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A profession of uncertainty: the Reggio Emilia image of the ‘rich’ teacher

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 April 2016

Peter Moss
In last month’s blog, I introduced a new book about Loris Malaguzzi, one of the 20th century’s great educationalists, whose legacy is the world-famous municipal schools of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy. One of Malaguzzi’s great achievements was to build this system of council-run schools for children from birth to 6 years with the active participation of a collaborative network of stakeholders: children, parents, citizens, city politicians and officials – and teachers. A teacher himself, by education and in his early career, Malaguzzi not only understood teaching but devoted much thought and effort to creating a team of valued, competent and supported teachers for Reggio’s municipal schools.
His starting point was the meaning of education and the image of the teacher. Education, he was clear, was holistic, education-in-its-broadest-sense: not only teaching, but ‘assistance with the psychological growth and maturity of every human being, to allow their personality to expand in as rich and as individually and socially normal a way as possible.’ And just as his political choice was for the image of the rich child, so that called for an accompanying image of the ‘rich’ teacher, for such children demand ‘rich intelligence in others, rich curiosity in others, a very high and advanced capacity for fantasy, imagination, learning and culture’.
‘Rich’ teachers had to be open to, indeed welcome, the unexpected and uncertainty. Ours, he observed, ‘is a profession of uncertainty’, while to maintain the ‘gift of marvelling and wonder is a fundamental quality in a person working with children.’ The teacher, too, was ‘a new type of intellectual, a producer of knowledge connected with the demands of society’, making education something that was timely, relevant and responsive to the experiences of children, parents and communities.
This called for experimentation and research, key concepts for Malaguzzi, with teachers as experimenters in the classroom, willing to try out and research new ideas and ways of working. Reggio Emilia, he wrote, is ‘an experience that consciously attempts real research and experimentation, and which has decided to debate and examine the choices made, or that could be made, with workers, families and the people’. In short, a democratic approach to experimentation and research, reflecting Malaguzzi’s deep commitment to democracy as an educational value and practice, a commitment he expected teachers to share, both in their daily work with children and other school workers and in their relationships with parents and others in their surrounding communities.
Malaguzzi paid great attention to democratic management of municipal schools, in which teachers had an active part, alongside elected representatives of parents and other local citizens (current English government proposals to displace parents from school management in favour of ‘experts’ would have been anathema to him, as a committed democrat). Such democratic management must be more than mere rhetorical window dressing nor must it be confined to administration – it should engage with all aspects of an educational project. ‘Families must be taken from a passive position as pure consumers of a service and brought to an active, direct presence and collaboration’, becoming protagonists in a ‘participatory education’ that ‘recognises and enacts the needs and rights of children, families, teachers and school workers, actively to feel part of a solidarity of practice and ideals’.
Malaguzzi had high hopes and expectations for teachers, but also gave high priority to the conditions needed to realise them. He rejected ways of working that he considered led to teachers’ ‘humiliation’ and ‘deforming solitude’. No ‘prophetic pedagogy’ (which ‘knows everything that will happen’), no ‘testology’ (‘a robbing of meaning from individual histories’), no isolated teachers working on their own. He insisted on teachers working in pairs, having dedicated time for group discussion and professional development, and a strong team of ‘pedagogical coordinators’ (pedagogistas) each working closely with a small group of schools. The city created a vibrant pedagogical environment, with regular seminars, exhibitions and conferences where local, national and international experience could be exchanged and debated.
Attention was paid also to material conditions, always important but especially so in the usually devalued field of early childhood education. The city introduced proper pay and other working conditions, not just for its teachers but for all school staff. The municipal schools were run co-operatively, and Malaguzzi strove to replace hierarchy with equality between teachers and other school staff: ‘Auxiliary staff must have higher levels of participation in educational matters…[they must be aware they] belong to an adult collective whose efforts must come together to create ever improving life experiences for children.’
Malaguzzi himself, I believe, adopted the same egalitarian principles in his relationship with teachers. He neither referred to himself, nor was referred to, as a leader. Perhaps the Italian experience of fascism under a Duce – literally ‘leader’ – made the concept suspect, as did the strong cooperative traditions of the region. But above all the identity of leader did not sit well with Malaguzzi and Reggio Emilia, at odds with their shared recognition that many people, relationships and other conditions were needed to build the city’s rich pedagogical project.
A conference to mark the publication of the new book, Loris Malaguzzi in the UK: what future for early childhood education? will be held at the Institute of Education on May 14. For more information and registration, click  here
Photo by Nicholas Wang https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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