Joshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)
The Wonder of Learning: The Exhibition in Reggio Inspired Practice
"the exhibit shows the value of visibility. As a form of communication,it grew directly out of what Reggio Emilia educators call documentation... it provides the educators with a tool for research and a key to continuous improvement and renewal. This bold insight led to the development of documentation into a professional art form in Reggio Emilia involving myriad products, including panels, books, slide presentations, and CD/ DVDs to record children’s learning experiences."
(The Hundred Languages of Children.)
Documentation is such an integral part of Reggio Inspired practice. If you're brave enough to dive into the book, 'The Hundred Languages of Children' much time is focused on how and what documentation is for the Reggio Emilia Approach. For this article I want to focus on a special kind of documentation, the exhibit, known as 'The Wonder of Learning'. Due to the popularity of the REA (Reggio Emilia Approach) these exhibitions travel around the world to share the learning journey they have embarked on for over 60 years. It works as a living memory of progress and continual growth, highlighting that the REA isn't a one way, one size fits all philosophy. It is continually evolving and changing organically.
Why is this 'living memory' so important?
Unlike schools that have predetermined curriculums where the same topics and learning goals are repeated each year, an emergent curriculum school or negotiated learning (the preferred English term from some RE experts) is on a continuous, never ending evolution of learning. That learning can't happen without a memory of the past experiences.
"The various exhibitions about Reggio that have been mounted have helped to convey its special flavor."
There are five characteristics and reasons for an exhibition.
1. Primary it is a means of communication about a schools philosophy and approach. As Malaguzzi says, the exhibit creates “a place of uninterrupted condensation of hundreds of subjective and objective experiences”. The exhibition is a collection of projects, stories, theories and artifacts (work samples) that communicate the values of the approach.
2. A second quality of the exhibit is its focus on circularity. There is no obvious linear structure of beginning and end.
"Wandering at will through the exhibit, visitors find themselves on a circular path as they retrace their steps and return repeatedly to favorite sections, panels, or themes, each time with deeper understanding."
This process serves teachers in discovering which elements are most interesting to others (children, parents, family members, members of the public and fellow educators). The exhibition itself allows us to learn which elements speak loudest to different people. This is important information to reflect on for future practice and exhibits.
3. The exhibit highlights the value and importance of visibility. This is vital for an approach focused on a 'social constructive' theory of learning. What is the point of dedicating large amounts of time to observing children, documenting the process of learning if the documentation simply fades away at the end of the project, semester, or school year. If the learning can't be share with others for input, feedback and learning then why bother documenting at all.
4. In the REA the construction of an exhibit is;
"designed not individually but rather collectively... many administrators, teachers, and others from throughout the city contributed time, labor, ideas, and the results of recording project work in their classrooms (demonstrating the quality of results coming from group effort). Reggio educators believe that reciprocity, exchange, and dialogue lie at the heart of successful education"
Particularly in China where many kindergarten are very large this can be a challenge but there are solutions. Firstly, schools can have each class put together an exhibition for class parents, colleagues and administrators. After the first showcase teams can go through these small exhibits together highlighting key parts from each that speak to them and the values they hold. These can then be combined for larger exhibitions that invites a wider audience and maintain a longer or more permanent presence somewhere.
5. The exhibit itself shouldn't be formulaic following the same process each time. Like I highlighted in number 2 the purpose of the exhibit is to learn and grow, evolving each time.
"it never reaches a state in which the Reggio educators say, “Now, it is finished; let’s not think about any more changes.” Instead, it undergoes transformations and emerges in one after another of separate versions or editions."
The exhibit has it's limitations though, as eventually it must come down and so can never be completely permanent. So it is also useful to consider other methods to enable learning and reflection to live on, perhaps forever. Books and video diaries/documentaries can help with this. With today's technology the ability to create a book, publish it or make a movie and edit it is incredibly accessible.
Exhibits also take a lot of work to put together. Walking around a museum we sometimes forget the work that goes into putting it together but for those that put in the effort the results can be extremely rewarding. This video highlights the effort in creating the Reggio traveling exhibits, 'The Wonder of Learning'
When kindergarten's and schools open the doors to learning, to their own ability to document and taken further further they will find that pedagogy and practice improve.