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.

Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 3 – Emerging Themes; Questions from the Participants

images-2Before our morning lecture, Claudia Giudici, President of the Preschools and Infant Toddler Centres Istituzione del Comune di Reggio Emilia, addressed 5 themes emerging from our question board.

First was the question of continuity. Specifically, how does this Reggio Approach translate to older students from age 6 through 18? There would be some further discussion about this at the end of the week, but, much to the dismay of many of us representing primary schools,  no real “formula” for implementation in the upper grades was ever suggested. Perhaps that will be fortunate since we will now be free to integrate the Reggio Approach into our exact – and usually very different – contexts.

The second theme was that of curriculum. The foundation of Reggio curricimagesulum is a fundamental belief that all children are capable. Concepts develop over time and in a spiral pattern as each idea is met with new cognition as the child grows older. A huge piece of this curriculum development approach is the teacher’s focus on “process” and making student/child thinking visible. Recording “how children know.” This is accomplished through grouping strategies, collegial meeting protocols, presentations, exhibits, and documentation.

The third theme involved the question of mixed age grouping. The Reggio Approach does not believe in mixing ages. Although there are enrollment and space issues where groups of students near in age are placed in the same class, this is not generally an acceptable practice. Claudia outlined these reasons: 1.) young children (infants and toddlers) need the security of a static group, 2.) it is hard for 1/2 of a group to move on each year leaving the other 1/2 group to deal with a new set of children moving into their learning space, 3.) although individual difference is valued, and teachers work very hard to meet these individual personality differences, age adds a significant variable that only adds more complexity to the class, 4.) the schools hold cross-class events to encourage encounters between different age children. These reasons seem potent enough to discourage mixed-age grouping in pre-school.  UnknownBut the question about mixing primary and middle school-age children will be up to those of us who work with these age groups.

The fourth theme dealt with parent participation. Several ideas were generated.  The most starling was that class meetings for exhibitions and presentations were held after 8:30 in the evening. Those of us from the U.S. found this suggestion to be almost laughable given our teacher contracts and individual cultural contexts.  But several other ideas for engaging parents seemed in sync with what we already do. There is always a welcome celebration where children meet other children and parents have a chance to get acquainted and oriented. Often these celebrations center on an evening meal or picnic. Although schools vary in their outreach methods and expectations, center directors work to set conditions that encourage attendance by the greatest number of parents.
The fifth theme suggested by our insatiable insistence on knowing everything concerned teacher professional development. Basically, teachers in the infant-toddler programs and preschools in Reggio Emilia have earned a degree in teaching after 3 years equivalent to undergraduate study in the U.S. These teachers then move through a rigorous public competition to secure a position at one of the Reggio Children centers. Once appointed, they participate in an intense 3-yer mentorship program under the guidance of a lead/mentor teacher. Training in the Reggio Approach happens on-site under the tutelage of an experienced teacher. Novice teachers observe and work with children, reflect on their work, collaborate with colleagues and mentors, and practice the process of documentation.

Documentation – this critical work of the teacher – is up next.

Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 2 – Amazing Commitment

Lorus Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia, Italy

Lorus Malaguzzi Center, (2006) Reggio Emilia, Italy

The second full day of our Study Tour found us a 30-minute, shoppers paradise walk from our Hotel: the Lorus Malaguzzi Center. It is a splendid building dedicated to the philosophy and work of Lorus Malaguzzi. The open spaces, called “Ateliers” (French for ‘workshop‘) welcomed the discovery and inquiry of children and adults. The auditorium, expandable to seat 400, welcomed the nearly 200 North American tour participants.

The first full day of lecture focused on the history of Reggio Children and the commitment of the entire Reggio Emilia community to the development of their young children. In 1947, after World War II and during the reconstruction of a devestated country, the city declared education as an ‘unalienable right.’ And, today, after nearly 70 years, the entire town retains the political will to make visible the ‘culture of children.’

The Reggio Children movement, was, not surprisingly, led by the town’s women. Full ‘citizenship’ was awarded to mothers and their children after the war. Thus infant and toddler programs (0 months to 3 years) as well as pre-school programs (3 years to 6 years), influenced by Vygotsky, Erickson, Dewey, and Bettleheim, became an ‘expressive place’ for children. By 1960 the ‘Reggio pedagogy’ was thriving and generally accepted. In 1972 the city drafted a political document that outlined foundational principles that codified this child-centered pedagogy. It established rules for managing the municipal schools, including mandatory participation of parents, active engagement in learning for children and teachers, a focus on relationship-building and on the natural environment, and the establishment of an “Atelierista” (a workshop leader) to promote the integration of visual learning; making/creating using the 100 languages of learning.

