Patti MacDonald on Reggio approach

Patti is the Assistant Head, Junior School at the Bishop Strachan School, Toronto and the Vice Chair of the Ontario Reggio Association
Patti is the Assistant Head, Junior School at the Bishop Strachan School, Toronto and the Vice Chair of the Ontario Reggio Association

Payal Mahajan: Good morning Patti. Thank you for making the time to speak with us about Bishop Strachan and the work that you are trying to do here. To begin with, could you tell us a bit about the profile of your school?

Patti Macdonald: Certainly. The Bishop Strachan School is an independent school for girls in downtown Toronto. We have students from junior kindergarten to grade 12 in our school. The junior school is made up of about 250 students, as I said from junior kindergarten to grade 6 and the senior school is from grade 7 to 12 and we have about 650 students. Of those 650, about 80 are borders from Canada and across the world.

Payal: That sounds like a big school!

Patti: In some ways it is a big school but in many ways it is a small school because there really is very much a feeling of closeness and collegiality through the school and through the student population.

Payal: Yours is the oldest girls’ school in Canada. What triggered this interest in the Reggio philosophy?

Patti: I think that the Bishop Strachan School is known as being built on a foundation of innovation and through its whole history it has really considered what is best for girls and what is best in education broadly. About 10 years ago, Deryn Lavell was the Principal in the Junior School and she and the teachers here were really looking for ways to improve the practice of the work that was done with the girls and in their research and exploration they came across an article about the Diana School which named it as one of the top 10 schools in the world and of-course that tweaked their interest and so they did further research and attended some conferences in North America about a Reggio inspired approach and then arranged to go to Reggio Emilia and were completely enamored by what they saw. They really did see the synchronicity of that philosophy with their beliefs about how children learn and began to explore in the junior and senior kindergarten and the grade 1, particularly about how we could be integrating the fundamental principles of that approach in the work that was done in the school.

Payal: OK. That sounds like that it triggered not only an interest but also brought about some kind of a cultural change within the school and cultural changes are the most difficult for any organisation, especially if it is an old and established school like yours. So what were some of the challenges when this cultural change was brought about?

Patti: I think that there, as you said, are many considerations when change is happening in any institution. I think in education, generally, change can be difficult. There are considerations from the perspective of parents, and of teachers obviously, and the most important thing obviously is the students and how these changes were designed to be very positive for the students, and I think that in itself when speaking with all of the stakeholders is the priority and if we keep that as central then it is really, really helpful in sort of changing the direction of the institution.

Culturally, one of the pieces that I think is very challenging, it was challenging for us, is that we were suggesting changes which were going to create an environment that was very different from the environment that our parents experienced when they were in school and, in that it, required us to reassure our parents that we continue, of course, to value rigorous academic outcomes for our students. Reading and writing and math continue to be important to us and in-fact the accomplishment of those skills and knowledge are the reasons that we want to change our pedagogical practices, so that our students actually learn better than they have in the past. So, our belief is that traditionally at this school, as in many others, we had a very transmissive approach to education – learning could be quite rote and we know that when students learn in that way, their retention of the learning is limited and sometimes does not last long beyond the writing of the test which is intended to measure that learning. It was more important for us to engage our students in real, authentic problems that would allow them to learn deeply about the concepts that we thought were important; for them to ask their own questions, which would allow them to relate that learning to their own experiences and our hope was to, by doing that, to engage  them more deeply in the learning itself so that they would learn not just in those moments and not just to get an “A” on the test, but would continue to be learners throughout their lives and to really see themselves in that way. So, shifting that culture has many obstacles and we work through them as we go. I think that where we are now in our journey/in our evolution, is that the students are very comfortable with that, and in-fact question the teachers if they feel that the learning is disjointed or not related or not relevant to something in their lives.

I believe that our parents have seen a change in the students when they come home or in the way they interact with the world and the amazing and insightful questions that they ask when they are home as well. And our teachers, I think have also seen the incredible benefits and experience a different kind of rewarding experience in their interactions with the students in the classrooms because they can see that their learning is so much more authentic and deeper and lasting and that in-fact they are able to move through the learning process to real projects where the teachers and the students are working together to make real change in the world. And that, there is nothing better, nothing more rewarding than being in that kind of environment.

Payal: Right, that sounds very empowering for students as well as for teachers to see that the students are being empowered.

Patti: Absolutely.

Payal: How difficult was it for teachers to adapt to this paradigm shift, because, teachers are traditionally so used to being at the centre stage? To take that limelight away from them and focus it on the children can be quite a challenge.

Patti: It can be a challenge, and I think that when you are in a school that had a different tradition, it requires time and support and professional development to help teachers to move and shift their practice. And I think that the other thing that we certainly require of our teachers is that they share belief in this philosophy and that they are committed to that, in their practice. So, from an administrative perspective we have worked hard to value opportunities for professional growth in collaboration with our teachers. So, within the timetable we create time for teachers to come together and work together, to talk about their challenges and find ways of exploring solutions to those challenges. And to have them support each other, we also support our teachers to have professional development experiences outside of the school and inside the school as well.

