Seeing with New Eyes: First Impressions of Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia © 2012 D.A. Wagner,

A few days before David and I left for Italy, he sent me a quote he’d stumbled on from the writer Marcel Proust: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Of course, having a new landscape doesn’t hurt—especially one as stunning as Italy—nor does having time freed from the usual constraints of work and other obligations. It also doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by colleagues who came to Reggio Emilia, as I did, to look and listen and learn, and who, through untold conversations and encounters, helped my eyes to see as I embarked on an amazing voyage of discovery.

I’m still processing much that I saw on this, my first week back (having been stranded in London for a week because of the hurricane that devastated parts of my beloved city), but I’d like to share here a few ideas that grew out of what my new eyes saw. Again and again in presentations and school visits, I saw children rapt and deeply involved in whatever it was they were doing. In one classroom, for instance, I watched a young child study a pomegranate her teacher had arranged on a few leaves of lettuce in order to paint it in watercolors. The concentration she displayed was more sustained and focused than what I often see in classrooms, as was the passion and energy another group of children brought to a rousing discussion of negative numbers (in which one student, trying to articulate the relationship between positive and negative numbers, described zero as “il cancello dei numeri,” or the gate of numbers).

Watching those students talk and work, several of us found ourselves thinking about how different that sustained concentration was to the way we tend to talk about stamina and the need for children to build it. We talk as we’re preparing students for an endurance test, something that’s arduous and beyond their ability without weeks and weeks of training. The students in Reggio, however, hadn’t ‘built up stamina’; they were simply deeply engaged with what they were doing. And they were engaged not because the teacher had hooked them with something fun or diverting or offered them a reward, but because they were eager to wrap their minds around whatever problem the teacher had invited them to consider through either the arrangement of materials (in the case of the girl with the pomegranate) or an intriguing, provocative question (in the case of the negative number group).

I’ll share more about what teachers do to promote that deep concentration and thinking in a later post, but here’s something else many of us noticed. There were none of the kinds of charts we tend to see in U.S. classrooms—no list of the behaviors or strategies of good readers or reminders of how to choose a just right book. Instead the rooms were filled with what in Reggio they call documentation: photographs of the children at work alongside transcripts of their thoughts and discussions, some compiled and created by the teachers and some by the students themselves.

Noticing this, we found ourselves thinking about the intentions and purposes of each. Here, at home, for instance, we make charts for a variety of reasons: to create a print-rich environment, help students ‘hold on’ to their learning, and demonstrate to the powers that be what’s going on in our rooms. The charts in Reggio, however, seemed to have different functions. They captured the work the students were doing; celebrated and honored the process, not the outcomes; acted as formative assessments that helped the teachers determine their next steps; and helped students reflect on what they could do, not on what they should do or know.

Once again, my new eyes prompted me to question practices I took for granted—and not just about the dubious idea of putting up charts to impress evaluators. I thought of all those times I’ve seen students answer questions by spouting off the words on a chart without really understanding them. Those students can seemingly talk the talk, but not walk the walk. And this, in turn, begged another question: Have students really learned something if their hold on it is so tenuous that they need constant reminders? And if, as I suspect, the answer is no, won’t they learn better by having additional opportunities to discover and experience what those charts say readers do instead of relying on written reminders whose meaning they haven’t yet felt?

The practices that support Reggio children to deeply engage and understand are directly related to the school community’s belief that children are born with an innate curiosity and desire to understand the world around them and are capable of figuring things out as they try to make sense of their experience. These beliefs and the practices they spawned developed out of years of public discussion—of the sort we rarely have here—between educators, families and city officials. But if we look at many of our practices, such as the ones noted above, they seem to reflect almost the opposite belief: that children are passive and not terribly capable of figuring things out for themselves without us pushing and prodding and holding them accountable—which my new eyes suddenly saw in a more negative light, as yet another measure we put in place because we don’t really trust that learning will happen in any other way.

At some point during the week, our Italian colleagues shared this quote by the great developmental psychologist Piaget who said, “What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.” I felt the truth of that in Reggio, as did my other travelers, and many of us have pledged ourselves to write about our experience in order to open up those larger conversations about what truly constitutes knowledge and how children best learn. I hope that blog readers will join that conversation because the more voices and eyes we have, the more we can see and come to know. In the meantime, I return to work curious to see how what I now know changes what I now see.

