Educating Children to Be Citizens

May 21, 2021

What is one thing the world needs most right now?

Some might argue, creative and engaged citizens—people empowered to collaborate in service of a more sustainable future.

Dr. Peggy Martalock is Associate Professor and Chair of Greenfield Community College’s Education Department. Before coming to GCC in 2014, Dr. Martalock spent twenty years working in early childhood education, fifteen of those in programs influenced by the Regio Emilia Philosophy—an internationally renowned approach to teaching and learning that draws from disciplines ranging from social constructivism to systems thinking to neuroscience.

Reggio Emilia Philosophy approaches children as powerful learners with strengths, capabilities and an inherent desire to be part of society, and its principles begin to get at the role of community and environment in education. The philosophy incorporates beliefs such as: children have rights; good teaching hinges on deep listening and building strong relationships; school is a democratic institution; teachers and learners collaborate to form knowledge; teachers are researchers; the physical environment is a teacher; and documentation is a critical component of putting these values in practice. The philosophy also views school as much more than a place you go to learn academics. It sees school as an intricate system of relationships that includes everyone from students to parents to janitors. The learning is as much in the books as it is in the acknowledgement of how we all connect and depend upon one another.

Over the past seven years, the Reggio Emilia philosophy has become a linchpin of GCC’s education department— particularly its early childhood program, which prepares students to become eligible for Lead Teacher Certification and lays the groundwork for receiving a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Care.

“This is not your mother’s early childhood education (ECE) program anymore,” comments Dr. Martalock about GCC’s program, “We are moving into an ECE for the fourth industrial revolution.”

Part of the fourth industrial revolution is a blurring of the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. We have had to think critically about what will keep humans a step ahead of artificial intelligence and ensure we have a place in the job market. Creativity, emotional intelligence, and advanced physical dexterity and mobility are three things that separate humans from robots. Because of this, the education system is tasked with developing these areas of human potential.

Alongside the fourth industrial revolution, society also faces a series of complex issues. Climate change, political uprising, and the growing awareness of bias and inequity take more than reading, writing, and math to grapple with. Kids and educators are asking: what are the skills we most need to shift the trajectory of the climate and address the untenable divide across our world and nation?

“[Reggio] principles inform really good teaching and learning practices no matter where you are,” says Dr. Martalock. “You do not need to be in a program that identifies itself as Reggio inspired or influenced in order to draw from these researched principles. We prepare students to pursue teaching careers across all age levels and types of schools, from preK through high school, private or public. Students across all of the education department’s programs can experience this approach and figure out how it translates to their work, no matter what age they work with.”

It is also significant to understand that Reggio Emilia philosophy originated post World War Two when the people of Reggio Emilia, a small city in Northern Italy, were tasked with rebuilding a town and society decimated by Fascist and Nazi action. Reckoning with facism and violence, the small Italian community had a vision: empower children of all ages to create a world free from oppression, injustice and inequality. Since then, the philosophy has continued to evolve, integrating new research such as trauma informed design and practices.

Kelsey Santos, a 2019 Alum of the ECE program. “I learned just how crucial the first five years of life are for children and how much of a difference early childhood educators can make” she says, “not only in the lives of the wonderful children we work with, but also their families, and our communities.”

Candice Chouinard, the founder of Little Schoolhouse in Northampton, says GCC not only offered her “a glimpse into the beautiful world of Reggio inspired early education,” but allowed her to “sift through materials and practices that only trained Reggio teachers are usually exposed to.” This, she says, affords students an “opportunity to broaden their practice” and “expose the children in their care to new and engaging materials, ideas and methods.”

While GCC has always had a strong education program, the integration of Reggio Emilia— with its focus on collaboration and creativity—has inspired new innovations within the department. A Documentation and Transdisciplinary Studio welcomes students and faculty from across the college to collaborate and learn from one another. This fall, for example, the space will bring together engineering students, early childhood student teachers and young children to experiment with 3-D printing.

In a time of complex issues and rapid transformation, GCC’s education department is offering students a critical lens on the world: how to cultivate engaged and creative citizens in the classroom, citizens who will carry humanity forward into a new era.