What is education for?

What is education for?

Author: Karen Szydlik
First published on open.forum.com.au – 16 November, 2016.

The educational project from Reggio Emilia is neither a model nor a curriculum. What it is though is transformational and inspirational. A visit to the schools will leave educators reflecting and considering “What is education for?” and “Can we in Australia do more for our youngest citizens?”.

In 1991, Newsweek magazine printed a story called “the 10 best schools in the world”. For preschools they chose Reggio Emilia in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. With this, the ‘educational project of Reggio Emilia’ became world renowned.

People from everywhere wanted to see these schools* for themselves and as a result in 1994, Reggio Children in Italy was founded. Its role was to organise the pedagogical and cultural exchanges already taking place between Reggio Emilia’s municipal early childhood centres and teachers, academics and researchers from around the world and to promote and defend children’s rights.

Meanwhile in Australia, REAIE was established to provide an opportunity for dialogue amongst Australian educators. It draws on the Reggio Emilia experience as the ongoing catalyst for thinking, research and advocacy. Australian educators have been visiting Reggio Emilia for well over 20 years, and nowadays some of the language and pedagogy we first saw in Reggio Emilia has made its way across the seas to our shores to be found in policy, curriculum documents and practice, though many would not know its origins.

All over Australia groups of like-minded educators meet regularly to discuss the big issues about children’s education: learning and teaching. They talk too about the principles of Reggio Emilia and how they might apply in an Australian context. These conversations are passionate. The educators wonder how to involve families and the community in the children’s learning. They talk about advocacy; they talk about the challenges of balancing rules and regulations with a passion for teaching and the learning of our youngest citizens. In Reggio Emilia the pedagogues talk about young children as children with rights now, children as citizens in the present and schools as places for democratic life.

This causes us to pause and consider, do our children have rights now? Do we treat them as citizens in the present? Are our schools places of democratic life?

To understand a little more about this inspirational approach, it is perhaps important to understand its beginnings. The first school was built amid the ruins of the Second World War. The area itself is a prosperous part of Italy with a proud history. The first teacher was Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994). His writings are numerous, his influence very evident in Reggio Emilia today. The schools are supported by the city of Reggio Emilia. They see education as an investment in the city. They value democracy and participation.

With the extraordinary interest from the outside world, the schools in Reggio Emilia continually reflect on and disseminate how they have come to be. What is evident is that theirs is a dynamic approach. It is responsive to new technologies, to contemporary theories, to the changing cultural landscape and to the teachers’ educational research which occurs on a daily basis inside the walls of each school. They have found ways to make the children’s thinking and theorising visible, not only for the children, the families and their immediate community to see, but for the whole world; thus being advocates for the vast potential of all children. They value the uniqueness of every child. They value their thoughts, their wonderings and their questions. They seek to draw out knowledge from the children and they find myriad ways to support the child to express and represent these thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Loris Malaguzzi created a metaphor for children’s diverse ways of listening, thinking and expressing, in a poem called “No way. The hundred is there.” He called them the 100 languages. He said the schools and culture steal 99 of these and “separate the head from the body.” It is this language and thinking, coupled with the realities of what we see in the schools of Reggio Emilia, which I think ignites passion in educators in Australia and perhaps in this time of homoginisation gives us hope that there are also 100 languages in teaching.

*In Reggio Emilia the infant and toddler centres (3 months to 3 years) and preschools (3years  to 6 years) are referred to as schools in the literature.

Whilst Karen Szydlik is the Professional Learning Coordinator at REAIE, some of this article is an expression of her own interpretations about the educational approach from Reggio Emilia. 

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