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner,

30 thoughts on “Seeing with New Eyes: First Impressions of Reggio Emilia

  1. Wow, thanks for that insight. I’ve felt this whole movement toward a pinterest classroom is lovely for the artistic outlets of the teacher and the scrutiny of evaluators but wasn’t really of any long term interest to the children. How much better to give the walls over to their documentation of their learning journey. Where is my camera?

    • I hadn’t hear the term ‘pinterest classroom’ before, but what a wonderful way of expressing a place that truly reflects all the different interests and aspects of the learners who live there. And how much more meaningful might those classroom walls be if students owned more of what went up there! Send pictures!

  2. Do you subscribe to Vicki’s blog? I really liked this one.

    Kim Yaris Sent from my iPhone

    On Nov 9, 2012, at 6:08 AM, To Make a Prairie wrote: vvinton posted: ” Reggio Emilia 2012 D.A. Wagner, A few days before David and I left for Italy, he sent me a quote he’d stumbled on from the writer Marcel Proust: “The only rea”

    • Oh, Jodi, I miss you already! Hope you and your school community wasn’t hit too hard by the hurricane. And keep me posted on what happens as you try to bring Reggio-style listening to New Jersey!

  3. VIcki, I’m so glad you are back, and I hope your home survived the storm intact. This elegant essay about seeing with new eyes is lovely and important. I agree that when children are engaged in what they are doing, we do not have to help them “build stamina.” We have all experienced a chorus of “NOOOOO!!!” when we’ve announced that writing or reading time, when kids have choice of what to write and read, is over. We only become twisted up over that stamina issue when we are forcing children to conform to a.) the school environment–sitting in their seats for inordinate amounts of time, b.) the curriculum, when it is only from the top-down, and c.) the testing culture, which is demanding more and more practice responding to irrelevant prompts, hoops, and loop-the-loops.
    Thank you for traveling afar to experience another way of educating, so that we can look with new eyes at what we are or are not giving our kids a chance to experience in school. I’m looking forward to the writing you hint at from the study group. Next best thing to being there….

    • Thanks so much for this, Katherine. So much of the time in Reggio Emilia I found myself asking the kind of ‘What if’ questions that you asked in Hidden Gems. What if we gave students enough time and space to arrive at understandings that made sense to them? What if we believed that their interpretations were as valid as ours—if not more so, precisely because they’re theirs? What if we valued the process of learning as much as we do the outcomes? What if we stopped worrying about what students can’t do and focused instead at what they can? And what if we believed, as they do in Reggio, that beauty is a form of intelligence—and so schools should be beautiful places? Oh, what a world it could be!

    • Hi Katherine and Vicki!

      Vicki, it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to begin reading reflections of your experience in Reggio here on this blog… my own head is so full it is difficult to know where to begin. But my first public comment is included in this newsletter…

      Another nugget that keeps ringing for me is the moment when Maddalena said that it is not enough to believe in social constructivism – we have to be in love with it. That comment brought tears to my eyes. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think it’s possible that I got weepy because it simply offered permission to just go ahead and say it – wholeheartedly and unapologetically. And THAT firm stance allows us to start from a different place. We don’t have to start with practice anymore – we get to scroll back to discussions about why we’re doing this in the first place.

      I can remember times in my early years of teaching that I got some groans from a few children that it was time for writing workshop. I remember them viscerally. They hurt my heart. But I haven’t heard groans in Opal School ( classrooms for years. Not any. So when I read that there is still groaning going on out there in the world, from my new fully permitted public love affair with social constructivism, instead of talking about new and improved practice, I want to talk first about who those children are. What are their stories? What tickles their imagination? What do they care about? What do they wonder? Because I KNOW that building relationships with the world of people and ideas is an inherently compelling process that we are born driven to do – regardless of our particular circumstance.

      It’s not that we don’t get pushback at Opal. But when we do, we are very sensitive to it, curious about it. Because it rarely comes in the form of revolt. Often it comes from not having had enough time. Or the energy of the students lacks the sizzle of inspiration, curiosity, engagement – which are things we have come to expect because they are necessities and because we know learning is like that. As Loris Malaguzzi famously said, “Children expect from adults the capacity to offer joy.” And Ellin Keene has reminded us that the “life of the mind is deeply pleasurable”.

      The books you have both written are important reference texts in our professional development library. The practice you have written about informs and inspires us. It all fits together. I’m excited to keep working with you to build an approach to education that never expects learning not to be ripe with connection and empathy and relationship and rigor and creativity and understanding. And never accepts it, either.