By oranges1980 the ‘Reggio Approach’ to early childhood education – where all learning springs directly from children’s interests, questions, and ideas – had become a global phenomenon. The responsibility of the municipality to continue to build the concrete conditions that protect the rights of children had become a sustainable value in the Reggio Emilia community. And, even through hard times of unemployment and declining population, the city continues to put its money where its values lie. This altruism, this fidelity to the future, was my biggest take-away from the entire tour experience. And, it begs this question: Why can’t the richest country on the planet provide similar educational foundation to its youngest citizens?

What about teachers and professional development in this emergent pedagogy? What place do they have if children lead all learning? Simply put, students of every age arrive at school as COMPETENT learners.  Smart, caring teachers, then, develop the context for learning by setting up spaces for active discovery. They design a classroom where students interact with materials, ideas, concepts, and each other.materials Teachers challenge children’s competence through QUESTIONING. They bring children’s HANDS and MINDS together. And, more importantly, they LISTEN to the children with attention and respect. Teachers eschew the stereotype of children as vessels to fill with knowledge. They coax children out of a place of invisibility and into the world of understanding; a world where connections are made and knowledge is created. This is accomplished through a process of documentation.

There will be much more about this process in Day 3.


Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 1- False Start

Packed and excited, we arrived at the airport on Friday afternoon with plenty of time to check in and brush up on some important conversational Italian phrases.  “La mia auto qui?” “Come si dice…?” “Dov’e il bagno?” The North American Reggio Study Tour to Reggio Emilia, Italy promised to be an enlightening experience for the three of us. We boarded the 747 for the first leg to Frankfurt.

Words you never want to hear...

Words you never want to hear…

We sat on the tarmac while the maintenance crew worked on a brake release. 20 minutes.  40 minutes. An hour. Just as the passengers were becoming restless, notifications from the airlines began to show up on iPhones. We knew before the flight crew alerted us, that we were going to need to change planes. The new 747 was at a different gate. So, we gathered our belongings and all 500 of us deplaned.  Arriving at the new gate, the scramble to find an electric socket into which we could plug our depleted digital devices began. The gate showed that our new departure time was about an hour away; and 3 hours later than our original.  But no matter, we could still make our connection from Frankfurt to Milan. No sweat.

Less than a full iPhone charge later the word you never want to hear came though the boarding gate mic. “Cancelled.” The cabin crew could not attend to this new, later flight, because it would cause them to work overtime. We were told to go home, but to be back at 11 AM for our new flight — complete with a new, fresh flight crew. Luckily my colleagues and I were local, so we left our bags, made some frantic phone calls to family and to those scheduled to meet our flight in Italy, and got rides home. A fitful sleep later we returned to SFO and cued for 90-minutes only to be reassigned completely different seats. We did meet wonderful people who found themselves in the same predicament, and who were able to keep a sense of humor and priority. As for my colleagues and me? We began a unique and rewarding bonding experience that, I feel quite certain, will last a life time.

The rescheduled flight got off – a day late – but on time. And, after a fast and furious ride down the A1 from Milano-Malpensa with a driver who spoke no English (and we no Italian), we did arrive safely at the Hotel Posta in Piazza DelMonte. PiazzaDelMonteWe missed all of our first day (Sunday) events; the town of Reggio Emilia orientation tour, and the North American colleague ‘meet and greet.’  We treated ourselves to authentic Italian food and drink.

So…what got off to an inauspicious beginning, began to develop into a delightful, energizing, if exhausting learning experience.





imagesLeaders of educational organizations consistently tout BEST BRACTICES as a panacea. These magic bullets, taken from educational literature and high-powered think tanks, provide examples for everything from classroom management to curriculum delivery, from leadership style to student assessment and accountability, and from community involvement to staff professional development. We are often seduced by the easy implementation of these “It worked for them, so it’s gotta’ work for us” BEST PRACTICES.

I confess that I, too, have been caught up in the alluring nature of those tried and true practices that promise instant success. I have regularly peddled the thoughts and theories of others; especially those that I found exciting or at least workable in my classroom. And, I have been known to hawk my best practice attitudes and ideas to my principals and colleagues.

But as I think now about our hunger to emulate these BEST PRACTICES, I find myself questioning the truth of this evangelical approach to school reform. I am just beginning to understand the subtle tyranny inherent in easy adoption of what works elsewhere. Regardless of the amount of research data these BEST PRACTICES garner, when we adopt – wholesale – the thoughts and practices of others we abdicate our own creative competence. We marginalize our expertise. We abstain from making our school a distinctive place within a uniquely contextualized situation.


