A Peer Reviewed Journal

Volume 1, Number 1

March 1, 2000

© 2000 Ian Fero and EGallery

EGallery grants reproduction rights for noncommercial educational purposes with the provision that full acknowledgment of the source is noted on each copy.


Reggio in North American Schools:
To What Degree is Transfer Applicable?

Semester II Independent Inquiry

by Ian Fero

for Dr. S. Mendaglio


In 1989 a group of three educators from the United States were accepted as yearlong interns at the schools of Reggio, Emilia, Italy. In the decade that has passed, countless North American educators and educational researchers have been looking to the progressive practice and pedagogical models of the Reggio schools. Reggio is home to one of the top rated schools in the world (Hinckle, 1991), and they have learned a lot from these schools that have garnered immense international recognition.

And learn we have. In the United States and Canada countless articles, books and Internet websites have been established to communicate to fellow teachers how to "do Reggio" (Fahlman, 1996). In fact, many North American schools and teachers have adopted Reggio models and are currently engaged in practice. However, as accessible as these resources become there seems to be a large contingent of teachers who are unaware of Reggio and its relatively sudden impact in the world of educational reform.

In this paper I wish to examine the history of Reggio from both a physical and philosophical perspective, explain the term "community" and how it applies to both Reggio and North American schools, and then look at the factors standing in the way of integrating the Reggio Approach. By doing this I hope to generate a better understanding of the Reggio model, and more importantly, how we as North American educators can enhance our practice and pedagogy by any subsequent erudition.


I was initially introduced to the term Reggio in my first semester in the Master of Teaching program at the University of Calgary. My field advisor informed the tutorial group about an exhibit entitled "Reggio Revisited", which was a follow-up to the "Hundred Languages of Children" exhibit, and was currently showing at the University Nickel Arts Museum. The previous exhibit had toured the year before and the follow-up featured displays of work from students in local schools.

The exhibit was truly impressive. I was amazed both by the richness and the quality of the work generated by the local students, and was immediately curious of the teaching that surrounded such magnificent creations. There were window murals painted on transparent plastic, using vibrant colours, depicting all the wonders of the child's mind. There were typed dialogues in which the children showed an amazing capacity for advanced discussion and conversation. There were constructs of three-dimensional cities, frescoes, and even "story vests". In a way it is hard to put into words what exactly it was in each work of art that invoked such an impression, only that it did. It was here that I decided to find out more about what Reggio is and what it could mean to me.


Louise Boyd Cadwell (1997) and Joanne Hendrick (1997) have documented the origins of Reggio, as have others, but almost anyone that explains the physical history of Reggio schools begins the timeline centered on post-World War II Italy. The region of Emilia Romagna, Italy and peoples of Reggio Emilia posed a strong resistance to Fascism, and when it collapsed at the end of the war the people sought to rise anew from the devastation of dictatorship rule and the destruction of the war. One of the first areas where reform began was in the creation of schools for children. The men and women built these schools with their own hands even, as one documented instance reveals, romantically gathering stones and sand from a river to build the first school (Burkett, 1996). Special financial initiatives by federal means arose at this time, and it was one such initiative that gave support to the parent-run schools of Reggio Emilia (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993).

The democratic society of the 1950s and 60s forced teachers to revisit their practice and devise new ways of teaching in a new Italy. The teacher movement was strong, and the focal point of reform centered on innovation in education (Hendrick, 1997). The Movement of Cooperative Education was looking for a new philosophical direction and gained inspiration from the writings John Dewey, and Celestin Freinet, and also picked up on Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky's observations, which seemed to support their own interpretations about children and their development (Hendrick, 1997). One educator named Bruno Ciari rose to prominence in the movement, and his writings have now become classics in Italy (Cadwell, 1997). At this time Ciari's close friend and colleague, Loris Malaguzzi, began to make some connections and decided to focus his own efforts in psychology at the Center for National Research in Rome. He began to study young children and their interactions, and was soon giving support to teachers who were seeking practical innovation. It was Malaguzzi who would take over the Reggio schools, and who saw the parent-run people's school turned into the first municipal government school in 1963 (Hendrick, 1997).

Along with the changes in education philosophy in the 1960s came a period of extreme economic prosperity which saw Italy move away from a predominantly agricultural society, and toward an economy driven by modern industry and commerce.

