The Jewish Nature of
Reggio Emilia Early Childhood Education

From JECEI Site

by Dr. Gabe Goldman

Many Jewish early childhood educators and schools have adopted a type of early childhood education called Reggio Emilia (named after the location in Italy where the approach originated post-World War II). Never have I witnessed such a broad range of Jewish schools enthusiastically embracing the same approach; from secular Jewish schools to Orthodox schools and from congregation schools to day schools. Ironically, few of these schools consciously chose Reggio Emilia because of the harmony between Reggio and Jewish beliefs about children and education. Most of the schools adopted the Reggio approach because of its educational excellence. However, the longer schools have employed Reggio Emilia, the clearer it has become that there is something very “Jewish” about Reggio Emilia.

Three years ago, the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation contracted me to be a Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative/Bonim Beyachad consultant. Both Pittsburgh JECEI and Bonim Beyachad are driven by Reggio Emila principles and practices. Part of my consulting role has been uncovering the connections between Reggio Emilia and Judaism. The best way to describe my foray into discovering “what’s Jewish” about Reggio is by quoting Ben Bag-Bag (one of the Sages in Talmud), “Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it…” (Pirke Avot 5:26) Of course, Ben Bag-Bag was talking about the Torah, but the more I understand Reggio the more I see how profoundly intertwined with Jewish belief, practice and tradition it is. This connection begins with the way Reggio and Judaism view children. They share a view of children as capable learners, with individual abilities, who have a right to an education.

The single most important factor in determining how we educate young children is the way we “view” them. If, for example, we view young children as “babies” who are unable to take care of themselves, then we will provide a type of babysitting service designed to keep them safe and occupied. If we view children as blank slates, then we will provide a type of education designed to fill this slate with the knowledge and skills we believe will prepare children for the “real” education that starts in kindergarten (a view implied in the term “preschool”).

Reggio views children as highly capable learners, a view based on children’s demonstrated ability to ask penetrating questions, to develop creative hypotheses, to challenge conventional thinking, to reflect upon their experiences and to revise their understanding. This is the very definition of learning. Combine with this Reggio’s insistence that education is every child’s right and we begin to understand why Reggio Emilia places such strong emphasis on making children co-creators of their learning experience. These same views are an intimate part of Jewish educational belief, beginning with Torah’s instructions to parents to be the teachers of their own children. This command is found throughout the Torah, including in the Shema.

In fact, it is the only instruction directed at parents – making it the defining action of parenthood. All parents are instructed to be their children’s teachers – and that applies to all their children, not just the older ones or the smartest ones or the ones most likely to succeed. That education is a child’s right–in addition to being a parent’s obligation – is made crystal clear in Baba Batra 21a, which stipulates that children without parents also have the right to an education:

Praise…Joshua ben Gamla, for but for him the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel. For at first, if a child had a father, his father taught him but if he had no father he did not learn at all…They made an ordinance that teachers of [these] children should be appointed in Jerusalem.

Like other types of Social Constructivist early childhood educators, Reggio Emilia teachers treat each student as a unique individual with unique abilities, interests and skills. It is tempting to take for granted this view of young children as unique individuals with different learning abilities, but we should not do so. There are still far too many ECE (and even more elementary, middle and high school programs) that have traded the value of student individuality for logistical convenience (e.g. measuring success based on statewide standardized tests, using standardized textbooks and teaching schedules for all classes, and so forth). This is why it is even more astounding that ancient Jewish scholars recognized children’s individual learning differences so long ago. One indication of this is found in Pirke Avot (Chapter 5:12):

There are four types of students. One who is quick to understand and quick to forget–his flaw cancels his virtue. One who is slow to understand and slow to forget–his virtue cancels his flaw. One who is quick to understand and slow to forget–his is a good portion. One who is slow to understand and quick to forget–his is a bad portion.

Perhaps the most radical principle that Reggio and Jewish educational philosophies share is their emphasis on questions as flashpoints for learning. Torah repeatedly instructs parents “When your children ask, you shall say…” That is, parents should wait until their children ask before answering them. This emphasis on questions is evident in every aspect of Jewish life. Numerous Torah stories are highlighted by questions: God asking where Adam and Eve are; Cain asking if he is his brother’s keeper; Abraham questioning how many righteous people are necessary to save Sodom from destruction; Moses questioning God at the burning bush.

