Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reggio After Images

A striking idea; a persistent after image; connections engaging with multiple and foundational ideas. Together these are the first indication that a new idea has staying power.

Over the years Reggio educators and their pedagogy have been a source of provocative ideas. The museums group study tour this year was no exception. Ideas were presented and unfolded. Thought leader and wonderfully quotable Loris Malaguzzi was often cited. One month later, I am holding onto some ideas and some ideas are holding onto me. Those with the greatest staying power and that engage with projects, practice, and pedagogy are ones I will likely explore them in future blog posts.

1.     The social value of materials. The significant role of materials exploration in the Reggio schools is well known and well documented. Educators select materials for children to explore with their hands and imaginations, as tools, for their expressive potential and to make connections between languages. Less obvious is selecting a material for its social value, its capacity to build a sense of group or to encourage cooperation among children. Distinctions among materials may consider how they build the child’s familiarity, relationship, and confidence with the material. A material may also be selected because it enriches a child’s elaboration of their ideas and desire to share them with others. No doubt other carefully considered dimensions also help extend exploration and I have yet to discover them.

2.     Connections as learning. Clarity about learning through connections threads through Reggio pedagogy. Consistent with a constructivist learning perspective, decidedly interdisciplinary, and congruent with the interconnectedness of the world as we experience it, connections recognizes learning as actively engaging multiple senses, construction across different dimensions, and forging links between experiences and ideas. In this way, we actively build understandings of social and physical relationships operating in the world. Connections start where the learner is and go everywhere and anywhere. Neither limited by nor respecting subject matter boundaries, they follow interest, and encounter the unexpected.

3.     Prepared to follow. To be able to follow children’s explorations–with light, movement, air, or the city–the adult must be familiar with a wide range of concepts that children might explore in the classroom, the museum, outdoors. Thoughtful preparation acknowledges the child's significant capabilities and natural curiosity as well as opening the adult to the possibilities of the context, the project, the studio, the exhibit, the activity. The adult becomes a learner and researcher along with the child who is a ready learner. In the role of following, the adult extends children’s exploration; gets a sense of what is and isn’t happening; and activates, especially indirectly, the meaning-making competencies of children (Bruner).

4.     A helpful disruption to the play – learning connection. Calls for more play in the lives of children in the US, born of grave concern about the lack of play in their lives, come from many voices and sources. Appeals for more play often argue for its value by equating play and learning, linking it to more recognized public health issues like well-being or obesity, or elevating it to children’s work. Inadvertently, this undersells play by reinforcing unproductive dichotomies, suggesting that a simple equation (play=learning) can explain a rich and dense relationship, and concealing the very complexity of play that makes it valuable. Opening up the connections and pathways between play and learning and other important processes such as creativity help expand the idea of play, reveal the power within play and why it’s valued. Can we speak of playing without learning? Creativity without play? Play without stories and narratives?

5.     When a drawing is not a drawing. “Can you draw a picture of a …” is a question adults often ask a child. Because of the way it’s stated, it may convey a sense of expectation of the child; the child thinks the adult wants her to make a specific drawing–a chair that looks a certain way or that very tree out the window. Inviting a child to draw is not necessarily about the child drawing the object, the dog, the bike, or the shell. Rather, it may be about the child getting to know that object, seeing the shape, noticing how the petals of the flower touch, or attending to the spiral of the shell–and translating that knowledge into a drawing. A question posed or a request made frames the experience for the child. Will it be an experience of looking and thinking or an experience of guessing what the adult wants?

6.     Stakeholders in children’s learning. We often refer to a museum’s stakeholders: partners, supporters and friends, both individuals and groups, who are likely to affect or be affected by the museum. These are valuable relationships that can be even more valuable when they focus on what is of highest priority to a museum. Shifting the focus to children and, more specifically to their learning, applies a powerful new lens, invites additional considerations of current and new partners, and opens opportunities for increasing impact. Stakeholders in the museum might be interested in the foot traffic it generates for local businesses. Stakeholders in children’s learning, on the other hand, might be interested in engaging children’s ideas and giving visibility to their thinking. They might be interested in advancing these interests with the museum. Thinking about stakeholders in children’s learning might bring new partners to the table and allow the museum to set a different table.

7.     Aesthetics and ethics. The most intriguing and provocative idea of the study tour–and in a long time–was atelierista Vea Vecchi’s assertion of the “emphatic” relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Referencing poet Josef Brodsky’s statement, she placed this powerful connection in the culture of the atelier, the context of Reggio pedagogy, and the lives of children around the world. She further related aesthetics and ethics with struggling against indifference. She did not, however, explain the connections. In exploring how these apparently unlikely ideas might engage with one another, it seems that the aesthetic dimension keeps alive in us a search for beauty and an attitude of being attentive. What we attend to with a particular sensibility, we value: loveliness, harmony, nature, exchange with others, a sensibility in the moment. What we value, we care about and we care for. We are not indifferent to what we care about and what matters. How do you understand and imagine this relationship between aesthetics and ethics?
8.     Imagine it before being asked to do it.” A comment shared by Tiziana Filipinni, pedagogista in the Reggio Schools in the first sessions has proven to be a Matryoshka doll with many and intriguing meanings. It is, certainly, advice to be alert and prepared across a range of situations. This includes bringing a pro-active stance to considering the long-term, strategic interests of a museum, a school, or a city: paying attention to the time and community we live in and updating our understanding of the present. An unusual vision of leadership is also carried within this statement. When we use our capacity to imagine what’s possible and what’s next, we are able to construct the future. Our “imagining it” puts us out in front to shape what comes next and allows us to bring others along, something the educators in Reggio seem to have been able to do over the last 60 years

Thanks very much to members of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota that came together on December 15 to hear about the study tour and discuss many of these ideas: Tami, Christy, Tom, Lani, Eileen, Michele, Alaina, Katie, Stephanie, Erica, and Andrea

 Reggio-related blog posts on Museum Notes:
  • Reggio Study Tour and the Children’s Museum Field


  1. One of your points opened my eyes to an aspect of Reggio work that causes me to take pause as I plan provocations in an early childhood classroom. Namely, the amount of investigation of a subject---light, movement, etc.---carried out by the teachers of Reggio so they are able to follow the children's interest and expand upon it. I think you even said in the debrief that they would read college textbooks as resources for a deeper understanding of a subject they pursue together with the children. It causes me to pause for two reasons: 1) that means planning a curriculum is not simply planning "activities" and 2) that means to show respect for children's ability to investigate and learn, teachers have to investigate and learn, too. I am afraid you just made my job harder. Thank you.

  2. Tom, your clarifications are helpful; thank you. This point has taken several years for me to absorb. Recognizing and engaging children's potential and following their interests really does mean expecting more of ourselves, including being learners along with them and exploring new topics. There is something invigorating about that. I also appreciate how daunting that can be. Fortunately there are many ways of learning including with and from colleagues, parents and children; college texts are just one way. Cheers!