Circles of Learning


This summer and fall I have noticed circles everywhere I turn...the moon, ripe tomatoes on the vine, white round blooms of Queen Anne's lace, and shining red apples ready to pick from our old orchard trees.  I have also noticed circles of Adirondack chairs waiting for groups to sit, talk, and notice the world around them.  Circles put us in a form ideal for dialogue, for meaningful conversations, for delight, for roasting marshmallows and making s'mores, for warmth around a fire, for closeness and friendship and for welcoming new comers. No one is left out. One photograph that I love from this past summer is an arial view of the Middlebury College Organic Garden with a circle of chairs, each a different color, inviting gardeners and visitors to take a break and engage in conversation or silent appreciation of a beautiful hillside in Vermont.  We have dear friends whom we visit each summer in Maine.  As a circle of friends, we have all given our hosts chairs over the years to expand their and our sphere of friendship over time.  Sitting around their fire by the lake is one of my most thankful memories.  Now we have our own fire and chair circle, down by a stone wall where we have been cooking with fire all summer long.

cad collab

In the schools for young children in Reggio Emilia, having conversations with children in the form of dialogue where children's ideas and imaginations are completely engaged is one of the seminal practices that they are well known for.  The same is true for the educators in Reggio Emilia...dialogue and making meaning together, in collaboration, in encounter, in wondering together is at the center of their practice.

cad collab

Recently, our sister-in-law, Kathy Cadwell, received a Rowland Fellowship to study Socratic Dialogue and how to use this way of teaching and learning as the foundation of her teaching and her students' learning in learning history.  A film was just produced about her work and her students' work that features a class she taught last spring at Harwood Union High School as they engage more and more skillfully in the practice of dialogue with the classroom in a circle of chairs.  You can view this inspiring short film here.  You can also visit her website to learn more about student driven inquiry.

Last weekend I was visiting my sister in Minneapolis and read a heartwarming article in the Star Tribune Sunday paper about the mayor of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Dave Kleis, who invites a diverse group of citizens to his home every week to share a meal of chili that he makes and pays for out of his own pocket. He wants to encourage conversation and a place to feel at home for a group of people who have never met before but live in the same city.

cad collab

And just before I went to Minnesota, dear friends, John and Rita Elder hosted a morning renga session for 9 of us at their home in Bristol with tea and muffins. Renga is a practice of collaborative haiku, spoken rather than written, of short phrases of images, seasonal references, without personal pronouns.  Here are a few snippets from that morning.

Darkened white streetlamp light

awaiting night.

Circle of the year,

circle of our lives—


Circle of muffins gets eclipsed,

carrot, coconut, raisins—

morning glory.

Here's to circles of dialogue, learning, friendship, wondering and making meaning together of our life on earth...where everyone and everything is included. Nothing is left out.

cad collab

I Need you to Write the Curriculum for a Reggio School...


I need you to write the curriculum for a Reggio Inspired school. That was the request by a good friend and colleague, an architect who is charged with designing a new early childhood center where the benefactor/founder wants it to be Reggio Inspired.

We have requests that are similar to this one from time to time.  For example, this blog in a response to an email query addresses how to start to make learning visible, and this one explores how to compose student work in a book form for a public audience.

My written response to the request to write a curriculum for the Reggio approach follows:


Let’s be clear that there is no “written curriculum” to be followed for “The Reggio approach;” though there are: architectural patterns for setting up aesthetically pleasing learning environments, lists of highly recommended materials and their organization, ways to integrate different disciplines, the 3 R’s and all the others including all the arts in skilled and inventive ways, methods for developing authentic and meaningful experiences that generate deep learning, mediums for documentation and assessment of learning in ways that make the learning visible, protocols for collaboration between teachers that results in evolved and advanced practice.

In fact, this way of teaching is a paradigm shift…something completely different than what most of us have experienced as the norm. It’s a bit like the difference between jazz and classical music…while both require fundamental knowledge of the instruments and the ability to read music, jazz has only a skeletal outline, a melody (not a complete score) that is an open “provocation” for each player to innovate…and much of the innovation is inspired by each player’s attuned listening to the others in the group.


All that said, can teachers learn to teach using the Reggio approach? Absolutely, but in our experience it requires systemic changes in thinking and ways of doing.

