Unpacking Democracy and Education
The Reggio Emilia Approach
Last December, Lani Shapiro hosted the monthly gathering, titled “Unpacking Democracy and Education.” In the piece that follows, Lani was asked to expand on ideas she presented during that meeting.
Education is “always a political discourse whether we know it or not. It is about working with cultural choices, but it clearly also means working with political choices.”
Education is always political. Education for democracy, however, is not inevitable; it is a possibility and choice. Democracy can be understood as a way of thinking, being, acting and living together, as Dewey described, “a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” (Dewey, 1916).
Throughout the evolving educational project that is called the Reggio Approach, there are constant references to democracy, democratic life and democratic participation.
The Reggio Emilia approach is not just a way of working with preschools; it is a pathway to create a more democratic society. The Reggio project had an explicitly political birth as World War II ended: it responded to fascism, asserted women’s rights and called for greater social equality through collective civic action.
With proceeds from selling debris left behind by the retreating German army (a tank, six horses and three trucks) citizens from Villa Cella, a small community outside of Reggio Emilia, set about constructing a school for their youngest children because, according to the mayor, their wartime experience had ‘taught them that people who conformed and obeyed were dangerous, and that in building a new society it was imperative to safeguard and communicate that lesson, and maintain a vision of children who can think and act for themselves.’
“We didn’t want our children to be duped by fascism, as we were.”
Over seven decades, the Reggio Approach has become an international project of social, cultural, political and economic significance that balances the value of individual difference and understands that individual freedom must be connected to a social demand for justice and solidarity.
“Education is an opportunity for the growth and emancipation of the individual and collective; it is a resource for gaining knowledge and for learning to live together; it is a meeting place where freedom, democracy, and solidarity are practiced and where the value of peace is promoted.”
Reggio Children: Indications
Dispositions that Cultivate Democratic Living
For Reggio Emilia educators, the goal is not to teach about democracy but to nurture habits, dispositions and values like deep listening, a capacity for dialogue, the ability to think critically and a desire to work collaboratively for the common good, which lay the foundation for democratic living experienced through daily life in school.
A disposition is a characteristic attitude, an inclination or habit. Listening
Carla Rinaldi insists that in order to truly listen, you have to give up the idea that you control the outcome. Listening requires genuine curiosity about what you will encounter. This kind of listening invites all parties into new terrain. When we are open-minded, we can listen with empathy, see each person’s unique perspective and learn from each other. Bruner wrote that “open-mindedness is the keystone of what we call a democratic culture.” (Bruner, 1990).
Capacity for Dialogue:
The disposition for dialogue is characterized by an inclination to reflect and compare points of view through exchange.
Four rules for a good discussion
The children soon learn four things:
● That it is indispensable to have one’s own personal feeling and words about things
● That understanding things often means changing our words and thoughts
● That these changes often come about by communicating with your peers and with adults
● That when this process takes place, it is often perceived as a sort of subtle shift that involves the body as well as feelings, the mind and relationships with things and with others.
-Reggio Children, Commune di Reggio Emilia – Nidi e Scuole dell’Infanzia
The Reggio Approach seeks, welcomes and includes a wide array of perspectives on issues, recognizing that multiple perspectives and diverse paradigms are central to democratic living. Each human being is unique, with a wide range of individual and cultural identities: gender, age, race, class, language, ability, temperament, personal history, etc. yielding more than one answer to most questions. These varied perspectives can promote insight and creativity.
In addition to human differences, there are many ways of viewing and understanding the world, such as through the perspectives of academic disciplines, arts, industry or agriculture.
Beyond individual differences and interdisciplinary perspectives, a new question arises: whose voices are not here?
Democratic life understands that people (including children) have theories and expectations (whether they are aware of them or not) and an inclination to seek evidence: How do we know what we know? Where do we get our information? How do we vet our sources? What is the evidence? Could there be another point of view? This kind of inquiry is nurtured by the disposition to question and challenge, rather than to accept and obey, especially those things that seem as if they were timeless, natural, unquestionable or inevitable.
Social Construction of Knowledge and Participation
The individual constructs their own knowledge, always in relationship with others. Since individual knowledge is always partial and provisional, it is essential to be open to different perspectives. Since learning is the construction of meaning, always in relationship with others, group learning and individual learning cannot be divided.
Participation is based on the idea that reality is not objective, that culture is a constantly evolving product of society, that individual knowledge is only partial; and that in order to construct a project, everyone’s point of view is relevant in dialogue with those of others, within a framework of shared values. The idea of participation is founded on these concepts: and in our opinion, so, too, is democracy itself. (Cagliari et al., 2004).
Collaboration and Compromise for the Common Good
The habit of collaboration draws on an inclination to address questions together, through interaction and discussion. It propels participants to seek input from others, especially people different from themselves, and genuinely listen.
The dispositions and values of listening, dialogue, difference, critical thinking, socially constructed knowledge and participation for the common good do not exist separately; they intertwine, spiral, complicate and deepen each other.
In the next issue, Unpacking Democracy, Part Two will offer examples drawn from local work as well as from Reggio, to highlight practical strategies that support these values.