20 June, 2024 Academic

Reggio Emilia: A Culture of Research and the Educator-Child Relationship

Director of Curriculum (K-6), Mr Daniel Zito, reflects on his recent study tour of Reggio Emilia, where he considers the influence of the educator-child relationship in perpetuating a culture where research permeates every level of the school system.

Nothing is more important in teaching than relationships. In personal learning, the individual construction of knowledge may be key, but introduce an external agent into the process – a teacher, a peer, an environment – and the phenomenon of learning begins to occur in the interaction between those elements. I was curious, therefore, on a study tour of Reggio Emilia, to understand how a culture of research might be cultivated through the educator-child relationship.

A mindset defines the relationship

In the city of Reggio Emilia, renowned for its early childhood education, educators adopt a distinctive mindset. This mindset is best described by Loris Malaguzzi’s quote: “The interactive social constructivist approach suggests not to teach children what children can find out for themselves. Instead, prepare facilitating contexts, to create enriching environments.” This belief in children’s innate capability requires the teacher to manufacture just the right environment, so that knowledge construction becomes a process of self-discovery, within a social context.

The interactive social constructivist approach suggests not to teach children what children can find out for themselves. Instead, prepare facilitating contexts, to create enriching environments.Loris Malaguzzi

Children are capable

The mindset was perfectly demonstrated by a teacher asking a pair of children to “make 6” using coins in a play shop. Due to the different values of each coin, making 6 was not as simple as handing over 6 coins. The teacher’s objective was to create cognitive conflict, prompting the children to reason, interact, negotiate with each other, and rethink their initial responses. This approach, while uncomfortable and drawn out, is inevitably more effective. Knowledge gained in this way is prone to take root.


The teacher’s role in the relationship

Having adopted the ‘children are capable’ mindset, teachers clearly shaped their actions around the belief. They provoke curiosity, practise curiosity, design enriching contexts, and connect children. They go to great lengths to understand the individuals in their class, propose learning activities that are most likely to provoke their curiosity, and adapt the learning design to stretch the children’s capacity.

Teachers in Reggio Emilia themselves practice curiosity, modelling it for their students. They accompany children into learning contexts, asking questions and sparking wonder. This curiosity extends beyond the classroom, with teachers initiating research projects to explore how changes in the environment affect learning.

A key part of their role is preparing enriching contexts. This involves an agile process called Progettazione, which is based on ongoing decisions about the direction of an inquiry, rather than fixed objectives. Teachers adapt learning designs based on their observations of children’s interactions, focusing not just on the start of a project, but also its evolution.

During learning experiences, teachers act as facilitators, fostering cognitive conflict within carefully formed, diverse groups of children. This approach, influenced by social constructivist theories, supports learning through interaction and problem-solving. For example, a teacher named Francesca relaunched an inquiry into working with clay on different surfaces, inviting a new group of children to build on the previous group’s work. This method allows children to connect and build on each other’s ideas, even if they aren’t together in time and place. Documentation of previous explorations helps new groups understand the legacy they are building upon.


Documentation as traces of the relationship

Documentation, such as that used in Francesca’s relaunch, was a commonly employed tool for capturing traces of the interactions and thinking of children and adults. Pedagogista Daniela Lanzi explained that documentation becomes useful if we pause to reflect on it during the learning, not just after. “Documentation is not only there to show parents that we are good teachers, it is there to show us what is happening for these particular children”. It became clear to me that when their thinking processes were documented, children – and perhaps even adults – must have felt that they were valued. Most importantly, documentation, the record of interactions between educator and child, was a method of research in Reggio Emilia. Not reserved for universities, research emerged every day in the preschools and infant-toddler centres, as educators reviewed documentation to ask not just what the children know, but also how they know, how they organise their thinking, and how they express that knowledge.

Documentation is not only there to show parents that we are good teachers, it is there to show us what is happening for these particular childrenDaniela Lanzi

Reggio Emilia: A Culture of Research and the Educator-Child Relationship

A culture of research brought to life

To demonstrate the mindset and roles that I have described, I will relate a story, told by Annalise, a teacher at La Villetta preschool in Reggio Emilia. She described a year-long project with her four-year-old class which she called ‘Streets to… Imagine, Play, Build, Represent’. An excerpt of the project illustrates perfectly, how a culture of research is brought to life through the educator-child relationship.

In August we collected comments from the parents, as well as the children’s previous teachers. They said things like “He loves toy cars. We make all our own toys at home”. Based on this, I decided to focus on construction. I set up some initial proposals which included car tracks using scotch tape on the floor.

This is an example of teachers provoking curiosity. Sometimes it takes the form of a question or prompt. In this case a physical provocation, a change in the environment, caused a shift in perception and asked the children to reconsider how they know and relate to the space.

As the children interacted with the materials, we collected observations. We created our own observation grid for this and made sketches and notes. We wanted to record the relations that were occurring, the conflicts and the negotiations.

This is typically illustrative of Reggio Emilia teachers practicing curiosity. With such earnest do they adopt this mindset, that each observation or artefact is ripe for examination and questioning. They see cognitive conflict as a critical step in building new knowledge and pay close attention to the way children navigate this.

From the observations, four possible foci emerged and we decided to go deeper into border crossings, streets and bridges, sloped surfaces and speed.

In this example, we see the importance of Progettazione, the principle of design in the Reggio Emilia approach. The educators had prefigurations for an enriching learning context. After launching it, they made their observations of the children, then re-designed and relaunched.

­After describing some of the avenues the children explored, Annalise continued…

In the piazza, a small group of students shared a photo of their clay street with the class. We asked the other children, ‘what do you think it might be?’ Then, we gave everyone a photocopy of the image and asked them to continue it. Some children added lakes, buildings, people, cars, police.

Here we see the teacher taking on the role of facilitator in connecting the children. She used the relationship to push children to build on the ideas of others, even if they aren’t in direct conversation.

All the children’s drawings were collated with selected quotes and published into a book for families. This was a way to honour and value the student learning process.

Reggio Emilia: A Culture of Research and the Educator-Child Relationship

As I turned the pages of the book on display, the educator-child relationship was brought to life before me. This documentation was a trace of the relationship and on the pages, I could see how each child’s understanding was expressed as a product of their ongoing interaction with their educators and peers. By compiling this book, Annalise is saying to the children, “Your ideas are important. Your research is valuable”. Thus, in Reggio Emilia, the educator-child relationship comprehensively develops, sustains, and promotes an approach in which the process of research is characteristic and constitutionally ingrained.

Mr Daniel Zito
Director of Curriculum (K-6)