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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Reggio Emilia: New Ways to Think About Schooling

The Reggio Emilia approach offers educators a catalyst for change and for developing new kinds of collaboration in teaching and learning.

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How can parents ensure that young children are ready for school? How should teachers prepare for the children who arrive? Which assessment strategies can enhance students' learning, inform teacher practice, and engage parents in their children's education experiences?
These questions continue to plague educators despite dramatic new insights into children's early brain development and vastly improved theoretical understandings of how children learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Faced with expanding curriculum mandates amid draconian budget cuts, U.S. public schools have become the target of political rhetoric and tough-love reform initiatives. Opinion surveys convey little improvement in public satisfaction with U.S. schools; worse still, students often describe school as “boring, irrelevant, and mindless” (Carpenter, 2000, pp. 383–384). What's a teacher to do?
Go to Italy! Over the past decade, a small but growing number of elementary educators across the United States have joined their early childhood colleagues in finding new ideas and inspiration from the early care and education program of the city of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. Reggio Emilia is also increasingly a source of new ideas for educators in more than 40 countries, from Brazil to Tanzania to the Philippines.

How Did It Begin?

The town of Reggio Emilia lies in a prosperous area of northern Italy known for its civic engagement. Following World War II, a small group of parents began Reggio Emilia's municipal early childhood program, which thrived under the leadership of early childhood educator Loris Malaguzzi and the hard work of hundreds of parents and teachers. After decades of innovation and experimentation, city leaders sent traveling exhibitions throughout Europe and to the United States to share the Reggio Emilia approach. As news of Reggio Emilia spread, educators, parents, and policymakers began to take note.

What Is the Reggio Emilia Approach?

  • The role of the classroom environment in children's learning;
  • Long-term curriculum projects that promote inquiry among teachers and children;
  • Partnerships with parents that include collaboration in the learning process;
  • Documentation for observation, research, and assessment; and
  • “The hundred languages of children”—children's multiple means of expression and understanding (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993, 1998).
A visitor to a Reggio Emilia classroom finds an inviting environment, with adult- and child-sized furnishings, plants and natural light, large panels documenting the children's ideas, and very few commercially produced materials. The children are deeply immersed in their own dramatic or constructive play, or perhaps they are in small groups with a teacher, exploring how best to design the highways around a block city, construct a functioning water fountain for the birds, or draw a life-size dinosaur to scale. Later on, the teachers, armed with tape recorders and their own drawings, discuss the children's ideas as they plan for the next day.
A return visit in the evening might find groups of parents poring over the teachers' photos and notes and discussing how best to help their children express their mathematical ideas about distance and speed, or their quandaries about the meanings of love, or their fears of the dark, or, more recently, of pending war. On another evening, parents work in the kitchen with the cook, sharing recipes and making friends as they debate current events. Imbued in these activities are a deep respect for children's intelligence and a commitment to adult engagement.
Reggio Emilia's education philosophy resonates with key ideas in contemporary education, including Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, Lev Vygotsky's notions of the role of symbolic languages in cognition, James Comer's ideas about parental involvement, and Nel Noddings's challenge to create caring schools. Many educators note Reggio Emilia's similarities to John Dewey's education philosophy and to the play-based learning of British Infant Schools in the early 1970s. These key ideas run counter to a subject-centered, outcomes-based view of education and have challenged educators to rethink the purpose and scope of what they do.

Reggio Emilia and Early Childhood Educators

Historically, such challenges to the utilitarian approach to education have been more popular among early childhood educators than among elementary school educators. Partly because of the relatively autonomous status of early education outside mainstream public education in the United States, its educators have often felt freer to consider alternative approaches to learning (New, 2002). Nearly a century ago, the ideas of Germany's Friedrich Froebel influenced the establishment of the U.S. kindergarten as a place for children to learn in a nurturing and carefully planned environment. Italy's Maria Montessori furthered the development of environments and materials designed specifically for young children. British Infant Schools and the project approach are more recent international influences on early childhood education.
Reggio Emilia's ideas did not, however, always resonate with early childhood educators. When the approach first came to the attention of U.S. educators in the 1980s, early childhood educators had translated Piaget's interpretations of children's cognitive development into an emphasis on individual children learning in isolation from classmates. They viewed play as central to children's learning and teacher- directed activity as unnecessary or even counterproductive. Reggio Emilia served as a powerful catalyst in reexamining these beliefs and their associated theories (New, 1997) and revealed some of the biases embedded within the field's traditional views (Bredekamp, 2002). The guidelines for developmentally appropriate practice developed in 1987 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Bredekamp, 1987) had paid scant attention to these ideas, but the 1997 guidelines frequently cite examples from Reggio Emilia to illustrate principles of social cognition, scaffolding, and the role of symbolic languages in knowledge construction (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

