At Pond Park Nursery School in Lisburn, County Antrim, it is the children who set the curriculum. Janet Armstrong (above), the principal, tells Judith Judd how.Q: How does a curriculum initiated by the children work?
A: The Reggio approach, based on the work of pre-schools in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, is not a curriculum as such, it is more a philosophical approach to working with children. It is based on the belief that children learn through interaction with others, including parents, staff, peers and the environment.
The teacher's role is not to immediately to provide information or answers but to encourage the children to explore and extend their own theories and ideas. The children are encouraged to discuss their ideas with each other and to take account of different points of view. There is also an acknowledgement that children have different ways of learning and different ways of expressing themselves.
The Reggio approach is influenced by the educational philosophies of Loris Malaguzzi, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey and Gardner.
Q: Can you give a brief description of what happens?
A: Projects are at the heart of the Reggio curriculum. The children's interests determine the topics to be studied. Some projects may last only a few weeks; others may last several months.
Projects are not planned in advance but instead follow the direction of the child's unfolding understanding and knowledge. They help teach collaboration because they are carried out by groups of children as well as teachers and other adults. Everyone involved in the project learns from each other as ideas and theories are exchanged.
There is usually more than one project happening at a given time.
The approach places a lot of emphasis on art as a means for children to express themselves. Each of the Reggio schools in Italy has an art studio and employs an artist to work with the children.
Q: Doesn't any curriculum need to include things children need to know as well as things they want to learn?
A: Perhaps we should start by asking what young children need to know. We could think in prescriptive terms about early literacy and numeracy. However, to categorise subjects into curriculum areas of learning is inappropriate and artificial for young children. The curriculum areas overlap and are not separated out in the young child's world, which is explored holistically with a sense of wonder and curiosity every day. In effect, the traditional subjects are integrated within the projects.
Q: How does a curriculum originated by children benefit pupils? Can you measure the benefit?
A: Perhaps one of the long-term benefits is that it encourages a positive disposition to learning.
A curriculum that originates from children's interests is relevant to them, so they are motivated to ask questions and seek solutions. A child-initiated curriculum is also very inclusive since it is tailored to each child's specific interests and development.
It is very difficult to quantify the benefits because the emphasis is on the process rather than the product of learning. Testing and league tables are incompatible with the Reggio approach. However, if children have been exposed in their formative years to an environment that fosters a love of learning, they are likely to perform better later.
Even more important is the emphasis on group learning and relationships. So it also develops social and interpersonal skills.
Q: Are there any drawbacks?
A: It is time-consuming, very intensive and difficult to implement without a high ratio of adults to children. Also, in the UK education system children are normally with the same teacher for only one year. In the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, they tend to stay with the same teacher for two or three years. This allows time for relationships to develop and for the teacher to really understand each child's interests and learning styles.
Within Pond Park Nursery, the very real drawbacks are lack of time and the low adult-to-child ratio. However, we do apply the basic principles.
We are acquiring more and more experience of the ways in which children learn and we are continually surprised by the insights and leaps in understanding they are capable of.
The Reggio Emilia approach: http:zerosei.comune.re.itinterindex.htm
Janet Armstrong is featured in 'Inspiring Minds', published by the Teaching Awards. Copies from firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith Judd is editor at large of 'The TES'.