Lessons from Reggio Emilia #1: Our ways of working

The first in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.

One of the most powerful impressions that I left Reggio Emilia with is the mind-blowing intelligence of the teachers who work there. Each one of the people I encountered spoke of children and their learning in a way that was deeply rooted in psychology, described in evocative – often poetic – language, richly conceptual and always, always, about growth and what is possible.

Teachers in Reggio Emilia are constantly poised, alert to the nuances of learning that goes on around them. They see concepts as they are unfolding in front of them (as though they were being displayed in their retina!) and are able to name and document them as possibilities for further inquiry. They notice, for example, when a three year-old child says one toy car goes faster down a ramp than the other toy cars “because the air goes through it”. They name that concept as “aerodynamics” and they respond in the full belief that children that young are capable – given the right materials and support – of launching into a full-scale research project into such a complex concept.

Clearly, there are many ingredients that help to develop this intelligence. But one quote, hit me really hard the moment I heard it:

“Teachers have a right to intelligent ways of working”

Silvia Crociani, a Teacher in Reggio Emilia

This resonated with me because I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on two things that have become fundamental in the art of teaching today – (1) the mentality and dispositions of the teacher, and (2) the processes that teachers are involved in.

Those processes are our ways of working.

As a PYP Coordinator, I have been trying to develop processes for planning that encourage teachers to operate intelligently – to question habits and norms, to avoid repetition of units or teaching from the planner, to identify the real purpose behind what we’re doing with students, to grapple with semantics as we endeavour to describe learning, to be researchers into their students’ thinking and behaviour, to document their observations and see them as data, to ponder what ‘to understand’ means and what might be genuine evidence of understanding, etc…

But it struck me that we may have been trying to go through these processes within a bigger context of unintelligent ways of working. In other words, we have been trying our best, pushing our mental capacities, but we’ve been doing this within some systematic constraints that limit our ability to go beyond a certain point.

The first, and most important, constraint is time.

In Reggio Emilia it has been decided that, if teachers are to be capable of thinking about the children they are teaching, going through the notes and other forms of documentation they have about the children, sharing thoughts and diversifying their perspectives about the children with other adults, making thoughtful decisions about how they will respond to what children are doing and saying and taking action to make those decisions become reality… then they need time to do so. As a minimum, six hours per week is devoted – officially – to doing just that.

It is a priority.

It may even be the priority because everything else hinges on what comes out of it.

In most of the schools you and I operate in, that time has not been identified as a priority. When creating school timetables, very often with an industrial mindset, this often comes as an afterthought – in 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 24th place in the order of priorities depending on the school you’re in. Many teachers snatch at snippets of time throughout the week, others may have one hour a week, two if they’re lucky. Great teachers continue to think well beyond the school day, their minds never turning off, making them prone to burn-out or that feeling of isolation many of us feel when the system doesn’t support how we wish we could operate.

I urge all school leaders to ponder the following questions:

  • Do we believe that the quality of learning is directly related to the amount of time teachers have to reflect, think, discuss, make plans and take action?
  • Are the systems in our school promoting these things as a priority?
  • How can we use the phrase “intelligent ways of working” to reflect on how we do things in our school?

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7 comments

  1. Desiree

    Sam, the name of your post has always intrigued me. ‘Time Space Education.’This is exactly what you are so passionately talking about here. Yes, we do need the ‘time and space’ to action what we name, document and notice about what our students are learning, thinking, doing, misconceiving etc…

  2. Fiona Zinn

    Really enjoyed reading this Sam, such a thoughtful reflection on your experience which will no doubt continue to ferment and unfold as you go forward. Experiences like these are the very essence of what ‘provocation’ really means – encounters with ‘the possible’ that confront the status quo, giving us the courage to advocate more strongly for children and their education. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

  3. sarahgoodhand

    Sam, I really enjoyed reading this as I had the opportunity to visit Reggio for the international study week in May this year. You post resonates with me, as this is the same conclusion that I have reached – the importance of time, to really follow and be attentive to the thoughts, observations and interests of the children, to think about ideas to launch and observations to document. One way I felt that they managed to achieve this was through the involvement of the whole school community. In one of the school I visited, it was so apparent that every single member of the school community, be it teachers, cooks, assistants, concierges, parents visiting… everyone is an equal and involved in the children’s learning. They are involved in every step of the learning and documentation process and this I think makes it become a whole community effort.

  4. Pingback: Sparks from the Early Years: Prioritising what matters – The Learning Tree

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