From when I first learnt about the Reggio Emilia approach during my teacher training, I have been intrigued by what a ‘Reggio-inspired’ school in South Africa might look like.
A few weeks ago, on a visit to Johannesburg, I was lucky enough to visit the very special ‘Small World Play Group’, a Reggio-inspired preschool for children from ages 2 – 6 (or Grade R).
Here are some reflections on the visit. If the idea of Reggio Emilia is new to you, you could also read an introductory post about the Reggio approach that I wrote last year.
Drawing Pictures of Music: On Making Learning Visible
I made my visit with a dear friend, who is also a teacher, and we were shown around the school by the Principal Lindi Bell. We spent a great deal of our time enveloped in a gentle sense of awe, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to Lindi’s explanations of the bright but warren-like space that revealed each new area like the treasures of a lift-the-flap picture book.
Lindi was generous with her time. In each room she described the materials available and the kinds of activities that occurred there. She told the stories behind the documentation on the walls - ‘this is from where the children drew the Flight of the Bumblebee, while listening to the changing tempo of the music’ or ‘This is where they drew a picture of what a song about you would look like – and what the words would be’, ‘this is where they captured sounds in bottles and then described them’.
It Looked Like Learning. But What Does Learning Look Like?
When I started writing this, part of me just wanted to rave sentimentally - about the poetic but astute beauty of everything we saw, about the keen attention to detail, the special placement of every object, the care shown at every turn both aesthetically and mindfully with the children’s experience always at the centre. But the more I think about it, this ‘desire to rave’ is something I feel cautious about and want to avoid.
This is not because I think my observations would be false - but from a sense that they would be incomplete, partial to the brevity of my visit, to the illusory nature of first impressions. I saw and heard so much that felt so good, and I felt like a sponge at the time, but now I wonder, what did I really soak up? And what can I share that wouldn’t be better expressed by someone better informed, better acquainted? I think, if there is a phrase I am looking for, a phrase to encapsulate my hesitance, it would be ‘for fear of romanticising’ what we saw.
Across the spectrum of educational approaches, one of the most obvious commonalities is the expectation to ‘see’ the progress of learning – and the subsequent celebration when learning is seen (or conversely, the despair when it is not). So strongly engrained is this expectation, that the visible aspects of learning are strongly prioritised and often obscure learning that takes places in non-visual forms (or has non-visual results). For example, visibility is prioritised in written tests or assignments, accounted for by the eye-catching marks of a red pen. It also occurs in the products of daily work, in pictures drawn or painted, in sentences and stories writ, sums solved, questions answered. Paper-pushing, tick, tick, tick. There is also visible learning that is more corporeal, when you can see a change in how a child moves, works or behaves. This learning requires a witness (someone must catch it in the act! And these days, photographs and video recording allow for such moments to be observed beyond the moment itself.) So strong is this preference toward visible learning I am reminded of the question - if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? As though our education system is asking “If a child learns without a visible indicator, did it really learn?”
Looking Beyond the Visible
After visiting Small Worlds I found myself struggling with how much I could trust my own observations, because I wanted to say that I could see how much learning happens there, how the children are respected and engaged, how considerate the environment and staff are. Could I really see that? Not really, not exactly. We didn’t observe any ‘lessons’ or even much activity, most of our attention was directed to the spaces that make up the schools varied environment. And while these spaces couldn't tell us everything about the experiences they've held, they felt intentional and authentic - and in a way they did speak to us, just not in words. This is no surprise, in a way, because in the Reggio approach, the school environment is seen as a ‘teacher’ in and of itself and for that reason the learning environment offers many clues to what kind of learning it holds.
A concerted effort is made by the Small World educators to enrich the classrooms with intriguing materials that encourage children’s curiosities, invite enquiry and entice play. Materials are varied and the means of explorations are not limited to the visual or intellectual, all senses are enlisted in exploration.
Furthermore, the ‘how’ of learning is not dictated by the teacher, but co-constructed by child and adult alike, by children together, or alone, but always in community and always entangled with a particular environment, or materials. This appreciation of the complexity of the world and children’s potential encounters with it forms part of what is called, in Reggio, ‘the Hundred Languages of Children.’
What I like about this idea especially is that it seems to counter the global preference towards visible proofs of learning, as Reggio embraces multiple intelligences and multi-sensorial learning in a specially integrated and authentic way.
This does not mean that visible proofs of learning are superfluous, far from it. In every room, on every shelf and wall, visible signs and results of learning are celebrated and shared, amongst children, staff and – crucially - parents. This celebration is rich and nuanced, noticeably aesthetic. It is not just worksheets filed away, or cookie-cutter artworks on display. This ‘making-visible’ is rooted in the Reggio principals of co-learning and community, where children are empowered to witness and value their own learning, and to share this learning with their peers, teachers and parents. It also recognises that a child’s learning happens contextually and continuously, not in a vacuum called ‘being taught’ but in communion with the school’s environment and the materials available within, in communion with the child’s peers, teachers and even parents, who are valued as co-collaborators in their child’s learning journey. This recognition of inter-connectedness, and the way it is embraced, lies at the heart of Reggio.
