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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Who Are the Teachers? Who Are the Learners?

In Reggio Emilia classrooms, working in small groups and documenting the learning process bring to light new understandings of teaching and learning for both children and adults.

Who Are the Teachers? Who Are the Learners? - thumbnail
From their first days in kindergarten, and often earlier, children usually learn that it is the teachers who teach and the children who learn. Yet observations of children at home and at school reveal that children often offer one another helpful ideas, innovative solutions to problems, and thought-provoking questions. What happens if, from the very first day of school, children understand that they can learn from and with one another? Consider how Giovanni, Giulia, and Leonardo help one another figure out solutions to a drawing problem at the Diana School in Reggio Emilia, Italy (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001).
After a spirited game of ring-around-a-rosy, teachers ask a class of 4- and 5-year-olds to predict how they might draw a circle of children playing this game. The children make individual drawings and then gather in small groups to share and compare their drawings. Giulia is noticeably quiet. When her friends ask her to share her drawing with the group, she resists: “No, OK, I know I got it wrong. I made a line, not a circle of children. It's hard!” After the teacher elicits comments on all the drawings, Giulia says, “Well, they're not really ring-around-a-rosies, but we did the best we could.”
Giovanni then makes a suggestion that proves pivotal: “Why don't we all stand like the kids in our drawings?” The children are amused when they lie down in the way that the figures in Leonardo's drawing are lying—and then stand up to find that they are all facing the wrong way.
Giovanni then gathers some children to make an actual ring-around-a-rosy circle “for Giulia” so they can all see what it looks like—“like a photo!” He makes an observation that will be key for the group's continued exploration:There are some kids that you only see their backs. I can see Giulia's back, and she's looking at Giorgio's face. I can see Leonardo's side [profile], and he's looking at Matteo's face. (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001, p. 197)
At this point, the teachers suggest that the children draw a second ring-around-a-rosy. In these drawings, Giovanni's idea about backs, fronts, and profiles of children looking at one another in a circle informs both Giulia's and Leonardo's work (see pp. 42–43).
By learning from and with one another, Giulia, Giovanni, and Leonardo reach a more complex understanding than would any one child thinking alone. Even Giovanni, who exhibits the most sophisticated understanding, learns from communicating what he knows and from the group's reenactment of the game. Each child's questions, strategies, and explanations contribute to the group's understanding of how to represent a three-dimensional subject in a two-dimensional medium.

The Nature of Learning Groups

When does a group become a learning group? And what can classroom teachers do to support the creation of such groups? These were some of the questions addressed by the Making Learning Visible Project, a collaboration between Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Municipal Infant- Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Learning groups, such as the group drawing ring- around-a-rosy, share several characteristics.
Wondering together. Trying to represent their favorite game on paper sparks Giulia's, Giovanni's, and Leonardo's wonder and engagement. Together, they work on solving the problems that they encountered in their first drawings. As they go about their work, the children learn not only about the challenges of spatial representation, but also about the process of learning from and with others. They become concerned with how the understandings of others are developed and modified.
Sharing and comparing. The Italian educators encourage the children to compare their drawings. Many teachers of young children are reluctant to make such a request for fear of promoting competition or conformity. Giulia, Giovanni, and Leonardo, however, learn from the questions that they ask one another as they compare their works-in-progress. Their comments, interpretations, and points of view build on one another and lead to pivotal ideas that advance the work of the group.
Building collective knowledge. The ring-around-a-rosy activity is part of a larger classroom project in which the children are compiling a manual for the following year's class of 3-year-olds that explains how to play their favorite games. In this context, older children share their collective wisdom with younger children. During Reggio class meetings, children working in small groups often share what they are learning with the rest of the class. Even before children begin an activity, Reggio teachers often ask, “What can you do to remember what you did so that you can communicate it to others?” This focus on sharing learning with the group also supports individual learning by asking children to consider their learning from another perspective.
Creating learning groups also involves teachers—and, at times, students—taking into careful consideration the composition of each group, including age, competencies, gender, time spent together, friendships, interests, the size of the group, and the children's own suggestions for group membership (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001).
In U.S. education circles, cooperative learning and project-based learning have become increasingly popular. Yet U.S. classrooms reflect a culture that places primary importance on personal performance and the success of the individual. U.S. educators often focus on helping young children achieve autonomy and individuation in their learning. Many seem to believe that the individual gets lost in the group. The Reggio Emilia approach challenges these values and beliefs about individual and group learning. In the Italian context, it is precisely the group setting that allows individuals to develop distinctive identities.

