HOW THE PRINCIPLES OF REGGIO EMILIA ARE SUPPORTED BY NEUROSCIENCE FINDINGS OF SUCCESSFUL LEARNING
THE PRINCIPLES AND PEDAGOGY OF THE REGGIO EMILIA PRESCHOOLS FINDINGS ON WHAT PROMOTES SUCCESSFUL LEARNING IN YOUNG CHILDREN
The Reggio Emilia Approach, which originated in northern Italy after WW2 has acquired global recognition and a wide following among educators. In Australia, the influence has been active since 1994 when the ‘Hundred Languages Exhibition’ was staged in Melbourne. The Hundred Languages of Children is an international travelling exhibition that has been informing audiences about the Italian-based Reggio Emilia educational pedagogy for more than 25 years.
What makes the Reggio Emilia Approach so compelling?
There are many answers to that question and indeed Newsweek in 1991 selected the Reggio Emilia Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres as the best preschools in the world reporting they represented ‘an example of a grass-roots project that has become an international role model’ (Newsweek, 1991).
In this article, I would like to view the principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach in light of modern neuroscience findings on what supports learning success. There are twelve documented and published principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach (Istitiuzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, 2010).
I group the principles into four categories as you see below.
The Principles of the Reggio Emilia Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres
2. Professional Development
3. The Image of the Child
6. Research as a Key Activity
7. The Hundred Languages of Expression
8. The Environment as the Third Teacher
9. Learning as an Individual and Group Construction
10. The Pedagogy of Listening
How do the Principles of Reggio Emilia Reflect the Neuroscience of Successful Learning?
In the discussion below, I will talk about each of the principles in relation to brain research about experiences and interactions that support learning. The brain, a miraculous organ, is the only organ created both from within and beyond the body. What children experience has a profound impact on their identity and self-esteem.
A. Principles that encapsulate the VISION of the schools
2. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Organisation creates stability and a sense of belonging
Organisation as a Hologram
The Reggio Emilia educational system has been described by Loris Malaguzzi as a hologram, an entity in which ‘each small part should reflect the ideas and choices that inspire the whole system and above all should make the wellbeing of the entire organisational system possible’ (Project Zero; Reggio Children, 2001).
The organisation of the whole reflects each part, and each part reflects the whole. The organisation of work, space, and time are based on choices and values that cohere. There is an assumption of shared responsibility. As a vision idea, the organisation brings coherence between the principles and the organisational decisions taken every day.
How does this organisation link with neuroscience?
A brain is a pattern-seeking machine. As human beings, we develop our sense of self and our self-esteem based on our interactions with others (Solomons, 2013). If we experience continuity, receptiveness and stability, we are more likely to feel that we are significant. Carla Rinaldi, one of the leading spokespersons for the pedagogy, describes how their role as educators recognises each child as an individual and that the child is ‘taken out of anonymity’ (Rinaldi, 2006). The Reggio Emilia pedagogy is renowned for its innovation, but the way children are regarded and the style of engagement are consistent. A sense of safety and predictability is important for learning. If children are unsure of how they will be treated, or experience uncertainty, they will be anxious and less able to focus on novel, incoming information. Even the cooks in the schools are versed in the philosophy and they listen to and work with children accordingly. When children are safe and feel a sense of belonging, they are open to learning.
2. Professional Development
Even the thousand-mile journey starts with one first step
In Reggio Emilia, professional learning is seen as both a right and a responsibility. The pedagogy is complex, but everyone working in the schools is supported to learn how things are done. When educators work together to understand the principles underlying and guiding projects within the centres they develop a shared language and a shared understanding that brings alignment and clarity of ideas.
For educators, the professional learning is done in-house and they have access to the two unique professionals who work with them in situ to enhance and facilitate their work. Loris Malaguzzi, the progenitor of the philosophy, introduced these revolutionary roles because he believed in collaborative planning and learning. A pedagogista works with and supports educators from several centres bringing an overarching perspective. Meetings are scheduled to conduct a dialogue about current projects to determine the direction they might take to most benefit the students’ interests and research.
