I am busy preparing to publish a series of lesson plans and units of work on my soon to launch website: www.linchpineducation.com.au
In preparing the work I was reflecting on the process a teacher goes through when designing a unit of study and I got to thinking about my experiences of Reggio Emilia.
A city called Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy has given rise to a whole movement in early childhood education known commonly as the “reggio approach”. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to visit that city and the centre which gave rise to this educational change in many Australian pre schools.
My visit to Reggio Emilia was one which has remained with me for many years and has certainly added a new dimension to the way I teach. At the very heart of Reggio Emilia and its approach to education is the absolute and profound belief in the potential of the child. The teacher and the parents become guides on the child’s journey and the environment is regarded as the third teacher. The interrelationship between child, parent, teacher and the environment is fundamental to the success of this approach.
The rights of the child are celebrated and appreciated. The child is viewed as being competent, capable and full of potential. In Reggio Emilia I saw children socialising, learning, growing, developing and constructing knowledge with the support of the adults in their lives. These children demonstrated creativity, sensitivity and awareness of the world around them.
The presence of the parent in the child’s education is highly valued. Close collaboration between the parents and the school is believed to enable a broader and more complete picture of the child. Loris Malaguzzi of Reggio Emilia believes this is the best way to ensure a quality education.
The teacher in Reggio Emilia is a co-constructor of knowledge. Starting with the child’s own theories and questions it is the teacher’s task to challenge and provoke the child in order to facilitate new learning. The teacher at Reggio Emilia works alongside pedagogical coordinators and parent committees to ensure that educational content, standards and requirements are met. If the child shows an interest in a particular topic it is not simply the task of the teacher to assign it as a project for all students to complete. Rather, it is her/his job to discuss the topic with colleagues, explore its merits, map it against the educational outcomes and create a learning experience of value.
In Reggio Emilia schools are viewed as living organisms. Their physical layout and structure is believed to have a great influence on the learning that takes place. Students need space to gather in small groups. They need space to move and be free. They require an array of materials with which to work. Reggio Emilia is a place where a feeling of belonging is essential for all – child, teacher and parent.
Schools adopting a reggio approach often engage in a lot of project work. Whilst projects are important they are part of a much greater and more complex system. It is actually documentation that is the key in Reggio Emilia. Teachers are looking for ‘moments of value’ and it explained as watching for “the ants instead of always waiting for the elephants” (Amelia Gambetti-Reggio Children).
A school claiming to be adopting a reggio approach will provide endless samples of conversations, interactions between teacher and student, notes, recordings, work samples, photographs, drawings and illustrations. But far more important than that is the expert insight into those records offered by the teachers. Reggio teachers are skilled at observing children and use those observations to analyse understanding.
Documentation is the primary research tool for examining the child’s learning processes. In Reggio Emilia documentation takes place daily and it gives meaning to the children’s work. It also determines future projects, creates a log of work done and generates momentum to get the project done.
The walls of the classrooms that I visited in Reggio Emilia were covered with documentation of the current work. The interactions, recordings, images and objects were present and served as a daily reminder of the learning goals and processes in the school. The learning was alive and dynamic. There weren’t pristine posters and instructional texts adorning the walls. Rather there were plans for a bird house scribbled on the back of an envelope with a long transcript pasted next to it outlining the conversation between the teacher and the child about the need for a bird house and his ideas for the design. Below were a collection of photographs and pictures ripped from magazines showing birds and their homes across the world. Seated on the floor in front of the wall was a group of small boys busily trying to reconstruct a nest using drinking straws and twine. The teacher was recording them on the video camera in order to capture their conversation and plan accordingly for tomorrow.
What does it mean for me?
I was completely inspired by my visit to Reggio Emilia and excited by the decision of many schools to adopt this approach for the early learning centres. I believe that it celebrates children and empowers them without removing responsibility for their education from their teachers and parents. I still refer back to my experiences in Reggio Emilia when planning units of work to ensure I remain focused on who my work is for. The interest of the child and their wonder about the world is always a driving force. So too is my innate awareness of the individual needs of students and the opportunity all children need to show what they can do in their own way.
