“Can we take apart a human heart and look inside?”
That’s what a student asked me while we were discussing next steps for our investigation into anatomy and organic systems. As a rational adult, my mind immediately jumped to all the ways such a request could go terribly wrong. Like most sane people, the first response that sprung into my head was a simple one:
“No, we can’t do that.”
I’ve said those words a thousand times or more, and I’ve heard plenty of superb teachers say them, as well. “No, we can’t do that” may as well be the mantra of exhausted teachers everywhere.
For obvious reasons, dissecting a human heart with a four year old is a recipe for disaster. From start to finish, the process is fraught with a tremendous number of seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Where would we get the heart? Even if we found an organization willing to let us procure something like that, who would willingly do so with such a young age group in mind? How could we safely dissect a heart, and what foundational information would we need to know before we undertook such a task? Each question gave rise to another, and a dizzying number of impossibilities began to rise up like a tide I could barely keep back.
In that moment of panic, I made a classic mistake; it is the same mistake that many educators make on a daily basis. In my subconscious, I chose to focus in on all the myriad reasons why a student’s idea was impossible. I chose to hone in on all the ways my life would become incredibly difficult in the pursuit of this child’s idea. I chose to take the easy path when faced with a task that my skills, resources, and knowledge had no chance of prevailing against. Although I said “No, we can’t do that,” what I meant was “I don’t want to do that,” “I don’t really want to get myself into trouble,” and “I’m way to tired to make something like that happen today.”
Loris Malaguzzi asserted that pedagogy is derived first and foremost from our Image of the Child. Curiosity drives children to suggest things that seem farcical, even comical to adults in the pursuit of knowledge. But in classifying their ideas as farcical or comical and writing them off as simply impossible, we accidentally convey a problematic hierarchy of character values to them. When we refuse to engage with ideas born simultaneously of passion and innocence (like an interest in dissecting a real human heart), we communicate our desire for students to be more pragmatic and logical at the expense of their creativity and ingenuity. In short, we quench the fires in their hearts instead of stoke them.
As Reggio-inspired educators, part of our job is to view each child as a competent researcher capable of constructing their own knowledge. It is our job to facilitate their investigations with the resources they need to drive the pursuit of knowledge and experience forward. But this undertaking becomes daunting when paired with the understanding that every child learns in a unique and idiosyncratic way. Even if all the students in a class are working together to solve the same problem on the same time-frame, the resources they might need to pursue the construction of their understanding might be completely different.
To me, one of the greatest hallmarks of an excellent educator working in the Reggio Way is the desire to leave no stone unturned. No idea, no matter how seemingly insane, should be dismissed outright, especially when expressed by a child in a moment of enthusiasm. Teachers should listen intently to the propositions of children, then create a dialogue to outline all the ways such an idea could be brought to life. Instead of contemplating all of the ways the idea is fraught, teachers should work with students to find that singular shining doorway by which their fledgling idea might just be able to enter the realm of possibility. It is the role of the Reggio educator to provide their lived experience as a framework by which they can transform the impossible into the unlikely, or even the probable.
The negotiation of learning is contingent upon two agents contributing their best character traits in the pursuit of something greater than what they could ever achieve independently. As adults, our considerable experience, resources, skill sets, connections, and content-based knowledge often dupe us into thinking we have everything we need to make learning happen. We plan and design and make phone calls and charts, and our machinations give us comfort that learning will inevitably happen as along as we stay the course and encourage children to participate. But what we forget is that interest, often born of a passion to understand something profoundly alien or unfamiliar, is what fuels our machinations. The inventive, unfettered nature of the young mind is the spark that makes our teaching machines spring to life with greater gusto and productivity than ever before. Knowledge exists at the cross-roads of our know-how and their mad genius.
So next time a student tells you that they want to learn how to fly, see what you can do to make it happen. Build them huge cardboard wings and find them a big hill. When a child tells you that they want to know what is at the center of the earth, do some calculations, hand them a shovel, and start digging that hole shoulder to shoulder with them. When a student tells you that they wish they had a real baby to take care of, find some local babies with agreeable parents. Go out there and find those proverbial human hearts to dissect, or at the very least the next best thing you can get your hands on without breaking any laws.
In so many ways, working alongside students in the Reggio Way is the art of minimizing improbability. It is the process of giving form and substance to pure, unbridled enthusiasm. The Reggio Way is how we take the dreams of young dreamers and through nothing more than incredible effort and diligence, make them real.