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NAREA Conference: Ideas in Motion

19 Apr 2018 7:08 PM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

Reflections on a Professional Development Experience
Patti Loftus and Lani Shapiro

What prompts any of us to attend conferences and what expectations do we bring to them? We recently attended the NAREA Winter Conference (held in Seattle in March), titled “Constructing a Culture of Shared Values for Children and Childhood: Honoring Diversity, Differences and Democracy.” The conference presenters, Paola Cagliari and Ivana Soncini, are both from Reggio Emilia with long and deep experience in the municipality’s early childhood education system. The title and speakers immediately drew our interest, and we anticipated a depth of thinking that is typical from the Italians. Paola Cagliari has a background as a teacher and pedagogista and now is director of the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia, while Ivana Soncini, a psychologist, brought an eye toward children with special rights. We found ourselves intellectually challenged and emotionally moved beyond our expectations by the ideas and diverse modes of documentation shared by Cagliari and Soncini. They focused on the many aspects of participation and the value of difference as a way of promoting and realizing democracy.


Over three conference days, the speakers wove together values and concepts including the “centrality of participation”, the “power of documentation” and the “importance of place” as they shared the evolution of particular layers of the Reggio-Emilia educational project. They described how teachers engaged families through a narrative of the children’s ideas about and representation of “place,” in this case, the “piazza” both in the town and inside school. Their presentations were punctuated with stories of particular children with special rights which affirmed the enduring participation of allchildren in school life. Click for an example of documentation of this project.

The concepts highlighted at NAREA closely mirror three areas of focus for the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota. We see the “centrality of participation” reflected at the Network Gatherings, the “power of documentation” made visible by the ongoing work of the Documentation Lab and the “importance of place” illuminated through the Geography of Childhood project. The conference speakers’ portrayals conveyed the coherence of Reggio practice, where: 

“the actions of instruction, assessment, documentation and research come to contain each other. They cannot be pulled apart in any practical sense; they are a piece. No dichotomy between teaching and research remains.” (Seidel, 2001, p.333).

A conference, like all teaching/learning contexts, offers participants the opportunity to experience insight and construct understandings in ways that cannot be predicted or controlled by the presenters. This opportunity is enhanced when colleagues spend much of the time between sessions debriefing and considering together the questions that arise from the presentations. There is always, as Cagliari noted,

“a plurality of different possible journeys.”          

A particular reflection that we want to privilege for the duration of this article focuses on the notion of “the gaze,” referenced multiple times by both Cagliari and Soncini:

“Each one of us is asking to be looked at with an optimistic gaze.”

“A gaze which...sees the resources and potential of each.”

“… being more aware (as adults) of the gaze that we have. That means knowing about the beliefs we look at children with, the expectations of our adult gaze.”

“A strong gaze toward the future…”

We were struck by the repetition of the concept of the gaze, particularly since our broader society is examining this idea when discussing social justice (the white gaze, the male gaze). In those contexts, the gaze has involved a power differential that objectifies and marginalizes the “other,” the person being gazed upon.

There is an inextricable, reciprocal, complex connection between how we are seen by others and how we view ourselves, both as individuals and in the context of a collective identity or category; as members of a particular gender, race, faith tradition, social class or (dis)ability. The gaze can be an expression of power and surveillance: objectifying, intimidating, disapproving, or anxiety producing. The gaze, as suggested by Cagliari and Soncini, however, can be loving, reciprocal, affirming, respectful, or empowering.

Here was the gaze in the context of Reggio Emilia. The speakers called multiple times for awareness of the adult gaze: the gaze of the teacher on the children, a gaze that sees and respects differences in children, that does not limit children, that gives them space to be who they are and hopeful expectations for what’s to come, without over-manipulating the present moment by pushing toward where their potential might take them.

Patti Loftus currently works in a classroom with young children and found this consideration of gaze gripping, which was a testimony to the power of the presenters. The conference led her back to herself, to thinking about her gaze as a teacher and her view of the children in her classroom. The idea of the gaze particularly prompted her to speculate about the children’s view of her as one who observes them.

This happens as I make notes, (“Ms. Loftus, what are you writing?”) or take photos as they work and play. How do the children perceive me as they are being observed? Do they sense judgment?

My hope is that the children sense the affection and appreciation I feel for them, but what evidence do I have that this is true? Do they sense when the gaze is intended to influence behavior (for example when I ask, “Who looks ready?” expecting each in the group to get ready.) What message is the child sending me when she uses her hand to cover the drawing she is doing as I pass by? Alternately, do they “feel the love” when I marvel at what I observe in their work or interactions?

Questions I’m pondering:

  • Do children interpret my gaze differently by my posture, position or expression?
  • How do the tools I use in observing affect my gaze and the children’s perception of my observations?
  • What gazes do the children offer each other? In what ways do I create a culture of optimism and empathy that imbues a spirit that can be shared?
  • Do children in school have ways to avoid the gaze of teachers?
  • What gaze (or gazes) do I have of the parents? How are they perceived by the receivers?

