The Reggio Approach is About Children’s Rights

This post is a reflection piece from the US College and Students Study Tour 2018 in Reggio Emilia.

I have always argued that education is always political.  Our approach to education, and everything that is included when defining an approach to education, is responding to the political, social, and cultural sphere surrounding our schools.

Some educators are explicitly knowledgeable and intentional about those political intentions.   Some believe that it doesn’t matter what those intentions are.  I argue that not caring what the intentions are is basically aligning yourself with the system. If you want to change the system, you must think of yourself as a political actor.

Political Choices in Reggio Emilia

In Reggio Emilia, they are extremely intentional about understanding the political nature of their educational choices.  In fact, Claudia Giudici started off her talk like so:

Reggio Emilia’s approach to education is distinctive in its look and its feel.  These features of our education are derived from our political choices.  Fundamentally, when we think of education, we think of education as a right.  We view children as having rights, and education as a primary and inalienable right for children.  So if we want to understand why Reggio Emilia chose a distinctive way to work in education, we have to understand the distinctive political choices we made.

So here is Giudici, the president of Reggio Children, creating a space of vulnerability for all of us to step into.  Political conversations are conversations that can be contended; they are based on people’s values and beliefs.  People with different beliefs can attack, posture, defend, agree, or diminish.  The courage to open that up from the very beginning floored me. In the states, we tend to avoid that conversation altogether.  Because if we really draw down to understand why our American educational systems are designed the way they are and if we really try to understand the political choices that were made, I am very sure that we will not like what we find.

San Prospero Piazza Reggio Emilia

So what were some of the political choices that were made?  Giudici told us:

The context for our political conversations was within our city and our municipality. Over 60 years of political conversations constructed an identity for our infant toddler centers and preprimary schools.  Our conversations were not about aiding children.  We wanted to affirm the right to education and affirm children as citizens with rights.  We wanted our schools to be places where children together could build their own culture; a culture fully acknowledged and acted on by the city.

Ok, it’s important to understand what level of government the people of Reggio Emilia were engaging with.  It was their city.  It’s also important to note that the identity of the schools were something that was constructed over time.  That helps me to understand why the citizens of Reggio Emilia are having such sophisticated conversations around their approach.

Here’s one that rings loudly for me: “Our conversations were not about aiding children.”  Whereas that is one, if not the most, dominant narratives in early childhood policy that we have.  Our views on early childhood education are about aiding children to be ready for some future event whether it’s kindergarten, third grade reading, high school graduation or workforce readiness.  This is the strongest contrast we have to their political choices.  Giudici pointed out that their political choice was to affirm children’s citizenship by providing places where children could build their own culture and, further, whereby the city could respond to the culture that the children created.

The History of the Schools: Brick by Brick

It’s also important to note when their first schools were built.  As the famous story goes, Reggio Emilia was in rubble at the end of World War II, and all that was left in their city was a German tank, some horses, and some guns.  They sold that stuff, took the rubble from the buildings, and they built their new school.  I learned that originally the town knew they wanted a public space for the community, but the men wanted a theater while the women wanted a school.  The women won.  It’s also very interesting to think of schools as public places.  I think we’ve lost that sense with our schools for a number of terrifying reasons.

  • In 1962 – There was an absence of national early childhood legislation until now.  The Italian government called their schools “Scuolle materne” which translates to maternal schools.  The Reggio Emilia municipality called their schools “scuolle dell’infanzia” which translates to schools of the children.  Giudici noted that the names really indicated the pedagogical identity of what those places are.

Are we as thoughtful or intentional about how our naming of places, things, approaches, tools, or initiatives leads to a pedagogical identity?

  • In 1963 – The first municipally run schools were built.
  • In 1972 – The municipality’s first Rulebook was created and unanimously voted. This was the first time they wrote down that there should be two co-teachers, an atelierista, how to organize spaces and environments, etc.
  • The 1970’s – The families engaged in pedagogical debates to give shape to the schools.  Many meetings with people from all different places of the community, there was a great deal of “pedagogical ferment” during this time.  This was a time of major growth where women were at the center of organized movements.
  • In 1994 – Another period of major growth. Malaguzzi’s vision of Reggio Children was realized: An international center for the promotion and defense of the rights of all children.  Their first publication was an article on education as a right, but also the responsibility of the community.

Malaguzzi International Center

In hearing about their history we can start to draw lines from what we see today to what they constructed over time.  I can see why the “strong image of the child” is a core tenet when you hold the value of children being rights-bearing citizens.  That’s a political choice.  I can see why the “atelier” was designed as a place for children to express their points of view in different “languages.”  Another political choice.  I can see why spaces are organized to give children room to create a culture that could be acknowledged by the community through “documentation.” Yet another political choice.

So from an American political advocacy point of view, what can we learn from their narrative?  Their narrative is not one of fixing gaps or of solving the deficits of children and families.  It’s one of seeing children as bearing rights.  What came of their work in their context (I fully acknowledge Italy is not USA, but still argue that we can learn from their history):

  • 13% of the municipal budget spent on early childhood services
  • Over 80 early childhood services in the city
  • 33 managed by the municpality
  • 14 managed in co-operatives
  • 21 managed by Catholic bodies
  • 14 managed by the state
  • 4 managed by private entities
  • 44% of children 0-3 are in I/T education
  • 91% of 3-6 years are in preprimary schools.

All this even when compulsory schooling in Italy starts at age 6.  The European Commission aims for 33% of infant/toddlers to be in services, while the Italian average is 13%.  The municipality defines and governs quality in the centers.

Our goals of expanding access and opportunities for children are noble and on-point.  We want that.  Let’s also consider how our narratives affect the pedagogical identities of the spaces we are building.

I’ll close with Giudici’s final thoughts:

Over the next few days we will be discussing education. For me, this is a discussion of rights.  So I think that this means to speak of rights, that each one of us in our various roles in our various contexts must take responsibility for constructing and building the conditions like “weaker subjects” can find a response to where they can exercise their rights.  We find that today, this is more necessary than ever.  Because the world is in flames, the world is in wars, and some of the wars are invisible.  It is a world of contrasts.  It is where the building of walls is prevailing over building bridges. So those of us who work in education must take on this responsibility.  So there is a culture of indifference towards “weaker subjects” and children.  To this day, they are not considered as persons.  So if we take up this responsibility, it requires that we make actions on a daily basis.

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