Learning partners

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Loris Malaguzzi said teaching should be an exchange with equals, writes Mary Jane Drummond

In the spring of 1945, a few days after the end of the war, Loris Malaguzzi, a middle school teacher in Reggio Emilia, Italy, heard that a few miles away, in the village of Villa Cella, the people were building a school out of the rubble of their bombed-out homes. He jumped on his bicycle and rode off to see for himself: he describes how he found "a devastated town, rich only in mourning and poverty", but also a community determined to rebuild its children's futures from the ruins of the Fascist regime.

That school and others like it, which soon opened nearby, were the start of a movement, now internationally famous, known as the Reggio Emilia approach to early education. Malaguzzi threw in his lot with this grass-roots movement, and became equally internationally renowned as its philosophical leader, a tireless and inspiring advocate for young children's entitlement to the highest quality in early childhood provision and pedagogy.

In spite of the personal reverence with which Malaguzzi's work is treated by his colleagues in Reggio and his followers world-wide, he himself constantly emphasises the many factors that have contributed to the development of the distinctive Reggio approach. First and foremost, the schools grew up and flourished in a region characterised by an assumption of solidarity and community, with a long history of socialist municipal government, a society with a firm belief in collective responsibility for children.

Secondly, Malaguzzi continually reaffirms the power of the parents who sparked the movement, and the significance of their continuing involvement in the settings throughout the region. He sees the schools as having always tried to remain faithful to the parents' concerns and desires. Of the Villa Cella parents he writes: "They asked for nothing less than that this school, which they had built with their own hands, be a different kind of school, a school that could educate their children in a different way from before ... children first of all had to be taken seriously and believed in ... If our endeavour has endured for many years, it has been because of this collective wisdom".

Thirdly, Malaguzzi is proud to recognise the many intellectual influences and sources of inspiration for the Reggio endeavour, not just in the work of other great educators (Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, for example, and more recently Bruner and Gardner), but also in the ideas of philosophers, scientists, psychologists, political thinkers and artists of many different kinds. Malaguzzi's apparently insatiable appetite for this rich diet of debate, difference and discussion, what he calls "the versatility of research and theory", is reflected in the attitudes of Reggio educators practising today, who are equally voracious in their desire to think and understand for themselves, without the constraints of any externally imposed policies, manuals or curriculum guidelines.

Some of the key concepts in the Reggio approach are now familiar to many early-years educators in this country; we can confidently recite some of the most memorable headlines in Malaguzzi's essays and interviews: the construction of children as rich, strong and powerful, rather than weak, ignorant and incompetent; the pedagogy of relationship, through which children learn their essential connectedness; the place of early childhood in civic society - one of Malaguzzi's close colleagues says that "when a child is born, a citizen is born". We are also becoming better informed about their pedagogical tools: documentation, the process of making learning visible; progettazione, which loosely translates as centres of interest and enquiry; the atelier and atelierista in every setting - an artist's workshop ("a place of provocation") with a professional educator expert in both early childhood and the arts. It would be regrettable if these bite-sized scraps of principle and practice came to be seen as all there is to learn from Malaguzzi and his colleagues, for there is much more: more complexity, more integrity, more democracy, more optimism for "a new human culture of childhood".

Of particular interest, in the present English culture of targets, goals, and learning outcomes, where the underlying assumption is that learners only learn what teachers teach, is Malaguzzi's emphasis on the reciprocity that is at the heart of the relationship between teacher and learner. More than once he uses the metaphor of throwing and catching a ball to illustrate the dynamic of children's learning: the ball is thrown from child to educator and back again, in a sequence of exchanges in which children and educators act as equals, co-constructing ideas and understanding. "Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn."

Another important lesson, and one that we might be ready to learn in this country, is Malaguzzi's insistence on the centrality of creativity in children's lives. His argument is that children, "the most implacable enemies of boredom", are, like poets, writers, musicians and scientists, in constant search of meaning, and always ready to express their findings in "images of incredible grace and elegance". But Malaguzzi is not just promoting more arts education in the pre-school; he demands that children be given the space to do every kind of thinking and expressing, using "all the languages of life", exploring both the logic of things and the logic of imagination (which, we may note, are never crudely separated into discrete areas of learning, as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority would have us believe.) "Children are always ready to shake the tree of knowledge," says Malaguzzi, and so the settings we provide for them must respond to their unlimited curiosity and inventiveness: "Our task, regarding creativity, is to help children climb their own mountains, as high as possible."

Fine words, much to be admired; but their real importance is that they do not sit meekly on the page, but are made flesh, for everyone to see, in the Reggio pre-schools, of which Malaguzzi is the best known and most revered founding father.

The school in Villa Cella, now named the April 25 School (the date of the Allied liberation), still functions, with a plaque near the entrance that says: "Men and women working together, we built the walls of this school because we wanted a new and different place for our children."

Mary Jane Drummond is a co-author of Learning Without Limits (Open University Press)


* 1920 Loris Malaguzzi born in Correggio, Emilia-Romagna.

* April 25, 1945 Allied liberation from the Fascist regime. Parent-led pre-schools open in and around Reggio Emilia.

* 1963 First municipal school for three to six-year-olds opens in Reggio (called Robinson, after Defoe's hero) with Malaguzzi as head.

* 1967 All the parent-run schools are adopted and administered by the municipality.

* 1970 The first infant-toddler schools, for children from six months to three years, open in the region.

* 1979 International interest in the movement grows, with delegations of visitors from Cuba, Bulgaria, Spain, Japan, Switzerland and France.

* 1981 A travelling exhibition, "If the eye jumps over the wall", is shown in Stockholm. Now renamed The Hundred Languages of Children, it has toured the world, and is currently in the UK, for the third time.

* 1994 Malaguzzi dies

* 1996-present 19 municipal pre-schools (providing for about 90 per cent of three to six-year-olds) and 13 infant-toddler centres (attended by about half of under-threes.)

* For information about The Hundred Languages of Children exhibition to be shown at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone (in October) and at The Custard Factory in Birmingham (in November) go to www.sightlines-initiative.com


'Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn'

'Our task, regarding creativity, is to help children climb their own mountains, as high as possible'

'If the school for young children has to be preparatory, and provide continuity with the elementary school, then we as educators are already prisoners of a model that ends up as a funnel. I think moreover that the funnel is a detestable object, and it is not much appreciated by the children either. Its purpose is to narrow down what is big into what is small. This choking device is against nature'

Interviewer: 'People often ask what kind of curricular planning, if any, you have in Reggio Emilia?'

Malaguzzi: 'No. Our schools have not had, nor do they have, a planned curriculum with units and subunits (lesson plans), as the behaviourists would like. These would push our schools towards teaching without learning; we would humiliate the schools and the children'

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