Reggio Emilia's Appeal for Elementary Educators

The academic goals of elementary education have often been at odds with the developmental approach of early childhood education. Many parents and teachers continue to raise concerns about children arriving in structured and academically focused elementary classrooms for which their previous child-centered classrooms have failed to prepare them.
Elementary educators find that Reggio Emilia offers new perspectives on many current issues, including notions of readiness and transitions from home to school, ways of promoting family engagement in children's learning, the benefits of looping and multi-age grouping for using children's relationships to promote academic achievement, and the importance of staffing practices, such as teams of teachers, to promote professional development. The greatest attraction, however, is the way in which Reggio Emilia stimulates a rethinking of what schools do.
Reggio Emilia has helped bridge the divide between early and elementary educators in three ways: by revealing new ways for promoting children's academic learning in the realm of big ideas; by offering documentation as a tool for studying, sharing, and planning children's education experiences; and by provoking a new way to think about the role of the teacher.

New Possibilities for Children's Learning

Reggio Emilia's optimistic and respectful image of the child has influenced educators' views of what and how children learn. Conflicts between academic goals and child-initiated activities have lost their punch as teachers have experienced the benefits of hypothesis-generating projects rich and varied enough to provide authentic learning experiences for both adults and children. As children work together—for example, to create the rules for an athletic event—teachers notice how far they stretch their mathematical skills of measurement, estimation, and computation. Signs and invitations for such events serve as forms of authentic assessment when they reveal emerging skills and future learning goals. As teachers provide materials and purposeful questioning, they relish the ease with which children become deeply engaged in their projects.
Many of the values and practices associated with Reggio Emilia's interpretation of curriculum appeal to U.S. educators who have tired of standardized interpretations of effective teaching and children's learning. Thus, an elementary special education teacher in New Hampshire was inspired by Reggio Emilia to use collaborative projects to address individual education plan goals, taking her students with special needs into the community to explore their curiosities about plumbing and public transportation. An intern in a 1st grade class in a small Massachusetts fishing town drew on state-mandated curriculum goals while responding to children's anxieties about the impact of changing fishing regulations on their families' lives. The resulting community-based project included interviews with parents, tours of fishing plants, and the creation of a board game based on new federal regulations.

Documentation for Discussion and Discovery

When U.S. educators first began to adopt the Reggio Emilia approach, they often confused Reggio Emilia's concepts of documentation with traditional child-centered observations. As teachers began to share and discuss the meanings of their photos, tape recordings, and samples of children's work with other colleagues and children's families, however, they learned how to “make learning visible”—their own and that of the children they teach. Project Zero's uses of documentation strategies to capture children's individual learning within the context of group experiences has also helped U.S. educators to see the value of the pedagogical strategy of long-term projects (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001). In groups and as individuals, U.S. teachers are now sharing their ideas, experiences, frustrations, and inspirations through national and statewide conferences, an e-mail forum, and a Reggio Emilia Web site (http://ericeece.org/reggio.html).

The Role of the Teacher

What attracts educators most to Reggio Emilia's approach is how it changes their understandings of themselves—as teachers, as citizens, and as learners. U.S. teachers have reached the limits of their tolerance for the go-it-alone approach to teaching. More than half of the teachers responding to a 1990 Carnegie Foundation survey noted the limited time for meeting with colleagues, and less than 10 percent were satisfied with the opportunities available for them to establish collegial relationships (Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996).
The role of the teacher inherent in Reggio Emilia's approach offers new hope for lonely educators and corresponds with recent research on teacher collaboration (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Fu, Stremmel, & Hill, 2002). Teams of teachers, such as those at the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, now travel together to workshops and conferences, bringing back new ideas to discuss with the whole faculty. School-based groups in Ohio participate in monthly statewide Reggio study groups. Massachusetts teachers meet regularly to share their documentation of children's learning in gatherings sponsored by Project Zero at Harvard University. Collaboration also involves parents: Two teachers in Ohio, frustrated by the problem of birthday parties in an economically and religiously diverse classroom, turned the issue over to the parents, setting the stage for more active partnerships with children's families throughout the year. All of these experiences have transformed the teacher's role from single expert to collaborative participant in an adult learning community (New, 2000).