Soncini noted that children aren’t always kind, but in Reggio Emilia, the schools construct a community of shared values, one of which is dialogue that doesn’t assume or require agreement, but dialogue that is built around difference.

“…that positive trusting gaze is trusting attention…”

“adults must be aware of the gaze that they have of children.  These are adults, in schools . . . who recognize the different ways children have of giving a shape or form to the world around them."

"We're trying, in our meetings, to build together the gaze of empathy, of proximity, welcoming of all children.  It's about permanent, ongoing education for us, participation, building education together."

"Schools promote the value of diversity when they are capable of stimulating gazes that are divergent.”

“Gaze of empathy,” “positive trusting gaze” and “optimistic gaze” – these, referred to by Paola and Ivana, are all favorable gazes, reminiscent of the “image of the child” so often talked about in Reggio Emilia, the view that children are competent, powerful and unique protagonists in their own growth and development.

Ivana and Paola referenced the 20th century French philosopher, Foucault, who explored “the gaze”, and its relationship to power and knowledge in institutions, including schools.

Foucault's argument is that discipline creates "docile bodies", ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age - bodies that function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms. But, to construct docile bodies the disciplinary institutions must be able to (a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control and (b) ensure the internalization of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. That is, discipline must come about without excessive force through careful observation, and molding of the bodies into the correct form through this observation. (Discipline and Punishment, 2012)

The idea of gaze as control, gaze as an invasion of another’s being is troubling, but it’s a wake-up call, suggesting that our gaze might be perceived negatively by the children in our care, even a source of distress. It’s important for us to remember the power that we have over children and be thoughtful of how we wield it. It’s not just that the gaze might be perceived as negative. Relentless surveillance hasactual unintended negative consequences, affecting the delicate balance between attention in the name of “safety” or “control,” and the essential role of trial and error in the development of agency, autonomy and problem-solving skill of a growing child (Rooney, T., 2010 p. 344-345).

The challenging presentations and compelling documentation Paola Cagliari and Ivana Soncini suggested a possible gaze that teachers and families might direct toward each other and, further, how we might be more intentional as we create a community of learners, families and educators with this awareness. They described the “sideways gaze,” which reminds us there are other angles from which we can view things that might otherwise go unnoticed. The sideways gaze is connected to diversity, with learning anew, and with avoiding certainty and rigid mental constructs. Soncini elaborated,

“As Foucault often said, complexity requires looking at things slightly side-on.  It’s too easy to look straight forwards, from one frontal point of view, but if we can see side-on, then we can see different points of view on the same subject. In today’s world, in the culture, it is becoming more and more difficult to practice the ability to look at things side-on vs. frontally with one gaze.”

We activate a sideways gaze when we engage a community context or a parent’s narrative that helps us see children’s unique experience and expression. We exercise the sideways gaze when we create opportunities for all children to express their different perspectives and when we offer multiple avenues for representation. Pedagogical documentation animates this work.

“If you want to give voice to the multi-dimensional aspects of human learning, then we have to be capable of creating contexts in which children can leave traces of themselves.”

Respect for diversity, recognition of multiple perspectives, welcoming curiosity, uncertainty, and subjectivity, and participation are conditions necessary for democratic practice to flourish (Moss, P.). Reggio Emilia demonstrates exceptionally cohesive theory-and-practice that is not limited to the education of young children. The “diversity, difference and democracy” highlighted at this conference made visible multiple perspectives of children, families and pedagogical teams in Reggio Emilia, and their relationship of observation, reflection, interpretation, and decision-making through documentation and dialogue. As adults who attended this conference, we were among those who experienced the “multi-dimensional aspects of human learning” that Ivana and Paola noted. We were struck side-on by concepts we encountered anew and took pleasure in opportunities to discuss particularly salient ideas proposed by the speakers and illustrated by the documentation they shared. The conference constructed a context that enhanced our desire to listen and exchange views, and to contest our thinking.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discipline_and_Punish. Wikipedia. Discipline and Punish Published July, 2012 Accessed April 08, 2018

Moss P. Democracy as First Practice in Early Childhood Education and Care. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Bennett J, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online].http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/child-care-early-childhood-education-and-care/according-experts/democracy-first-practice-early. Published February 2011. Accessed April 8, 2018.

Rooney, T. (2010). Trusting children: How do surveillance technologies alter a child’s experience of trust, risk and responsibility? Surveillance & Society 7(3/4): 344-355.

Seidel, S. (2001). The question cannot be satisfied with waiting, In Project Zero & Reggio Children, Making learning visible: children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Patti Loftus is an early childhood teacher at Blake School in Wayzata, MN.

Lani Shapiro is a consultant and early childhood, early childhood special education, and parent educator (retired), St. Paul, MN. lani.shapiro@gmail.com

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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