The atelieristas were introduced to the centres as a disruptive influence, or ‘sand in the machinery’ to take learning in innovative directions in concert with children’s curiosity and inventiveness. These specialised art educators do not teach the children to create art but work with them to create art as a means to support and extend learning. Besides in-house professional development, Reggio Children partners with networks and organises international study tours. In Australia, we have our own Reggio Emilia Australian Information Exchange (REAIE). There are annual delegations travelling to Reggio Emilia each year to attend study tours and advanced courses at the Loris Malaguzzi Centre.
How does this professional learning link with neuroscience?
Because of the concerted mission to educate teachers on the principles, they have a firm understanding of the methods and underpinnings of projects. Professional learning encourages reflective practices, observations and documentation which is shared. It is contextual, not imposed by external influences.
In a similar way, children feel secure when they are in a known environment, so it is with educators. Because of the continuous collaborative learning, they are confident in their practices and processes. Both they and students derive a sense of purpose as they work on projects together. A sense of purpose is the antidote to alienation which is a common experience of teachers across the world (Soza, 2015).
Having a collaborative process gives teachers a sense of inclusiveness. This is the opposite of what multitudes of teachers experience when they are isolated with their students behind their classroom doors.
B. Principles that encapsulate the RELATIONSHIPS within the schools
3. IMAGE OF THE CHILD
3. The Image of the Child
IF WE THINK THAT THE CHILD OR ANY HUMAN BEING IS A PROTAGONIST IN THE LEARNING ENTERPRISE, THEN THEY NEED TO BE ACTIVE IN IT. EACH TAKES PART IN THE RELATIONSHIPS IN THE LEARNING COMMUNITY AND IN THE CONTEXT
The child is seen as a strong and capable co-constructor of his or her own learning. Children assign meaning and make sense of the world around them. Curious, expressive and motivated, they have a right to be an individual within the group. No matter which project you read about or observe, the overriding sense is of children being active. They are doing, wondering, thinking and participating. But we would also be aware of the presence of the teacher, not as a director, but as a facilitator and provider of resources. These resources appeal to the intellect, emotions and senses of children as they interact collaboratively with their peers. The resources may be materials, equipment, technology or action. The learning is mediated, but in an unobtrusive and intelligent way giving children the freedom to think and do for themselves.
How does this image of the child link with neuroscience?
The neural pathways of the brain are the biological captures of thoughts and memories. The pathways are stimulated by sensations from both within and outside the body. By being proactive and using all their faculties the children are directly impacting their neural network. Action and involvement lend the experiences a degree of attention and significance which is stronger than passive learning. Self-generated thoughts and the habit of thought generation build a network for critical and creative thinking. This is especially true if the activation is repeated strongly and often enough. Networks start to communicate and fire together (Hebb, 1949); (Shore, 2003). The vast majority of synapses or neural connections are produced during the early years of life. If they are not used or activated regularly, they are pruned back. In situations where children are not encouraged to develop their thinking or independence, or when they are neglected, their neural health can be negatively impacted.
An image of a child who co-constructs their thinking is mirrored by healthy neural networks, and the development of a superhighway for active rather than passive thinking (Shonkoff, Phillips, & (Eds), 2000).
The interconnectivity of the individual, the group, the community
and the world is taken into account
The Reggio Emilia philosophy is defined by a system of relationships. Child, educator and family are equal participants. There is a value and a strategy of belonging. A culture of solidarity is the basis of making learning visible to the community. The corner of the triangle representing the child is his or her intellectual, social and affective identity formed at the interface with others. The corner relating to the teacher is an entry point of both the educator’s individual self, but also their metacognitive awareness of their role in educating the child. The corner relating to the parent is the entry point for the child’s familial and cultural identity and the broadening relationships with the community beyond the family.
The triangle rests in a space of trust and contribution.
