Last winter, a group of 250 U.S. educators -- including Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley -- visited schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The schools there are widely known as a model for their early childhood education. The community invests heavily in early childhood education; children ages three to six years have a right to a public education.
Naomi Karp, director of the National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education, was in the group that spent a week in Reggio Emilia in February. Karp doesn't profess to be an expert about the Reggio model, nor does she say U.S. schools should emulate it. However, Karp does say U.S. educators need to learn from Reggio Emilia and other communities around the world.
"After World War II, Reggio Emilia was so ravaged and devastated by the war that [its citizens] decided to invest as much as possible in their children and in early childhood education," Karp said. Since that time, the community has developed a program that includes both cooperative schools and public schools. The focus is the same: listen and value what children say and do.
"Children have many more capabilities than what adults give them credit for," Karp told Education World. "The teachers in Reggio truly listen, and they document everything the children do."
All that documentation winds up on the schools' bulletin boards, which are covered with child-created work. Photographs of children working on projects share the bulletin board space; under each photo, the teacher has written the child's comments about what she or he is learning from the project.
The way the bulletin boards feature children in Reggio Emilia lets them know that their work is at the center of importance, Karp said. "It should be the same for older children and teens here throughout their education."
Karp recounts one particular visit to an infant/toddler center in Reggio Emilia. There, she and Riley observed four children working on a project at a table with one teacher. The children were about three years old.
They sat at a table with their teacher for 30 minutes, and not once did one of the children get up from the table, Karp said. "I was in awe. So was the secretary [Riley]," she said.
The children dabbed glue onto a clear acetate sheet with a glue stick. Then they placed a dried leaf or dried flower onto the dab of glue. As they were doing this, the teacher asked each child to comment about the shape of the leaf or flower, about how many there were, where the leaves and flowers came from, how they grow, and why the child positioned it on the sheet the way he or she did. Then the children drew designs connecting the flower and leaves. "It was really quite beautiful," Karp said.
During this time, the teacher wrote down the children's comments. Later, the children's work, along with the teacher's documentation of the children's comments, was displayed on the bulletin board outside the classroom.
"We took a team of educators to model U.S. early childhood centers in three states, and we did not see, with few exceptions, the level of reaction, responsiveness, and creativity from the children [that we saw in Reggio Emilio]," Karp said.
Karp recalls Riley asking whether the children were taught their numbers. The answer was, "not as such." Children learn their numbers through a variety of activities. In one of the schools Karp visited, all the stairs were numbered on the right going up and on the left coming down.
The children also learn about numbers by solving number-related problems. For example, teachers might ask children to determine whether their school or another building nearby was taller. They had two to three days to contemplate the question. Teachers did not tell them how to arrive at the answer but, rather, allowed them to find the answer on their own.
At the Early Childhood Summit held in Washington, D.C., in June, Secretary of Education Riley commented about his visit to Reggio Emilio. "The rigor with which they train their teachers is rather breathtaking," he said.
"The teachers [in Reggio Emilia] respect the ideas and values that the children bring to the school, and the teachers are smart enough to build on the creativity of the children," he said.
"In the last ten years, an extraordinary amount of scientific research has been developed that tells us in very clear terms that all of our children, even in the earliest months of their lives, have an amazing ability to learn," Riley said at the conference. "We now know that it is absolutely imperative that we put a new, powerful, and sustained focus on the early years -- birth to five -- before children even enter first grade.
"Put simply, and this should be our collective motto -- the stronger the start, the better the finish," Riley added. "We now know that every conversation we have with an infant can literally spark [his or her] brain to grow some more. Our children are eager to learn, they are creative in how they learn, and they have an extraordinary capacity to learn if we know how to encourage them the right way. Our children are, as I have said so many times before, smarter than we think."
Riley has a plan to focus attention on U.S. preschool programs, calling for universal voluntary prekindergarten. He is asking Congress to set aside $30 million to support a new program to improve the professional development of 15,000 early childhood educators and for the development of an early childhood system with standards and equal access to high-quality programs.
He also endorses a recommendation that every early childhood teacher have at least a bachelor's degree with specialized knowledge in working with preschool children.
Karp agrees that early childhood teachers need to have a specialized understanding about young children. In our country, we think anyone can take care of little kids, she commented.
The next step is for communities to work together to improve and develop better early childhood programs, Karp said. "The real job is for early childhood educators to meet and get together with Head Start educators and to be at the table when decisions are being made about resources for early childhood education in their communities."
Diane Weaver Dunne
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