Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy finds a home in Jewish education

Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy finds a home in Jewish education

Educators gather to cut the ribbon for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center’s latest exhibit, “The Wonders of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children.” (Photo by Jennifer Highfield)
Educators gather to cut the ribbon for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center’s latest exhibit, “The Wonders of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children.” (Photo by Jennifer Highfield)

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is currently hosting an exhibit titled “The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children,” a traveling exhibition that visits two cities in North America each year and explores the Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy.

That philosophy, which emphasizes child-directed learning, whereby the student, teacher and parents are co-equal partners in education, has been attracting much attention lately.  

The exhibit’s presence in Pittsburgh, which organizer Carolyn Linder jokingly compared to “vying for the Olympics,” is due in part to Pittsburgh’s Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), which was coordinated by Linder. The program, which aimed to combine the Reggio Emilia teaching approach with Jewish education, culture and values, began in 2011 when Linder, still with the Agency for Jewish Learning at the time, joined the national JECEI program, which disbanded shortly thereafter. Undeterred, Linder continued the initiative in Pittsburgh, partnering with three Jewish early learning centers — the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills and Community Day School, also in Squirrel Hill — to “transform the educational approach and practices of existing Jewish early learning centers into high-quality educational centers with active family participation,” according to the AJL’s website. While not members of JECEI, Beth Shalom’s Early Learning Center and the Early Learning Center of Yeshiva School of Pittsburgh both have classrooms inspired by Reggio philosophy.  

Linder said that “the benefit of having the national organization dissolved … [was] that we were able to create a Pittsburgh JECEI that met the needs of the individual schools as well as working with the entire Early Jewish Childhood community” given that the national JECEI program “wasn’t a community-based approach.”

Linder knew that switching to an entirely new educational philosophy could prove controversial. Therefore, a major focus of the JECEI initiative was ensuring that the educators understood how the approach worked in practice, not just in theory.

Melissa Harmon, director of early childhood education at Community Day School, said that the consultants didn’t just teach them the basics of that philosophy, but how it applied to each specific type of classroom and how it could be blended with Jewish education and values.

According to Liza Baron, director of the Early Childhood Development Center at the JCC, the point of Reggio Emilia is that “children are not born empty vessels. They are not creatures who just need to be fed information.” Linder described the students as “co-constructors in the learning experience.” They are taught in a community that they’re a part of, so education “is not something that’s done to them; it’s something they are a part of. What we learn and explore comes from the kids.”

But critics say that selling point is also the system’s central flaw. Under a child-directed approach, they say, children neglect to learn the academic building blocks that will be necessary in kindergarten and beyond. Linder disputes that argument. “People [assume] that it’s kind of a free for all, that the children are not being directed, that they get to choose whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, and that’s a misconception,” she said. All of the schools directors interviewed for this article agreed that the question is a legitimate one from parents but said that a visit to a classroom following the approach would quash that fear. Said Baron: “Just because you’re going to walk into a preschool classroom here and not see a color chart or a number chart or a days of the week calendar, doesn’t mean that those concepts are not being taught.” Any child’s specific interest can be easily incorporated into a larger lesson, she said. A child’s love of trucks, for example, can be taught in a way that incorporates spelling, colors, math and even days of the week. Bonnie Valinsky, preschool director of the Early Learning Center of Ohav Shalom, said that “when children are highly engaged in what they’re doing … learning is just inevitable.”

The local early learning centers have been using the approach for several years at this point, and Linder said that for some schools, this coming year will be the last of the five year JECEI initiative in terms of training and consultancy “because at some point, you want to be able to have created the system and processes in place so that it can then be sustained internally within the Early Childhood Center. So the work will continue, but they will not need as much outside support as they’ve been receiving for the last four years.” While Ohav Shalom and the JCC will be completing their training programs in the year to come, CDS will continue theirs, and a new school, Temple Emanuel Early Childhood Development Center in South Hills, will begin their first year as a JECEI school.

Josh Donner, executive director of the Shapira Foundation, which supports the JECEI program and helped to underwrite the Wonder of Learning exhibit along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said that the Reggio Emilia approach mirrors Jewish values. “The idea of deeply exploring questions is so Jewish.”

As a result of the exhibit, Linder said, she wants community members to engage in “big conversations about what high-quality early childhood education should look like.”

The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children will run at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center through Nov. 15.

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at