The North America Reggio Emilia Alliance publication, Innovations, asked Lani Shapiro to write about the Network’s Open Book Study, in particular The Wonder of Learning. The piece that follows was first published in the Summer 2022 issue of Innovations. Lani Shapiro serves on the Network’s Board, Communications Committee and is the editor of this quarterly newsletter.
The Wonder of Learning – The Hundred Languages of Children
By Vea Vecchi, Ilaria Cavallini, Tiziana Filippini, and Lorella Trancossi, Eds. Translation by Jane McCall
The Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota’s (RINM) “Open Book Study” participants have gathered on the third Sunday of every month for 15 years to engage in an ongoing conversation about Reggio-inspired publications. A flexible and ever-changing group, we arrive as individuals with diverse perspectives—parents, students, teachers, administrators, and citizens—who work or learn in varying contexts, in homes, preschools and childcare centers, schools, graduate schools, clinics, and civic institutions. We have met at coffee shops, and we have convened more recently via Zoom and consequently assembled participants from both near and far with numbers ranging from two to 15. Each meeting we form a flexible learning collaborative without a fixed destination with the intention of cultivating a context that can welcome uncertainty, diversity, and complexity. We have become a learning group. This learning together in groups is highlighted in the following quote from Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children exhibition catalog:
Learning in groups which provide a space for argumentation – for sharing interpretations, emotions and reflection - creates favourable conditions for subjective learning; acquisition of content; and awareness of ways of learning: a capacity for understanding that “viewpoint” has a pluralist nature. Learning in groups gives rise to social forms of knowing and knowledge which are essential to an idea of citizenship for the world today and the world tomorrow. (Pedagogical Co-coordination of Preschool and Infant-toddler Centres – Istituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, 2011, p. 15)
Our goal has never been to “finish” our texts. Instead, our intention has been to practice working with Reggio values and dispositions. We listen carefully to one another, examine content, read closely, formulate questions, wonder, and speculate about what is included or excluded while
examining the structural details of the text. We read methodically, never more than one chapter per month. Sometimes we repeat a chapter if we don't feel finished. This has afforded us an opportunity to grow our capacity to listen generously and practice building knowledge together in an environment that welcomes “roomy ideas.”
We have explicitly discussed ways we approach a text: How will we work with each other? Where do we start? What do we notice about the structure of the text (table of contents, bibliography, graphical details)? We ask each other: What stood out for you? What questions are you holding? We probe: What do you want to understand better? What is it about this selection that is salient for you? We bring our attention to the specific page, passage, or image of interest. Then we can explore: How does this inform our work? How do you consider these provocations in light of your own context? In a discussion with Carolyn Edwards (2015), John Nimmo, Loris Malaguzzi, and Vea Vecchi, Tiziana Filippini illustrates the importance of educators thinking and asking questions together:
Yes, the important thing is not just to hear diverse points of view, but instead to go so far with the discussion that it is clear that each person has taken something in and moved in his or her thinking, as a result of what has been heard. (p. 19)
Book study participants have asked and noted:
“What does the text mean? How does it relate to our own context?”
“How do we put these ideas into practice?”
“The pedagogues of Reggio Emilia think about how children think and think about their own thinking.”
“Book study transformed how I read and how I view my practice as an educator. I find myself reflecting even more deeply about my practice. I changed from thinking how I can make an activity better to how I can create conditions that will help me see children’s thinking processes.”
Over the last 2 1⁄2 years, following a RINM-organized trip to Madison, Wisconsin to visit The Wonder of Learning – The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit, the RINM’s book study immersed itself in the exhibit’s catalog, The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children. This volume, published in 2011 by Reggio Children, is a lively synthesis and distillation of experiences, representations, interpretations, and re-interpretations from the infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia. This book, like other Reggio Children publications that derive from an exhibit, is characterized by captivating glossy images and poetic narratives of the children and their theories. The publication speaks in the languages of graphics, images, photography, and text. The chapters are brief, generously illustrated excerpts that highlight children’s thinking, drawings, and constructions that represent a distillation of previous work, re-considered and re-written. The delightful work of the children is bookended by essays that introduce the exhibit, the catalog, the principles of the work, the collaborative working journey, and the historical context.
Readers may be tempted to leap into the visual story of the children’s experiences in volumes laden with imagery. However, to overlook the essays and narrative is to read only half the book. Our book study tradition is to read and discuss the book cover to cover, mining the insights and perspectives of various contributors beginning with the introductions. The voices that precede the visual narrative in The Wonder of Learning catalog include Graziano Delrio, the mayor of Reggio Emilia from 2004–2014, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner. As noted, we go slowly, considering and mulling over each point of view. In subsequent meetings, we delved into the stories of the children’s work. We were surprised and curious about the children’s observations and their use of metaphors and creative interpretations. We were both impressed and intimidated, asking, “How does this work happen?” We find the answers to our wonderings within the text, images, narrative and especially the reflections of the educators.
