Reggio Emilia preschool piazza (common space)
It’s generally a good idea to get to know and learn from people you want to teach before you try to teach them anything. Here’s something huge that I just learned from Howard Gardner, who has probably reached more people with a message about the importance of truth, beauty, and goodness than anyone else alive today. He’s a psychologist (among other things), and I’m a philosopher (among other things), so I assumed I’d have something to teach him about philosophy. But I learned that he reads a lot of philosophy, especially in epistemology, the theory of knowledge.
Before Professor Gardner wrote Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, he wrote another book that included extended discussions illustrating how these three concepts could be taught, not just as a survey, to master a particular example of each one. This earlier book is The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand, and the epistemological lesson I treasure comes in his description of “the best pre-schools in the world,” which are to be found in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
The buildings and grounds of these preschools are as attractive as can be imagined, and the teachers act in “deeply caring and respectful ways” with the children and with one another. The teachers and staff invest unbelievable amounts of time and effort in recording and reviewing detailed notes about what the children say and do and how they respond to the stimuli in their environment. This ongoing daily research is to detect the spontaneous momentum of the group inquiry.
“In each of the classes in a school, groups of children spend several months exploring a theme of interest.” “The activities of next week (sometimes even the next day) grow out of the results, problems, and puzzles of this week; the cycle is repeated so long as it proves fruitful. Children and teachers are continually reflecting on the meaning of an activity, which issues it raises, how its depths and range can be productively probed.”
“Consider how this process works. Suppose that on the second day of school a rainbow appears, which can be observed through the skylight above the central piazza. Either a child or a teacher notices the rainbow and brings it to the attention of others. Youngsters begin to talk about the rainbow; and, perhaps at the suggestion of a teacher, a few children begin to sketch it. Suddenly the rainbow disappears; children begin to talk about where it came from, and whether it has traveled to another site. A child picks up a prism that happens to be nearby and looks at the light streaming through it. She calls over her classmates and they begin to experiment with other translucent vessels. The next day it rains again, but afterward the sky is cloudy and no rainbow is visible. Henceforth children set up observational posts after a storm, so that they can be sure to spy the rainbow when it appears and capture it in various media. And if no rainbow appears, or if they fail to capture its appearance, students will confer on the reasons why and consider how better to prepare for the next sighting of a rainbow.
“A project on rainbows has been launched, In the following weeks, children read and write stories about rainbows, explore raindrops, consider rainbowlike phenomena that accompany lawn hoses and mist, record a sensational double rainbow, and play with flashlights and candles noting what happens to the light as it passes through various liquids and vessels. No one knows at the start just where the project will eventually land; and while earlier projects clearly influence the “moves” made by teachers (and, eventually by students), this open-ended quality is crucial to the educational milieu that has been created over the decades at Reggio.”
At the conclusion of the group inquiry, each child creates something that can be shared with the community, and it is not just something quick and cute, but something that expresses the striking breadth and depth of what they have been through together.
It is well understood that inquiry has a social dimension. Darwin had remarkably good education and training at the hands of a number of academic and practical experts before he went on his famous voyage of discovery. Today scientific papers have a list of authors that may number dozens or over a hundred.
When Gardner discusses examples of outstanding Japanese education he observes that education in some cultures places greater emphasis on the group, while in other cultures the greater emphasis is on the individual. The obvious inference is that both are profoundly important.
At the close of his review of how different cultures educate excellently, Gardner summarizes contemporary understandings of learning and knowledge. Learning is situational: if we want to understand how it occurs, we need to know the texture of the environment in which the learning occurs. Good education, good teaching, adapts to the variables of the context.
Knowledge is distributed: different people possess different components of what is known; no one person knows it all, and sometimes it is unclear who knows what; but a group can function when the needed knowledge is shared.
And we learn by participating in the activities of whose who model mature practices; we may learn without any deliberate intention to learn what those other know.
In order to make knowledge our own, knowledge must be personal: we make our own by mastering it for ourselves and in our way.
What if one of the most important things that we could ever realize in this life is that we are family, the children of a loving God? What if loving service is the most important social virtue that we could acquire? How could we learn such things?
Quotations from Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind, are from pages 86-89; the closing epistemological summary draws on 98-99.