Is Public Education Ready for Reggio Emilia?


Is Public Education Ready for Reggio Emilia?

Leo Lo Sassso Riccciadi

copyright (c) 2013

Education Week (April 27, 2010, Needs of “Whole Child” May Factor in ESEA Renewal) reports that as the Obama administration and lawmakers prepare for the revitalization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly the current No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), that too much emphasis is placed on students’ test scores and ignore educating the whole child.  A week earlier, in mid-April, at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee meeting, lawmakers posited the idea that educating the whole child should incorporate a wide array of support services, which advocates of NCLB reform hope to reflect in the rewrite of ESEA.  Education Week asserts that these may include “dental and mental health, as well as programs aimed at providing prekindergarten and library services, summer and after-school enrichment, mentoring, college counseling, and increased parent and community involvement.”  All of these strategies affirm the holistic approach in education, which proponents argue needs to part of educational reform if American schools are actually going to close the achievement gap.  According to an attendee at the Senate meeting, Geoffrey Canada, the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, “In communities where kids are failing in record numbers, you can’t do one thing. We start with children at birth and stay with them until they graduate from college.” Canada concludes that “…in the end, you have to create a series of supports that really meet all of their needs.”

Enter Reggio Emilia

Given the current political climate, this may be the opportune time to promote Reggio Emilia-inspired schools in public early childhood education programs and elementary schools.  The Reggio approach has its origins in Reggio Emilia, Italy following the devastation of World War II, a time when citizens of Reggio Emilia wanted to create schools in which they could participate.  Soon schools developed under the strong leadership of Loris Malaguzzi and an exceptional team of teachers.  Malaguzzi promoted strong dialogue among teachers as he also enthusiastically participated in rich dialogue and exploration with them.

The Reggio approach to education is committed to the creation of conditions for learning that will enhance and facilitate children’s construction of “his or her own powers of thinking through the synthesis of all the expressive, communicative, and cognitive languages” (Edwards & Forman, 1993).  The “Reggio” vision embraces a child-directed curriculum model, which recognizes many facets of the arts as symbolic languages children use to express their understandings through their extended project work in the atelier, or studio, such as in speaking, writing, acting, drawing, sculpture, music, and exploration of their environments.  Through the “hundred languages” of doing, being, reflecting, and knowing, children learn and grow in relation with others.  Typically, Reggio-inspired schools utilize an emergent curriculum, which ultimately allow for a construction of a knowledge base that continually evolves and grows as the young community of explorers: solve problems; define meanings based on values; build new understandings; experience life; and generate hypotheses and test theories.

Additionally, six basic concepts of this approach to early childhood education were refined over time by Malaguzzi, these include: the child is the protagonist, collaborator, and communicator because children have rights, not simply needs; the teacher is viewed as a partner, nurturer, guide, and researche; cooperation is the foundation of the educational system; the environment is the “third teacher”; the parent is a partner in school and curriculum, and documentation is communication (Caldwell, 1997, 2003; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993, 1998; Fu, Stremmel, & Hill, 2002; Gandini, 2004; Hendrick, 1997, 2004; Lewin-Benham, 2008; Malaguzzi, 1998; Wien, 2008; Wurm, 2005).

The child as protagonist, collaborator, and communicator

Children learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing, exploring, and hearing, which increase language acquisition during the early years.  They develop relationships with other children and with items in their environment; they explore through long-term projects, which are vehicles for learning and integrate various areas of the curriculum, such as literacy, math, science, and language acquisition.

The teacher as partner, nurturer, guide, and researcher

Wurm (2005) interprets Malaguzzi’s concept of the role of the teacher as: “. . . not so much to ‘facilitate’ learning in the sense of making it ‘smooth or easy’ but rather to ‘stimulate’ it by making problems more complex and engaging.  The work with children in Reggio Emilia is the work of teacher-researchers who are always thinking both about the children and about their own practice and how it reflects their values about children and education.”  Moreover, children will stay with one particular teacher for a three-year-period, creating consistency, trust and – in language-immersion schools – they acquire the accent of a native speaker over this extended length of time.