It is customary in the Reggio Emilia preschools and infant-toddler centres to hold meetings with parents to discuss the learning their children are engaged in. The points of view are sought and taken seriously.
How does participation link with neuroscience?
As mentioned before, one of the most important preconditions for efficient brain development is a feeling of security. If we do not feel comfortable in our environment, we become stressed. The outcome of stress is that our prefrontal cortex resources become restricted. Our body responds to stress by raising our heartbeat and introducing adrenalin into our bloodstream. We breathe more quickly and our hands become sweaty. We are focussing on fight or flight.
In the conception of the triangle of relationships, the children are so secure, that they can give all their attention to the task at hand. They are harnessing all their cognitive functions to identify and optimise opportunities for learning. The Reggio Emilia approach views the child holistically. They accept the child on his/her own terms and the sense of belonging and nurturing is the basis of everything else. If this sounds repetitive, it is because the general organisation of the enterprise emphasises this belonging.
In attachment theory, first outlined by John Bowlby, this sense of belonging is what has us develop in a healthy and balanced way (Bowlby, 1977). It is important to raise the idea that it is not only the children but educators and families themselves who benefit from this sense of attachment.
C. Principles that encapsulate the METHODOLOGY of the schools
6. RESEARCH AS A KEY ACTIVITY
7. THE HUNDRED LANGUAGES OF EXPRESSION
8. THE ENVIRONMENT AS THE THIRD TEACHER
9. LEARNING AS INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP CONSTRUCTION
The plan commences with a provocation in the direction of the learning. it is not prescriptive but invitational. There is a strategy of thought that can be modified
Planning is not made towards a fixed goal. Planning is a projection of well-researched possibilities. It is a map with topography that may or may not be explored but is ready to be. It allows for side paths and divergence, The pedagogy is project-based but flexible. The process of planning is serious and is characterised by intellectual rigour. Departure points beyond education are explored. In Reggio Emilia, the educators look widely for inspiration. They reference the work of engineers, architects, poets, artists, designers and more. They do not plan to enact the project within the walls of the centre but regularly take children out. Both so children can see the world and the world can see the children.
What to Teach?
The emphasis on children’s interests and the role of the teacher as a facilitator has sometimes been misinterpreted and has caused confusion. The term ‘emergent curriculum’ was commonly used when talking about the Reggio Emilia pedagogy. An emergent curriculum assumes that the children and their interests are the driving force of the curriculum and that the role of the teacher was to follow their lead. This is not completely true.
What occurs is that an area of study is selected by the teachers. This may be suggested by what the children are interested in, or it may be what the teachers are interested in, or a combination of both. What ensues is a period of research, resourcing, planning and development before a project is launched using a form of provocation. The provocation might be an object, an experience, an image, a display, a visitor; anything at all that stimulates thinking and wonder.
The teachers generate learning pathways and prepare themselves in advance for many possibilities. They then offer initial experiences and these may take the form of a provocation. They stand back to observe, act and plan new resources in response to what is occurring as children interact with the provocation. They are careful to preserve the children’s agency in the process of following the knowledge. This view of curriculum ensures that the children remain engaged and motivated in their learning. They are the progenitors of parts of the action and will have a personal interest in the group action.
The wonderful saying from Reggio Emilia that encapsulates this is; ‘Nothing without Joy’.
How does progettazione link with neuroscience?
In neuroscience, we see that doing and thinking about things yourself is much more effective than watching others do it. Imitation is one level of thinking. But when children enact the learning themselves, they deepen it, personalise it and gain new competencies.
When children plan their actions, they develop a sense of agency not present if everything is preprepared or done for or to them. When they are actively engaged their emotional tone is positive. They may even enter a state of flow, where they become, rather than do the task (Steven, 2021).
Agency is affected by emotions. When there is an emotion of enjoyment or excitement, then the impulse is strong and prone to fire neurons to make connections and send things into long term memory. Individual agency, intrinsic motivation and personal action are excellent drivers of new learning.
