Early Childhood Opinion

Diversity and Progressive Education

By Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell & Steve Seidel — December 04, 2002 9 min read
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Ever since Arthur Bestor and Rudolf Flesch wrote their famous attacks on progressive education in the early 1950s, blasting this form of education has been a blood sport for certain education critics. Regrettably, most of the criticisms have been directed at the excesses and perversions of progressive education and, of course, it is always easy to caricature or lampoon any approach. Critics have seldom scrutinized the core ideas of progressive education—for example, the need to construct one’s understanding, the focus on the validity of each child’s experience, the importance of a supportive community and work in a group, and preparation for life in a democratic society beyond school. Nor have they critiqued the best current instantiations of progressive schools, such as the New York City- and Boston-based schools founded by Deborah Meier.

Lately, a new argument that minority and low- income children are not well served by progressive schools has been added to the stock of standard critiques. A recent case in point is Chester E. Finn Jr.'s comments in The Boston Globe (March 24, 2002) attacking the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Said Mr. Finn: “I don’t think this is an approach that will work well for disadvantaged and minority kids. We’ve got many studies that show these child- centered, progressive methods, when they work, work well for middle- and upper- middle-class kids. But they work least well for disadvantaged kids, for whom school is the main source of structure.” In fact, the 34 municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia stand as a powerful disconfirmation of the former assistant U.S. secretary of education’s assertions.

For the past five years, we have been engaged in a research collaboration with Reggio educators and American teachers to investigate the power of the group as a learning environment and of documentation as a way for all—students, teachers, parents, administrators, and the community—to see how and what children are learning. In evaluating critiques such as Mr. Finn’s, one should take a closer look at these remarkable Italian schools. They demonstrate the continuing power and genius of progressive ideas and give lie to those who reflexively want to bury them. In these schools, one can see at work each of the key precepts of progressive education. Moreover, these ideas work precisely with the kinds of populations about which Mr. Finn expresses skepticism.

At first viewing, observers in the Reggio schools and centers are struck by the richness of children’s products and creations—from the details on a person’s face sculpted out of clay, to the working fountains in an outdoor amusement park for birds. Through careful attention to and documentation of children’s ideas and work, teachers create a stimulating environment that encourages children to express themselves in a range of media, projects, and activities. Children work with clay, wire, paint, ink, collage, paper, and metal; they experiment with light and shadow using light tables, overhead projectors, and shadow screens; they explore music and sound using a variety of instruments and recycled objects. Strategically placed tape recorders document their activity, along with teachers who are never without notebooks close by. The children’s individual and collective products and projects reflect their understanding of different domains, such as science (where rain comes from, how a fax machine works), emotions (how to express feelings of happiness, anxiety, and anticipation in different media), and the environment (the nature of crowds, cities, or fields of poppies).

Reggio teachers stimulate children's serious cognitive engagement in making discoveries, solving problems, and creating notations.

While many of these projects and products are visually stunning, they reflect more than skill in art. The children’s work reveals emerging understandings of different content areas as well as their abilities to express themselves, work with others, and their understandings of how notations function. Rather than focus only on preliteracy or numeracy skills, or push the later curriculum of the elementary years downward, Reggio teachers stimulate children’s serious cognitive engagement in making discoveries, solving problems, and creating notations—an approach with significant payoffs for later learning in school and beyond.

Moreover, counter to Chester Finn’s implications, the Reggio (and many other progressive) approaches are anything but unstructured. He and other critics seem to equate structure with discipline, order, and a narrow conception of interaction in the classroom. But meaningful structure entails much more than a teacher in the front of a room lecturing children sitting quietly at their desks. It is the entire construction of the environment and experience for learners.

In Reggio, structure is built into the careful choice of a focus of study, and identification of starting points that connect both to children’s experience and imagination and to central ideas about a topic. It also entails careful preparation of the physical environment, including the selection of materials and how they are presented to children. Finally, the learning experience is structured by the systematic documentation of children’s learning and the thought teachers give to the design and timing of appropriate interventions, often with an eye toward deepening children’s understanding of an idea and sustaining their engagement and desire to learn more.

