From the Encounteract Archives, 2017
By Kathryn Muller
The Reggio Emilia Approach to education is both famous and totally unknown, but I am going to write about it today from the perspective of the latter.
The story of Reggio Emilia starts in the town of Reggio Emilia in Italy. It was here that the first ‘Reggio Emilia Preschools’ were started and they actually remain the only Reggio Emilia preschools in the world. This is because unlike Montessori or Waldorf schools, Reggio Emilia refers only to the geographical location of the schools and there is no official international body that trains Reggio Emilia teachers or accredits Reggio Schools. Instead, any school in the world can decide and work to become ‘Reggio Inspired’, drawing inspiration from the original Reggio schools, attending workshops and courses held by Reggio Emilia experts or simply by experimenting with the Reggio principals in their own context and finding out what works.
What is exceptional about this idea is that at its very core, the Reggio Approach acknowledges the foundational role and influence of context and community in the formation of a school’s character and identity. I think of it as a kind of translation. In the translation of texts from one language to another, it is rare that a direct translation is possible, especially when a text is complex, poetic or simply unique. So a translators job is to try to capture the essence and spirit of what is written in the original language and then instil that same essence and spirit in the words of the translated language. Just so, in the ‘Reggio-inspired’ schools. There can be no direct translation of teaching practice from one school to another, but there can be a translation where the essence of the approach is captured in different settings, in context-dependent ways.
I think this is a very beautiful idea – but what are the ideas, actually? What is this Reggio Emilia kind of ‘essence’ that has gotten people so excited? On most of the websites you see it being broken down into these main areas: Re-thinking preconceived ideas of children and childhood, re-thinking the role of the learning environment and re-thinking the role of teachers, parents and the broader community in the schools.
Child and Childhood: The original Reggio Emilia schools undertook a really radical shift in how they (the adults, teachers etc) perceived and engaged with the children in their schools. Instead of being seen as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, or unruly savages that needed to be civilised, or even just simply ignorant innocents who don’t know the world, they endeavoured to see the children as capable knowledge-makers, competent communicators, opinion-makers and multi-disciplinary artists equipped with ‘100 languages’ with which to express themselves. Now these ideas sound absolutely wonderful and they are also becoming more and more mainstream – they can even be found in some form in South Africa’s latest school curriculum. But ideas do not always translate into reality and the truth is that while many schools and teachers may aspire to perceive and treat children in this progressive way, the socially condoned dominance, control, erasure and manipulation of children’s rights and experiences continues across this country and in many, many others. The sincere and dedicated practice of a Reggio Emilia approach, therefor, is radical, because it flies in the face of so much subjugation that children have to live through on a daily basis in most other settings. I would love to write way more about this, but it’s for another time I think.
Education as the Third Teacher: From my wondering around the internet, I would say that this is the most easily translated aspect of Reggio – and therefor the ‘poster child’ of the approach. If you do a Google Image search of ‘Reggio Emilia Approach’ you will see why. Famed and admired for their aesthetic, Reggio Emilia schools (and ‘Reggio-inspired’ schools) are widely described as beautiful, with tremendous care and effort being put into their creation and upkeep. This is because, according to the Reggio approach, the environment is an active teacher to the child that occupies it. This is an inspiring idea too, which any person who has ever spent time with a toddler is likely to agree with. As a toddler explores their environment they do a huge amount of learning directly from the environment – so why not equip the environment to be an enriching, inspiring teacher in its’ own right? For this reason, materials and resources placed into a Reggio classroom are highly considered and purposeful. Beauty and aesthetics are explicitly valued and children are given freedom to explore materials as they wish, constructing their own learning as a result.
In my previous post, I wrote about the need for authentic and locally-relevant materials in South African schools and I think that conceptualising the learning environment (and everything in it) as a ‘third teacher’ is an invaluable perspective from which to work on achieving this idea. The idea of how this production of relevant and authentic resources might be possible has to do with the third major tenet of the Reggio approach – the role of the community.
Collaborative Learning and Community: The original ‘Reggio Emilia’ preschools founded in Reggio Emilia itself were started by community members anxious to rebuild their town after its devastation in World War II. Incredibly, this rebuilding process was seen not only as a practical matter but an ethical one – a kind of ‘antidote to fascism’, where the psychological health of young and future generations was centred in the design process. The town had been all but destroyed by the reign of fascism that had gripped Italy during wartime and it was a purposeful, sincere anti-fascist sentiment that lay at the foundation of the new Reggio Schools. In short, the founders wanted to ensure that fascist rule would never again be possible in their town, because its citizens would have been emboldened against it from the tenderest age.
So am I saying that they wanted to politicise toddlers and teach them anti-Mussolini slogans? No, of course not. What they wanted was to teach children how to be their own person, to know themselves, to make their own discoveries and decisions so that they could not be duped by purveyors of intolerance, hate and war when they were older.
