Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 3 – The Critical Role of the Teacher

NO child is NOT ready to encounter task that challenge them! Marina Mori, Tutor Teacher

Finally we address the role of the teacher. Completely antithetical to what many of our U.S. colleaguimages-1es believe, the Reggio teacher begins with the child as “all knowing.” It is (not simply) up to the astute and sharp-witted teacher to listen, to understand what the child already knows, and to set the provocation for constructing further learning. In a nutshell, the teacher’s role is active and thoughtful engagement in observation, interpretation, and documentation. Teachers expend much physical and mental energy learning how each unique child responds to concepts or ideas, both individually and as a member of a group. The teacher’s role, then, is reflexive and self-reflective. It is that of a researcher and a ‘chooser’ of follow-on provocations.  It involves quiet mindfulness away from children, collaboration with mentors or colleagues, or reviewing a video of the encounter just completed.

images-1This requirement for reflection on children’s thinking may sound impossible in a busy preschool or primary school setting in the U.S. But the Reggio Approach permits grouping structures that allow teachers the privilege of peering deeply into a child’s world. The physical structure of the class enables small group interaction. Based on previous observation and reflection, group participants are intentionally selected around the context, content, problem, or materials the teacher believes will lead to further learning/understanding. In a large class of 20 to 25 children, this means that one teacher will work on some bit of content knowledge or social emotional skill with 3  to 5 students (i.e. observing, interpreting, documenting) while the rest of the class is engaged in independent pursuits or work with another adult.

UnknownGrouping becomes the key to curriculum delivery. Through the teacher’s ‘quest for awareness’ of each child the art of waiting and questioning are paramount. The teacher becomes the ‘memory’ for the children as she guides children’s thinking through her questioning. The teacher functions as the provider of a different point-of-view as she questions learner analysis of a task. The teacher becomes a collaborator when she ‘relaunches’ a topic or exploration by bringing earlier learning into a task and asks children to appraise their own work. In this way the process of learning becomes the ultimate product.

Curriculum becomes less a roadmap and more an open journey with observation as the basis. In the Reggio Approach connections to the real world are continuously made. There is no pre-established set of standards or mandated curriculum. Student cognitive growth is predicated on trusting teachers to observe, interpret, and document. Teachers in the Reggio schools are characterized – much like their students – as a confederacy of ‘marvelers’ and ‘wonderers.’

For a Reggio teacher participatory observation is never neutral. It is always intertwined with shrewd interpretation. This is the definition of documentation. The documentation I witnessed was both formal and informally presented, but it never varied in its purpose  or intensity.  As the image to the left shows, documentatiimageson can be recorded and artistically presented to the public as an informational display. The use of photography to capture just the right moment was always in evidence. Binders full of other examples of documentation I perused consisted of T-charts where hastily written pencil transcripts of student conversation were added on the left, and teacher interpretation of student understanding was written to the right. Interestingly, the teachers show their thinking/interpretation by using a highlighter to focus on particular statements or words uttered by the children. Then, by stringing together these phrases, the teacher was able to interpret where to take the learning and determine what extensions of the original concept she might plan for the following day. What materials would she make available?  What might her provocative questions be? One day’s documentation becomes the next day’s lesson plan. You see, of course, how natural and fluid learning becomes. Shouldn’t all learning be as compelling?

Before leaving this account of the Reggio teacher and her role as a significant catalyst to learning, I must add that each school has, on staff, a veteran teacher called the ‘pedagogista.’  This revered educator assists teachers with their interpretations of observed behaviors and helps in planning for next cognitive steps.  Perhaps the role we know as “curriculum director” in the U.S. might transform into this same “pedagogista” whose role is to increase involvement with teachers and the pedagogy of student learning instead of the usual focus on budgeting and piloting pre-fab curriculum materials, or gathering and analyzing test results.

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