According to Barry and Tony Buzan, there are circumstances that encourage learning and memory:
· We learn through all our senses
· We remember well what happened at the beginning (primacy)
· We remember well what happened at the end (recency)
· We remember what we are interested in
· We remember new things we can connect to what is already known
· We remember things that engage our emotions (Buzan & Buzan, 1993)
When children are doing things for themselves as well as planning the next steps based on what has already motivated them, we can see these ideas come into play. Rima Shore, in her wonderful book, Rethinking the Brain, discusses how when children experience rich, stimulating learning environments, their cortex increases in size. The actual number of dendrites in each neuron increases and they, in turn, connect with other neurons forming dendrite trees. Science has shown that the effect of this growth is maintained into adulthood (Shore, 2003).
What Progettazione does, is provide a well thought out learning landscape, rich in prior planning and a well-resourced environment to launch children’s learning and agency without being directive.
5. Research as a key activity
Listening with all your senses, learning is a journey of mutual discovery
Each day is a new encounter best met with an open sense of curiosity. In Reggio Emilia children are seen as researchers. The educators do not see themselves as ‘the sage on the stage' with all the knowledge. They offer children, to quote Melbourne musicians, Cat Empire, ‘the light with no lime’. The teachers stay out of the limelight. At the same time, they don’t hand it over to the children. The research is in partnership. Research means that you don’t know the answers. The innovative projects that have emerged from Reggio Emilia commence in places no one else is looking. They often work in liminal spaces, the borders between things. ‘Nature and the Digital’, is one example where educators put together elements often seen in opposition. Rather than reducing nature in this digital world, digital technology gave children a macro view barely available to the human eye. And then there is a microscope to play with!
Research in partnership with others is a collaborative act of gathering knowledge and information. Research is going beyond the boundaries of the known. In Reggio Emilia, this is not about searching on google and repeating information, it is a genuine interaction with the real world, an authentic search for relationships, meanings, creations and correlation. Seldom if ever is the first response or idea accepted when children are researching, they often return to the same place, at different times and in different circumstances to deepen their understanding of their content.
How does research as a key activity link with neuroscience?
If you cast your mind back to the conditions for learning proposed by the Buzan brothers, you will remember that ‘we remember new things we can connect to what is already known.’ The important part of this researched condition for successful learning is that the information that is new, is connected to what has gone before. Regularly in our classrooms across the world, teachers introduce new unrelated content. It is external to children’s current knowledge base. Jean Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation are helpful to explain why linking the unknown to the known is beneficial. Children make meaning from their experiences and they build a schema of related information in their memories. When they encounter something new and related, they assess the incoming information in light of what they already hold in mind. If things do not match up exactly, their thinking is alerted and they re-examine assimilated information and accommodate and update it (Piaget & Inhelder, 2008).
The research in Reggio Emilia is never extraneous but is grounded in what the children and educators are doing. It is real life and contextual. This is an important principle of design methodology, the best innovation arrives when the focus is on real issues, real goals and real action (Leifert, Lewrick, & Link, 2020). When knowledge is not pre-packaged but explored personally and collaboratively, it will have more significance and fire stronger neural messages. Hands-on action and self-generated thought are more memorable. The brain is naturally curious. It is always on the lookout for what is novel. Anything that has become routine or predictable has been submerged into automation. Resourcing children to be ever curious and inventive keeps the brain awake and active.
7. The Hundred Languages of Expression
is made of one hundred
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
From the poem by Loris Malaguzzi
(Translated by Lella Gandini)
We do not experience the world in one dimension or on one modality. Loris Malaguzzi’s internationally famous poem is a call to recognise all the ways children and adults interact with the world. The poem emphasises the multi-modal nature of communication. Communication is internal, in the mind and the emotions; and external, expressed with the voice and the body. The educators in Reggio Emilia talk about ‘the expressive, the communicative and the cognitive languages’. These languages include music, mathematics, dance, painting, drama, puppetry, science, conversation, dialogue, sculpture, construction and as many more as you can think of! Because of the awareness and openness to using techniques from all these areas, the role of the teacher was transformed from being in control of learning to facilitate collaborative learning. They plan and resource with others to encourage the students to be autonomous learners as they interacted with concepts and materials. Children express their knowledge using ‘words, movement, drawing, painting, building, sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, or music to name a few’ (Edwards, Gandini, & Foreman, 1998).