First: hire teachers who believe in their hearts that this is the right approach. Before their interviews require them to read The Hundred Languages of Children, and Bringing Reggio Emilia Home. In the interview, ask open ended questions like: What in all this makes sense to you?; and What do you wonder about? From their answers you’ll know which ones are really “on the bus.”

Second: with the new teachers, convene a series of collaborative discussions around shared readings…to develop thinking about and context for the work of creating a classroom and a school community.

Third: set up the classrooms and common spaces with well organized, beautiful materials, in aesthetically pleasing ways.

Fourth: plan/outline/map a series of authentic and meaningful experiences…”provocations”…and prepare to listen to the children and to document their thinking.

Fifth: schedule regular meetings of teacher teams for collaborative reflection on the dynamics of the classrooms, the specific experiences recorded, the composition of documentation of the experience (making the learning visible), and ideas for next experiences.


Sixth: schedule learning experiences for the teachers throughout the year.

This is clearly a simplified and synthesized outline of how to think about a curriculum inspired by the work in Reggio Emilia in a new and transformed way.  To launch this work is a challenge and a great journey as well as an enormous contribution to children and families and communities.  This way of thinking about and creating school honors our intelligence and creativity as human beings on the planet and creates the context for real, engaging, lasting learning for everyone. Let's do it!


*the images in this post come from archives of the St. Louis Collaborative, The College School and The Principia in St. Louis and Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, MA.

Beyond Quality and Gunilla Dalhberg


When Ashley and I were in Stockholm a few weeks ago we were lucky enough to have a lovely dinner with Gunilla Dalhberg.  Gunilla is author with Peter Moss and Alan Pence of Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care. The second edition was published in 2007.  This book is ground breaking and seminal in the literature about early childhood education theory and the work from Reggio Emilia in early childhood education.  The book is theoretical and dense.  It is inspiring and transformational based on questions such as ...Who is the child? And what is education for? 

We have know about Gunilla ever since we began our journey with Reggio Emilia in 1991-92.  Stockholm is the first place in Europe where the exhibit from the schools of Reggio traveled, then entitled, When the Eye Jumps Over the Wall. The Reggio Emilia Institute, (which Ashley wrote about last week), was founded in the fall of 1992, just after our family had left Italy to return home to the U.S.  The institute is still going strong and has influenced the high level of early childhood education in Sweden ever since.

What are the major take-aways from this book? In the New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, Volume 5, Issue 1, 03-12, 2008, Gunilla and Peter Moss summarize their most salient points.

The language of quality can be summed up as ending in a statement of fact: “it speaks of universal expert- derived norms and of criteria for measuring the achievement of these norms, quality being a measurement (often expressed as a number) of the extent to which services or practices conform to these norms” (Dahlberg, Moss & Pence, 2007, p. viii)

Beyond Quality explores another language of evaluation, meaning making, recognising that there may well be many others. Meaning making, by contrast, speaks of “evaluation as a democratic process of interpretation, a process that involves making practice visible and thus subject to reflection, dialogue and argumentation, leading to a judgement of value, contextualised and provisional because it is always subject to contestation” (p. ix).

Meaning making is evaluation as a participatory process of interpretation and judgement, made within a recognised context and in relation to certain critical questions: for example, what is our image of the child? what do we want for our children? what is education and care? It values subjectivity (or rather, ‘rigorous subjectivity’ (Lather 1991), uncertainty, provisionality, contextuality, dialogue and democracy. It assumes a participant who makes – in relation with others - a contextualised, subjective and rigorous judgement of value. It foregrounds, therefore, democratic political practice, the exercise of collective deliberation.

Meaning making employs particular methods, suited to its democratic political practice, in particular pedagogical documentation, a tool for participatory evaluation. Pedagogical documentation has its origins in the innovative and, today, world-famous municipal early childhood services in the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia (orded notes, the work produced by children, photographs or videos, the possibilities are numerous.) Then it requires a collective and democratic process of interpretation, critique and evaluation, involving dialogue and argumentation, listening and reflection, from which understandings are deepened and judgements co-constructed.


