"The Wonder of Learning" is an exhibit about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning that's currently on view at the State House. That's right: the Statehouse. After you muddle through the almost quaintly officious security checkpoint on the west side of our capital building, you'll find "The Wonder of Learning" displayed in chunks on all three floors. You have to do a little searching around the edges of the rotunda, but it's worth it.

Reggio Emilia is a small city in northern Italy. In 1946, a primary school teacher there named Loris Malaguzzi began developing a new approach to early childhood learning. Malaguzzi had seen his country seduced by an authoritarian dictator, Mussolini, who then led Italy into a ruinous world war. Malaguzzi believed that Italy's educational system played an important part in making Mussolini's brand of fascism seem appealing to a majority of Italians. He set about finding an educational method designed to emphasize democracy instead of authority, cooperation instead of unthinking obedience, responsiveness instead of reaction.

"The school and the culture separate the head from the body," wrote Malaguzzi in a kind of poem that introduces the Statehouse exhibit. "They tell the child: to think without hands/ to do without head/ to listen and not to speak/ to understand without joy/ to love and marvel only at Easter and Christmas."

The exhibit suggests that Malaguzzi's vision for education was democratic and exploratory. In the Reggio Emilia approach, the school becomes a space where children, teachers and parents come together in a collaborative process. Malaguzzi called children "born researchers." He wrote that, "there is an energy driving children, and that energy multiplies when children are convinced that facts and ideas constitute a resource. Just as their peers and the adults they frequent are also an invaluable resource."

The Reggio Emilia learning experience is based on what Malaguzzi called an "ecological" approach, during which interdependency, co-existence and co-participation combine to immerse children in the act of building culture, "a new experience of citizenship."

Malaguzzi argued that, "Utopian dreams and desire must be part of the quality of everyday life," because they establish "a new, positive value for normality." In other words, such dreams, unattainable though they may be, provide the best goals. Better to reach for the moon and stars than a parking lot.

If all this sounds a bit airy to you, consider this: the Reggio Emilia approach is being used successfully here in Indianapolis. The Statehouse exhibit is sponsored, in part, by St. Mary's Child Care Center. Located at 901 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., St. Mary's serves kids who have "fallen through the cracks." One hundred percent of the children there live below the poverty line. These are children at risk, as the St. Mary's web site puts it, "for a wide range of social emotional, economic and environmental problems and whose needs are not being adequately met by any other private or public service."

In operation since 1961, St. Mary's is part of a local Reggio Collaborative, including the Butler University College of Education, Early Learning Centers of Lawrence Township and the Warren Early Childhood Center. Evidence indicates that, after their Reggio experience, most of these kids are able to adapt to more conventional school environments and do just fine. This is because they've been taught to think — a handy asset in a constantly changing world.

Needless to say, the ideas and images in the "The Wonder of Learning" exhibit stand in sharp contrast to the educational model being pushed in Indiana, where all the talk is about school performance, test scores, drop-out rates and whether or not our schools are meeting the demands of the state's employers. The vision here seems to be more about training a next generation of logistics workers than empowering kids to be citizen participants in the construction of knowledge.

A section of "The Wonder of Learning" exhibit is just a few steps away from the offices of the Indiana Dept. of Education and Superintendent Tony Bennett. In fact, the DOE has an exhibit of its own, called "Supporting Student Success." It offers a small gallery showing pictures of seemingly contented students on either side of a portrait of the State Super. Its main feature is a digital display called "Indiana's Educational Scoreboard." This alternately shows Indiana's rankings in various categories like reading and math versus national averages while a clock relentlessly ticks off days, hours, minutes and seconds as the state strives to meet a set of four-year goals.

Something about those numbers seems harsh and unforgiving. But that reflects what too many kids in this state find when they go to school. There's a better way; its story is there for you to see not far from the Superintendent's office door. "The Wonder of Learning" will be up through Dec. 18.

To learn more about Reggio Emilia go to www.reggioalliance.org and www.stmaryschildcenter.org.

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