Learning: An overview of Peregrine Pedagogy and the research behind it
While programs at Peregrine School serve children from toddlers to middle schoolers, certain features link all programs like the weft in a tightly woven fabric. A careful observer can enter a Peregrine classroom at any level and observe a single “model” of education in action. What are the common features?
The child is the active agent in his/her own learning. This statement may seem obvious, and few teachers would make a toddler sit still and listen. But as children get older, most schools emphasize the body of knowledge to be transmitted rather than the student’s process of discovery. At Peregrine School, young children propel their own learning through play. As they get older, project based learning enables students to explore curricula in the disciplines in active and personal ways.
Group work with expert teachers: Project Zero, the largest research project on creativity ever sustained (it has been going on for thirty years led by Howard Gardner and his team at Harvard), spent five years studying the schools of Reggio Emilia. In Making Learning Visible, his team concluded that the best way to inspire creative thinking is through a responsive, expert teacher working with a small group of students to explore challenges which the students find meaningful. Peregrine School has been inspired by this model, which is our central teaching method at all levels.
Small teacher to student ratios: At all ages, students benefit from close teacher contact throughout the learning process. Young children rely on their teachers for emotional support; as they grow, these teachers become important mentors in their quest to find their personal interests and passions. Peregrine School is committed to groups of 4 (toddler)-10 (elementary) students working with a teacher. Larger classrooms have teams of teachers, who separate children into temporary learning groups which insure attention for each child.
Exposure to a variety of disciplines: Like a classic liberal arts college, Peregrine School defines education broadly to include traditional academic disciplines, the arts, and applied subjects such as engineering or gardening. Students at all levels experience many integrated studies over the course of a week. Everyone is expected to participate in all subjects, since we believe that being educated entails having a working knowledge of a variety of intellectual and artistic disciplines. While not everyone will become a musician, everyone should know how to read simple music and will learn basic music vocabulary. The same applies to all subjects.
In academic disciplines like science, our rule of thumb is that the student experience what a person working in the field would do, rather than read or hear a second hand account. Even preschoolers operate as “scientists”. They conduct investigations, discuss and record results, and generate theories. In history, we investigate, question, do research, and construct and defend interpretations. In math, we behave as mathematicians, discovering and discussing various ways to solve problems, only learning algorithms when concepts are fully understood. And in language arts, we write, edit, peer edit, and finally publish books of our writing, and sometimes present our work to a larger community. And at all levels, children express their thoughts through art which is taken seriously, discussed, and displayed.
“Play” as an aspect of learning at all levels: All Peregrine preschool programs are play-based, meaning that students are able to choose their activities during a major part of the day, and that teachers take children’s fantasy play seriously, often recording it and building curricula from it. In elementary school, students are still given choices as often as possible—sometimes of topic, of research project, of group or individual work, or of learning pace and style. As students mature, child-centered “play” evolves into sustained, child-driven projects.
Learning is embedded in community values: Unlike some educational approaches, no two Reggio schools look the same or have the same curriculum. Reggio-inspired education is tailored to match each community, because it is invented by teachers in response to children’s desires and needs, and to their community’s focus at a certain point in time. In Northern Italy, where Reggio started, visual art is the central organizer of the curriculum because people there will tell you that art has been the central interest of that community since the Renaissance.
In our Central Valley, science and agriculture are major forces, as is the Spanish language. These, added to the arts (a universal in all Reggio schools), have become the central organizers of our Early Childhood Centers because they reflect community priorities. At the elementary level, we hire a “scientist” specialist to teach science, and artists for art and music, because we believe in learning from experts. The exciting thing about Reggio schools is that they evolve with their communities, and are ever changing.
Learning as social: Montessori education is seen as the “mother” of Reggio education, because it preceded it in Italy. In Montessori classrooms, the child is an active learner, and teaching centers around children making their way through a series of developmental puzzles which are given to an individual learner at his/her own level. Once a task is complete, the child is invited to do the next one. (This approach is rooted in Jean Piaget’s developmental theories.)
Reggio education, in contrast, centers around group inquiry and around student determined problems or questions which often have multiple solutions. (It is based on Lev Vygotsky and social learning theory.) While there is a place for individual inquiry and projects in Peregrine School, learning is seen as a social activity which is advanced and enriched by shared points of view within a group of learners. It is also seen as a creative activity which yields varied and novel results.
Communication: The collaborative conversation and writing across the curriculum- a new “Common Core” curriculum in language arts and math has been adopted all over the USA in the past year. Its key elements fit well with Peregrine’s project based learning approach. The “collaborative conversation” is a group of students with or without a teacher discussing something they are studying in depth. Collaborative conversations encourage different points of view, debated civilly with the use of evidence, and are a major teaching tool at all levels of Peregrine School.
Another feature of the Common Core which Peregrine students do is to read and write “across the curriculum”. Integrated thematic curricula encourage students to hear or read nonfiction books as well as stories. Preschool students begin by sharing and dictating stories, while elementary students write and publish their own books. Major, trimester long themes in the elementary grades encourage students to develop research and creative projects with written products which can be shared with the entire community.
Assessment: At Peregrine School, we collect “portfolios” of student work at all levels. These portfolios reflect both standard measures of success, such as Singapore math scores, and unique individual work which illustrates students’ strengths and clarifies areas of weakness that need to be addressed. The small number of students served by any one teacher at Peregrine School allows for individual and in depth assessment of student progress.
The strength of portfolios is that each child’s progress is measured against his/her own development. Yet in assessment, as in all things, we seek balance. We also measure students’ success against grade level standards and developmental benchmarks, so that parents have a realistic idea of their child’s progress.