      • So interesting, Susan, that you zoomed in on a moment that brought tears to your eyes as I thought I’d use your suggestion of focusing on an emotion and thinking about what’s behind it for our writing group reflection. I found myself, too, thinking of those moments when I felt my own eyes well up. And while I want to spend some time with that feeling to consider the ‘wisdom’ in it, I know that one of the things that moved me so was the sight of such beauty and joy and seeing children so energized by thinking–which I believe, as Ellin does, is actually thrilling. Unfortunately, this post led another friend and colleague to share an incident she’d witnessed last week when a room full of students were required to spend 37 minutes reading George Orwell—whether they understood it or not. Needless to say they groaned. So it’s good to remember that there are places where groans have all but vanished and where, if they do pop up, they’re taken seriously as an indication that something is wrong.

  4. First I have to tell you that I love your blog!!! They always make me THINK and RETHINK my THINKING. I am so looking forward to hear more!

    I once was told that all good scaffolds must self destruct. So often in our quest to make learning easier and accessible for our students we have allowed the scaffolds to become crutches, leaving little thinking for the student. Pacing has also had a huge impact on student learn deeply; sustained concentration requires time.

    Thank you for your passion for teaching and learning and keep them BLOGS coming!

    • Yes!!! I think scaffolds should help students do deliberately what we want them to ultimately do internally and automatically. And that means that at some point the scaffold should no longer be needed—provided that students have enough time and are really ready. My hunch is that our idea of ‘acceleration’ would seem utterly foreign to the teachers in Reggio, who believe that real learning takes real time. I also was struck by the fact that we talk about reluctance (as in reluctant readers or writers) and they talk about readiness (as in is a student ready to do something)—and here, too, it seemed that we put a negative spin on something that doesn’t have to be seen that way. Of course, changing a system that values speed and instantaneous mastery is hard. But I’m hoping to share a few Reggio-inspired ways of making small changes in our classrooms in the upcoming weeks.

  5. I am so happy to see this peek at the depth of your experiences in the classrooms and among colleagues all eager to really “see with new eyes.” The premise that respect and nurturing are at the core of a teaching/learning relationship, and that this respect begins with actual human traits and a societal/community valuation of children as young human beings, is a remarkable as a basic ground. I’ve been reading “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain and although I know you are full to the brim right now, I think you would find this illuminating as you ponder how we build American learning structures. Really looking forward to your digestive processes here! (And happy upcoming birthday!)

    • Hello Sarah! Reggio was, indeed, quite the experience, though in addition to being incredibly inspiring, it brought home the dispiriting fact that our system is based on such fear and distrust. I will, though, add Susan Cain’s book to my wishlist. And while I’ll be out of town again this week, let’s revive the quest for a time to have tea!

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  7. My three-year-old daughter just started a Montessori school in Maine, and their approach reminds me very much of what you describe seeing in Reggio Emilia. I would imagine Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy grounds many of the practices you observed in Italy. At my daughter’s school, they even approach open house events very differently than at most schools by calling these “special person’s” events, and letting each child chose one guest. The guest is led by the child to various areas of the classroom rather than having the teacher provide explanations of the classroom and the child’s work.

    • I’m not sure exactly what the difference is between Montessori schools and the Reggio approach. But I think they are, indeed, grounded in very similar child-centered thinking. And what a sense of ownership your daughter must feel about her classroom and the work she’s done on those ‘special person’ events! And how sad that so many children don’t feel that way about the rooms where they spend their time.

      • I agree! Many students manage to find the spaces for curiosity and creativity in art and music classrooms or in other classes where they really connect with the subject matter, but this should be the norm in every classroom rather than the exception. I spent 4 years teaching in a technical high school with subjects like graphic design, culinary arts, auto tech, welding, etc, and it was amazing to see many students who weren’t normally excited by their high school classes become completely engaged in the hands-on learning of these classes.

      • Reading this I was reminded me of my daughter, who struggled mightily in high school English, but surprised her teacher with the depth of thinking she revealed when she was able to respond to Antigone by creating an annotated sound track for the play, in which she explained how each song she picked related to the play. That and your comment connects in my mind to the Reggio concept of ‘the hundred languages of children,’ by which they mean all the ways and materials children can use as languages to express themselves and what they’ve learned. It’s another way of valuing what children bring, not what they don’t have—and I so, so wish we could find a way to import that idea.