Indeed, the structures in the Reggio schools have struck many observers as far more complex and thoughtful than those found in most American preschools (or universities, for that matter).

Like a growing number of American educators, the Reggio teachers think of themselves as researchers. Their practice focuses on close observation, documentation, hypothesis testing, and reflection. They are constantly analyzing every aspect of children’s experiences—what motivates them, how they interact, how deep or superficial their understanding is, and where various projects are headed.

Like a growing number of American educators, the Reggio teachers think of themselves as researchers.

Documentation of children’s learning lies at the heart of this process. Through documentation, teachers have the opportunity to revisit, individually and collectively, the events and activities they have planned and carried out. It allows them to deepen their understanding of children’s strengths and interests, the learning process, different media and domains of knowledge, and their own actions and pedagogical decisions.

This emphasis on documenting and understanding children’s learning processes as a way to inform curricular and pedagogical decisions plays a key role in contributing to the superior quality of Reggio children’s projects and processes. It allows teachers to foster children’s learning from the inside, based on children’s own thoughts, rather than imposing it from the outside.

American educators who have studied the Reggio approach report a significant difference in their understanding of children’s learning and interests when they systematically record and reflect on the children’s words and actions, rather than depend on memory alone. Curricular experiences last longer and take on new meanings when children are given the opportunity to revisit and build on what they have done.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Reggio ideas and practices are in line with best practices recommended by experts on emerging understandings of learning, such as Jerome Bruner, Lauren Resnick, Ann Brown, Marlene Scardamalia, Howard Gardner, and John Bransford, to name a few. The reports of such organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children support the nurturance of broader forms of learning, and detail the limitations of direct instruction without the opportunity for exploration, reflection, and the construction of knowledge through active intellectual experimentation and questioning. The fact that the Reggio approach has attracted interest all over the world, often at the highest levels of government, suggests that resistance in the United States may reflect our own parochialism.

And here we come to the heart of the matter: the claim that progressive education is incompatible with serving a diverse population. In point of fact, the Reggio schools themselves serve children from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Children with disabilities receive first priority for admission and are fully mainstreamed into the classroom, following Italian law. The Reggio schools also are beginning to serve an increasingly diverse ethnic population, with the influx into the country of immigrant children from North and West Africa.

The Reggio model has been used successfully with children around all around the world, not merely among the wealthy.

Moreover, the Reggio model has been used successfully with children all around the world, not merely among the wealthy. In almost all of our own 50 states, educators (including many teachers in Head Start programs) have demonstrated significant interest in learning from the Reggio schools. Many public and private schools in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland that welcome children from every social class form part of a Nordic network of Reggio-inspired practice. And in Albania, thanks to a Soros Foundation project, a number of these schools have been opened after war and its flood of refugees left that country in a devastated condition. Interest has also come from places such as Israel, the Palestinian territory, China, Korea, Slovenia, India, and Senegal, with many visits to Reggio Emilia and frequent requests for consulting.

Carla Rinaldi, the former director of the Reggio schools, characterizes the Reggio approach as democratic: “It can welcome children from all ethnic groups, cultures, and social classes,” she says, “simply because it is founded on the child who is everywhere strong, powerful, and competent ... if the adults can look at him without too many prejudices and with values that can help them to look at ‘that’ child.”

If the goal of education is simply to raise scores on the current crop of standardized tests, then teachers should spend their time training children on the tests, and we would have no need for research.

But as researchers, we want to explore what is possible—in terms of the extraordinary capacities of children, the potentials of serious teachers, and the needs for an educated and engaged citizenry.

To ignore the example of Reggio is to ignore what is arguably the most powerful experiment in early-childhood education of the last 50 years. It is because Reggio expands our view of the possible that it is so important. The question is whether we are committed enough to the educational experiences of children from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds to create learning environments that support and develop their full potential. And that, as Ms. Rinaldi suggests, is the essence of education in a democratic society.

Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, and Steve Seidel are researchers on the Making Learning Visible Project at Project Zero in Harvard University’s graduate school of education, Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week as Diversity and Progressive Education


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