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.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.