  8. Thank you so much for this post and for this blog (which I just discovered). I am a first year teacher of 9th graders in San Francisco, and What Readers Really Do has been such a help to me in thinking about how to teach reading (unlike other strategies, it describes how I read!) and how to get my kids to interact with text meaningfully–so far more in my head, unfortunately, than in the classroom, but… baby steps.

    I find that in the stress and chaos of my first year, I poke and prod and rush my students continually (so much more than I ever did in my student teaching) and then worry later about the lack of learning. I feel like you’ve given me a reminder and permission to slow down and trust in my students.

    This reminder solidified some thinking I had been doing about a lesson that went really well last week. We had done a first reading of an article as a class, and I broke the students up for a second read (I am combining the CUE approach with the Cal State University’s ERWC believing/doubting reads–reading with/against the grain) with some guiding activities. For the most part, the best work was done by the groups I left alone to work on their own. And, even in those groups that needed more intervention to move through the text, their discussions were more fruitful when I allowed them the space to make some meaning–even if that meant they were missing out on some of the subtler points of the argument. When I tried to really listen to where they were, I found that they were talking about some important points that that the author addressed, though that wasn’t immediately obvious as they were still trying on some of the language and working through what exactly was being said.

    In some groups/classes, I intervened more to get them on track and in others I let them continue discussing at whatever level they latched on to. And thinking back on it now, the difference seems to be in my own point of reference–trying to get them to a place determined by me vs meeting them where they were. In the latter, I joined in *their* conversations and helped to guide them in making meaning from there. In the former, the group turned into more of a mini lecture, in which I was the one making meaning.

    I hope this has not been too long. I feel the truth of that Piaget quote playing out in my head as I write.

    For now, I’m excited to give myself the time to listen and let go as a method of formative assessment. I’m curious about how to use some of these ideas to help my students reflect on the process and the possibilities of their learning and how such reflection can be incorporated into (or how it highlights the faults of) the mastery grading system I am trying to employ. And I so badly want to start documenting the process of their learning in photos and filling the room with those and their interests!

    • Hi Vanessa –
      As a former middle school (and, ever-so-briefly, high school) teacher now working in a Reggio-influenced pre- and elementary school (, your post held great interest to me. I applaud the degree to which you are maintaining a research stance to your craft, even in the midst of what is so hard for everyone: the first year of teaching. I think that you’ve hit on an important topic: The idea that the students’ inquiry – and the quality of your time with the students – is much richer when you open yourself to where the students go with a text rather than expecting that they see in it what you want them to see. I agree that much of the answer lies in what you’ve suggested: Providing time and space to muck and explore as you listen carefully to where they go before determining your next steps. I think that your last sentence – which could be read as an add-on – suggests an important part of that process. How might documenting the process of their learning be used not just by you, but also by your students, to foster that continued partnered investigation of the word and the world?
      Be sure to post a link to the blog you begin as you dig deeper. I know I’m excited to read it!

    • First I want to second Matt’s kudo’s for being so wonderfully reflective and responsive in your first year, which often can feel like a trial by fire. I was no where near where you already are when I was starting out! Your comments made me remember, though, some of things I’d jotted down in Reggio: first that “the teacher has to find her own pathway, not have the ways already found,” and second that we need to “accompany students on their journey,” not lead them to what we’ve have much more time to process and package. When it comes to reading I increasingly find that, with both adults and students, it doesn’t really matter what details you latch on to. What’s important is what you do with those details—how you connect and fit them together to consider their possible meaning, which is always more interesting when you talk about it with others. In a text that’s rich and artful, almost any detail can lead you deeper, which it sounds like both you and your students are realizing. And if we believe—as I do—that it’s more important to develop strong, passionate, insightful readers than getting every nuance in a text, it’s easy to let some things go, knowing that as they keep reading they’ll grow and keep noticing more because they’ve felt the power of their own thinking.

      And I’m going to second Matt’s request as well, to keep us posted on how it’s going.

  9. Thank you for sharing your tentative reflections on your experience in Reggio schools. I’ll look forward to reading other posts on this subject. I loved the Piaget quote. I wrote it down so that I will not forget the reciprocal relationship that exists between seeing and knowing, and its importance in coming to understand. This also reminds me how critically important it is to be open to different ways of “seeing” our students.

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