I write this feeling a little vulnerable. I think this is partly because I am trying to explain these ideas before I truly understand them, like trying to explain a painting of the jungle to a gecko in the desert. And vulnerable also because, as a teacher in a ‘mainstream’ school I am becoming very conscious of how controlled my classroom environment is and how restrictive my teaching methods often are, despite my good intentions to have a more flexible / child-led approach. This makes me uncomfortable, but I think (and hope) it is the kind of discomfort that is going to compel me to different action in the future, because it is attached to a sense of urgency; a feeling that I can’t carry on using my current methods because they just don’t make sense. I know there are many alternatives out there, and Small Worlds was a beautiful eye-opener to what I hope will be a big part of my own future as a daunted-but-determined learning teacher.
Thank you to Lindi Bell and the staff at Small Worlds for the opportunity, for your generous time and especially for the inspiration.
Read more snapshots from my classroom, or other recent posts.
DISCLAIMER: This whole post is kind of a long disclaimer, because I think I lack the personal experience to give nuance to quite a complex set of ideas. In fact the gist of this article is 'Here are some interesting links that probably explain everything better than me'.
So, If you really want to find out more about self-directed education and unschooling I would strongly encourage some further reading and web exploration, starting with the sites mentioned below. I can provide a tentative definition, but why not hear it from the horse’s mouth?
Local is Lekker
Firstly, from South Africa comes ‘Growing Minds’, host of the Learning Reimagined Conference I attended in Joburg last month. The site is full of articles, written by children and adults alike, who are actively ‘unschooling’ and reflecting on their experience.
You could also check out the websites of two self-directed education centres in South Africa. Free Range Education Centre in White River is part of a global network of ‘Agile Learning Centres.' AGLs are designed to facilitate freedom of choice in how children spend their time. Riverstone Village is an education centre based on the Sudbury model, which emphasis democratic processes that flatten social hierarchies between adults and children. I was lucky to be able to visit Riverstone Village the day after the conference, and I will write about my impressions of the space and its philosophies soon.
Both Agile Learning Centres (ALCs) and Sudbury model schools are based on strong principals around children’s rights and perceived capabilities. They recognise that learning comes naturally and often joyfully to children (/all humans) and that the enforced learning practices of conventional schooling undermines this very potent urge. Their claim is that by allowing children to explore their own interests in their own time, learning occurs without need for pressure, force or any wilful manipulation by adults at all.
There are many international examples of these kinds of schools. The Agile Learning Centres Network connects like-minded SDE schools all over the world. There are also numerous Sudbury schools, with Riverstone being the first of its kind in South Africa.
Alongside these more formal learning institutions (which I have also heard being referred to as ‘unschooling schools’) you find unschooling itself, which is essentially a departure from home-schooling, where all formal curriculum is abandoned. Instead, parent’s ‘follow the child’s way’ allowing them to freely investigate their interest and impulses over whatever time duration they desire. I am really hesitant to make broad claims about unschooling, because I have only interacted with a few unschooling parents and children since attending the LRC conference. I also stand to correction on this loose definition!
Suffice to say that unschooling works in loads of different ways as each family and unschooling community work out their own process and best practices. Some unschoolers interchangeably refer to it as ‘life-learning’ to emphasis the idea that learning and living are entangled and should not be considered separated. At the conference, I also noticed a big emphasis on parents being mindful to ‘deschool’ themselves from dominant conceptions of how learning works and perhaps more important how control in conventional schooling systems works. As such, unschooling is as much about the parents attitude, and their ability to adapt, as it is about the child’s life experience and development. I plan to write more about this too, as these principals resonated with me a great deal as a teacher, even though I am not a parent.
There are a whole lot of unschooling blogs out on the blogosphere and they are pretty easy to find, through Google and Youtube. Quite unsurprisingly, all four keynote speakers, were unschooling parents and are also all activists in the sphere of self-directed education. They have websites, books, videos and podcasts galore published between them, some of which I've listed below.
Akilah S. Richard’s work focuses particularly on supporting families of colour enter into and thrive at unschooling. Her website ‘Raising Free People’ includes a podcast, essays and a video blog documenting her families’ own unschooling experience as well as offering advice, courses and public speaking.
Bayo Akomolafe is a writer and poet, philosopher and professor. His personal website 'Bayo Akomolafe' is full of essays and offerings. He runs several projects to do with alternative ways of knowing the world of collaborating, including the Emergence Network, which is a collective of "trickster-activist-artists inspired to rethink our patterns of responding to crisis" (his own description, but wow!)
Teresa Graham Bret is the author of the book Parenting For Social Change and hosts a website by the same name. Her career in inclusivity work at universities, as well as her own experience of parenting (and of being parented), lead her to address issues of ‘adultism’ in mainstream society. This is the recognition that adults are granted superior status as humans simply because of their age - and that this often results in abuse of power, manipulative control and a lot of excuse making, at children's expense.
Koalin Thompson is a South African artist who recently did her Master's in Fine Arts with her children as collaborators. She spoke about this process at the conference and the exhibition description can be found here.
Now that I've effectively let you all know that I am NOT the expert here, I feel more at ease about explaining some of the question and I brought to the conference, the impressions I got from the conference, and the questions I've asked subsequently. This topic isn't going away, I just want to prise it open carefully to make sure nothing spills.
Read more teacher thoughts, stories and musings here!
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.