The process of creating these preschools was, by all accounts, a collaborative and community-centred effort – a labour of love by local citizens who wanted to build a better future for their children. In the earliest schools parental involvement was direct, but even in the later municipal versions of Reggio Emili Preschools parents were deeply engaged and involved in the schools and were valued as teachers/participants in their own right (just like the environment is valued as a teacher). Community involvement also evolved, as in 1996 when the project Re Mida was born. Re Mida is a ‘creative recycling project’ based in Reggio Emilia and run by local citizens. It functions on the idea that waste can be a resource and it collects, creatively organises and then distributes reusable waste material to Reggio Emilia schools and other community centres. I will attach some photographs at the bottom in the hope of doing this amazing project justice. All in all, the point is that Reggio Emilia sounds like a pretty amazing place, doesn’t it? And without a doubt there is a lot that other communities could learn from this unassuming but amazingly progressive town.
This idea, that the example set in Reggio Emilia could become more widespread, is of course why such a proliferation of ‘Reggio-Inspired’ schools has occurred in the last 20 years. But what really distinguishes the original Reggio Emilia context and what can Reggio-Inspired schools learn from it? What makes a school truly Reggio-Inspired when even the word ‘inspired’ suggests aspiration rather than actualisation. How does a school, a community, a movement go from wishing to being?
Well I am going to argue that the true answer lies in the role of the community. In the formation of the original Reggio Emilia preschools, community involvement was intrinsic from the very beginning – and arguably the lack of community involvement is one of the reasons why Reggio-Inspired schools in new locations may struggle to get off the ground. A well-meaning teacher may want to introduce the approach to their local area, but the authentic buy-in from the local community is essential and without it, the school may not be able to reach its full potential. Basically, these kinds of dreams can’t be built in a vacuum; they can’t be built by individuals. They are by definition, collective.
Now getting back to the South African context and my previous post, this is why a community-driven effort to bring authentic resources to South African schools is so important. This is why fostering ties between artists and makers and teachers and children is so important. And perhaps most importantly, this is why South Africa needs its own version of a Reggio Approach (and perhaps also its own version of Re Mida) - one that starts with concerned citizens working as a collective to impact the educational environments and ultimately the experiences of South African children.
I think it is important to recognise that the idea of ‘community’ has new parameters and potentials nowadays. In the South African context, community involvement in re-shaping education in a Reggio-Inspired way could emerge on various levels. From online collaborations between interested individuals (sharing information, making and sharing opensource materials, planning and organising, etc) to the actual production (or re-purposing) of alternative educational resources, to the distribution of these resources to schools and finally to the uptake of these ideas and resources in schools – there is potential for a grassroots movement here that could deeply transform what educating children means in South Africa. I don’t think this is a new idea, and there are already many amazing individuals and groups who are working in this area. But many of these individuals and groups work in education already, and non-educators don’t necessarily know about their efforts. What I want to do is call out to everyone else, to artists, makers, doers, thinkers, organisers, campaigners, social media junkies, parents, humans doing whatever. If YOU know about the Reggio Approach, and you are inspired by it, you are where it starts.
As with my last post, I would love to get some feedback and to hear from you if you want to become involved in this somehow. In the spirit of the Reggio movement, collectivity is key and I have already had some amazing, helpful and insightful replies from people who I am excited to keep in touch with. Keep it coming! Up next… I will outline some of the potential, practical starting points that could get this idea off the ground. Thanks for reading.
For further reading, here are some useful links and videos.
Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance
Fondazione Reggio Children
Loris Malaguzzi International Centre
Republished from the Encounteract Archives, 2017
By Kathryn Muller
‘Make’ always felt like an essential aspect of this blog, but it has taken me a while to figure out how I want to use it. As an art student at university being a ‘maker’ became part of my identity, Following university, I had a brief but wonderful stint working as a set and prop builder for children’s theatre in Namibia and now I am a Grade 1 teacher and making stuff is as important to my work as ever.
Something you hear over and over again as a teacher (especially, but not necessarily if you have transitioned from practicing artist to teacher) is that you will ‘lose your creativity’ the longer you spend at the mercy of the energies and emergencies of your students. Whatever your good intentions, you are told, you will start to do less and less of your own work and more and more mindless, meaningless stuff that has to do with fulfilling them. Slowly your lack of fulfilment will deplete you, rendering you creatively impotent and incapable even of satisfying the diluted creative needs of your life-sucking students. You will plunge into teacher gloom and darkness and then proceed to stay in that teaching job for 20 years, until you die one day in the cafeteria choking on a cheesenak.
Well that might be a slightly sensationalised version, but you get the idea. There is this deeply-held belief that working with children is so demanding and exhausting that you can’t stay on top of your creative impetus for long. As the creativity dwindles, so does your inspiration, both in your personal creative life and your professional one. At the same time you become apathetic to the situation, because you’ve learnt how to teach like a zombie and basically you could do your job with your eyes closed – and so you just do.