The hundred languages are a collection of all the ways that children and human beings have the potential to internalise knowledge and express it. The languages work synergistically to create connections between and amongst our experiences to give us a depth of understanding of the relationships between things, not grasped episodically. As educators, we talk about developing students’ literacy which usually refers to verbal communication (speaking, reading and writing). But children can become literate in all modes of communication.
There is great diversity in the modes we use to communicate information and meaning: concrete manipulative, photographic, pictorial, graphic, tabular, schematic, symbolic, verbal written, verbal spoken, gestural, postural, locomotor and digital. You are likely to add even more. Students thrive when they learn to decode and encode the structure and elements of each. If we harness many of the languages the level of understanding is increased and it is the teachers' responsibility to keep the languages accessible to all the students.
This aspect of the philosophy is supported by the addition of ateliers and atelieristas, again highlighting the importance of the overarching organisation of the schools.
How do the hundred languages of expression link with neuroscience?
Every sense provides qualitatively different information along dedicated pathways in the brain. Despite the greater proportion of the population being visual learners, a huge amount of information in schools is provided in the verbal modality, speaking and writing. The hundred languages concept ensures the children approach content in a variety of ways. Often when children go from telling their idea, to drawing it, they make new connections and develop completely new understandings about what is being explored. The more areas of the brain that are engaged in learning, the more successful it will be. The different sensory areas communicate and connect across the brain to build schemata of understanding that is more complex than if children only watch or listen to content (Victoria Department of Education and Training, 2018).
In Reggio Emilia classrooms, children are often free to experiment with and explore ideas via the manipulation of materials. Each material has embedded concepts that are latent for learning. For example, the force of magnetism may be a surprise to children and arouse curiosity. As they explore they make meaning about their experiences. There is a learning interface between what is sensed, observed and interpreted. Multiply this experience by 1,000, the number out of 6,000 hours that children typically spend at school and you can start to imagine the density of communicating networks, synapses, in the child’s brain.
8. The Environment as the Third Teacher
WE VALUE SPACE, TO CREATE A HANDSOME ENVIRONMENT AND ITS POTENTIAL TO INSPIRE SOCIAL, AFFECTIVE AND COGNITIVE LEARNING. THE SPACE IS AN AQUARIUM THAT MIRRORS THE IDEAS AND VALUES OF THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN IT
– LORIS MALAGUZZI –
A major part of preparing for a project is the arrangement of the environment. The design of learning environments is one of the signature influences from Reggio Emilia. All of the senses, emotions, intellect and relationships are taken into account when an environment is arranged. Individuals and groups may be impacted by mood inspiring music, alluring essences, individually lit spaces, furniture of different ergonomic designs, textured surfaces, specific tools and equipment and beautifully displayed natural and manmade materials. Nothing is there by chance; nothing is superfluous. The environment is an external representation of interior landscapes for thinking and feeling.
The idea of the environment as a third teacher is a testament to how carefully it is arranged. Very seldom do things appear by accident.
How does the environment as the third teacher link with neuroscience?
The brain learns through action and repetition. Efficiently integrated knowledge depends on repeat encounters. One kind of repetition is rote learning, but this leads to one-dimensional isolated information. Of course, rote learning is valuable in some cases, but according to Roger F. Bruner from the University of Virginia, ‘The deepest "AHAs" spring from an encounter and then a return. (Bruner, 2001)’
Multiple engagements with an idea develop critical mass in the understanding of concepts and connections. When an environment is set up in a way that children can encounter the same of similar ideas in different modes and activities, the repetition helps to develop a complex relational understanding of the content. For example, if the idea is to explore the role of water as a life-giving force on the planet, and how it appears in different states and places, then children’s experience of its different states in the classroom, and interpretations in narrative and even dance, will give deeper more enduring meaning to the idea and how the idea coheres with other ideas.
