"Always Starting with the Children"

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Professor Carla Rinaldi on “The Courage of Utopia”


Chris Thinnes


This post quotes extensively from Carla Rinaldi’s “The Courage of Utopia,” in Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners (Reggio Children & Project Zero, 2001).


A few weeks ago, I mentioned receiving from Debi Binkley (Assoc. Superintendent of Upper Arlington City School District) a copy of The Ohio Visible Learning Project, and since then obsessively poring over a range of extraordinary background works from Reggio Children’s collaboration with Project Zero on ‘Making Learning Visible.’ I’m taken by the notion of the school not only as a ‘learning community,’ but as a community that researches learning — and by the prospect of using documentation to differentiate ‘assessment’ from ‘evaluation’ in a manner that effectively deconstructs popular American notions of testing, reporting, and accountability.

Anyway: while reviewing one of Professor Carla Rinaldi’s contributions to Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners, I came across a passage that was stunning, and that I feel compelled to share. One of the ideas I’ve been exploring in a series of posts entitled “The Root, Stem, Leaves, and Fruit of American Education” (inspired and egged on by the amazing work of Bo Adams, Chris LehmannGrant LichtmanPeter Gow, and other colleagues) is that much of what we’ve come to identify as the most important emphases of “twenty-first century learning” is misunderstood to require the invention of novel practices to serve the needs of children in an ever-changing world of the future — but ought, more fittingly, to be understood as a return to progressive principles and practices promoted more than a century ago.

In any case, I was taken by Professor Rinaldi’s affirmation of this idea that there is great insight to be discovered in a direction from which our education system has, in so many contexts and for so many reasons, lost its course. I hesitate to quote so extensively, but this volume isn’t easy to obtain; used copies at the moment of my posting list on Amazon for over $200.

Reflecting on the work of Reggio schools as “a possible contribution to the international debate on the meanings and role of schools, teachers, and teaching in contemporary society,” Professor Rinaldi offers this:

The first reflection was suggested to me by rereading some excerpts from the writings of Maria Montessori. This is what she wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century:

“…always starting from the children, with the ability to welcome them as they are, freed from the thousand different labels with which we now presume to identify them…”

“…to shift the action of the school from teaching to learning, not only with words but with tangible deeds, fostering children’s constructive and collaborative behavior and the teacher’s presence as a helper who is always available but never looming or intrusive; that which the children are able to do together today, they will be able to do on their own tomorrow…”

“…to construct, together with the children, too, an educational learning environment by arranging spaces, furnishings, materials, tools, educational projects, encounters, collaborations, discussions, and exchanges…”

I have asked myself and I ask of you: What else or what more could we say to ourselves and to those who look at and listen to us with interest and curiosity? What else and what more can we offer the child and the children that is not already contained in these words of Maria Montessori? . . .

I am afraid, however — and I would very much like to be wrong about this — that too little has changed in the way that schools are and do things in their everyday activities, to the extent that in many school situations … Maria Montessori’s words run the risk of being a goal that remains to be achieved.

Recently I’ve begun to wonder whether our common call to action — to “prepare learners for their future, not for our past,” as David Thornburg brilliantly first put it — might confuse the focus of our pedagogy as much as it might help to clarify our general sense of relevance. If it is true, as Dewey suggested, that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” then there are some timeless truths about children, learning, and the purpose of education to which we must turn — to which, rather, we must return — our focus as well.


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