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.
Ever since I decided that I wanted to write a few posts on ‘teacher’s who write’ I have been thinking about Vivian Gussin Paley. Since the 1970s she’s written numerous books reflecting on her kindergarten teaching experience and her views on learning. Written in a story-telling style, her books don’t read like an advice or strategy book, like so many teaching books do. They are personal meditations, making no assumptions as to how her experience might compare – or be superior – to others. She says, ‘I saw this, I noticed this’ And maybe next time you observe your own class, you’ll see it too and find that she was right. Her reflections and discoveries have informed important mindset shifts and even policy considerations in the US, around how to view early childhood learning.
Particularly poignant, to me, is her firm reliance and dedication to story-telling in her own writing, which reflects her belief in the central role of story-telling in children’s learning. At the time she started to share this belief in the US, rote-learning and memorization were institutionalised in school curricula. As a result of her work (and that of many others) play-based, child-led and story-centred approaches to education have all gained traction in recent years.
In our African/ South African context, the role of story-telling in education is caught between our colonial educational heritage (which ultimately looks like the same perfunctory, drill-based, production-line education that Vivian saw in US schools in the 1970s) and indigenous, traditional educational heritage, in which oral story-telling has always been central and indispensable. Literacy projects in South Africa, such as Nali-Bali and Book Dash, are well-aware of this and their literacy promotion campaigns in South Africa place story-telling at the heart of their message. Children learn through stories; what Vivian realised was that adults do too.
I love the echo created between her world and her work, the idea that she spent so much time listening to her student’s stories, and then used her own story-telling voice to encapsulate that classroom experience. I don’t doubt that her approach echoed with me when I decided to start writing ‘snapshots’ of my experiences at school, in something of a story-telling style.
I also wonder whether Vivian ever felt like I do, that since I can’t speak for other teacher’s (or student’s) experiences, I can’t in good conscience write from any other teacher’s perspective, which makes it very difficult to make claims, to insist on truth or any dogma. Story-telling is like holding film up to the light to see an image. It’s in negative, you can get an idea of the reality it has captured, but you also know that it is not the reality, it is an encapsulation, and the next story-teller might see the same scene very differently.
Read more Author Snapshots, in which I review other authors who write or blog about education. Or head to my main Snapshots page, where I tell stories from my own classroom.
You know a topic is picking up heat in academia when it is given an acronym. Nobody got time to say the whole damn moniker each and every time it comes up! TTT and STT stand for Teacher Talk Time and Student Talk Time respectively. Research into how they each occupy the classroom is a big topic in educational research.
One of the most crucial, now widely-recognised findings is that TTT tends to hugely outcompete STT in traditional schooling models. This can be easily traced to the conception of education whereby a knowledgeable source (the teacher) transmits information to a less knowledgeable or possibly even ‘empty’ receptacle (the student). Now this conception sounds pretty bad – and it really can be – but it is also very, very prevalent. For example, even though it is definitely not the only model I make use of in my day-to-day teaching, I can’t deny that it comes up. Because there are times when I transmit new knowledge to my students and simply hope that they absorb it. TTT.
Buuuuut ‘simply hoping they absorb it’ is a catch. I can’t pin my teaching prowess on that kind of hope – I am accountable, largely, for what my students absorb during their time with me. And even though this sounds like serious pressure (which it is) there are ways to deal with it that don’t just fall back on more TTT.
In fact, another really important finding in TTT / STT research is that – surprise, surprise – increased STT is actually the talk time that really impacts student learning. Well who’dathunk?
In my next SQ post I’ll be comparing some practical approaches to decreasing TTT and increasing STT. More specifically I am going to compare traditional and mainstream approaches (which are still predicated on a hierarchical view of teacher vs students, teacher having total authority, children being subordinate) with more radical, alternative and anti-establishment approaches that recognise children’s agency and the huge need for educational reform – and even overhaul.
Go to The Snapshot. Go to the SQ. Go to Start.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.