Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.



Review – Before The Dawn

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.

Why We Travel

The Wolf and I were kicking around a few links via e-mail the other day as we (she) put the finishing touches on our South America excursion. We were reading something from one of Tim Ferriss’s guest writers about “how to travel”. The guy was a little sanctimonious in the beginning but ultimately offered some tips I found valuable for getting the most out of my upcoming travels.

I say it was a little sanctimonious as if I am displeased. But as a sanctimonious person myself, I mostly took interest. What the guest author was on about was “good” and “bad” reasons to travel. As I read it, I have to say I couldn’t figure out how anyone could have a “good” reason… it all seemed to boil down to restlessness borne of subtle, unaddressed displeasure with one’s usual circumstances.

I thought about why I like to travel. I noticed a lot of my reasons boiled down to this nagging insecurity and unhappiness thing. I haven’t found a way to rationalize my way out of that bag (and maybe I never will), so in the meantime I thought I’d “invert, always invert” (erroneously attributed by naive financial market philosophes to Charlie Munger) and pose it this way:

Why wouldn’t you want to travel?

I came up with a short, condescending list, in no particular order:

  • You’re completely unaware there is a world of other people and experiences outside the narrow confines of your everyday life
  • You can’t afford it (ultimately because you don’t prioritize the experience highly enough to take the steps necessary to produce enough for others in exchange to pay the cost)
  • You’re a racist
  • You’re intimidated by foreign languages and awkward some-English interpersonal encounters
  • You don’t like the food
  • You realize churches and temples are bizarre no matter where they are in the world and, seeing as how most travelers eventually wind-up staring at a place of foreign worship at some moment or another in their trip, you decide to skip it and stay home
  • You are a Zen-like being of perfect self-knowledge and self-control and there is no felt uneasiness you feel the need to relieve yourself of by journeying beyond your present place and state; in fact, you are so consumed by your enlightened presence that you don’t even travel into the kitchen for a snack… ultimately you stay right where you are until you sublimate into supreme nothingness (aka, you die and leave a smelly mess for the neighbors to find)

I think when you put it this way, it’s pretty clear why we travel and it’s really hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t live life exactly as we are (take THAT, Zen master!)