Emergent Curriculum, Reggio, and Inquiry: Coming to Terms with Terms

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have been an ardent proponent of emergent curriculum in early childhood education well before I became Reggio inspired. In the early nineties I became aware of the work of Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo and used their textbook, Emergent Curriculum as the foundation for the curriculum courses that I taught to early childhood education students. I was thrilled to discover this book as I was struggling with moving beyond the thematic approach of pre-cuts and worksheets

Emergent Curriculum and the Project Approach

When I discovered the work of Sylvia Chard and Lillian Katz and the Project Approach I found an emergent curriculum structure that students seemed to be able to grasp and implement in their placements. The students would frame their work in placement on the three phases of the Project Approach. They began by identifying a topic of interest, followed by weeks of investigating the topic with children and ended the semester with a culminating event connected to the topic. While I was relieved that students were not using themes I still struggled with some of the outcomes. Many students choose a topic based on their judgement of what the children’s interest was and what they ended up with seemed to me to be more like a long-term theme. Topics sometimes were too broad and beyond the context of the classroom – zoo animals, airplanes, space and polar bears. I see the same limitations today when some educators speak of inquiry in their classrooms. For Reggio inspired educators’ inquiry emerges from the children’s experience during their everyday opportunities to play, explore, think and wonder.

What do you see, think, wonder?

It seems to me, that much rests on the topic you choose for inquiry. In Hundred Languages of Children edited by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, Lillian Katz describes a project undertaken by a group of 4 and 5 year olds at the Ernesto Balducci School in Reggio Emilia that was inspired by the local neighbourhood supermarket. She goes on to say, “why bother to undertake a project on such a mundane topic” … “why not study something outside of the children’s daily experience”? While some educators “may prefer to introduce esoteric topics with which they hope to capture or excite the children’s interests, presumably under the assumption that everyday objects and events are uninteresting” (p. 33) in Reggio Emilia topics emerge from the everyday. What Katz says next is key.

However, the work of preschoolers in Reggio Emilia indicates that the processes of “unpacking” or defamiliarizing everyday objects and events can be deeply meaningful, interesting, and instructive to them~Lillian Katz

The process of defamiliarizing everyday objects such as loose parts and events like a trip to the supermarket involves construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of something familiar. According to the definition “defamiliarization” is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. When your approach is process related and socially constructed within a community of inquiring learners; it is emergent curriculum and it is play and inquiry-based as it evolves from the context of the community. In Empowering PedagogyBeverlie Dietze and I recommend the use of the term “emergent programming” to describe the non-traditional process-like evolution of the contextual learning that happens. We avoid the term curriculum for the same reasons as Elizabeth Jones who speaks to term as something “elementary teachers rather than preschool teachers were supposed to cover, using prescribed textbooks and worksheets” (2012, p. 66). In the article the Emergence of Emergent Curriculum Jones tells of her own experience working with young children in the 1950s and describes the process of planning as one that was made “day to day in response to our observations and reflections on children’s needs and interests. The curriculum was set down only after it had taken place, not laid out in advance except in broad terms” (2012, p. 66). This Jones called “emergent curriculum”. Emergent curriculum has many possible sources that emerge from the community.

Sources of Emergent Curriculum

Reggio educators use the term Progettazione to describe curriculum. Progettazione means to project to the next steps – to collaboratively construct in the process of experiences and projects. Pedagogical documentation serves as the means to keep the process going. The curriculum is emergent. However, Progettazione is very difficult to describe to those looking for concrete answers rather than opportunities for deep thinking about the big idea of how children learn and how that learning can be made visible in their own context. Curriculum is what happens (Jones, 2012) when a community of inquirers plays and represents their play for others. The knowledge and learning bubbles up in a joyful, playful way, much like a dance.

