'Write on sand, not stone'

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Wendy Holland is won over by an Italian pre-school programme that lets children discover learning for themselves.

I heard the Italian Reggio Emilia pre-school programme praised by teachers all over over the United States last autumn. Then, in New York, I saw the Reggio Emilia exhibition, The Hundred Languages of Children, and marvelled at the evidence of young children's creativity on show. How were three, four and five-year-olds able to communicate, draw and sculpt so exquisitely?

This summer I learned more about the philosophy and history of the programme that has been praised by educators throughout the world when I attended a conference in Reggio Emilia, the northern Italian city which gave it its name. In 1946 a young teacher, Loris Malaguzzi, saw the inhabitants of Villa Cella, a borough of Reggio heavily bombed in the Second World War, building a school amid the rubble. He stayed on to help. By the time he retired as its first director in 1985, he had developed the programme for three to five-and-a-half year olds, built around a commitment to the rights of children working in partnership with teachers and parents.

The Reggio Emilia approach has evolved from the belief that children are endowed with enormous potential, full of the desire and ability to construct their own knowledge. It is not merely the need but the absolute right of each child to interact and communicate with caring, respectful adults as well as one another.

Creativity and learning are considered parts of the same process. Children create their own knowledge through exploration; hence the use of the many "languages" of art, mime, music, words and movement. In The Hundred Languages of Children, a collection of essays on the Reggio Emilia approach (published in the US by Ablex, New Jersey), Loris Malaguzzi says, "What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught. Rather, it is in large part due to the children's own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources."

Teachers and families are considered central to the education of young children. These three forces: the expectations and skills of children, the professional competence of teachers and the willing help of parents, are all supported by the rich environment.

Parents are encouraged to be an integral part of their children's learning from the first days in the infant-toddler centres or pre-schools. Regular weekly meetings are held with teachers or with other parents to discuss ways that assistance can be given.

Parents willingly give time and expertise in building, constructing or providing the materials needed for the class. During my visits to four Reggio Emilia schools, I met parents who passionately believed in the system and saw their participation as a privilege rather than as an intrusion on their time or energy. How many parents here share their philosophy, I wonder, and, indeed, how many schools see parents in such a positive light?

Reggio Emilia schools are "places of listening" (the verb is used actively, in the sense of teaching by observing). Each child's uniqueness is recognised and accepted. Foremost in the Reggio philosophy is that the child's spontaneous curiosity and interest in the world around them is encouraged and transformed within the context of school, teachers and parents, into a discovery of self and others.

Encouraging community spirit is fundamental. Working together on paintings, models, music-making, discussions and displays not only solves problems co-operatively but generally eliminates misunderstanding and encourages acceptance of other people's ideas and points of view. One of the original objectives of the programme was to prevent further waste of life and energy in warfare by giving children a better understanding of the world and each other.

The role of the teacher was a much discussed topic throughout the week. Central to the Reggio Emilia approach is the belief that children are robbed of their innate creativity and imagination when teachers impose traditions and dictate facts and the order in which they should be learned.

Children are not just blank instruments waiting to have the expectation of society stamped upon them when they start school, says the programme. They begin to discover themselves and their role within the world from birth and so it is the experience and the quality of their development that is vital rather than the experience and quantity of learning.

The decision about the timing of these quality interactions falls upon the teacher. She or he (male teachers are encouraged) are the co-constructionists of the learning process with the child, and these two lead players learn from each other. A teacher will necessarily take "risks" as to when he or she should intervene to encourage, guide or even interpret but the "risk" factor is of "the moment". If "the moment" is incorrectly judged, there is no harm as teachers are learning too. A teacher's role is one of equality with the child and they learn from each other.

I watched a video of a two-year-old girl turning the pages of a magazine and looking at pictures of watches. The teacher pointed to her own watch and the child looked and then pointed to a watch on the page. The teacher placed her arm against the child's ear so she could hear the ticking. The child looked again at the teacher and then put her own head down on to the page to hear the picture watches ticking. The child had made a hypothesis as a result of the teacher's intervention.

All these carefully practiced theories would amount to little without the final key element, progettazione. There is no equivalent word in English. It is a combination of theory and practice which complement one another. Theory starts with the child and changes occur and are made because of the child.

Listening is fundamental to all learning. Not talking, not giving explanations, not describing, but listening to the theories that children evolve for themselves.

The next important step is documentation. Something that will "fix" the observed moment so that reflection and possible further research can be carried out later. Video, photos and written notes are all used to gain a better understanding of the child, and to help facilitate the child's "next step". It is considered important for children to be part of this documentation process as it also gives them the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and delve deeper into their own thoughts.

Progettazione is a complex and multiple action involving children, teachers and parents; sometimes together and sometimes separately. It implies a continuing dialogue between children and adults. It means abandoning any rigid plans and set curriculum: "Write on sand, not stone". Negotiations with the children are continuous. Sometimes a teacher "drives" and sometimes he or she "travels" but always teachers and children move along together in the same negotiated direction. I found it moving to learn that the Reggio Emilia programme rejects the term "special needs" in favour of "special rights for children".

A frequent question at the conference was "How do the children become literate and numerate as so much emphasis is placed on creativity?". We heard that numbers were used all the time - counting the children in the class, the number of plates for lunch. The practice of counting and using numbers was an innate part of the day and so became a natural "experience". The same with words. Everything was labelled and children learned through recognition and usage.

There are currently 19 pre-schools and 13 infant-toddler centres in Reggio Emilia, a city run by the Left Democratic (formerly Communist) party, which parents pay for on a sliding scale. The programme is still not used elsewhere in Italy, where both Church and state are cautious about "breaking the mould" of the national education programme, but is beginning to take root outside.

I left Reggio Emilia feeling privileged to have seen the system at work and have now begun using the ideas in my own school.

Wendy Holland is headmistress of St George's School, Southwold, Suffolk

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