Challenges and Possibilities

The reasons for Reggio Emilia not having much impact on U.S. elementary education are numerous. International education research has a poor track record for influencing changes in U.S. education practice in grades 1–12. Skeptics of Reggio Emilia's relevance to U.S. classrooms cite cultural challenges associated with Italy's philosophical roots, including the cultural support for close relationships between teachers and parents. Reggio Emilia's goals also stand in sharp contrast to a growing emphasis in the United States on high-stakes testing, a view of teachers as tools rather than decision makers, and a focus on individual learning in a competitive environment.
Others point to the practical challenges of building sustained relationships in an increasingly fragmented and hurried society; of planning curriculum that will be responsive to the diverse needs of children and families; and of finding the time, resources, and support necessary for what is surely more rewarding work—but also more work. Still others join me in cautioning against the idea that any one city, program, or set of guidelines can adequately determine what and how children are educated.
And yet there are many reasons to be optimistic about Reggio Emilia's usefulness in helping U.S. educators rethink their approach to public education. Of all of its features, Reggio Emilia's reconceptualization of the working environment of teachers may have the most to offer. The respect for children and parents is central, but the international success of Reggio Emilia's example is surely due to the respect given to teachers—as capable of asking good questions, willing to debate with one another, and committed to consultation with children's families. Even middle school teachers are beginning to think about how to adapt the Reggio Emilia approach to their instruction (Hill, 2002).
Anderson (2000) notes that new ideas in education often weave in and out of public awareness for years, waiting for the right time and place for implementation. He argues that new common ground serves as a foundation for current reform initiatives, including the convergence of a shared understanding thatthe rigid graded structure of schools must be overhauled; self-containment in any professional role is less than desirable. . . . classrooms must become busy, active, even noisy . . . curriculum shouldn't be strictly compartmentalized; high expectations are good; participation of all players is essential and workable. (p. 403)
Reggio Emilia has much to contribute in helping to make these changes more desirable and, therefore, more likely. Such changes would go a long way toward contributing to a more dynamic culture of education as en-visioned by Bruner (1996) and living up to John Dewey's faith in schools as catalysts for societal change. There has never been a better time to give it a try.

Anderson, R. H. (2000). Rediscovering lost chords. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(5), 402–404.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) & Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Bredekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bredekamp, S. (2002). Developmentally appropriate practice meets Reggio Emilia: A story of collaboration in all its meanings. Innovations, 9(1), 11–15.

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs(Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carpenter, W. A. (2000). Ten years of silver bullets: Dissenting thoughts on education reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(5), 383–389.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (Eds.). (1993). Inside/outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Sclan, E. M. (1996). Who teaches and why. In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (2nd. ed., pp. 67–101). New York: Macmillan Library Reference.

Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (1993). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach—advanced reflections (2nd ed.). Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

Fu, V. R., Stremmel, A. J., & Hill, L. T. (Eds.). (2002). Teaching and learning: Collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Hill, L. T. (2002). A journey to recast the Reggio Emilia approach for a middle school. In V. Fu, A. Stremmel, & L. Hill (Eds.), Teaching and learning: A collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach (pp. 83–108). Upper Saddle, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

New, R. (1997). Reggio Emilia: An approach or an attitude? In J. Roopnarine & J. Johnson (Eds.), Approaches to early childhood education (Rev. 3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

New, R. (2000). Reggio Emilia: Catalyst for change and conversation. (EDO-PS-00-15). Champaign, IL: ERIC/EECE Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

New, R. (2002). Culture, child development, and early childhood education: Rethinking the relationship. In R. Lerner, F. Jacobs, & D. Wertleib (Eds.), Promoting positive child, adolescent, and family development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Project Zero & Reggio Children. (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

End Notes

1 To subscribe, send a message to listserv@listserv.uiuc.edu. Leave the subject line blank. Type subscribe REGGIO-L [YourFirstName YourLastName] in the first line of the message area.

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