Progettazione is a metaphorical dance between teacher and child – a spiral of knowledge~Carlina Rinaldi

Whether it is about the Project Approach, the Reggio Emilia Approach, emergent curriculum or play and inquiry based learning I hear the same questions now as I did decades ago. What is the difference and where do I begin? In effort to explain I have said that the term “emergent curriculum” is the umbrella that encapsulates approaches that are emergent in their focus. I also try to help others recognize that emergent curriculum does not simply and solely mean that the curriculum emerges from children’s interest. There are multiple sources as indicated by Jones and Nimmo (1994). The problem is that some are looking for easy answers – they are looking for a model of “best practice” that they can adopt. To become Reggio inspired, according to Peter Moss is to make political and ethical choices based on answers to critical questions such as “what is my image of the child?” and “how do I understand knowledge and learning?” To become Reggio inspired is to accept that there is no “best practice” other than what emerges from the children in your program. For me it is about not having the easy answers, not always being able to come to terms with the terms.

What is your image of the child?

In the Path Toward KnowledgeSergio Spagiarri reminds us that what is important is to ask the questions. Questions are not a sign of ignorance but a comfort that sets us out on our path. Spagiarri uses the metaphor of “walk on”. “There are two ways that people think about walking on or moving forward. Some people think that to walk, that you need to know where you want to go and how to get there. Other people moved by sentiment or passion, by dreams or ideals, move towards something that they don’t yet or understand”. The work of the Reggio educators began with a declaration of ignorance and a great desire to move on and ask questions. Spagiarri talks about the constant conviction that there is still so much more to learn, so many more questions to ask. The key is to have passion for your work. “You have to have reasons and motivations. You have to be moved by the desire to find out and to know. To work with passion means to keep the head and the heart in contact”. Malaguzzi according to Spagiarri used to conjure up the image of a giraffe and wrote a poem, about this “unfortunate animal”.

The Giraffe Story

There are so many terms and buzzwords prevalent today and I am coming to terms with terms by unpacking them in relationship to my passion for Reggio-inspired teaching and learning. I am asking questions and moving forward in process. The process is bringing the heart closer to the head.

22 thoughts on “Emergent Curriculum, Reggio, and Inquiry: Coming to Terms with Terms

  1. I really enjoyed this article, thank you. I felt (and feel) the same way about Chard and Katz’s “Project Approach” that seems to miss the deeper essence of the Reggio Emilia approach to investigations. However, I also recognize how difficult it is for teachers to allow investigations to emerge, and to be open to the possibilities. Lately, I have been working with teachers to create Learning Stories in an effort to help them look for those small moments that emerge in every day play and to recognize them as valuable, interesting, and worthy of pursuit (or at least later discussion among colleagues and sharing with children and families). I see this as a first step. I hope it works!

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  2. This article is a useful story about how we got here and how many ways ‘here’ is explained. In our new book, ‘Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What we’ve learned from Reggio Emilia about children and ourselves’ Leslie Gleim and I describe in detail not only the Reggio Image of the Child, but the important Documentation Process, observing and recording children’s play so as to offer work that will support their agency and further exploration and theory-making. Available from iTunes or Lulu.com as an e-book or a paperback.

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  3. Diane,

    Thank you for this post. It really sums up the professional journey that I and my faculty have been on for the past few years. I appreciate your concise summary of Project Approach and Reggio-inspired practice, and the sublte differences that can exist between the two. While it can be difficult to shift teachers away from projects that feel like long-term themes, the struggle, reflections, and insights gained are truly worth it!

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  4. Diane,
    Thank you for this post. This post really made me ponder and self reflect on the work needed to do in my program. Working with new teachers it is quite difficult with shifting their mindset beyond thematic teaching practice. Your summary really opened up my mind and really challenged even my own thought process of how I view children in my program.

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    • Your comment has touched my heart! Thank you so much. How amazing for you to be beginning this incredible journey of authentic, emergent teaching and learning. I am glad I could help you get started, let me know if you need guidance along the way 🙂

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  7. I always enjoy your posts, Diane. I too struggle with projects that seem more like extended themes. I personally feel that themes are like nouns and projects are best posed as a question. It helps delineate the difference, and refine the inquiry.
    Thank you for all you do!
    Pam

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  8. Thank you for this article, a really good read. One quote has been especially true to me in all the years I have learned with children. “There is no best practice other than what emerges from the children in your program. Having practiced in many different programs with many different ages this is always the case. And it changes from year to year as the group changes.

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  10. Have you taken a look at the work of Judy Harris Helm with the Project Approach and her newest book, Becoming Young Thinkers? Really great examples of project work and connecting it to brain research and higher levels of inquiry and child questioning

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