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Top>Education>The Possibilities of Alternative Learning Lessons from Early Childhood Education in Reggio Emilia


Mioko Torimitsu

Mioko Torimitsu [profile]

The Possibilities of Alternative Learning

Lessons from Early Childhood Education in Reggio Emilia

Mioko Torimitsu
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Educational Philosophy and Early Childhood Education

The Reggio Emilia Approach

The city of Reggio Emilia is located not far from Bologna, which was the birthplace of the world's first university. These days, Reggio Emilia is renowned throughout the world for its Early Childhood Education Program.

As of January 2012, the city had a population of approximately 160,000 people. It has a history that goes back to the ancient Romans. In the second half of the 19th century the region became well known for the development of a strong socialist movement. Immediately following the end of the Second World War, the region saw the foundation of private preschool education facilities, mainly by women, who were the core of the social movement. Initially it was uncertain whether the new schools would survive. However ultimately they survived and came to put down strong roots in the city. In the mid 1960's these facilities were organized into the first public preschool education facilities in Italy, and an institutional foundation was established. The preschool educational program known as the Reggio Emilia Approach (subsequently abbreviated in this text to "Reggio") is widely known throughout the world, including here in Japan. A major influence in Reggio's rise to worldwide prominence came in 1991, when the city's preschools were showcased in the pages of Newsweek magazine as the most outstanding childhood education program in the world.

There are any number examples that can be given about what makes Reggio special. There is the way that, instead of a single administrator or management, administrative direction of each facility is provided by collective leadership. There is the unique school outlook where the three groups of children, parents and teachers combine to form an organic school system. There is also the spatial design, which was inspired by marketplaces where people can move freely back and forth. However most attention has probably been given to the "project" based teaching methods.

Several children will be involved in a single project. They will spend a period of time, ranging from a few days to a several weeks, working on the project, which in most cases will be completed with a finished product or presentation.

The "Lion" and the Children of Reggio

In a video recording of a project carried out in the early days of Reggio education there is a portrait of a lion.

The video starts out with a scene of children eating, who appear to be around 3 years old. Into that scene bursts a person in a zebra costume. The children all shout in excitement together, then suddenly the scene changes and the viewer is looking at a stone lion on the steps of a church in front of the town square in the center of Reggio. Several children, who appear to be around five years old, are shown playing in the busy market square.

The narration announces that "the children's objective is to draw a picture of the lion statue". The lion, including the height of the pedestal it is standing on, is more than 2 meters high. Seen close up, the lion, with its mouth wide open showing its teeth appears very fearsome to the people looking at it. The children are shown climbing on the lion, or sitting astride it, and tracing the grooves in its mane with their hands.

In the next scene, the children visit the lion statue again on a day when there is no market in the square. They take Polaroid pictures of the lion and sketch it. With mouths shut and serious expressions on their faces, they make casts of the lion’s footprints in clay. They also spread a large white sheet of paper out on the steps beside the stone platform and capture the distorted shadow of the lion cast by the sunlight on the paper. They even measure the largest portion of the lion statue with a tape measure, and then place that tape measure on the floor and measure their own bodies against it, to see just how big the lion statue is.

"The school developed an interest in the lion, and its presence ended up staying together with the children for a long time". With these words, the narration shifts together with the scene to the classroom. A film showing lions and stone lions is projected onto the wall of the classroom, and standing in front of that wall, voices of the children, excited by the projection of light and shadow from the lion images on their bodies, mingle with the roar of the lions through the speakers. In a shadow theater performance, children wearing headdresses representing a lion's mane show their strength as they imitate the lion. There are some children who bring chairs and try to act as lion tamers with them.

In the next scene, the children are shown actually drawing pictures of lions, and making models of lions out of clay. Some children start by drawing the lion's fangs, and others start by drawing its eyes. Some children also draw the lion’s mane on the canvas with a thick paintbrush. In making the models out of clay, the children pile up clay to show the lion's strength and pinch the clay with their fingers to make its mane.

