In 2020 I wrote four blogposts based on Reggio Emilias mainstays. I created those to explain my point of view on the Reggio Emilia approach. Since then I have discovered the global Reggio Emilia approach through social media and since the swedish language isn´t that world wide 😁 I thought why not translate those blogposts to share more global. So here is the first of four parts. Enjoy 🤩
Today we will focus on the Democratic arena:
Yes, these are fine words for what I consider the Reggio Emilia philosophy to be, but the question is how do we do it? In what way do we get the what (theory) to merge with the how (practice)? After all, this is first and foremost a journey and working through the curriculum texts, both around values and the concept of democracy.
For the educators, it is about being genuinely curious about the children’s questions and thoughts. Maybe you think like I did a long time ago, ”this is probably the best for the children”, but I hadn’t asked them, but I used my adult perspective and assumed that I was looking from the children’s best interests, but it wasn’t from the children’s perspective!
It was much easier to plan more based on what I thought than to involve the children, it was so much more demanding, but in the end, you reach that stage of knowledge when the lightbuld lights up in your head and when everything feels so outdated. Then you think instead, “God how could I have been able to work like that?!” Yes, because right than I didn’t know anything else and acted based on the knowledge I had at the time. Then one realizes that the democratic values and goals in the curriculum must be like an overarching umbrella that characterizes how you must work with the knowledge goals in the curriculum. According to this, it shows that curriculums only get their meaning through the practice they create. The texts in the curriculums must be interpreted and if this competence is lacking or there is no dialogue about this, the educators will not understand what this means in practice. How much do our own history control when we interpret the democratic arena? Do we interpret the assignment as the children to be educated or the children is educating themselves? There is a hell of a difference in these practices! The educators that see the children as being educated, here the child becomes a passive object that receives someone else’s understanding, while the child educating him/herself is about an active child who is a subject with his own potential and power to learn.
I really made the connection that the children were subjects through the book Pedagogiska miljöer och barns subjektskapande by Elisabeth Nordin Hultman around 2013. Me and the team worked based on Reggio Emilia’s approach, more with inspiration from a part of it rather than on the whole philosophy. We focused on learning environments and the pedagogical documentation. Democratic arenas did not exist in the vocabulary, but the teaching was planned based on both the children and the teachers, in an interaction. In this vein, my colleagues and I took a course based on the pedagogical documentation at the university of Gothenburg. The final product for that course was to be co-authors of a “book” based on our project – Förskolor som kunskapar – som gör skillnad och öppnar upp för olika möten. From that “book” this is taken:
”The purpose of the course is, among other things, to use the documentation as a basis for following up and analyzing children’s learning strategies and learning processes in relation to the organisation, content and implementation of the activity, as well as to develop the education. In this way, the preschool teachers get to develop their listening around the children’s questions, exploring and taking the children’s perspective. Questions they were challenged with are – What is the children’s content in what they are exploring? What are the children trying to understand and based on that, what will the educators’ next step be?”
”We want to develop a research approach where the preschools in their work connect theory and practice in their daily work to develop the activities. It is the right of all children to have access to an education of high quality. We believe that pedagogic documentation can become part of a process and become a transformative force that can nourish and develop the education.”
This fueled my work at the preschool and it probably fueled more than I understand for my work today. All these processes that you yourself are part of, to question yourself as an educational leader, to dare to change and to make sure that it really becomes a lasting learning is what is required for everyone but where many never dare to do this without consider their work today to be completely satisfactory. Here we have preschool teachers who are of the developmental type or of the ministrative type! We need developing preschool teachers who work with constant improvements and aiming for a high-quality preschool.
Re-reading how we worked at Backsippan in 2014 was wonderful. I actually realized how wise we were even then. Yes, you’re allowed to think you’re good, almost so I forgot how good we were. I am proud of our project work method that we (me, Loella and Teresa) had then, because a great focus was on working based on the children’s participation and interests. Dare to listen, take it slow and dare to take a step back when needed. We observed the children a lot and tried to listen to them – both verbally and also their body language. The age of the children was between 1-3 years at the time.
When we started this project after a month of pre-projecting, we thought we would work with building and construction together with digital tools but then one day a huge box came. Even here we had to stop and listen to the children again. What was it that they were exploring? Why were they interested in the box? It was all about speed and acceleration. After a while, however, the project stopped and then we made the decision to stop and observe. What was it that the children explored, investigated and what questions did they asked. Here we decided to offer the children additional frames of reference for the concepts of fast and slow. Throughout the project, we constantly took in the children’s own voices in order to be able to plan our teaching further. They added their thoughts when we reflected on our teaching situations, they told us in their own words in the pedagogical documentation etc.
This is an embryo, a start of what I see as working with democratic arenas today in 2023. We weren’t there yet, but we were on our way. Working with the democratic abilities is a much larger area than in the way that we at Backsippan did. Biesta emphasizes a lot about working for the next generation to participate in the democratic society. Here he highlights a real difference similar to this with education, but here it is about the role of/the school to educate children and students about and for democracy in the future society. Here the learning is about giving the children and students the opportunity to acquire knowledge of democracy, and the opportunity to train themselves in democratic abilities. It is about giving the children the tools to be able to participate and exercise influence in the future and now, over their lives and in society. But here we only end up at the stage that the children learn the what (the theory), not the how (practice). My opinion is that it is at this stage that the vast majority of preschools find themselves, especially if they have not taken an active position to embrace the entire Reggio Emilia philosophy. I myself felt that we were at this stage when I worked as a preschool teacher and this is where I myself have made the biggest change. I have gone from what to how in this work, although now I myself am not in this work on a daily basis, but that does not prevent me from developing in this way of working, because how else will I be able to lead the preschool towards our mission? As principal, I must be at least as well-educated, at least as ready for this work as the employees.
What is the how in working with democratic arenas? Well, as a teacher/school, you can also choose to educate through democracy. When a pre/school educates through democracy, the focus ends up on examining which democratic qualities the pre/school has, and on the learning environments of the activity in a wider sense, also how children are made involved in the activity. Preschool should not be seen as an antechamber, but as a room where there are real opportunities for the individual to act and influence their everyday life. We must work with differences to educate through democracy. We have to face other people’s opinions in order to be a subject, that’s when we can become a subject. It is through the word that we end up in democratic arenas. Working with reflection meetings, mini-meetings etc, is a way to actively work with the how, to include the children’s thoughts and opinions and that they have the opportunity to take in other people’s opinions and thoughts. To work there together with our differences, work to arrive at joint decisions and where the children’s voices are really listened to and taken into account. You are democracy!
I let Biesta (2006, p. 113. Beyond learning: democratic education for a human future) speak in the ending of this blog post:
Education for democracy should thus be seen as a specific way of educating for democracy, one that rests on the assumption that the best way to prepare for democracy is participation in democratic life itself. Of course, that reasoning also applies outside the walls of the school.
With this we conclude part 1 Democratic arenas and next time we will take part 2 Aesthetic learning processes.
Until next time!