The face of Italy was changing; women were leaving their traditional roles as mothers and entering the workforce. Student movements continued to apply pressure on the conservative government to change traditional values and de-stratify society. Such pressure resulted in a wealth of changes, and between 1968 and 1971 a series of laws were passed to alleviate gender inequality. One law saw the establishment of free schools for children ages 3 to 6 as well as infant/toddler centers for children aged 3 months to 3 years. The new laws truly benefited Reggio Emilia, and by the end of the 1970s there were 19 schools for young children, and the building of infant/toddler schools was in full swing on their way to totaling 13 today.

Malaguzzi continued to develop and solidify his educational philosophy using the preschools of Reggio as his practical background. However, Malaguzzi was not operating alone; the teachers and staff of the schools continued their professional development and became thoroughly involved in developing the fundamentals of what would be come to be known as the Reggio Approach. The following is a summary (Cadwell, 1997) that states the views of the educators in Reggio Emilia:

The Reggio approach is clearly well thought out and constructed. The fundamentals center on several aspects, one that is described as "The Image of the Child". Rinaldi (1993) states that each child is "strong and powerful·unique: having rights rather than simply needs, [having] potential, plasticity, the desire to grow, curiosity·and the desire to relate to other people and to communicate". When examining the "community" of Reggio in more depth it is possible to see the underlying fundamentals of the Reggio Approach in detail.


The term "community" has been used in educational circles for some time. One way that it can be defined is as it refers to a community of learning that was defined by Jerome Bruner in The Culture of Education (1996). Bruner states:

"We do not learn a way of life and ways of deploying mind unassisted, unscaffolded, naked before the world. Rather, it is through the give and take of talk, the active discourse with other minds, that we come to know about the world and about ourselves." The words of Bruner are clearly stated in the fundamentals of the Reggio approach. We see that active engagement and talk is essential under the points of child as communicator, and documentation as communication. Very simply it is an important part of the way the schools of Reggio operate.

As clearly as a community of learners is outlined by Bruner, I feel that the term "community" encompasses much more. To me "community" brings in aspects of relationship and more specifically the role of the family. By examining the relationships and the role of the family in the schools of Reggio I think a better understanding of community can be formulated.

Until his death in 1994 Loris Malaguzzi remained an active proponent of the Reggio Approach constantly refining theory through practice. Malaguzzi published an article in 1993 entitled "For an Education Based on Relationships" in which he states his views on the need for family in the Reggio approach: "children represent the center of our educational system, [yet] we continue to be convinced that without attention to the central importance of teachers and families, our view of children is incomplete; therefore, our proposition is to consider a triad at the center of education - children, teachers, and families." Malaguzzi continues on to say "the school is the organization which brings everyone together to intensify relationships."

From the birth of the Reggio schools by parental hands, to the present day interconnectedness, there really seems to be active family involvement. The need for children to communicate with adults, especially parents, and interact is a necessity for children aged 3-6. According to Piaget, children at this age are developmentally in a Preoperations stage. In this stage the children have a tendency toward egocentrism, which in basic terms means they are learning through parallel play with adults and others, while their own dialogue concentrates around themselves (Wadsworth, 1979).

While Piaget considers children in this stage of development to be egocentric and isolated, Malaguzzi and the Reggio school seek to go beyond Piaget (Malaguzzi, 1993). In "the Image of the Child" (Rinaldi, 1993) each child is considered strong, powerful, competent, and as well, connected to adults and other children. "Community" is established in Reggio when the child, parent, and teacher form an aforementioned triad, rather than the common student-teacher dyad in North American schools.


The notion of "community" in North America is as extensive as there are schools. The majority of information on "community" has come from the United States, but there has been some contribution from Canadian educators as well. As an educational system Canadians tend to look to the United States as a homogeneous partner rather than a totally separate entity, and as a result pedagogical relationships and common practice seems to spill across borders rather easily. By saying that I am not promoting cohesiveness, because as I mentioned, community can change from school to school. I will however, seek to combine the two countries as North American because educators from both nations are looking to Reggio for answers.

While this paper is not a forum for discussion about the history of education in North America, I believe a brief look at past pedagogy and practice will provide insight into the constant changing landscape of education in North America.

In the United States the development of the first public schools in the 19th and 20th centuries coincided with mass industrial expansion and as a consequence was viewed in the same way growth of industry was: as a way of bringing prosperity to communities (Besser, 1994). As a result "productivity" and "efficiency" became hallmarks of education at this time. The first model of education was formed around the British Lancastarian (Joseph Lancaster) system and recognized "cleanliness, precision, and obedience" (Besser, 1994). Education continued to move along based on a more industrial type model, moving to a preparatory focus. Even today Americans view education and school "as a preparation for a specific job" (Firlik, 1996).

