a timetable. Some specific information is also helpful, such as today we read this story or we looked at seeds and berries.
Not all will agree but I think that modern technology could revolutionise the way we build partnerships with parents. Allowing parents access to your email (preferably not your personal one) is a great way of sharing experience though I would suggest creating guidelines. Perhaps suggest that the email is for sending anecdotes about events or things they have been doing at home that they may like to share or build on in class. Teachers could send photographs to parents during the day of their children’s learning or maybe create an online version of the learning diary? I once had a childminder who even in the days before smartphones sent my daughter home with a sheet of thumbnail photos depicting what she had been doing that day. This meant so much and gave me a great starting point for talking about her day.
Open door policies.
In my experience most pre-schools and schools profess to have an open-door policy but in reality it means little. Many encourage parents to help at school and this is a great way of understanding what children are doing at school. However for working parents and those with younger siblings this is not always an option.
Most nurseries and pre-schools invite parents in to the classroom to collect their child. Parents have the chance to familiarise themselves with the environment, children can show their parents what they have been doing and there is a chance to talk to the staff. It surprised me when my daughter started at a school based nursery that children were handed to parents at the door and we weren’t invited in.
It can help parents to feel a part of their child’s day if the room remains set up at the end of the day and they are able to wander around with their child talking about what they have learned. Clearly this can be difficult if younger siblings start to play with toys or children don’t want to leave, so simply leaving one or 2 things out is sufficient. Outlining rules about this being a talking/sharing time not a play time should also help along with setting a clear time for leaving. Not all children/parents will want to stay every day. Perhaps encourage a parents’ rota for helping clear away.
The benefits of the above are plentiful
Parents will not continually demand information from you about their children as they will feel better informed.
Parents will be less anxious about their children if they feel a part of their life at school/nursery.
The children will be more likely to share what they have done with their parents by proudly showing their documentation and learning diaries.
Children can encourage parents to contribute to learning diaries creating a clear picture of the child for the teacher.
Photographs are a wonderful way of sharing information with families for whom English is not their first language.
Parents will feel better equipped to support their child’s learning at home.
With thanks to North Somerset Early Years advisory team, Liz Maggs, Hilltop Pre-School and Early Birds Nursery – Long Ashton for images and learning diary extracts.
The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.
Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play. I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood. Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal. Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings). In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self. Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.
As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game. How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?
I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg. We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time. Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing? It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.
I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play. If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia, there is one thing that sets them apart. The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder. We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them. Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.
In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia projects are based around what the children say and do. They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience . A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play. In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important. It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.
In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next. I believe therefore that the proverb should be