Using Documentation to Make Learning Visible

When people first encounter the work of children in Reggio Emilia, they often find it difficult to believe that preschoolers can create such sophisticated products, from the details on a face fashioned out of clay to the fountains in a special outdoor park for birds. They ask whether the Reggio children are somehow different from children in the United States. Our answer: No, the only difference is that Reggio children understand how they can learn with and from others. One possible reason is that the teachers' documentation makes the children more aware of their individual and group learning.
If you walk into a Reggio classroom, you will see tape recorders on many of the tables; teachers taking notes and photographs of children at work; and large panels on the walls displaying images of children's work, their words, and reflections from adults about how and what the children are learning. Documenting learning in this way and sharing it with the learners enables children to see how they can learn from one another and helps teachers understand the process of teaching and learning more deeply.
U.S. educators often assume that documentation and assessment are for evaluating learning outcomes rather than learning processes. Students internalize this assumption by the early grades. As one 2nd grader in a small, rural school in Massachusetts explained, “Groups are fun, but we don't really learn until you give us the answers.” The child's teacher had tried to establish cooperative learning groups, but her research revealed that students rarely perceived their cooperative groups as learning groups (C. Hawley, personal communication, November 1998).
  • Guiding questions. Articulating a question—usually with a focus on how children build knowledge—serves to guide the documentation process and keep it connected to student learning.
  • Words and pictures. Using multiple forms of documentation in different media deepens the understanding of a learning experience. Photographs are especially effective for capturing emotional or social dimensions, and student reflections and adult analysis add new layers of meaning.
  • Multiple perspectives. Collaborating with a partner or partners strengthens the process of analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating documentation and reduces the subjectivity of a single person's analysis and interpretation.
  • Public sharing. Sharing of documentation moves learning from the private to the public realm and allows children and adults to reflect on, evaluate, and build on their previous work and ideas.
  • Curriculum shaping. Analyzing and interpreting documentation is not only retrospective, but also prospective. By helping teachers stay close to students' learning, documentation informs the design of future learning experiences.
In the ring-around-a-rosy story, we can see these features at work. The teachers enter the project with guiding questions: How will children try to represent three-dimensional subjects using the two-dimensional medium of drawing? Will the children abandon or defend the solutions that are not appreciated in the small-group discussions? Before, during, and after the project, the Reggio teachers gather together to discuss their ideas. The teachers share the initial drawings so that the children can comment on their own and others' drawings. After the children have completed their second drawings, the teachers ask the children to compare the solutions found and explain the changes made from the first to the second drawings.
Unlike displays of documentation typically found in schools—such as pictures on classroom walls with a few captions—the Reggio teachers make documentation panels that include photographs, children's work, and adult summaries and analysis. The teachers also organize the material from the ring-around-a-rosy experience into a documentary slide show to share and discuss with children, parents, and teachers from other schools. This documentation process engages the children in further exploration. It does not offer solutions or models but rather provides other opportunities to explore the issues that the children are investigating. In this case, the teachers suggest that children represent another game—red light, green light. Following two children's suggestion to create a “moving photograph,” the teachers record the game from different points of view with a video camera.

Gigantic Ideas

Even when students are engaged in learning with one another, they often do not recognize it as such. Documentation helps children understand how they and others learn; it serves as a memory of what went on in the classroom and gives children opportunities to reflect on and evaluate their own and other children's work and ideas.
Documenting group learning shifts children away from the idea that it is only the teacher who teaches. Making images of group learning visible in a classroom or school also fosters a sense of group identity. Four-year-old Anna sums up her thoughts about learning from and with her classmates well:[In a group] your brain works better. Because your ideas, when you say them out loud, keep coming together, and when all the ideas come together, you get a gigantic idea! You can think better in a group. (Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001, p. 323)
In this era of globalization, the ability of individuals to learn and function as part of a group—across cultures, languages, religious beliefs, and diverse approaches to learning—is perhaps the single most essential learning capacity we will need to survive. This skill must be learned not only by a select number of Italian preschoolers, but also by people of all ages in the United States and throughout the world.

Project Zero, Cambridgeport Children's Center, Cambridgeport School, Ezra H. Baker School, & John Simpkins School. (2003). Making teaching visible: Documenting individual and group learning as professional development. Cambridge, MA: Project Zero.

Project Zero & Reggio Children. (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children. (Available fromhttp://pzweb.harvard.edu/ebookstore)

Mara Krechevsky has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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