  • inhibit deeper thinking about an idea or issue, and thereby promote mental indolence,
  • curtail professional curiosity and inhibit innovation around a difficult challenge,
  • prohibit novice teachers from seeing possibilities with their new eyes and believing in their creativity,
  • truncate our ability to contextualize teaching and learning to our local situation,
  • assume teachers and learners must adopt a subjective and passive role,
  • assume someone smarter has the ‘right’ answer and knows better than we do, and
  • have become the hand maiden of the one-size-fits-all standards/assessment movement.

If BEST PRACTICES are truly the best way to run our schools, why do BEST PRATICES change every quarter in every educational journal? Shouldn’t best practices, if they are indeed best practices, be able to stand the test of time?

Just askin.’

The Motivation Gene?

carrotIn a study released April 8th of this year, researcher and psychology professor at Ohio State University, Stephen Petrill, suggests that motivation to learn is primarily a function of the student’s gene pool. That’s right. According to an article in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, to be published in July (2015), student motivation is inherited!

In a comprehensive study of 13,000 fraternal and identical twins across six culturally diverse countries, Petrill found that in 40-50% of the cases, inherited dispositions toward learning (i.e. parental genes) and non-shared environmental factors (e.g. diverse home situations or different classroom placements) had the most significant impact on motivational behavior. Whereas shared environmental factors (e.g. same home life, same teachers) had nearly no (3%) impact on student motivation.

Scientists are far from isolating the “motivation gene,” if one exists. The study declares that motivation is a very complex process that closely ties genetics and gene-environment interactions. So, is it time to stop the blame game? Parents and their offspring may be powerless to instigate a motivational turn around. And teachers, it seems, cannot be held completely responsible for failing to reach their reluctant scholars. Perhaps it’s time to remove that ‘motivates students’ line item criterion from the administrator’s observation checklist?

Inherited personality differences aside, should teachers now abdicate their role as chief encourager, engager, stimulator, or inspirer? We certainly hope not. Teachers must be prudent about dealing with this new pedagogical reality even as constructivist instructional practice has shown such promise in reaching even the most unenthusiastic learner.

A quick Internet search will provide a cascade of constructivist strategies to stimulate intrinsic engagement in the classroom. From inquiry- and project-based learning to discovery and cooperative learning, and from flipping the learning sequence, or adding choice and authenticity, ideas for creating a student-centered and highly motivational environment abound. For progressive educators like me motivation can be summed up in this century’s “Three Rs:”

  • Rigor (i.e. allowing for heady, interesting, timely, and deep discovery/inquiry);
  • Relevance (i.e. permitting student choice, passion, interest to guide inquiry);
  • Relationships (i.e. consenting to diverse and differentiated group situations for exploration and presentation).

Report Card: Academic or Intellectual Skills?

ReportcardAs my faculty and I embark on the journey into creating our next generation ‘report card’ (i.e. progress report), I am compelled to – once again – ask a most important question: What is it we want to assess and share? Do we want to concentrate on academic goals built around Common Core or other standards? Or do we want to reflect student growth on an intellectual path.

To my mind ‘academic skills’ are synonymous with those bits of discreet learning we call behavioral objectives, anticipated outcomes, or standards. These disconnected bits of learning are often taught using pre-scripted curriculum, practiced using tedious and unimaginative paper and pencil tasks and rote memorization, and seldom revisited or connected to other academic skills or disciplines. The customary assessment for academic skills is a teacher or publisher created exam, or standardized test. And the usual parent reporting mechanism is a value-laden rating document that clumps learners into categories from top-notch to don’t-even-bother-to-ask. Students seldom reflect on this type of learning or its evaluation, but proceed mindlessly from one grade to another.

This is not to imply that ‘academic skills’ have no place in today’s classrooms. Far from it! It is essential, especially in the lower elementary grades, that children learn basic numeracy and literacy skills because these competencies comprise the foundation of all future learning. Direct instruction does and will always have a place in classrooms.

‘Intellectual skill’ development, on the other hand, connotes mental, cerebral, cognitive, rational, abstract, conceptual, theoretical, analytical, and logical turns of mind. Arguably these mental constructs engage the brain at a higher level (think Bloom’s Taxonomy) and can
convey aesthetic and altruistic perceptions or insights. Because children, even those in pre-school, possess a natural need to find-out, stimulating ‘intellectual skill’ development is not as difficult as some instructors might imagine. Students at any age eagerly investigate topics or ideas by asking questions, posing hypotheses, and digging deeper. It is through these ‘intellectual’ pursuits that students are motivated to master the ‘academic skills’ needed to promote inquiry. Embedding ‘academic skills’ into ‘intellectual’ investigation is the root of ‘authentic learning.’

What is highly consequential to us as we reconstruct our parent/student reporting system is that our discerning teachers find a developmentally appropriate balance between academic and intellectual pedagogy; and that our documentation of student growth reflects this balance. That is where new assessment and reporting platforms like Novare Education can lend a hand.