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Welcoming Reggio to our Classrooms

I walked into an elementary school classroom last week – and felt immediately relaxed.

The classroom was filled with homemade wooden shelves and tables, even a few tree trunks as seats. Every bin was a shade of brown or beige. There were coverings over the fluorescent lights that softened but didn’t dim the space.

Down the centre of the classroom were neatly arranged bins, each filled with a different material. Bread tags, wooden blocks, mosaic pieces, miniature toy animals. My husband, our three children, and I were immediately drawn in and intrigued by the atmosphere.

This was a classroom based on the Reggio Emilia education philosophy. At the heart of this approach is the belief that all children have rights and that each child deserves the opportunity to develop his or her own potential. This is done by allowing the students to take some control in choosing what things they will learn about, and allowing them to use all manner of ways to learn.

The classroom immediately came to mind as I listened to Jack Ma speak at the World Economic Forum this week. Ma is the founder and chair of Alibaba, arguably the largest company in the world today. He shared his thoughts on many topics, including the need for all countries to re-examine the way in which we approach education, especially as we enter a time when computers can process more knowledge than humans. He champions a move away from knowledge-based learning to a system that is more like the Reggio method.

“We have to teach our kids something unique,” Ma states. “We should teach our kids sports, music, painting, art. Everything we teach should be different from machines. We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter. The computer will always be smarter than you are; they never forget, they never get angry. But computers can never be as wise a man.”

Ma spoke about the jobs that will be lost to automation and artificial intelligence, as well as the impact of big data, but he sees opportunity in the ways in which we as humans can use these advancements as supports. “Technology should always do something that enables people, not disable people,” he says.

Ma spoke directly about the role teachers play in preparing us for this shift in society, which he sees happening within the next 30 years. “Education is a big challenge now,” he said. “A teacher should learn all the time; a teacher should share all the time.” This matches the Reggio approach that a teacher is learning alongside the child, not operating from a place of superior knowledge.

I feel lucky that we have teachers and educators here in New Brunswick that share Ma’s vision and embrace elements of various teaching philosophies, such as Reggio. Our society is changing and our education system needs to change with it. Our teachers need to continuously push the limits of traditional classrooms and create opportunities that allow our youth to develop critical and creative thinking skills that will outlast the structured nature of our schools.

Standardized test scores were in the spotlight again this month in New Brunswick, with much wringing of hands over the slow pace of improvement in scores. While I believe we must measure our children’s progress and encourage them to always strive for success, my recollection of standardized tests is that they prepare us more for the old knowledge-based world than reflect the skills we need to be teaching today. We must ensure that the goals and measurements we’re placing on our education system match the outcomes our children truly need to be successful in the automated workforce of their future.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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