Its origins owe much to Loris Malaguzzi, one of the twentieth century’s great pedagogical thinkers and practitioners and the first director of Reggio’s municipal early childhood services. Documentation represents an extraordinary tool for dialogue, for exchange, for sharing. For Malaguzzi, it means the possibility to discuss and dialogue “ ‘everything with everyone’ (teachers, auxiliary staff, cooks, families, administrators and citizens)...[S]haring opinions by means of documentation presupposes being able to discuss real, concrete things – not just theories or words, about which it is possible to reach easy and naïve agreement” (Hoyuelos, 2004, p. 7).

This concreteness of pedagogical documentation is critical. Measures of ‘quality’ involve looking for what has been predefined, discarding what does not figure in the template; it involves the decontextualised application of abstract criteria, reducing the complexity and concreteness of environment and practice to scores or boxes to tick; it strives for agreement and the elimination of different perspectives; it assumes the autonomous and objective (adult) observer. Above all, ‘quality’ offers consumers information about a product, for ‘quality’ is a language of evaluation suited to a particular understanding of early childhood (or other) services: as suppliers of commodities on the market to parent consumers.

The current expansion of early childhood education and care provides, potentially, many benefits and possibilities for children, parents and wider society, and expansion brings with it major risks, not least of which is increasing regulation and normalisation, what Nikolas Rose (1999) terms ‘governing the soul’.

If these risks are to be reduced and the potential benefits realised, societies need to put technical and managerial practice in its place, as subservient to democratic political and ethical practice, and to open themselves to diversity and experimentation.


As Ashley wrote about also last week, we are in dialogue with the Permanent Fund, an ambitious project to provide early childhood education for all of Vermont's young children  by 2025.  We have high hopes that the examples and deep thinking from Sweden can be an inspiration and a guide for this innovative, ground breaking work taking place in our home state.

Inspired by Sweden


Louise and I just returned from a marvelous trip to Sweden where, in addition to sailing a good stretch of the west coast and bumping around Stockholm, we visited Harold Gothson and his wife, Eva, at their beautifully restored farmhouse on the island of Oland on the southeast coast. And herein lies a story I’d like to tell, for it informs the work we need to do here in the U.S.A. Harold is a long time friend. We first met in Reggio Emilia, Italy in 1994 and he visited us in St. Louis for one of our conferences in 2001. He has been an extraordinary organizing FORCE in Swedish early childhood education. Over the past 30 years, beginning in 1987, he and his colleagues, including Anna Barsoti, Gunilla Dahlberg, and Per Bernemyr, developed a comprehensive system for professional development in the Swedish early childhood schools.


Their thinking was initiated when they hosted the first exhibition from Reggio Emilia in 1981. Their research began in earnest with study tours to Reggio Emilia and hosting a second exhibition from Reggio in 1986. In addition to their reading and seminar discussions they developed a close relationship with Loris Malaguzzi and Vea Vecchi in Reggio.

In 1990, Harold was appointed by the Swedish government as the Project Leader of Leadership Organization in Early Childhood Education with 10 Swedish communities. In 1992 Anna, Gunilla and he formed The Reggio Emilia Institute, a cooperative, not for profit, organization focused on developing early childhood education inspired by the municipal schools for early childhood in Reggio Emilia. In 1993, Loris Malaguzzi participated in the formal opening of their office in Stockholm.

Their work evolved to encompass two main arms in action: The Stockholm Project and The Reggio Emilia Institute.

The Stockholm Project included seven early childhood schools selected in Stockholm. Each school agreed to five tenets:

1. to focus their study on Reggio Emilia

2. to operate as a group by consensus

3. to intentionally diversify their student enrollment by race and economic capacity

4. to focus their reflective teaching practice on documentation

5. to always be engaged in study at the university


Over the ensuing years the schools’ study included readings, study tours to Reggio (one a year, each with as many as 300 participants), and many hours of sharing documentation. Harold played a major role in keeping the organization of meetings on track. Anna and Gunilla (and others) were a constant source of research ideas. The Stockholm Project schools became essential models for other Swedish schools.

The Reggio Emilia Institute became the research and sort public forum arm. Harold was the leader and chair. Gunilla and Anna (and others) shared their research with both The Stockholm Project and with a growing network of early childhood educators around Sweden. They organized meetings with leading officials in almost all the big cities and many towns. They gave presentations open to the public in all those towns and cities. They hosted Friday-Saturday study seminars. Through those efforts the network strengthened and grew.