Although there were new philosophies of education emerging, such as John Dewey's theory of experience, interaction, and reflection, it wasn't until 1957 that educational reform took place in the United States.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957 there was extreme pressure placed by the United States government to restructure the existing education system. Recommendations were made to enhance a "naïve" attitude toward research, and help school turn out more engineers and scientists. In 1958 the NDEA (National Defense Education Act) provided one billion dollars to youth schools to try and meet their recommendations (Besser, 1994). The science and technology surge began in earnest with the new influx of financial capital, and the focus of education had changed again, and once again it saw educational institutions as a way of producing desired results, in this case scientists, for the welfare of the nation. Today much of the focus remains centered on technology and computer efficiency.

The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence in Education claimed that American students were not studying the right subjects, not working hard enough, and were not learning enough. It also claimed that there was a rise in mediocrity and that not enough time was being devoted to basic core subjects (Finn, 1989, Krantrowitz et al., 1993). In effect what the document was doing was echoing the statements made during the 50s and the race for the moon. It was clear there had been no movement in the forces driving education, so there would likely be no change in practice.

Ensuring that a perceived push toward excellence remained in tact until the year 2000 the Education America Act was passed in 1994. The act proposed in part that students will leave grade 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, art, history, and geography. The Act also stated that American students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.

By examining a brief history of North American education it is clear that "community" as defined earlier, is harder to establish. The real "communal feel" to the schools in Reggio has traditionally not been present in North American schools. One author attributes this to a macrosocial phenomenon. Russell Firlik suggests that American students have been conditioned to relate to individualism based on fundamentals of the U.S. democratic government. In short he places U.S. individualism facing off against what he calls collectivism, or constitutional democracy versus Italian social-communism (1996)

In the microsocial world of the teacher the constant pressure to "produce" results means community seems to have little place in our schools. One teacher writes: "I cannot live like a slave whose only function is to meet the needs of others. Instead as a teacher I am a person·who seeks to relate to other human be/com/ings, seeking together our mutual satisfaction and pleasure and success" (Leggo, 1995). Malaguzzi noted the isolation of the North American teacher and writes: "loneliness, separation, indifference·undermine a system based on relationships" (1993).

Leggo goes on to say that "schools must be remythologized as places of carnival and extravagance and revelry where people with different voices learn to speak and sing and listen together." I think Leggo's views are consistent with those of current educators, in that they are seeking to build community around their school and their classrooms.

In terms of parental involvement, a contingent of Canadian researchers has spearheaded a movement to bring parents away from the kitchen table and the proverbial "what did you do in school today" mentality. Current endeavors to restructure schools concentrates effort on how to include the family in the education of their children (Elam, Rose, and Gallup, 1992). There is a push to truly make 21st Century schools places for children, teachers, as well as parents and community members (McCown et al, 1996).

Perhaps this movement is an indication that teachers, students, and parents (or family) are beginning a move toward the triad that Malaguzzi promotes and as a result, toward a system based on relationships in the schools. But we do know that changing convention takes time, and it is evident that the notion of community, as it exists in Reggio, may never come to fruition in North American schools. In fact there are many other obstacles that exist which may impede a direct transfer of the Reggio Approach to North American schools. In the following section I wish to look at the factors which exist in our schools today which may not allow a Reggio model to be put in place.


When we think of the city of Reggio and its schools we are essentially considering, by North American standards, a location that would be the size of a small city. As a result the children are culturally and linguistically rather homogeneous. In comparison, North America educationally encompasses such a vast expanse that issues of cultural and linguistic diversity are indeed a reality (Burkett, 1996). Whether it is a small school in rural Saskatchewan, or an inner-city school in Detroit, these differences are ones which educators, in an attempt to incorporate the Reggio Approach, must consider.

Perhaps the most obvious differences between the schools of Reggio and those of North America is that Reggio's schools are modeled for infants and toddlers, while the North American system basically begins where the Reggio schools end. That is not to say that preschooling does not exist in North America, because indeed it does, but those institutions are primarily private and open to very little government support. In contrast, the region of Reggio is supported by 12 percent of its government's budget, of which it supports in part art and educational specialists who support the teachers (Burkett, 1996). Firlik (1996) continues to cite the economic disparity. He says that Reggio, Emilia is "without a doubt, the region with the most highly developed and most generally subsidized social services in all of Italy, especially in the area of child welfare".

