During my research whilst in my EdLab journey I found myself interested in the Reggio Emilia approach, which sees the philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey as a key influence to their practice (Rinaldi, 2004: p6). The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education was created post world war II by pedagogist Loris Malaguzzi and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia. Dewey’s educational concepts such as play-based learning, project-based activities, and hands-on activities are all known educational methods used in Reggio Emilia schools. What suddenly became clear to me was that John Dewey’s educational concept of project based learning was being applied to all the EdLab students, and at the same time it was what we were applying to the children in the workshops.
What follows is an account of the three of Dewey’s principals in experiential education and how they are present in the Reggio Emilia Approach. Firstly, we will discuss Dewey’s conclusions on experiences. The philosopher maintained that in traditional education children were treated like sponges. expected to absorb isolated information arbitrarily based on a pre-determined curriculum that naturally became increasingly outdated (Dewey, 1961: p19). In contrast to this type of education, he proposed that children should be subjected to principals of growth rather than reaching a determined end goal such as passing an exam. He suggested doing this through experiential education, a type of learning which comes from life experiences that can be completed successfully through project-based learning. Similarly to Dewey’s proposals, the Reggio Emilia approach consisted in experiential learning, children are consistently given real world materials to engage with and real world tasks to complete. In his book Experience and Education, Dewey poses the following question: how does one go about creating valuable experiences for pupils? This takes us to the second principal in Dewey’s theory of experiential learning: the role of the teacher.
Traditionally, teachers are considered agents that relay knowledge from text books, and text books were considered the highest representation of wisdom from the past (Dewey, 1938: p20-21). Dewey wrote that learning meant acquiring what was already in books and that this practice would hinder a child’s learning by preventing them from making their own discoveries, and that it ‘put a great restriction upon intellectual and moral freedom’ (Dewey, 1961: p:63). Dewey notes:
‘The teacher’s business is to see that the occasion is taken advantage of. Since freedom resides in the operations of intelligent observation and judgment by which a purpose is developed, guidance given by the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it.’ (Dewey, 1961: p:72).
The role of the teacher should therefore be one of guidance that doesn’t hinder a child’s opportunity for discoveries that could lead to meaningful and lasting knowledge. In the same way, the Reggio Emilia approach defined the role of the teacher as one of guidance and teachers should be seen as partners, nurturers, and mentors (Cadwell, 2013: p5). In summary, Dewey’s findings and the Reggio Emilia Approach argue that the teacher should be there as a starting point for learning, and seeing that the experience ‘is taken advantage of’, which takes us to our third principal, the environment of the experience.
‘The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.’ (Dewey, 1938, p:26). Dewey promoted the importance of creative learning environments in order for an experience to be beneficial, and it was the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the environments were favourable to the students to ensure learning opportunities. Likewise, the Reggio Emilia Approach advocates the importance of the learning environment and goes as far as considering the environment as the ‘third teacher’ (Rinaldi, 2006). The aesthetics and the use of a space should encourage creativity, communication, and relationships.
Dewey and the Reggio Emilia approach in EdLab
The three principals above extracted from Dewey’s philosophy on education can be applied to my experience throughout EdLab as a student, and they can also be applied to the workshop that was carried out at the school we visited. In my personal case as an EdLab Student, the experience that my lecturers facilitated was an opportunity to create and deliver a workshop. Secondly, although my lecturers were present throughout the project and were the starting point for my learning experience, they were available on a consultant basis and did not have any input on how we would run the workshop, other than providing us with a time slot. Last of all, we were provided with various workspaces throughout our EdLab conferences including creative environments where we could work with clay, social situations in which we had to discuss ideas, and tutorials in which we could review and catch up on research. In the case of the workshop my EdLab group and I delivered, although on a smaller scale, the fundamentals of Dewey’s philosophy and the Reggio Emilia approach can also be applied to our workshop. Firstly, we provided young children with the experience of working with clay to better their language. Secondly, we were present during the workshop to guide the children and provide them with a starting point for learning, using the medium of clay and literary theory that we discussed during the workshop whilst ensuring we did not focus solely on the transmission of knowledge. Last of all, we arranged the class in small groups with desks in a circle to encourage social engagement, sharing, and creativity between the children.
All things considered, researching Dewey, the Reggio Emilia approach and being part of an EdLab project has opened my eyes to the current issues in education. Similar to Dewey’s statements, children are still expected to learn a considerable amount of subject matter that becomes useless as it is learned in isolation with the objective of passing an exam. Education was created to meet the needs of industrialism, as a consequence, the hierarchy of subjects always ranks mathematics and sciences at the top and the arts are always left at the bottom. The language of clay offers an example of how students can learn things through a creative medium, preventing the teacher from becoming an agent that solely relays information, and offering the student the opportunity to make their own learning discoveries.
All aspects of education are standardised and treat every student equally when each student has something different to offer, as we saw from the example of the girl that took part in the clay workshop. We must then consider that if every child is different, their needs will never be the same, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to nurture and guide them in their learning environment. We must work to leave behind the culture of standardisation that is prevalent in education today, and teach students that it is okay to make mistakes, there is sometimes more than one right answer, and that there is more to education than meeting exam targets.
The research in this paper has offered examples on how the structure of EdLab can be placed upon the foundations of Dewey’s educational philosophies, and how the Reggio Emilia approach proved successful in The Language of Clay workshop, with learnings made both from the children in the classroom and the university students delivering the session.
From my perspective, more studies are needed to explore how schools have changed, and how we can nurture principals of growth (Dewey) rather than coaching students to reach a determined end goal. The challenge now is how current teachers can work to achieve a positive change in the current educational system, I for one believe that there is more to education than the mere transmission of knowledge.
- Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford: Oxford Further Education Unit
- Dewey, J. (1916). Thinking In Education. Democracy and Education: An Introduction To The Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.
- Williams, G.H. and Wood, M.M., 2010. Developmental Art Therapy in the Classroom. Xlibris Corporation.
- Cadwell, L.B. & NetLibrary, I. 2003, Bringing learning to life: the Reggio approach to early childhood education, Teachers College Press, New York.
- Rinaldi, C., 2004. In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching and learning. Routledge.