Carla Rinaldi says: The physical space can be described as a language. The language of space is very strong, and it is a conditioning factor. Its code is not always explicit and recognisable, but we perceive and interpret it from an early age. This statement attests to the child’s learning being mediated by influences from the environment. This was scientifically validated by the important longitudinal Dunedin study that followed children from childhood into adulthood (Belsky, Caspi, Moffitt, & Poulton, 2020). Children who had more stimulation, care and support later enjoyed greater life success. The Reggio Emilia classroom is not only important for cognitive but also social and emotional development as you will have read in the section on the image of the children and partnership.
9. Learning as Individual and Group Construction
LEARNING OCCURS IN DIALOGUE WITH OTHERS
Right from the outset of the Reggio Emilia schools, collaboration and the collective were emphasised. It is part of the history, politics and processes in the schools. Loris Malaguzzi and the teachers read and explored everything in relation to how children learn. But they did something unique, for the first time they regarded the child as the expert in his or her own learning. They sought to make the learning visible.
Piaget believed that all the concepts a child would need to learn were present in an implicit form in the child’s brain. With maturation and as each concept was introduced and practised, the children would gain proficiency. There was a trust that implicit concepts will become explicit through engagement. He posited that the concepts would emerge at the stage the child was developmentally ready (Ginsberg & Opper, 1988).
Vygotsky developed these ideas. He believed that the engagement with materials and concepts was necessary, but he believed that that knowledge was socially constructed and the child had to engage with others. Knowledge is co-constructed between the individual and society. Language is one of the powerful tools for creating co-constructed knowledge (Miller, 2014).
The Reggio Emilia Philosophy relates its work to the co-construction of learning. They have always operated from the idea that we learn things better when we are in a relationship with others. Besides language, this learning together is also mediated by the environment and the educational tools that are available to the students.
How does learning as individual and group construction link with neuroscience?
In neuroscience, we learn that children’s brains look for patterns in the environment around them. From the earliest age, they begin to give meaning to or interpret what they are experiencing. Even before language develops, their ability to interpret actions, emotions and situations is highly active (Donaldson, 1984). The idea of mirror neurons is not validated across neuroscience literature, but the idea that children imitate what they sense around them has sound scientific backing. Learning from others, be they elders, peers or community members is an important way we develop our own identity. Urie Bronfenbrenner in his ecological model discusses the influences of various social circles on our human journey (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Imitation learning could be the basis of empathy, learning and understanding through the unfolding of events. But in Reggio Emilia, the emphasis on group learning was unique when it was implemented. Many schools the world over, including still focus on learning as an individual journey. What is understood in Reggio Emilia is that the child’s own neural network is being impacted in the group, but the whole group’s mental frame and neural network are being impacted as well. There are multiple layers to learning in a group.
D. Principles that encapsulate the ASSESSMENT in the schools
10. THE PEDAGOGY OF LISTENING
10. The Pedagogy of Listening
Listening is done with all the senses
In 2000, I made my first of three study tours to Reggio Emilia. One of the lectures by Carla Rinaldi reframed assessment as ‘a pedagogy of listening’ (Rinaldi 2001). When I heard her address on listening, it was the first time I truly recognised my value as an early childhood educator. The listening she describes uses all the educator’s intellectual and affective faculties, not just their ears. The pedagogy of listening is respectful, hears back, gives time, is multimodal, sensitive, reflective, curious, conscious of emotion, suspends judgement, and most movingly ‘removes the individual from anonymity’.
We are listening, for:
· Who is this child?
· How are they thinking, discovering, acting, communicating?