The fact that North American preschools commonly operate privately opens up the door for a lot of different pedagogy and practice. In the Calgary area alone there are no less than forty preschools, and with the exception of the several Montessori schools, each have their own fundamentals and approaches. Quite obviously that too differs from the Reggio schools that are all guided by the same overriding fundamentals and philosophy. I believe it would take a real commitment to bring about change to the Early Childhood Education sector, an effort that would include lobbying politicians and the subsequent years of fine-tuning proposals and securing government funds. And with educational funding sliding here in Alberta, it is evident that the preschools will continue to operate as part of the private sector for some time to come. As a result of this phenomenon I believe the only option is to seek integration in the public schools, especially at the early grade levels.

The physical makeup of bringing the Reggio Approach to North America is also difficult to fathom. Indeed, as mentioned, there are the logistics of putting a system that has been utilized for preschooling into one that works with children up to 18 years of age. As a point of clarification I do not think that there is any party that wishes to see Reggio practices instituted at a level higher than say our elementary school system (grade 6). It would be absurd to think parallels could be made at that level, if not for educational reasons, then at least based on developmental ones. However, our maturing students do need a starting point, and that is where the bulk of the research about transferring the Reggio Approach has centered.

Another major obstacle in a transfer of the Reggio Approach occurs when the issue of curriculum is raised. Reggio operates on an emergent curriculum which has no curriculum planned in advance. While teachers may express goals and hypothesize about direction, it is the projects of the students and ensuing conversations between students and teachers that determine the direction. Each exploration into learning is entirely flexible and possibilities are indeed boundless.

An emergent curriculum system would not fit into current systems in North America where curriculum is established and indeed planned out ahead for teachers to guide instruction. However, several American educators such as Lynn White and Joanne Hendrick (1997) have looked at the benefits of emergent curriculum and have managed to bring aspects of this into North American practice.

Other obstacles have more to do with the physical makeup of the schools, and the extreme differences between the Reggio and North American models. Some of these differences are the administration, team teaching, and three-year groupings.

Administration in North American schools is multi-tiered beginning with the government, and leading down to the chief superintendent and ultimately the individual school administration. Administrative teams are in place to look after anything from policy, finances, staffing, and establishment of guidelines both intra-school, and infra-school. In terms of teacher input there is relatively little.

Conversely, the Reggio Approach gives teachers a lot of autonomy and places a lot of value on their comments, observations, and suggestions. The teachers meet often and are supported by a Pedagogista (pedagogical coordinator) who looks after several schools. It is a system that seems to work effectively, and one that seeks input from families and community. Again, to make a direct transfer to the North American system is one that is almost impossible to think of, given current establishment and power structures.

The concept of team teaching is not new, nor exclusive to the Reggio Approach. In fact, several North American schools currently have team teaching partnerships in place. Team teaching is crucial to the success of the Reggio approach and as a result would force a lot of changes to the predominant "one classroom/one teacher" concept.

Another component of the Reggio Approach that would be difficult to transfer to North American schools is the fact that the students stay with the same teacher(s) for a three-year period. This is in direct conflict with the current North American standard that has students in the classrooms for one academic year at a time. The positive and negative effects of multi-aging in classrooms are a debate that has been researched often in the past decade and some schools have elected to go toward a multi-aging model, and interest continues to grow (Hendrick, 1997). Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman (1990) have come out in defense of multi-aging saying that in such groupings children are more likely to be open to communication, and display more social behaviour, while facilitating teaching, instruction, and information sharing.

Although these points may seem trivial in some cases, the fact remains that they are vital parts of the Reggio Approach that have little chance of coming into being in North American schools. Whether it is administrative changes, acceptance of team teaching, or having students stay with a teacher for three years at a time, all these factors are not currently in place at the same place at the same time. More importantly, it would be very difficult to change under current constraints which would therefore jeopardize any possible direct transfer of the Reggio Approach. In the following section I would like to focus on what North American educators can learn from Reggio and how it can effect pedagogy and practice in our schools.


It is evident that a direct transfer of the Reggio Approach into our current educational climate in North America is one that will not occur instantaneously, nor will a direct transfer of its pedagogy and practice be possible for several reasons as outlined in the previous section. With that established a question comes to mind: if we cannot transfer the Reggio approach in its entirety should we do it at all? The answer to that question is a resounding yes, because I believe there are many important things North American educators can learn from Reggio. The three most important lessons to take from Reggio center around three key fundamentals of the Reggio Approach: 1) The child as protagonist, 2) the parent as partner, and 3) the teacher as researcher.

The fundamental idea of recognizing the child as protagonist (Gandini, 1993) relates wholly to Malaguzzi's image of the child. To reiterate, the child is seen as strong, rich, and capable. The child has potential and interest in constructing their own learning. Is this an ideal that North American educators currently have? On the surface it may seem like a statement that most North American educators would agree with, but Joanne Hendrick suggests that underneath the view is protective and restrictive. She continues to say that although educators may be no longer "doing to children" they are now doing for children (1997).