However, it is in Talmud that Judaism elevates questioning to an art form. A hundred times more questions are posed than answered in Talmud! And, the very essence of Reggio Emilia is the belief that learning is defined by the ability of young children to wonder – that is, to question. In Reggio classes, it is children’s questioning and wondering that dictate a good portion of what students learn – not a written curriculum with predetermined goals that ignore individual student abilities and interests. One of the common features in Reggio classrooms is the “Wonder Wall” on which children and teachers post cards or pictures indicating what children have been wondering about (questioning). In Reggio as in Judaism, the very act of asking questions is seen as the a priori condition for real learning (not the mere memorization of the A, B, C’s) to happen.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Reggio and Judaism employ strategies to stimulate and excite children’s questions. Reggio teachers routinely place books, nature specimens, photographs and such in their classroom, specifically so children can discover them and wonder about what they mean or how they can be used. These items are called “provocations” because they provoke children’s discussion, ideas, interests and questions. And, long ago, Judaism perfected the use of provocations at the Passover Seder. These provocations include all the ceremonial foods found on the Passover table; the special Passover plate and matzah holder; the Cup of Elijah; and the changes we make in the way we eat the Passover meal.

All of these actions are designed for one specific purpose, to provoke children to ask “What’s going on?” or “Mah nishtanah ha Lailah ha Zeh?” – “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And, I should note, it is the asking of the question (or Four Questions) – not the answering of them – that matters. Jewish tradition teaches that if the greatest Jewish scholars are sitting together at the Passover Seder, they should still ask the Four Questions, though they already know the answers.

In fact, both in Reggio and Judaism, the physical environment itself is conceived as an immersive educational experience. Reggio teachers are trained to view their classrooms as a “Third Teacher” (all Reggio classes have two human teachers). The physical learning space is understood to communicate to children that they are themselves powerful learners whose abilities, interests, and initiatives are the most valued factors in their own learning. Thus, in a Reggio classroom, children’s projects and pictures are displayed with care, made visually appealing, and placed at their own eye-level. And while there is no equivalent phrase in Hebrew for “third teacher,” Jewish tradition has long recognized the value of altering the physical environment to enhance the learning experience.

Take the holiday of Sukkot, for example. Sukkot is a fall holiday that celebrates the harvest season and is unique in that it requires Jews to construct and live in a temporary, outdoor shelter (called a sukkah) throughout the holiday. Every sukkah is different, but all must have roofs that are covered with natural materials, like tree boughs or corn stalks. Obviously, these temporary structures do not provide the safe environment of a home. They are not rainproof and they do not stop the cold–and this is intentional. The central message of Sukkot is that God is the source of what we have and it is by God’s providence that we survive. As important is the way families decorate the inside of the sukkah with pictures of Israel, famous rabbis, children’s art work, etc. What would otherwise be little more than an open shed is thus transformed into a “Third Teacher,” a physical space that communicates what is important by its very existence and by what is displayed on its walls.

Concluding Remarks
This article has touched upon some of the more tangible reasons that Reggio resonates so
well with Jewish beliefs, practices and traditions. Both educational traditions value
children. Both recognize the right of children to have a quality education. Both place the
greatest importance on students asking questions that arise naturally out of their
experience. Both recognize the critical role parents must play in successful education. And both realize the value of constructing learning environments that reinforce educational goals in non-directive, informal ways.

While Reggio Emilia is internationally recognized as an excellent educational approach, it represents more than just educational excellence to Jewish educators. It offers them the opportunity to strengthen Judaism by developing children with a love of learning born out of curiosity and wonder; by creating active communities of parent and teacher educators; and by motivating families to seek out ways to provide their children with more – and more deeply meaningful – experiences of Jewish life.

Dr. Gabe Goldman is the Director of Outdoor Jewish Classroom and Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative/Bonim Beyachad Consultant.

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1 CommentLeave a comment

  • I visited Reggio Emilia when I was in Italy and had a private tour. I was so impressed!

    We may not be able to do everything they do, but there’s so much to learn from them!

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