· What is their relationship with the group?
· How is he or she interpreting the world?
When we ask these questions, we are searching or researching. We also ask questions about ourselves. As secure as we think we are in our knowledge, research is being open. The research is about the process of learning, relationships, seeing possibilities, finding new meaning, seeing links, experiencing highlights, finding nodes of interest, unpacking values, surfacing beliefs, recognising change, feeling emotion and seeing how everything is resonating together.
How does the pedagogy of listening link with neuroscience?
Pedagogical listening is a far more complex concept than the usual understanding of ‘processing auditory information’. It is a kind of meta-listening. The teacher/s listen to the children, and they certainly hear their comments, wondering, hypotheses and understanding. But they are poised to listen for much more:
The relationships between the children
The prior knowledge the children are mobilising
The possibilities for further learning
Understanding and knowledge
From the above we see that we are not seeing children as parts, but as a whole. Everything is important and worthy of our attention, not just what we are looking for. Our brains are essentially lazy. They like to find the routine and predictable. When we broaden our ideas about what we are listening for and add more modalities and senses for that listening, we are open to seeing and observing more.
An important part of listening is that it is a loop. What is heard/observed is often communicated back to the child. The child gains a perspective about their work from outside themselves. This lends their thinking more value. It becomes in a sense, an artefact, that can be interpreted, extended and analysed by others. Because the teacher is observing very closely, she can reflect back on children’s interpretations, inferences and extrapolations. This is observing the processes they use to make sense of the world. Reflecting back is the space to connect old ideas to new ideas, old insights to new insights.
We have seen in an earlier discussion that when children feel validated and their selves are reciprocated, they are much more likely to be motivated to learn. Professor Reuven Feuerstein, a cognitive psychologist and contemporary of Loris Malaguzzi, saw all learning as presenting two sides of the same coin: cognition and emotion. The emotion he elaborated on, was not a feeling, but motivational energy to engage with learning and with society (Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, & Miller, 1980).
Once documentation is created it is a living thing open to continuous interpretation.
It can be revisited, reconstructed and re-signified
Documentation is the act of making learning visible. It is achieved using photography, capturing conversations and offering children one hundred languages to express their thinking, meaning-making and learning. This part of the Reggio Emilia approach strongly links to developing metacognitive thinking. One of the most powerful things we can do as educators is to enable children to appreciate and understand their own thinking. Not only is the content made explicit and shared, but the actual thinking processes themselves are discussed. The documentation also removes egocentric thinking. The documentation itself becomes an artefact open to interpretation. Students learn to see their own role in the learning and others’ roles. They may adjust their thinking in relation to the evidence that is placed before them. The documentation is a contextually embedded assessment tool. The teachers can glean information from what children have said and done on several occasions throughout a project, so their progress and transformation can be tracked. Because processes are documented, it is easy to trace the development of the project or to deeply analyse aspects of it for different purposes.
How does documentation link with neuroscience?
In a similar vein to listening to children which demonstrates to them their importance, when work is documented they see their interests and thinking processes valued. When children see their work taken seriously they feel themselves being taken seriously. The externalisation of their ideas and actions gives them an objective identity, outside of themselves and they know that they are contributing to the learning community. They can see it for themselves and show others their work as an extension of themselves. Self-worth and self-esteem are extremely important in developing healthy identities and it is logical to see that the children will feel competent when what they undertake is recorded (Solomons, 2013).
Within the documentation process, all aspects of the child are observed, not only their cognitive but also social and emotional dimensions.
Assessment is a dialogue of observation and interpretation
Assessment is the continuous attribution of meaning and interpretation. It is not an end product, but a structuring process to interpret the learning. Assessment in Reggio Emilia occurs at the systemic level to ensure the quality of the interactions with parents and the community and at the individual student level to monitor and develop the educational activity itself. Assessment plots the path the learning takes and considers tasks, skills, processes, abilities and plans. The assessment practices can map an individual’s progress in the learning journey on many levels to identify and elaborate on:
Levels of skill
Senses of identity
Interactions within the group
How does assessment link with neuroscience?