This is something I believe has to change in our educational system. In my opinion children are protagonists and, at any age, capable of amazing learning. I can recall an instance of this from my practicum in a grade six classroom. The teacher allowed the students to conduct an independent study on Greece, which is one of the mandatory units of study in Social Studies. I was amazed with the collection of work the students began to assemble. One student, who was studying war and warfare constructed a wonderful picture of a battleground, and was able to talk about it with richness and detail. He talked about the Hoplites and their formation, known as a Phalanx, as well as their armor, weapons, and enemies. Another student, who was studying ancient Greek architecture, built clay models of columns and was able to discuss at length about the similarities and differences of the Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic pillars. This was not research that was provided for them, nor did the teacher feel that she had to give them information. Instead, the new knowledge was constructed by the students, and truly in accordance with the Reggio Approach.

Parental involvement is another area that North American educators can gain a better understanding of through the Reggio model. Despite the fact that most schools and educators recognize a need for parental involvement there seems to be little in the way of a realization on this front. One study substantiated that parents were not involved in their child's education and when they were the participation was largely symbolic rather than influential (Wehlage, & Osthoff, 1995). Some classic reasons why parents have little involvement in their children's education include lack of time, inflexible work schedules, fear of incompetence, and a belief that education should be left to the "experts" (Missouri School Boards Association, 1998). This is where North American educators must learn from Reggio practices.

The triad, which Malaguzzi refers to, requires parents to be an integral part in the education of their children. In Reggio the teachers are so willing to incorporate the parents they are often willing to stay late into the evening to accommodate them. This, explains Rebecca New, is the biggest obstacle to true parental involvement in North American schools. She questions "how can we expect [North] American teachers to emulate what they see in Reggio? How can we ask teachers to collaborate with parents who are too busy to come to school meetings - when their contract says the workday ends at 3:15" (1993, p.1)?

As mentioned earlier there has been an effort by some Canadian researchers to increase parental involvement in North American schools. They suggest a proactive approach to parent recruitment (Garlett, 1993). It has been stated that "if education is ever going to achieve its stated goal of maximizing potential for all students, then a true partnership between parents and schools must be created" (Alter, 1992, p. 109).

Finally, the greatest thing that I believe North American educators can learn from Reggio is the notion of teacher as learner. In the first semester of the Master of Teaching program the first thematic unit of study was entitled "learners and learning". Initially I was a bit stunned and figured I had known a lot about learning and wondered when was I going to learn about teaching. I quickly realized that to be a teacher you must also be a learner. At Reggio the teachers work in pairs and maintain strong collegial relationships. Their exchanges and dialogue provide constant theoretical enrichment (Gandini, 1993).

The way teachers at Reggio learn from one another is through an extensive analysis of documentation that they gather about the students each day. In essence what they are doing by going over the material is critiquing their own practice. They are learning from each other the things that are working and the things that require more work. Suzanne M. Wilson notes that a lack of "careful consideration and documentation of their [teachers] work over time" has resulted in a deficit of illumination on the collective understanding of teaching (1990, p.209). As educators we must step into the world of constructive criticism and seek to learn from one another, to leave our practice constantly open to change.


In the past North American educators have been distrustful of theories which seem remote from any kind of application (Firlik, 1996). With the Reggio Approach there is a model in place and clear application is evident, and has indeed been witnessed by several North American educators who have visited the schools of Reggio, Emilia. Malaguzzi addressed this point in believing that practice drives theory, not vice versa (1994). Piaget and Vygotsky provided excellent philosophies about education, but did not provide a model for implementation. Dewey did attempt to formulate his philosophy into a model of education, but his schools did not endure.

Although the Reggio Approach could likely never be transferred directly into North American schools, for the reasons I have mentioned, I feel there is a lot to be learned from the things being done in the preschools of Reggio, Emilia. As educators we should always be on the lookout for ways to enhance our professional being. With the Reggio Approach concentrating efforts on the child as protagonist, the parent as partner, and the teacher as learner, we can truly enhance our pedagogy and practice by attempting any sort of emulation to any possible degree.

As a beginning teacher I feel that there is a change in the air, perhaps a different way of looking at education and teaching. In my opinion new teachers are putting traditional models aside and as a result looking for better ways to teach. When I encountered the Reggio Approach for the first time I was unsure what it was all about, but as I continue to learn more and more about it I know I will seek to incorporate its fundamentals into my own developing theory and practice of teaching.

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