A deceptively straightforward declaration by the pedagogical team highlights principles that underpin the Reggio Emilia educational project and are reflected in the exhibit and essential to the text. Each section is introduced with a brief narrative that identifies the rationale for the “big idea” of the section and the specific projects selected to represent children’s nuanced relationship to place, materials, light, and mark-making. This way of working highlights educators’ decision-making nodes and illuminates their thinking, resulting in a map of the unfolding project. This provides a privileged window into the thinking of the Reggio educators as they initiated a project, maintained momentum, and searched for clues to relaunch the work. It’s all there!
For example, in the section of the book titled “Dialogues with Places,” the educators declare their assumptions and rationale. They wanted to better understand how children approach a place and the processes children use to build relationships with that space. Introducing the section, educators make their ways of working visible. They chose a place, the yet-to-be completed Loris Malaguzzi International Center, placed themselves (as adults) in dialogue with its sensory aspects and, after that, invited the children “to think of a gift which would please them and please the place” (Vecchi et al., 2011, p. 19).Then they identify their process, summarized in the following steps:
Educators visit the building (to experience the context).
Invite children’s thinking about “listening” to a place (What does it mean to listen?).
Take small groups to visit the center and suggest the children look, draw, photograph, and then choose a particular detail they find interesting that could receive a “gift.”
Children’s work proceeds. Each group has a unique encounter with the unfinished space and creates a gift through their work.
Educators meet, consider the work generated, and relaunch.
- Educators reflect and refine their documentation tools, interweaving visual and written traces.
- Educators select projects that highlight children’s recurring strategies: physical movement, sensory input, attention to detail, creating stories, and games.
Through dialogue, we grappled with this behind-the-curtain view of the structures and processes that support project work in Reggio Emilia. Examining these details together gave us a map or a compass to make sense of the results.
We began to contest the common understanding that Reggio-inspired work always follows the child’s lead. The educators explicitly made proposals to the children. They identified possibilities worth pursuing, listened generously to the children’s responses, and then supported their thinking. With these insights, we inquired about our own processes: What essential understanding informs our proposed projects? What do we need to understand to be useful to the children’s investigation? What essential knowledge, understanding, or experience precedes our work with the children? What are we, as educators, interested in understanding? We noticed that the children’s questions and the educators’ inquiry are not always the same.
The animating force and foundation for everything we have read is daily documentation, without which there would be no small traces to reflect upon, no projects to share with families, no exhibits to share with the community, and no books for international readers. The reflective process of the educators, as authors, invites us, as readers, to revisit, rethink, and reconsider. This results in a refractory reading with angles that reveal many possibilities, not just one. This reminds each book study participant to capture small traces and use them to reflect, not to prove a single story but to make space for many perspectives.
As I write this, we are nearing the end of The Wonder of Learning catalog, a journey that pre-dated Covid-19. Some of the other books we have studied to date include Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners; The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation; Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Postmodern Perspectives; Dialogues with Places; Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the Role and Potential of Ateliers in Early Childhood Education; The Diary of Laura; Children, Art, Artists: The Expressive Languages of Children, The Artistic Language of Alberto Burri; and In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning. We have decided our next text will be the Digital Educational Toolbox, which includes readings and videos from Reggio Children.
At first glance, a book study is a modest undertaking. However, within this small time and space, we continue to learn together and practice skills and dispositions fundamental to the Reggio Emilia Approach: deep listening, reflection, and collaboration. In “Open Book Study,” we transform ourselves into a learning community as we engage in the pleasure of dialogue, debate, and inquiry.
Now retired, Lani Shapiro was an early childhood educator teaching both typical and special rights children and their adults (parents and teachers) in public settings for more than 40 years. She is a founding member of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota (RINM), a current RINM board member, editor of its quarterly newsletter, and facilitator of the “Open Book Study” since the inception of this initiative in 2007. Lani is particularly interested in the democratic aspects of the Reggio Emilia educational project.
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Edwards, C., & Rinaldi, C. (Eds.). 2009. The diary of Laura: Perspectives on a Reggio Emilia diary. Redleaf Press.
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Pedagogical Co-coordination of Preschool and Infant-toddler Centres – Istituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. (2011). The theses of the exhibition: The wonder of learning. In V. Vecchi, I. Cavallini, T. Filippini, & L. Trancossi (Eds.), The wonder of learning: The hundred languages of children, pp. 14–15. Reggio Children.
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Vecchi, V., & Giudici, C. (Eds.). (2004). Children, art, artists: The expressive languages of children, The artistic language of Alberto Burri. Reggio Children.