How we assess children depends on our internal beliefs about them and their performance. The way we assess and communicate with children can greatly influence their self-esteem and the way they engage with others in the world. In the 1960’s Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, an elementary school principal in San Francisco, published 'Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development'. What the elementary school study suggests is that we communicate subtle and unsubtle messages that inform children how we think they will perform or behave. Not all the cues are verbal, or even conscious. ‘When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.’ (Rosenthal, R & Babad, E. Y, 1985)
When the whole child is considered and a complex kind of assessment is in place, children are more likely to feel competent and flourish.
There are several correlations between the pedagogy of Reggio Email and a broad spectrum of neuroscience research into effective learning.
1. Brain development is supported through thinking and activity. Several Reggio principles apply in this active engagement: providing children with a rich, well-planned and resourced environment, making learning visible, listening to children's hypotheses and meaning-making, as well as providing rich sensory experiences.
2. The powerful nature of attention and engagement in learning is encouraged in Reggio Emilia by harnessing children's interests and personalising learning.
3. Repetition and practice build strong neural networks. A particular piece of learning is refined, acquired more quickly and is more enduring if it is encountered often and in different ways. In Reggio Emelia, children are always encouraged to develop their thinking and skills through revisiting ideas.
4. New knowledge is based on prior knowledge and this connection is better when it is reinforced in several ways and offered sequentially. Because the young learners in Reggio Emilia schools do projects that go for extended periods of time, the learning is connected, not episodic. Also, things are explored using different modalities or sensory systems. Children gain a better understanding of the relationships and with repetition, the neurons gain myelination (the fatty white substance on them) which allows the electronic information to travel more speedily along them.
5. Children build up intuitive knowledge as they use and manipulate objects and materials. In Reggio education, children are offered these materials firsthand and act autonomously in exploring them. But it does not stop there. The children are given the opportunity to discuss their findings. Vygotsky spoke about the importance of the social context of learning. This is one of the foundation stones of Reggio Emilia too. The Reggio educators support the child in linking the intuitive knowledge to the body of knowledge of humanity by giving them the labels and language to discuss it. Children begin early on to use all kinds of symbolic representations of reality. Much of what we retain in memory is symbolic, virtual transfer from reality and abstract theories. From an early age children in the Reggio Emilia schools are being encouraged to build symbolic languages.
The hundred languages as a principle in Reggio supports the five correspondences, mentioned above between the neuroscience of how children learn and the Reggio Emilia education. Through the hundred languages, different sensory systems are harnessed for learning. No child is left out because where one path of sensory perception may be less efficient in a learner, the others are available to provide a different channel for learning. The use of different media also means that sensory areas are not ignored or under-utilised. In neuroscience, they have literally found that if you don't use it, you lose it. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard University has shown how children's brains are pruned and they have fewer neurons when they are fourteen than when they are four. So, to retain a rich network, all the sensory channels need to be kept active. (The opposite of this is when children suffer deprivation or under-stimulation) (Shonkoff, Phillips, & (Eds), 2000) . So, the concept of the hundred languages is crucial.
6. Finally, if we take into account the effects of stress on learning as opposed to feeling engaged and in control, then the Reggio Emilia philosophy of learning through joy and engagement and in collaborative partnerships also favours healthy brain development.
I would like to end this discussion with this beautiful quote by Loris Malaguzzi:
All people – and I mean scholars, researchers and teachers who in any place have set themselves to study children seriously – have ended up by discovering not so much the limits and weaknesses of children but rather their surprising and extraordinary strengths and capabilities linked with an inexhaustible need for expression and realization. -Loris Malaguzzi-
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Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is a Melbourne-based education consultant and author of Edu-Chameleon. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Lili-Ann is a child, parent and family advocate who believes that education is a positive transformative force for humanity. Find out more at https://www.kriegler-education.com