In 1995 Harold was given an additional appointment, as consultant to the Stockholm District that includes elementary education.

Over the years, as the network grew, their understanding deepened, and their work became even more sophisticated (several schools were built or renovated with design principles inspired by the school architecture in Reggio), more of the planning of the monthly meetings was coordinated by groups of participants (not just Harold, Anna and Gunilla). Because of this level of development, in 2000, the original five members of the Reggio Emilia Institute decided to expand their cooperative membership to 25.

With the expanded membership came an increased need for more organization. They added a managing director. They selected consultants from within the participating schools. Today there are over 75 school directors, pedagogistas, teachers and atelieristas who serve as part-time consultants to other schools around Sweden. They continue to add to the membership by invitation.


In 2005 they designed a course for 25 pedagogistas. By 2018, over 600 pedagogistas will have taken the course. They have published several books that tell and illustrate the stories of many projects in the schools (unfortunately for us anglophiles, they’re all in Swedish). In 2014, they began a course for atelieristas. Their annual summer institute continues to be attended by hundreds of teachers. They continue to lead two study tours per year to Reggio Emilia.

In 2014, they focused research on sustainability and initiated a series of talks, seminars and social media networks to deepen their understanding of how these issues essential to our times can be integrated into curriculum.

Knowing this history outlined above is necessary to understand what one sees when one visits early childhood centers in Sweden, as Louise and I did in Lund, Vasteras, and Kalmar. Each one was of the highest quality we’ve ever seen (including in Reggio).  And, as Gunilla espouses in her excellent book, Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, these extraordinary educators are addressing education on a much more profound level than just giving high quality care and developing skills. They understand that at its most essential level, the environments they design and the projects they evolve are the vehicles for creating community; community that is just, fair, inclusive, democratic, with rights for all, including the youngest.


And here's a fact that substantiates their audacious goal, beyond quality. Sweden is a nation of 10 million. Over the past five years they have welcomed 250,000 refugees from Syria.

As you can tell from this blog, Louise and I came home re-energized about the work that we do with schools. It’s a little scary to declare this at our age, but we now know that we need to engage in a whole different level of organization; one that generates networks of professionals committed to this work. Fortunately, we’ve just been invited to help in one, The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. Their stated mission: Ensure that ALL Vermont children and families have access to high-quality, affordable early care and education by 2025. View a curriculum guide for early childhood education in Sweden here.

Carry on sisters and brothers.


A Celebration of Learning


This year I have had the privilege to work with Charlestown Nursery School in Boston. CNS is often filled with visitors who want to learn about the philosophy and practice of a Reggio inspired school.  Visitors and families recognize right away that CNS is a beautifully designed, welcoming and engaging place to learn.  This year, I was invited to work with teachers to extend and enrich their project work with children.

A fundamental part of our work as Cadwell Collaborative is to become a trusted member of a team of the faculty and staff at a school. This is the only way that we have found to create the conditions for lasting change and growth. From the beginning, the team at CNS was open and willing to focus on their engagement with project work and to consider how to travel farther and deeper with their students.

This year, each class worked to produce a book or a video as a culmination of their work with students for families to take home as a memory of the learning from the year.

What a beautiful afternoon CNS hosted on June 1st as families attended an open house called a Celebration of Learning. One of the classes for the youngest children invited parents and children to play with loose parts inside and outside and to enjoy the book of stories told with loose parts by the children. The other class invited families to make music and sing together with the many percussion instruments that they have collected and explored all year. During the afternoon, a small and joyful band marched into the commons area of the school to celebrate!


All of the preschool classes published books about their year-long projects. One is the story of how the children decided to care for and repair broken animals and toys and to take this service to the other classes in the building. Another is the story of an extended journey studying snails (who are residents of their classroom), in many ways and with many materials...even imagining that the snails would want to be able to see the stars and building them a telescope!  The last features a broad investigation about "What's inside?" of things? ourselves? fruits and vegetables? machines? Students and teachers wondered, made predictions, made drawings and continued to wonder about the insides of things that can not be seen from the outside.

Congratulations to CNS teachers, administrators and students.  You have engaged in, composed, curated and presented beautiful, joyful learning in the form of long term, meaningful projects to your extended community. It is an honor to be a part of your team.