The environment as the “third teacher”

Attention is given to the planning of new space.  Schools are generally filled with indoor plants, vines, and natural light.  Entries and classrooms capture the attention of both children and adults through the use of photographs, children’s work occasionally accompanied by dual-language transcriptions of discussions, and displays of project work, which are interspersed with arrays of objects and materials.  The environment informs and engages the viewer.

Cooperation as the foundation of the educational system

Teachers become skilled observers of children in order to organize and implement instruction.  Teachers divide responsibilities in the class, so that one can observe, take notes, and record conversations between children.  Observations are shared with a specialized teacher called the atelierista, who uses art as an integrated approach in fostering children’s “languages” of expression.

The Parent as Partner

Parents are vital to the Reggio Emilia philosophy as they are their children’s first teachers and viewed as partners and collaborators; they are viewed as a competent component to their children’s learning experiences as they are involved, interact, and work in the schools, discuss educational goals and psychological issues, participate and plan special events, excursions, and celebrations, and help build exhibits to showcase children’s projects.

Documentation as communication

Simply stated, documentation refers to the process of teachers collecting work, observing students in their learning and play environments, and analyzing students’ work.  Typically, teachers take daily notes, photographs, and make audio and video recordings of group discussions and children’s play, which are later displayed.  However, documentation encompasses much more.  Additionally, documentation requires teachers and the atelierista to record and analyze children’s conversations, drawings, questions, or the stages of construction of a project.  Elverenli (2002) sees the purpose of documentation as involving the following:  to inform and involve the parents in the projects and inform them what is going on; to advance teachers’ professional growth by investigating a deeper meaning of the child; to study children’s work in an effort in find areas for future study and provocation; to honor and respect children’s thoughts and understandings by making them visible; and to record the history of the school, the children, and the teachers.

Reggio-inspired Schools Receive International Acclaim

Many of the most respected educators and researchers of our time, including Harvard University’s Howard Gardner, the creator of the multiple intelligences theory, acknowledge the Reggio Emilia approach as the most exceptional example of high-quality early education the world has ever seen.  The approach was hailed by Newsweek (1991) as an exemplary model of early childhood education.  However, this approach of educating preschoolers and elementary students has not gained popularity in the public American educational school system.  The time has come for Reggio Emilia-inspired schools to flourish with specialization in teacher education programs designed for 21st century educators.  The time has come to propel learning beyond our expectations, especially during the early formative years, before a child reaches kindergarten, when the seeds of academic success are planted.

The Assessment Debate: Standardized Testing and Accountability

However, it is important to emphasize the major obstacle facing Reggio Emilia-inspired schools in the United States, which is the current emphasis on standardized testing.  The Reggio approach primarily utilizes authentic documentation, which captures a child’s many faceted learning experiences throughout the day, month, and throughout the year(s).  Actually, documentation provides a more comprehensive picture of a child’s academic growth and progress since it is more than a “snapshot” of what has been learned through testing on only a few selected days during a child’s academic year, such as what standardized testing accomplishes.

Implications for Global Consciousness and Language-Immersion Schools

The time has come for the creation of Reggio Emilia-inspired language-immersion primary and elementary schools, which rarely exist in the United States, which would constitute a union of three instructional strategies: the Reggio approach, second-language instruction, and emergent curriculum, which are highly beneficial for children of all ages, especially preschoolers when their brains are wired for acquisition of a second language.  Teaching through thematic units and project would be the focus of much of the instruction as part of the inviting school curriculum.  Experts in the field of language immersion, such as Howard and Sugarman (2007), suggest: “For language learners, the use of multiple modalities (e.g., listening, singing, drawing, writing) is a key sheltered instructional strategy because it offers students multiple opportunities to understand the meaning of new material.”  Essentially, the mission and values of this proposed model commits to preparing a diversity of students to achieve and contribute in a global society through the reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing of a variety of critical foreign languages.  Additionally, the proposed schools’ mission and values would recognize the importance of seeking a new path for international relations, one built on mutual respect, cultural awareness, and “fists unclenched” in attaining peace and understanding in order to foster and embrace multicultural awareness required of a 21st century citizen of the world.

In the January issue of The Language Educator, Colorado State Senator, Pat Steadman, stated: “Language learning is a 21st century skill.  For our students to truly be competitive in a global economy, our public school system should equip them with at least one language other than English.  Without language skills, and an appreciation of language learning, our students truly will be left behind.”


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