Lecturer in Literacy and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education. Monash University (Peninsula Campus)
'After all we have said about children, we have to discuss more fully the role children assume in the construction of self and knowledge and the help they get in these matters from adults. It is obvious in Reggio Emilia schools that between learning and teaching we honour the first. It is not that we ostracise teaching but we declare: Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children can do and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before'
(Loris Malaguzzi, theorist and founding director of Reggio Children).
In primary schools today, where the curriculum is prescribed, the outcomes of learning are determined in advance, and children's progress is judged in terms of age grade norms and standards, it is difficult for teachers to have the courage to trust in the potential of children and to foster this potential through exercising their professional judgement. However, my research (Surman 2003) is revealing that this is exactly what a team of dedicated educators in a Victorian school have the vision and determination to do as they move from teaching through instruction to practices based on the 'pedagogy of listening' (Rinaldi 1998).
Wooranna Park is a government primary school located in a culturally diverse, but economically disadvantaged, community in outer suburban Melbourne. For nearly a decade, now, the school has engaged in a deliberate and systematic process of research and innovation in order to make education more relevant for children in the 21st century.
The educators draw upon many sources for inspiration, guidance and direction. The theories of Howard Gardner and George Betts, among others, have influenced their innovations, especially in the upper school. In the junior primary area, it is the education and research projects in the schools in Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy, that gives shape to what is possible. In appreciating that the experiences in Reggio do not offer a model to be copied, but instead provide a 'provocation... to be discussed, debated and experimented with' (Millikan 2003: 133), the educators at Wooranna Park have embarked on a journey that has seen their teaching change from conformist reproduction towards a pedagogy that reflects their own talents, strengths and abilities, and those of the children. They are engaged in a process to free the children, and themselves, from the boredom that comes from routine instruction in prescribed bodies of knowledge. Instead, they educate through researching children's learning and their own practice.
Listening to children
In describing traditional education with its lock step, fixed body of knowledge, ages and stages, as 'approaches that look for deficits and teach accordingly', the Principal, Ray Trotter, contends that 'schools need to be places of project based learning, research and inquiry'. At Wooranna Park educators 'listen' to the children, take their thoughts seriously, and together build a curriculum around these interests and ideas. The teachers no longer passively imitate pre-determined models of learning and teaching that undervalue children's capacity for research and creativity, but instead offer programs which flow with children's timing and rhythms, validate their intentions and capabilities, and honour their dreams and desires. After a recent visit a student teacher remarked, 'the sheer richness of the learning I observed left me astounded'.
Significant features of the pedagogy
children are seen as protagonists in the learning process. They are encouraged to pursue their own passions and interests, to play, to explore, to invent, to question and to communicate in productive collaboration with others, making 'teacher directed classrooms a thing of the past at this school' (Esme Capp, Deputy Principal)
learning is negotiated between the children and the teachers to co-create a curriculum which is authentic, embedded in the lives of the children and respectful of families.
children, together with adults, test their theories, transform these ideas into new theories, and express new meanings through the '100 languages of children' (Malaguzzi 1998). They are encouraged to learn through painting, drawing, collage, clay, music, socio-dramatic play and construction, as well as through those activities more traditionally associated with the development of literacy, numeracy and graphicacy in the early years of schooling.
materials available for the children to use are of the best possible quality, as a sign of respect and to focus the learning
a range of resources, including new communication technologies are used to offer possibilities for developing new skills and to advance thinking and problem solving abilities. For example, radio production, animation, and film making encourage media literacies
learning is viewed as both an individual and a shared endeavour. The children work on their own, in pairs and in small groups. They complete learning contracts, and group and individual projects enable learning to be pursued over a protracted period of time
workshops and targeted teaching sessions for skill development, and for addressing mandated aspects of the curriculum, remain as a core component of the program
learning spaces are uncluttered, aesthetically arranged and purposefully organised to support a system of interconnections and relationships. The environment is designed to promote emotional wellbeing, develop social competence and encourage social harmony
the learning environment acts as 'the 3rd teacher', as it encourages self-reliance and resilience, and provokes new investigations
children's learning is carefully observed and documented. Work samples, photographs, transcriptions of the children's words and teachers notes are analysed and used to re launch the learning. Selected documentation is placed in Personal Portfolios as a record of children's progress. When the children's learning is compared against state standards, expected outcomes are achieved and surpassed
teachers work in teams. A student teacher observed that it was her first experience of genuine team teaching, with 'teachers consulting each other and seeking advice from one another'
teachers engage in ongoing critical reflection and other forms of professional learning, including attending Reggio Emilia Information Exchange network meetings for sustaining and enriching the educational project
Education for the 21st Century
This school has become an important point of reference for all who are committed to improving the life chances for children through education grounded in relationships. Through appreciating the potential of children, establishing partnerships with families and involving itself with the wider community, this school is building a culture that honours diversity and values difference. Above all, the practices reflect the belief that, in a democracy in the 21st century, all children have the right to be educated in ways that recognises them as subjects of individual, civil and social rights.
Malaguzzi, L. (1998) History, Ideas and Basic Philosophy. In Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G., (eds). The Hundred Languages of Children. England: JAI Press Ltd.
Millikan, J., (2003) Reflections: Reggio Emilia principles within Australian contexts. Australia: Pademelon Press
Rinaldi, C. (1998) Projected Curriculum Constructed Through Documentation - Progettazione: An interview with Lella Gandini. In Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G., (eds). The Hundred Languages of Children. England: JAI Press Ltd.
Surman, L. (2003) Listening to Teachers Listening to Children: One Child's Story. New Zealand Research in Early Childhood Education, Vol 6, 135 -140.
Principal: Ray Trotter
Wooranna Park Primary School
Tel: + 61 3 9795 2007
Fax: + 61 3 9795 4487
Reggio Emilia Information Exchange Inc
442 Auburn Road, Hawthorn, 3122 Australia.
Tel/Fax: +61 3 9810 3166