Reggio Emilia: An Inspiring Approach to Early Learning

“Teaching is a profession that cannot afford to think small.” – Loris Malaguzzi

In the city of Reggio Emilia, half an hour from Bologna in Italy, education is at the heart of social cohesion. The city invests 13% of its budget in early childhood educational services. They understand the connection between early investment in childhood education and long-term growth.

Education is seen as a right for everyone and as the responsibility of the entire community. In this early childhood approach that has evolved over the past 50 years, schooling is based on the pedagogies of listening and relationships. A great deal of children’s work is done in small groups, grounded in meaningful projects. One of their basic rules is that learning must be pleasureable, children must enjoy learning.

The Reggio Emilia approach provides inspiration for more traditional schools around the globe. At a time of increased conformity and standardization in education, Reggio offers a different path of possibilities. With an educational philosophy grounded in neuroscience and social constructivism, and leaning heavily on Freud, Montessori, Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey, Freire, Bruner, and Gardner, practitioners of Reggio Emilia define learning as “an interactive process of exchange, not seen as accumulation of knowledge, but as the construction of meaning and maps of meaning that allow children to interpret the world.”

I recently had a chance to see the Reggio Emilia approach live in action on a study tour through Italy–below are a few of my reflections.

Children are Citizens

One of Reggio’s key aims is to look at what children can do, rather than what they can’t, and to break the image of the child as weak and incomplete. Children from all socioeconomic backgrounds attend Reggio Emilia schools and children with disabilities receive first priority and full mainstreaming under Italian law. Instead of being labeled “children with special needs” they are labeled “children with special rights.” Every child is seen in terms of the resources and potential they bring, rather than what’s missing.

Reggio educators claim that learning is an act of identity and that children are citizens of today, not just tomorrow. Everyone contributes to the community, each person brings their own knowledge, thoughts, and ideas, and change is brought about by valuing other points of view. This Kid Nation post from Project Zero gives us some indication of the possibilities when children are seen as citizens, capable of making meaningful contributions.

The Walls of Schools Speak

In many schools around the world, the only representations of learning made public are marks and rankings. However, quantification is not the only way to share evidence of learning. Qualitative forms of sharing evidence like student work, photographs, and video are powerful ways to provide a more complete picture, and are representative of what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlburg calls small data.

Jessica Lander asks, “What if all schools proudly displayed the academic work of their students? When schools put up student work for all to see, they send a powerful message to students that educators respect their academic effort and their intellectual contributions. After all, we publicly display what we value. And students pay attention.”

Visitors to Reggio Emilia are struck by the quantity and quality of the children’s own work on display. Displays walk viewers through research, rough drafts, and final versions, with descriptions explaining each step. These public displays of high-quality work enhance student engagement and pride, among both students and teachers.


Documentation is a way of thinking, a structure for remembering, and a process of evaluation (in Reggio Emilia they don’t give tests). It provides a visible memory in order to serve as a jumping-off point for next steps in learning. The intent of documentation is to explain, not merely to display. Documentation is not a report, or a portfolio, or an archive, it is the process of reciprocal learning and institutional memory for the purposes of sharing and reflection.

The core of documentation is observing. Mara Krechevsky from Project Zero defines it as, “teachers and learners observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing, via a variety of media the processes and products of learning in order to deepen and extend the learning.” Reggio educators refer to documentation as “visible listening.” When teachers stop and notice what students are saying or doing, they hone their capacity to recognize and respond in more informed ways. The capacity to pause and notice is key. Could it be possible that intelligence is more about noticing than knowing?

Teachers as Researchers

The most important prerequisite for employment as a teacher in Reggio Emilia is the disposition to continue learning. Reggio teachers are researchers and learners. In Reggio schools, they avoid calling in experts to address teachers, preferring to get teachers together to interpret what is in front of their eyes. Reggio educators work through trial and error and continually develop new pedagogies. While others have a tendency to standardize products and thinking, changing constantly is part of the skin of Reggio schools.

When teachers document student work, their image of their role changes from teaching children to studying children, and by studying children, learning with children. Systematic documentation allows each teacher to generate new ideas about curriculum and learning. Teachers collaborate and discuss student work with other educators, believing that effective teaching requires a level of interpretation that can come only from discourse with other professionals.


A strong value is placed on communicating, interacting and building places where people with different ideas can bring their ideas to the table. They use the Italian word “confronto,” which means cognitive conflict, generative discussion, or perhaps more accurately “putting our heads together.” This constant questioning, exploring and feeling unsettled with colleagues is the antidote to professional complacency. Questions give order to the world and answers are considered temporary, in order to develop new questions. As documentation is discussed and shared, culture and collective understanding is created. It is this shared construction of meaning that is the unifying theme of the Reggio Emilia approach.

The educational work in Reggio Emilia is always undergoing re-examination and experimentation. It is always in flux. Continual collaboration with others creates new pedagogies, stressing social constructivism and different points of view. The high level of practice that they obtain in Reggio is largely attributable to the fact that they continually question, refine, and change their practices rather than codify and replicate them.


In Reggio spirit I would like to conclude with some questions:

  • How can we create learning communities that value wondering, exploring and feeling unsettled as much as achieving high test scores?
  • Why do most schools focus so much on what students can’t do, rather than what they can?
  • Why don’t we publicly display both the rough drafts and the high-quality work of our students?
  • What would our schools look like if we saw children as citizens capable of making meaningful contributions to their communities?
  • And why, when many education ministries around the world offer open possibilities, do we fall back on tradition and closed interpretations?

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Cameron Paterson

Cameron Paterson is a Getting Smart Staff Writer, and is the Director of Learning at Wesley College.

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