The hundred languages of childhood know no age bounds

Peter Moss.

Loris Malaguzzi (1920-94) was one of the great educationalists of the 20th century. He was a thinker, but also a doer, a council employee who played a leading role in the evolution of a network of municipal schools in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, 70 kilometres west of Bologna. Today, the schools and Malaguzzi are  an inspiration to those who resist the spread of neoliberal and neoconservative education policies.

Most educationalists won’t have heard of Reggio Emilia or Malaguzzi. This is in part because both are Italian, and most of his work is in Italian. A newly published book – ‘Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia’ – edited by myself and colleagues in Reggio Emilia, aims to rectify this, with English translations of a selection of his writings and speeches, starting in 1945 (when, as he wrote ‘everything seemed possible’). But there’s another reason. Malaguzzi and Reggio Emilia are world famous for early childhood education, a field largely untrodden by the rest of education. Yet Malaguzzi was convinced that he was engaged in a project of educational renewal, which knew no age bounds.

What lessons does Malaguzzi have for all education? He insists that education is, first and foremost, a political practice, always about making choices between conflicting alternatives. One of the most important choices concerns our understanding or image of the child – who do we think the child is? Answer that question, Malaguzzi argued, and all else – policy, provision, practice – follows. Of course every educational policy and service is based on a particular image, but one that is invariably implicit and unacknowledged; policy documents typically neither ask nor answer the question. But Reggio Emilia does.

Malaguzzi insisted that ‘a declaration [about the image of the child] is…the necessary premise for any pedagogical theory, and any pedagogical project’. And he was clear about his image: ‘We say all children are rich, there are no poor children. All children whatever their culture, whatever their lives are rich, better equipped, more talented, stronger and more intelligent than we can suppose’.

Rich children are born with a ‘hundred languages’, the term he used to suggest the many and diverse ways children can express themselves and relate to the world – ranging from manifold forms of art to maths, sciences and technologies. Malaguzzi was damning about the damage usually done to these languages by education: ‘Children have a hundred languages: they rob them of ninety nine, school and culture.’ Instead, he strove to nurture languages, for example through ateliers and atelieristas – art workshops and artist-educators found in most Reggio schools. Atelieristas were also there to confront traditional and narrow pedagogy, to ‘provoke some less convenient directions capable of breaking with the professional and cultural routine.’

For Malaguzzi, education was about constructing new knowledge and thought. He valued wonder and surprise, the unpredicted and the unexpected, making connections and inter-disciplinarity. The strength of Reggio, Malaguzzi believed, was that all the time ‘something unexpected, something that surprised us or made us marvel, something that disappointed us, something that humiliated us, would burst out in a child or in the children.’ While he despised what he termed ‘testology’ – ‘which is nothing but a ridiculous simplification of knowledge and a robbing of meaning from individual histories’ – and its partner ‘prophetic pedagogy’, which knows everything [that will happen], does not have one uncertainty, is absolutely imperturbable… [It] prophesies everything, to the point that it is capable of giving you recipes for little bits of actions, minute by minute, hour by hour, objective by objective, five minutes by five minutes. This is something so coarse, so cowardly, so humiliating of teachers’ ingenuity, a complete humiliation for children’s ingenuity and potential.

If making choices about understandings was an important part of education’s political practice, making choices about values was another. Malaguzzi’s choice included uncertainty and subjectivity, solidarity and cooperation and, perhaps most important of all, participation and democracy. As a ‘living centre of open and democratic culture’, opening out not only to families but also to its local neighbourhood, the school should be capable of ‘living out processes and issues of partici­pation and democracy.’ Democracy, for Malaguzzi, was not just a matter of participant social management and participatory accountability, important as both were; it should suffuse all relationships and practices – democracy in a Deweyan sense of ‘a mode of associated living’.

If Malaguzzi placed political practice first, this did not mean he ignored technical practice. He thought organisation was vital, though always serving politics and ethics, and was constantly asking under what conditions can innovation work. Indeed, it was this attention to organisational detail and technical practice that has enabled the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia to become the most extensive and sustained example of radical, democratic, public education in the world. Faced by a hidebound education system, Loris Malaguzzi showed that there are alternatives, that another world is possible.

A final point needs emphasising at a time when local authorities in England are being squeezed out of any role in the provision of schools. Reggio Emilia’s schools are municipal schools; this innovative experience was initiated and nurtured by the city council. Malaguzzi himself was a council employee, putting me in mind of equally inspired heads of local education authorities in England. As a believer in public, democratic education, embedded in its local community, Malaguzzi thought that the democratic expression of that community, the commune or local authority, should be a main protagonist in the provision of schools for young children (and other services). Academisation may make all the running at present, but Malaguzzi and the schools of Reggio Emilia remind us that there are alternatives.

A conference to mark the publication of the new book, Loris Malaguzzi in the UK: what future for early childhood education?, will be held at the Institute of Education on May 14. For more information and registration, click here.

Photo by Nicholas Wang https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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Posted in Childhood & early education, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
2 comments on “The hundred languages of childhood know no age bounds
  1. Shireen says:

    Wonderful to see that the IOE is posting on Reggio! Love the philosophy and hope to hear more. Let’s get these ideas mainstream….children really need them right now.

  2. […] last month’s blog, I introduced a new book about Loris Malaguzzi, one of the 20th century’s great educationalists, […]

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