The final scene shows the many works the children have produced. Some of the lions appear sad, others impressive and powerful. Some lions even have big eyes full of stars.

The things that impress the people who watch this video are firstly the lively interest in the lions that they can sense in the expressions and the actions of the children.

Next are the questions of people involved in early childhood education programs about how they can create this kind of program.

However, the video does not elaborate very much about the educational methods that support the program. In fact on this point, the Reggio publications are not actually very helpful. In particular, this video is only around 30 minutes long and contains no more than a small amount of narration added to it. It is difficult to use the movie to get any kind of direct hints about the methods behind the program.

Regardless of this, the reason I focused on Reggio, and above all, wanted to explain about this video, was the outstanding educational possibilities that I think can be seen there.

Study of Interaction between the Self and World

The creator of the Humboldt University of Berlin, which became the model today's universities, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 -1835) believed that the study process connects our self with the world around us and leads to a freer ability to actively interact with the world in general. I think that the Reggio Children, who drew a portrait of the lion, and I think that the event between the Reggio Children, in drawing a picture of the lion, and the stone of lion can be understood as interaction between the self and the world, the subjective and objective, and of a freer ability to interact actively with the world in general, that Humboldt is talking about.

In order to draw the world (the lion) it is necessary for the children to become closer to the world (the lion). By exchanging words with the world (the lion) and becoming friends with it, their (the children's) self senses an image of the world (the lion). Then that image is represented using hands and pencils and clay, and through this physical representation of the object, the children can confirm and correct their own image of it.

Through this process the children develop various physical and social abilities. These are probably important tools if the children are going to live in the society of the future. However learning those abilities and techniques is not the only way of creating that interaction between the self and the world. In fact, based on the example of the Reggio children, these abilities and techniques can probably be thought of as a side effect brought about by the lively interaction between the self and the world.

The possibilities of Alternative Learning

This is the season for graduation and enrollment. Students who graduate, and students who enroll in university, are starting their life in a society that is going to get even more uncertain in social, economic and political sense in future.

In order to be able to live a stable life in an uncertain society, it is important to become stronger oneself and to learn the essential abilities and skills for survival as well as acquiring the necessary social cooperation and morality. I think that at the time they enroll in university, students are already well aware of these skills and have most likely already acquired them.

It goes without saying that this is important. However, what I would like them to know at the same time is that the possibilities of learning do not mean just the acquisition of those skills and abilities.

The Humboldt and Reggio examples teach us that it is possible to learn through understanding and representing things. On first glance, it might seem like this does not lead to the kind of strength needed to survive in society. But is that really so? Getting to know the world better through understanding and representing things, and developing a sense of one’s own connection to the world, can be thought of as supporting the fundamental basis of our activities as living human beings.

It is not only Humboldt and Reggio. The classic texts of educational philosophy are a treasure trove full of all kinds of ideas about the possibilities of alternative Learning. And I hope to be able to pass on something of those ideas to the students.

Mioko Torimitsu
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Educational Philosophy and Early Childhood Education
Mioko Torimitsu was born in 1952 in Chiba. Professor Torimitsu graduated from the Faculty of Education at Hiroshima University in 1976, and completed the Master's Degree Program at Hiroshima University Graduate School of Education in 1978. In 1998, Professor Torimitsu obtained a PhD in Education from the University of Hiroshima. Prior to her current position since 2006, Professor Torimitsu was lecturer at Fukuoka University of Education, and Professor at Hiroshima University Graduate School of Education.
Professor Torimitsu's current research topics are biographical research conducted from a theoretical perspective that addresses issues of Ningenkeisei (Bildung). Her work attempts to explain data gained through narrative interviews from the viewpoint of Ningenkeisei with reference to classical theories of Ningenkeisei (Bildungstheorie).
Professor Torimitsu's major works include Kyoiku Shisoushi ni Yomu Gendai Kyoiku (Modern Education in Education Thought History) (co-author) (Keiso Shobo, 2013) and Kyoiku Shisoushi (Education Thought History) (co-author) (Yuhikaku, 2009).