The Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University on March 15 sponsored The Reggio Emilia Approach: A Panel on the U.S. School System’s Responses to an Italian Educational Philosophy that engaged experts, faculty, teachers, teachers-in-training, students, and parents in a lively conversation about the approach and its emergence in early-childhood education in New Jersey. The guest speaker, Lella Gandini, the leading advocate for Reggio Emilia, provided a historical overview and shared documentation to support the philosophical orientation of this approach, which was founded in Reggio Emilia in 1945 by visionary teacher Loris Malaguzzi. From his desire to construct a school after World War II, he became the guiding genius of this educational community.
If a child has a hundred languages, why does education steal ninety-nine of them?
“Children have great potential and desire to explore, construct and learn — explains Gandini — if it is not in the hands or in the heart, then it can’t be in the head.” In Malguzzi’s poem “No way. The hundred is there” (translated into English by Gardini), the endless number of children’s potentials are illustrated in these passages:
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.
A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
Current models of education ask students, from preschool to college, to “discover the world already there,” limiting intellectual development to just one way of learning, that is restricted to seat time in a fixed program of study. The Reggio Emilia approach, instead, develops children’s competencies through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children as observed, documented and sustained by the teachers. The children themselves are knowledge-makers.
Nothing in school should happen without joy
Yet, in America, learning is oppressed by standardized tests, prescribed curricula, accessibility issues and administrivia. Given the current reality of the U.S. education system, is the Reggio Emilia approach an option? So it seems. This educational philosophy has come to fruition in the form of schools and organizations in twenty-one states, with seven schools in New Jersey. A Child’s Place (Lincroft, NJ) contributed to the panel discussion by presenting three different perspectives to evidence Reggio Emilia in action.
Fundamentally important to A Child’s Place is the educational community of partners and collaborators, comprising of the parents, the educators (researchers and documenters), the environment (which provides stimuli to provoke thought and curiosity), and finally, the children themselves. “The informal atmosphere, students calling teachers by their first name, for example, helps establish a trusting relationship. – says Debbie Piescor, Master Teacher – This safe environment allows for cognitive risk-taking, working out cognitive knots (misunderstandings) and taking a collaborative journey to learning.”
The curriculum is emergent: it is based on learning experiences that draw on student interests and integrates all aspects of academic learning and problem solving with joyful discovery. “The curriculum is co-constructed by the teachers and students and families within the school and is unique to each year. The established curriculum areas – explains Director Kathleen Berkowitz – address intellectual, academic, physical and emotional development.”
For over 40 years, A Child’s Place has successfully demonstrated that such an approach is sustainable in the U.S.
The approach beyond age 7
To better understand the role of Reggio Emilia in education as a whole,we asked these questions to Gina Miele, an Italian professor at Montclair State and informed parent of A Child’s Place.
What is the role for the Reggio approach in secondary and post-secondary education?
“One premise of Reggio centers on a respect for the student as an equal contributor to academic investigations. Its application for me at the college level involves project-based learning and an emergent curriculum in which I begin with a general outline, but respond to student interest as investigations develop.”
Would you please elaborate on this?
“In a sense, my students and I are co-constructing knowledge and finding ways to make, for example, medieval Italian literature relevant to their understanding of the contemporary world and their personal lives. I allow my students to access the curriculum through materials, music, art, movement, film … essentially the 100 languages.”
What have been the outcomes?
“I have seen greater critical thinking and creative expression in my elementary Italian courses, as well as in my upper level literature courses, when I bring Reggio values into my teaching.”
Recently, employability and life-long learning were objectives introduced into college and university curriculum. How does this approach meet these objectives?
“Without a doubt, the Reggio Emilia approach does indeed have something to offer higher education—to develop a student’s potential, capabilities and humanity. I am increasingly convinced that we need to revolutionize education at all levels and that European progressive models like those of Reggio Emilia and Montessori from Italy and Waldorf from Germany can be at the heart of that change.”
Enza Antenos is Assistant Professor of Italian at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. Her research areas include foreign language teaching and learning, technology, and teaching training.