Reggio Emilia and Self-Directed Education

This past weekend I was invited to speak along with Maggie Van Camp, Peter Gray, Kerry McDonald, Christine Heer and Lisa Henderson at the Children as Citizens in Alternative to Public School Settings conference. The conference was part of the Wonder of Learning exhibit at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, a multimedia traveling exhibition from Reggio Emilia designed to present through images, text and handmade artifacts the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. The idea of the Children as Citizens conference, as conceived by Maggie Van Camp was to highlight some of the similarities between the Reggio Emilia approach and that of self-directed education.

The Reggio Emilia model of education, as Maggie pointed out in her talk, resonates in some important ways with self-directed education. There are two ways in particular which really jumped out at me as I was listening to the presentations. The first is that both models view children as natural born learners. As Peter Gray put it, children come into the world biologically prepared to learn; they do not need to be educated. The second is that both models view children as worthy of the same respect and dignity often reserved for adults. I would like to talk about both of these and how I see them as being related.

Children do not need to be educated. Another way to say this is that education is a false need; it is a need that we have invented. Yet we seem to have forgotten that it is a human invention. We behave as though it is a true need, even a vital need, as fundamental as the need for food, clothing and shelter. The reason this belief is so harmful is that it leads to the idea that we have a moral obligation to subject children to educational treatment of one type or another without their consent. Children, just like all human beings, have a genuine psychological need for freedom, autonomy, dignity and happiness. So the (forced) satisfaction of this false need ends up undermining the satisfaction of their true needs.  

Putting it this way highlights how strong a sway the idea of education has over us and how hard it is to resist, even when we believe we have rejected it. Even when we think we are giving children freedom to learn, on some level we are likely still unconsciously superimposing on them the need for education, i.e. to be directed or guided in some way, to be encouraged to play with this instead of that, here instead of there. Deep down we believe that children don’t really know what is good for them, and that we need to protect them from their own inclinations, or to improve their process in some way. There must be a job for us somewhere in their learning!

A.S. Neill was an astute observer of this phenomenon. He saw that adults often just can’t help themselves. Even if we want to let children play, we think that play should produce learning in some clear way. And so we pressurize the situation in some subtle or not so subtle way to bring about some desired result. As Neill wrote in Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing:

Fifty years ago the watchword was “Learn through doing.” Today the watchword is “Learn through playing.” Play is thus used only as a means to an end, but to what good end I do not really know. If a teacher sees children playing with mud, and he thereupon improves the shining moment by holding forth about riverbank erosion, what end has he in view? What child cares about river erosion? Many so-called educators believe that it does not matter what a child learns as long as he is taught something.

This is the real difference between self-directed education, which has its roots in the unschooling and freeschool movements of the late 60s and early 70s, and progressive models of education like Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Progressive education sees children as powerful learners and seeks to support, guide and shape that learning in productive ways. The freeschool and unschooling movements have a very different orientation. A.S. Neill, interestingly, did not really talk much about learning. He talked instead about the rich, complicated lives of children within a supportive environment of loving and approving adults. And John Holt, in his book, Instead of Education, tried to get away from our collective preoccupation with learning all together by steering the conversation towards “doing,” not in order to learn, but for its own sake. These movements were not about making children more effective, efficient learners. They took it as a given that children, free from adult coercion, would learn what they needed to know in the course of their normal, day-to-day life. They were, rather, about allowing children to live their lives with a measure of dignity rarely afforded to children today.

This is a truly “radical approach to child rearing” and it may never gain the wider acceptance in our culture that we hope for. But I believe it is important, as someone who has benefited from this beautiful way of life for children, to maintain a clear distinction between the unschooling/freeschool tradition and the progressive approach. It would be wonderful to see self-directed education reach the heights of the Montessori model in the United States. But we should also be careful what we wish for. The success of the Montessori model has depended on its being subsumed by the dominant culture of high-pressure education and goal-directed parenting.  

Though I know very little about the Reggio Emilia model, I have no doubt that the teachers in that little town in Italy respect children’s needs for autonomy and self-direction, that they do not let the impulse to educate compromise or undermine the freedom and dignity of the children. But we only have to look at the Montessori model to see how strong the impulse of teachers is to lead, instruct, and correct children. It is hard to imagine that the same thing will not happen with the Reggio Emilia model. I was talking to a woman the other day who spent time in Reggio Emilia. She said that the teachers she talked to there told her that when the Reggio Emilia model is transplanted, what is left is the aesthetic, not the true spirit of the approach.

This did not surprise me at all. Because parents, teachers and schools are under so much pressure now to produce perfect human beings - well-rounded, educated, socially adjusted, passionate,  self-directed, empathetic, successful, happy children. It is nearly impossible for any alternative educational approach not to be subsumed by the dominant forces of academic competition and economic preparation. But progressive models are not the only ones subject to this dynamic. Self-directed education is itself well-placed to be co-opted by these same forces. The silicon valley-inspired micro-school movement is hyping self-directed learning as the best way to prepare children for a competitive global economy. When self-directed education is put in the service of promoting the four C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, now said to be the most important skills required to succeed in the 21st century innovation-based economy) it is unrealistic to expect that children will be free from the pressure of anxious, future oriented adults.