A dynamic forum focused on the experience of childhood and the process of learning

Unpacking Democracy Part 2 by Lani Shapiro

20 May 2022 7:59 AM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

"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

An often overlooked aspect of the Reggio Approach is that it animates a democratic society through its values, structures and practices. This is evident at every level – within the schools, with families, in the management of the schools and in relationship with the city, the country and international partners, but it all starts with the youngest citizens, the children in the infant-toddler centers and preschools. This is where habits, dispositions and principles, essential for democratic life are rooted, introduced and practiced.

Some of those habits and dispositions were introduced in Part I of Unpacking DemocracyThey include deep listening, a capacity for dialogue, the ability to think critically and a desire to work collaboratively for the common good as the foundation for democratic life.

Value Difference

Valuing difference is both acknowledging and seeking multiple identities, practices and points of view. This represents both a disposition and a constellation of pedagogical decisions.

Accepting, respecting and valuing the differences in others is a great ethical choice, which is possible for every modern person. Differences are not a problem that we annul or eliminate. They are a resource and an opportunity.”
Sergio Spaggiari, 2004

Since diversity is an asset, it makes sense to plan for different group structures and composition – large group, small group and individual – and notice the range of perspectives that emerge. Consider how diverse abilities, age groups and home languages add richness to your setting. Select tools that will enhance exploration and provoke surprise. Provide a range of expressive media: clay, wire, digital, marker, pencil, paint, etc. to explore ideas. Reflect on how each medium impacts and challenges understanding. Offer contrasting media to deepen a common theme. In addition to the voices of the children, seek input from families, community and colleagues. Each decision can support democratic life.

Be Curious

To focus your curiosity, ask yourself, “what do I wonder”...about the learners, their approaches to learning, the work of teaching and learning, particular areas of learning, learners at different ages or stages of life or particular interests of individuals?

Deep listening invites both speakers and listeners into unexpected terrain. Consider uncertainty, doubt and error as resources in education.

Use Language With Care

Dialogue is enriched when you are genuinely curious about others’ beliefs, assumptions, or theories and when peers share group work. Language is intertwined with deep listening, a capacity for dialogue and the ability to think critically.

Consider all the possible “think about questions” you might pose, rather than “do you know questions.” For the ‘think about’ questions to be effective, you must listen (with all your senses) and build upon what follows.

I would like to know more... Some aspect that interests me.... This is very interesting....
You started to say....
I am wondering....
And then...?

Does this remind you of anything? What do you think about this?
I wonder...?
Do you mind if I ask...?
What do you think about...?

Would you mind sharing more...? I’m curious...?
In which way does...?
What might happen if...?

I wanted to know...
What do you suppose happens when...? So it is...?
Why do you suppose this happens?
So what aspect impresses...?
How do you think this happens?

I see, so... ?
What are the possible consequences?
Is it...?
Do you see any patterns? Has this happened before?
Why... ?
What did you notice when...?
Can I say something?
What was it like when...?

Offer language that children can borrow to support peer exchange and genuine listening:

I think...
My idea is...
In my opinion...
Thanks for sharing your opinion. I have a different one. Here’s mine...
It’s ok that you don’t agree with my opinion. We can have different points of view. I respect your opinion. I have a different one that I’d like to share with you.

Think about the way your decisions about space, materials, tools and time affect conversation.

Use Documentation as an Invitation for Exchange

Pedagogical documentation is a process which makes this listening, thinking, learning and teaching visible and consequently subject to reflection, interpretation, dialogue and exchange. The point of pedagogical documentation is not to establish what the learner can do, but how the learner is thinking about what he/she is doing. As an iterative and recursive process, documentation continuously generates new questions and challenges. As educators listen, observe, inquire and relaunch, learners experience different perspectives and uncertainties, growing in their capacity to construct knowledge and appreciate complexity.


When you collect traces, you are simultaneously documenting the learner’s process, your work as a teacher and communicating what you deem important. Documentation is an interpretation of what you see; it defines, refines and reveals your values. Documentation takes many forms: daily traces, photos and transcription, video, sketches; project narratives; class/school/public exhibits; publications; presentations for study.


These elements are useful as they are shared and contested, allowing new points of view to enter and inviting others to propose avenues to extend this process. Share traces with an individual, with a small group or large group, families or other educators. Find a venue to make your ongoing work public, such as a library.

“Sharing the documentation means participation in a true act of democracy, sustaining the culture and visibility of childhood ... a product of exchange and visibility.”
Carla Rinaldi


In participation with others, documentation becomes a democratic tool.

"Participation, in fact, 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, especially an educational 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 found on these concepts: and in our opinion, so, too, is democracy itself." Paola Cagliari, Angela Barozzi and Claudia Giudici

Watch Video Here

Foundations for democratic life ARE BUILT upon being curious, using language carefully to promote exchange and practicing pedagogical documentation to promote transparency and participation. Since how children are treated when they are very young profoundly affects how they will live the rest of their lives, historian Timothy Snyder points out that a “free country thrives over generations.” A free society is strengthened when its citizens think critically, compare diverse points of view, vet sources and consider the common good. These values, structures and practices are central to the Reggio Emilia project.

Now retired, Lani was an early childhood educator teaching both typical and special rights children and their adults (parents and teachers) for more than 40 years. She is a founding member of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota, is a current Board member, works on the Network’s Communication Committee and facilitates its Book Study. She is particularly interested in the infrastructural aspects of the Reggio project.

All content and articles may be used for educational purposes with proper citation (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License).

Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota is a 501(c)3 non-profit located at 525 Pelham Blvd. N., Saint Paul, MN 55104 

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