A little note for parents:
In exploring options for my daughter and faced with the task of choosing a school I would welcome a school that was empathetic with the reggio approach and inspired by it. After all, the heart of this approach is to encourage educators to question the very purpose of education and the way they do it. However, I don’t believe there can be a reggio school anywhere but in Northern Italy in a little city called Reggio Emilia and I would question any school claiming to be a “Reggio School”.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Einstein
In my opinion these words, from a man who may well have experienced this during his own lifetime, should be on the pin up board In every teacher’s staff room. Acknowledging the ability of all students is essential as is the need to assess their ability in a manner consistent with who they are.
As teachers we are constantly charged with the task of judging the ability of our students. Einstein’s words are a stark reminder that to truly understand what a child is capable of means asking them to show you in a way that enables them to shine.
A dyslexic child will rarely be able to effectively demonstrate their true understanding of a topic in a paper and pencil test. Yet sit down with him or her and record the conversation you have about the topic, what a difference it could make. What gems you may uncover in that child’s mind.
A young boy frustrated by pencil grip and finding it uncomfortable to sit still in a chair may astound you with his knowledge of solar energy when instead of delivering a worksheet to complete you ask him to design and build a solar oven capable of melting a chocolate frog.
A girl unable to focus on the page in front of her because she is exhausted after representing the state in gymnastics all weekend may struggle to explain photosynthesis on the paper and pencil science test in front of her. Yet if you ask her to represent the process in dance I am sure you would be astounded.
There is certainly a place for the paper and pencil test but let’s not make education a one size fits all chain store dress. Instead let’s value the children sitting before us and work to ensure that each and every one of them has the opportunity to show what they are made of in a way that is true to who they are.
I can recall my early years of primary school when I was tested weekly on a long list of words to be learned by rote and the struggles I had with memorising the times tables. Luckily the words came easily to me but the challenges I had in mastering those tables! The whole family had to get involved – Mum, Dad, Big Brother and me – all desperately trying to lock them in my brain. In desperation my Dad used to play games of Tribulation with me, all to no avail… I still struggle with remembering my times tables but you
should see how quick I am on a calculator!
Albert Einstein wisely said, “Never memorise something you can look up.” Great news for me with learning the times tables but how does this statement impact on the classrooms of today? With the advent of Google and the explosion of information available to our students what do the words of Albert Einstein mean for teachers of today?
The answer seems quite simple. The goal of our classrooms is not to learn information by rote but to learn how to learn. Our task as educators is to equip students with the ability to seek, find, evaluate and understand information. No longer do our students need to memorise the capital cities of the world, they need to know how to find that information and more importantly still, they need to know how to work out whether the information they have found is reliable and accurate.
Mary Ann Fitzgerald, Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia writes, “In today’s world of rapidly proliferating information in new electronic forms, individuals must be ready to make decisions about information reliability and credibility.” This level of evaluation is a complex concept and one which needs to be actively taught in all classrooms. In order for our students to function as literate and informed people we need to provide them with the skills needed to synthesis and evaluate information that is
presented to them at high speed.
The new Australian Curriculum has listed critical and creative thinking as one of the
general capabilities for students. The rationale is that these skills are fundamental
for students in order for them to develop effective thinking and a range of strategies that will enable them to manage their own learning in time. The aim is to create confident and autonomous learners and thinkers in response to a society which demands “anywhere, anytime, ubiquitous learning and problem solving.” (ACARA, 2011)
It will be interesting to see the impact of the move to embrace inquiry-based and “big idea” thinking through the Australian Curriculum. Will children all over the country still be
sent home armed with the task of memorising the basics – capital cities, spelling words for the week, times tables? I dare say so for there is something quite handy about being able to calculate how much 2kg of apples at $4 per kilo will cost me without having to get out my iPhone calculator in the middle of the supermarket. When all is said and done, I am glad we spent all those nights playing Tribulation as a family. Even though I constantly questioned why I couldn’t just use a calculator instead!
So what is a linchpin?
A linchpin is defined as “a fastener used to prevent a wheel or other rotating part from sliding off the axle its riding on.” It’s also commonly referred to as “a person or thing vital to an enterprise or organisation”.
When deciding upon a name for our new company we wanted a name that would encapsulate our desire to bring together quality teachers and quality schools in the pursuit of quality learning. We want to be vital to the organisations we serve. We want to provide the solutions needed in times of change to help stop the wheels falling off. We want to be the linchpin.
Linchpin Education is working to design and develop innovative approaches to educational issues. Whether it be managing teacher absences, planning for quality learning and assessment or assisting parents to support their children with the latest research and resources. We look forward to sharing our discoveries with you.