Now I am only 1.5 years into teacher and only 6 months into my ‘own first class’ – the first group of students I am tasked to teach for the whole year. I know that I am in absolutely no position to tell veteran teachers how to teach, or when it is appropriate to sacrifice creativity for convenience. But at the same time, I am not actually here to criticise – In fact I agree emphatically with the above statement. As sensationalistic as the ‘YOU WILL LOSE YOU CREATIVITY’ trope sounds, I think it is bitingly true for both new and experienced teachers and I have a few different theories as to why this is the case, as well as some germinating ideas of how to deal with it. And this is what I want to share.
Since my experience is as a practicing artist transitioning to teaching, I am writing from a particular position that not all teachers relate to. But this distinction actually points to one of the main problems I perceive in why teaching is seen as so creatively exhausting and depleting – namely that the creativity required of teachers is seen as inferior to the creativity required of artists, designers and folk who work in the so-called creative industries. This is unfair not least because the proliferation of complacent/ passive teaching tools ironically stems from the fact that teaching is SO creatively demanding that to invent every lesson, every teaching moment, with the appropriate resources and relevant assessment tools would be downright impossible. I have been given advice like ‘try to have one really fabulous lesson a week’ – a way of saying that you should take your creative wings out for a good stretch once a week to keep them in splendid form, but don’t overuse them because they’ll get fucked up really soon if you do that. I know for certain that as a new teacher I have been less productive with my students than I technically should be (in terms of covering the syllabus) simply because I am trying to figure out how best to facilitate their learning – what strategies to use, what resources, what tools – and this is a slow, tricky and creative process.
For my own learning, I use a combination of researched ideas and trial-and-error practice. I glean as much as I can from others, ranging from the deceptively tricky worksheet download, to DIY dolls and recipes for dough. But these ideas only take you so far – because you still need to make them into real, usable resources and then you need to make them happen in your class. This second step is another aspect of teaching creativity that is undervalued and even invisible - the practice of teaching itself; the task of utilising the resources you have at your disposal to facilitate learning in your students. Simply put, to identify and produce a creative resource is one thing, to plan a creative lesson around that resource is another but to realise that plan to the betterment of your students – that is what kickass creative teaching is all about, and it is arguably the most challenging part.
Some teachers may be able to pull off this kickass move with apparent (and appalling, enviable) ease, others may have started more enthusiastically in earlier years and then felt their resolve dwindle (the ‘ YOU WILL LOSE YOUR CREATIVITY TROPE’ again). Others still might have avoided such lessons altogether, thinking that the creativity required was out of their scope of practice. Many teachers have told me simply that they ‘can’t draw’ or even that they are ‘just not creative’. This is upsetting because the truth is that even the least creative lesson resource requires creative application from teachers (I want to shake them and cry 'But you ARE creative' like when Shrek tells Fiona 'But you ARE Beautiful!). It is also upsetting because the most creatively awesome resources can be wasted in situations where they are used apathetically during teacher practice. So what can be done about this? How can the sourcing and production of creative resources AND the implementation of these resources be improved in learning environments? In particularly, how could these two factors be improved here in Southern Africa.
After this long introductory rant, I have a proposal. It is both far-fetched and far from reality but I am going to write about it first, here, and then move to action. Here goes!
Wouldn’t it be super cool and brilliant if a huge network of South African artists, crafters and creative producers made teaching resources that weren’t generic and made of kak plastic? Wouldn’t it be awesome if these artisan resources weren’t overpriced and available only in upscale urban markets for yummy mummy’s to buy, but were made from locally sourced, natural or upcycled materials and made affordable and available to schools and learning centres in need, across the country? There are so many skilled artisans working in South Africa, from all walks of life and equipped with all kinds of skills - imagine the variety and plentitude that could be created? And see, the wonderful thing about equipping a creative classroom as that variety is key, so there needn’t be strict prescriptions on what should be made – the key would be collaborating with teachers and students to figure out what kinds of resources to make – and truly the possibilities and potentials are endless! Imagine if 100 artists produced and donated 5 resources each. Even better, imagine that these resources were not just once-off productions, but opensource prototypes that could be remade or adapted by anyone who had the instructions and necessary materials. Some could even be produced directly in the classroom, inspiring creative production in students and facilitating a crucial sense of ownership over the resources in their class. Wouldn’t it be cool if an organisation like ASSITEJ South Africa or AREA (Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance), or Nal'ibali got involved in introducing the resources to schools to workshop with teachers and students about how they might use them? Wouldn’t it be cool if a feedback loop were created between teachers and students using these materials in schools and the artisan’s producing the materials, so that over time, a deep collaboration could develop, making the production and utilisation of the materials all the more valuable and meaningful to all involved?
Well I think it would be cool and I’d like to find out who agrees. Following this I will write more details about the rationale behind this idea, in particular why these kinds of resources and materials could benefit students and teachers and why we need a locally authentic and viable way to produce them. I would love to hear from anyone who is interested or inspired by the same concerns. Up next... A background to the Reggio Emilia approach and it's potential in the Southern African context.