Is Reggio like Montessori?
When prospective families visit our school, I often hear the question “what is the difference between Reggio and Montessori?” So this month, I will try to sum up the major distinctions, keeping in mind, of course, that both these approaches are studied for years by practitioners, and that it is difficult to do them justice in blogpost. While they both come out of Italy, and there are a few elements that they share, they actually come from two very different theoretical perspectives on how people learn.
Let’s begin with the Montessori approach. It was developed by Maria Montessori in the late 1800’s and is based on Maturationist theory that describes development as a biological process that occurs automatically in predictable, sequential stages over time. They believe that young children will acquire knowledge naturally and automatically as they grow physically and become older, provided that they are healthy. In the approach, children work individually (so it is typically much quieter in their classrooms than ours) with specific materials that gradually increase in difficulty in different skills. There is a right and wrong way to accomplish the task and through observation of the child, the teachers determine if the child is ready for the next level of the task. There is also a focus on what Montessori called Practical Life skills—for instance, learning step by step how to water a plant. Many people do not know that Maria Montessori created her approach based on research with children who had special needs or who were very poor and came from very unstimulating environments. This approach became very popular in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. Contemporary early childhood education programs of all kinds, including Reggio-inspired programs, have been inspired by Montessori’s beautiful materials and child sized furniture and tools. Some of you may have attended a Montessori program, and I would love to hear about your recollections!
Reggio Emilia, a small town in Italy, began developing a progressive approach to education after WWII. In the wake of the destruction the war had brought, led by Loris Malaguzzi, the citizens of Reggio Emilia sought to establish an educational system that would create responsible citizens and critical thinkers. The approach is based a number of theorists’ work, with an strong emphasis on Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist theory, which is the belief that people learn from their interaction with the world (play is a child’s best way to learn about the world) around them and the people they encounter. The focus is on thinking and relationships. Materials and experiences provided to children are open-ended and provoke children’s new ideas and understandings and take them to higher levels of thinking about topics that intrigue them and inspire their research. Teachers are considered partners in the learning, and guide children through long term and short term project studies. Teachers collect the theories of the children and document the processes of the children’s work in order to reflect on it with the children and with other teachers, and to plan for ways to challenge children’s theories and understanding. Academic skills are integrated organically and meaningfully throughout these studies, rather than introduced to children with no context. Collaboration is a value, and there is an emphasis on sharing perspectives, problem solving, and creativity. No Reggio-inspired school is exactly the same, because the approach relies on matching the values and culture of the school to the practice, though the value of seeing the image of the child as competent and capable can never be compromised. This approach has been spreading throughout the world since the 1980’s and early childhood professionals are flocking to Reggio Emilia to learn from its developers. A Reggio-inspired approach is what leading experts in early childhood education and brain research consider best practice and what economists are saying speaks to the types of skills people will need in the future workforce.
Clearly, as a Reggio-inspired educator, I am a bit biased in my descriptions, but I encourage you to study further about these and all approaches to early childhood education. I would love to discuss any perspectives you may have about your readings or experiences.
My husband is not happy that in one month from today I will be in Reggio Emilia…without him. He does not like to be left at home, and certainly not when he knows that I am excitedly counting down the days until we are at the Malaguzzi Center. After a few weak arguments about why I shouldn’t go, he said, “If you take Accounting I, why would you need to take Accounting I again”, referring to the fact that this would be my second trip to Reggio. Wouldn’t I just be learning the exact same thing I learned the first time?! Clearly he was a business major., and not an English major, since I have read Macbeth more times than I can count. I have to admit my first response was a bit immature “Well some of the directors have been there five times!” When my son says something like that to me, I usually say, “ I don’t care about what the other children do, I only care about you.” That was pretty much my husband’s response. I don’t care what the other directors have done; we’re talking about you!
So I tried another approach, one that was a bit more mature and thoughtful. I explained to my husband that going to Reggio Emilia was like going to a world-class art museum during you first visit, you wander the halls, with room after room filled with breathtaking art. You are struck with awe and wonder at the paintings, the sculptures, the tapestries and the very building itself. You try to take in as much as you can, and you leave filled to capacity with all that was new and inspiring. If you are an art lover, you plan to back to the same museum again in the future because each time you visit you see something new. Maybe in your next visit you decide to focus on one historical period or one art approach. After your first visit, you know how much the museum offers and you can be more focused on following visits.
That is how early childhood educators visit Reggio Emilia. The lectures, the schools, the town, the educators you meet, all of it is thrilling and at times, overwhelming. Now, with this second visit, Sandy and I are much more planful. What are we going to be looking for specifically? When we visit the schools, we will be looking closer at environment and documentation. We will find new examples of how to enrich our own school now that we are in a different point in our schools’ journey. We have had a number of meetings with other directors and staff Like our last visit four years ago, we are certain that this visit will have an impact on our entire school.
I know it may feel like a leap, but these trips to Reggio echo of the same approach we have to the Torah. Each year we read the same text, and when we end reading the five books of Moses, we do not even take a break, we begin to read from the first chapter of Genesis again. Every time we read the Torah, the stories speak to us in different ways and we have new insights.
So it is with Reggio Emilia the living “torah” of early childhood education (without the divine and the holy – although Reggio educators may disagree). Each time we visit, we see something new, we learn something new, we are recharged, re ignited, and re inspired. It is for us to interpret this “text” and see how it speaks to our unique school culture and the life of our students, families and staff. Reggio offers a rich base for us to mine and bring home ideas and learning that will deepen and strengthen our school culture.
My husband will have to make his peace with my love affair with Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Approach. If he’s lucky, I may even bring him back some balsamic vinegar and a hunk of Parmesan.
Invitations, Provocations, and Proposals
At our preschool, children are greeted each day and provided throughout the day with invitations, provocations, and proposals. These are the ways we plan for sparking new questions, understandings, conversations, debate, and discovery.
- Invitations are the beautiful and inspiring ways that materials are set up in different areas of the classroom to provoke new ideas and thinking. Each day there will be a few planned invitations that may evolve from classroom projects, may be a new combination of materials, or may just be an interesting display that comes from the teachers’ curiosity about how the children will interact with it. These will include opportunities for literacy, math, and science learning.
- Provocations can come from the teachers, children, families, or community. They are anything that generates questions, mysteries, interests, ideas, theories, discussion, debate, and thinking. Provocations can be: a problem or challenge posed by a child or an adult, an object, a question from the teacher or another child, an event, a book, a field trip, or a material.
- Proposals are planned questions or challenges that you are presenting to individual children or a small group. These are typically based on a project or long term study occurring in the class, and are used to move the project further along and to a deeper level.