Dialogues for Quality in Education: The School as a Place of Research | Report of NAREA Conference
By Mary Munday, Teacher
Viewing the ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’ exhibit is like going to the Grand Canyon,” began the opening speaker, Beth MacDonald, former co-chair of North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, at the group’s 4th annual NAREA conference this June in Boulder, Colo. “You arrive, become overwhelmed by the immensity, and then attempt to understand why millions of people travel to visit each year. After all, it’s just rocks. After spending more time taking in the vast canyon, you begin to understand and appreciate the magnificence and grandeur.” The premier exhibit, “The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children,” created a similar experience. It was an overwhelming amount of documentation and interpretation displayed to provoke the observer to ask questions, discuss and analyze with their peers and colleagues. At first you think, well, these are amazing projects, but what is the purpose of displaying such work? After spending time reading and analyzing the documented work, you realize how much the children learned through each experience and feel the sense of magnificence of so much time and thought put into the documentation. The true joy of the children’s learning is validated through images and videos, and the immense respect for young children is clearly evident.
Educators from Reggio Emilia, Italy, brought the exhibit and collaborated with teachers from the Boulder Journey School, Colo., to present the NAREA conference, “Dialogues for Quality in Education: The School as a Place for Research.” Interest in the conference and exhibit drew 600 people from all over the world, including Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, Israel, Italy and the United States. Bing teachers Andrea Hart Rees, Nancy Vertzabella, and I attended this five-day event.
The philosophy of Reggio Emilia has been recognized worldwide, and many schools in the United States are inspired by the approach and are implementing the ideas in their programs. Key principles of this philosophy include a) children must have some control over the direction of their learning, b) children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing and hearing, c) children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they explore, and d) children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.
During her presentation, Carla Rinaldi, president of Reggio Children, the Interna-tional Center for the Defense and Promotion of the Rights and Potential of All Children, explained that Reggio is not a recipe and not a method. She said that Reggio is an experience based on values that can be constructed only within the community. Her presentation, “The Competent Child,” specifically focused on how children have great potential and proficiency. She emphasized that a teacher’s image of a child determines our relationship with him, and therefore, teachers must choose to see children as capable communicators who are “fully engaged in being part of the world, competent in living and learning since the moment of birth.”
The presenters discussed the tenets of the Reggio approach. Among them: The physical space is directly relational to the quality of the interactions within the space. Within a school, children “observe, experiment with hypotheses, formulate theories, transfer understanding from one experience to another, collaborate with others and take risks.” The role of the teacher is to observe, facilitate and interpret the children’s work and collaborate with colleagues to examine the significance of the children’s comprehension.
A key element to the Reggio approach is the studio, known as the atelier in Reggio Emilia. The studio space was particularly appointed to support the use of materials and media as languages for expression and learning by the children. The space can contribute to the importance of project work. It is a space where documentation could be organized and reorganized before being displayed formally. The addition of this space gives educators a place to explore the possibilities of a large, well-organized variety of materials, while collaborating freely with others and gaining a firm foundation about the meaning and process of documentation work. Having the space to support the importance of materials and documentation is a key component to the Reggio approach.
The exhibit was the focus of the conference and the inspiration for dialogue. Amelia Gambetti, coordinator of Reggio Children and liaison for consultancy to schools studying the Reggio Emilia approach, spoke with words of inspiration about the new exhibit. Her hope was that the interactive display be a “provocateur of dialogue.” She wished that this experience would bring about hope, optimism, continuous discussion, ongoing research, imagination and collaboration resulting in more quality education. The interactive display took place on two main floors at The National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as one floor in the main conference building at The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. The display included a great variety of thoroughly detailed projects with detailed documentation from the project’s onset through to its culmination, which included large-scale collages made by the children, videos, audio recordings, teacher notebooks of a project’s progress, drawings, quotations, photographs, interpretation by teachers and insight by relevant experts such as poets, architects, and artists. Group discussions were held following the exhibit to discuss the various interpretations. Teachers were inspired by the detail and were pleased that they could revisit the exhibit for further analysis the following days.
The host of the conference, Boulder Journey School, is one program that has been inspired by the Reggio approach. As a result of a partnership with the University of Colorado at Denver and the Colorado Department of Education, all teachers working at the school earn an early childhood education teaching license and a master’s degree, and complete a teaching practicum through the university. The entire school was truly an inspiration. It was an exhibit within itself, with documentation on every wall and well-thought-out classrooms with many ongoing projects and expertly placed materials for exploration. The school’s programs offer endless possibilities for creativity, investigation and learning for children ages six months to six years of age.
For this conference, the teachers from Boulder Journey School set up provocations and inspirational materials for the study group to explore. Provocations included questions to inspire the participants to test out different materials and theories. For example, participants saw materials such as tape, wire, paper, water, ramps and inclines placed on a table. Nearby were some questions, including: How could you put these materials together to form a water wheel? Will the wheel spin in the water? Will the materials you choose stay together when water touches it? The group experimented with the materials and tools and further examined the documentation display throughout the school. Exploration led to much dialogue in all of the classrooms.
After exploring provocations at Boulder Journey School, the Bing teachers returned to the conference room for a presentation by Gambetti and Lella Gandini on the history in North America of “The Hundred Languages of Children” exhibit. The exhibit first came to North America in 1987, and from 1987 to 2000 traveled to 38 different sites in 23 states. The new digital edition that we see today started in the year 2000 and has been at 9 sites and 6 states. Each exhibit communicates through visual and written documentation. Vea Vecchi, retired art studio teacher of the Diana School, Reggio Emilia, spoke on the importance of the exhibit as a tool for professional development and documentation that includes visual listening, visual culture and an aesthetic dimension, which Reggio pedagogy embrace as a significant element in learning by children and adults. The exhibit allows us to experience a deeper look at the meaning of the children’s work and experiences. It is a democratic way of sharing with others what happens in schools and is a reminder of valuing children, families and the community and the importance of education. The exhibits are always growing and evolving through discussion and sharing, and the work is displayed to provoke questions, investigation and curiosity.
The overall purpose of the conference was to discuss children as investigators and researchers, and educators as interpreters, documenters and supporters of learning. The presentations and exhibit left teachers with feelings of inspiration to share, listen and collaborate with colleagues throughout the conference, and after they return home to their programs. Teachers from Bing were grateful to have had this experience, and look forward to collaborating and exploring new ideas with colleagues in the years to come.