So, we believe that it is important for the teachers feel as though they are immersed in a culture of learning and that they themselves are part of a learning environment; which means, that they will try things, they will make mistakes, they will be supported through those mistakes and they will get better, and they will do that in the best interests of the students in the class. And I think that the culture here has evolved in that way.

The other thing that we recognise is that each learner not only learns in a different way, but at a different pace. And so we have to have space for that. And I think that the other thing that is important to say is that we really value diversity at our school and that includes a diversity of ideas and diversity of approaches. So, by no means are we trying to create teachers who are all alike. It’s important, in any community, to have people with different perspectives and different strengths and different passions and we value that here as well for our students. And I think that that is another piece that has helped to create that culture of change. Because the teachers, from their different perspectives not only challenge each other but also support each other.

Payal: That sounds like teachers now donning the role of learners along with the students and being lifelong learners again with ongoing professional development opportunities.

Patti: Absolutely.

Payal: What is the nature of interaction between BSS and Regional Reggio Associations like NAREA and ORA.

Patti: We are very fortunate at BSS in that Jennifer Armstrong was the Principal previously and through the early years in the evolution of the Reggio inspired approach. And she was very active with the group of people from Toronto in bringing the Reggio Exhibit Hundred Languages of Children to the city. And in that collaboration, the people who actually worked to bring the exhibit, after the exhibit was gone, saw the opportunity to continue their work together in establishing the Ontario Reggio Association. Jennifer was the founding chair of that organisation, and now that she has moved on we have been able to continue our relationship with that organisation. I am currently the vice chair of Ontario Reggio Association and the school remains active in that organisation. We are able to host an annual conference here that is organised by ORA but held in BSS and we are also able to support our teachers to be involved in the different events and professional growth opportunities that ORA spearheads. So we consider ourselves quite fortunate to have that relationship. In terms of NAREA our teachers also attend those conferences and it’s in that way that we try to continue our relationships with other schools in North America that are also committed to a Reggio inspired approach.

Payal: That sounds like BSS is an institution has been a pioneer in contextualising the Reggio approach to Canada. There is another pioneering aspect of BSS – you have the unique distinction of hosting a pedagogista from Reggio Emilia for almost a year. What was that experience like?

Patti: That was a transformational experience for us. We, at the time when Francesca Giorgioni joined us for a year, had been involved in a Reggio inspired approach for about 7 years, so we felt that we had come quite a long way in our practice, and it was amazing, more than amazing to have her here to work with the teachers and, as she said, hold up a mirror to our practice. She brought with her a different cultural perspective which helped us to further evolve our own culture. I think that there were pieces that we didn’t see as clearly because we are so immersed in our environment, so it was amazing to have a fresh set of eyes come and spend time with us and help us document our practices and to be able to see them more clearly.

As an elementary school, we have a very different environment, a different culture and a different kind of accountability than the infant toddler and preschools in Reggio Emilia and so, because of those different communities, Francesca was able to see things that were part of our culture that we didn’t even recognize. So, for example in elementary school  teachers are very often isolated in a single classroom with a group of children, she was able to help us see ways of building a more supportive community for all of the teachers here to help them with the opportunity to document and to  have greater discourse around the kind of things that were happening in the classroom to make the learning more visible and then to move the learning of the children forward in a way that was most appropriate for them.

She was also able to really help us see our spaces. We are very lucky to have a fairly new building which was constructed with the Reggio inspired approach in mind and she was able to help us look carefully at our spaces to see ways of allowing the students to become more autonomous with the materials and the environment itself and that was incredibly productive and has helped us to see all of our school spaces in a much more effective way.

Payal: Thanks. What does the philosophy of 100 languages look like in primary and middle school? You are one of the only schools that I know of who not only contextualises to the primary grades but also goes beyond that and continues it in the middle school grades as well. We are aware of what it looks like in the preprimary section but primary and middle school, not too many people know what it looks like. Give us a peek into that.

Patti: Sure. Well I think that it is important to say that when you are looking at a Reggio inspired approach, you are really concentrating on the fundamental principles that are articulated in those schools. So in our school we spent a lot of time thinking about the image of the learner and the image of the teacher and the role of the environment. Those are very important to us.

So in our classrooms we worked very hard as teachers to recognise that our students are very capable and come to us with so many experiences, with so many ideas and with so many capabilities and questions and theories and ideas and that as teachers it is really important to value those. It’s also very important, when we are thinking about learners, to realize, that students are very competent researchers and teachers also need to view themselves as researchers. So we think about a shift in the image of the teacher from being the authority in the classroom to really accompanying the children on their learning journey and taking the lead from the students. So when we look at our curriculum, when we look at our accountability for learning of skills, the acquisition of  knowledge, the development of understanding, we see the teachers role as mediating what the students need to know and helping the students to journey there; rather than being the presenter of information that they assume that the children will absorb.

So that looks many different ways at many different levels. So when we think about how this looks, it looks differently across many different classrooms and many different grades levels. I think that the piece that is consistent and runs through the school as a fundamental piece of our beliefs. (I think that) in education we often underestimate the abilities of students and, I believe, that in BSS the teachers see children as powerful, they see them as capable, and it allows them to challenge the students to be the most that they can be as learners.

We also very much value the other skills that develop when you see students in that way. So we value students as problem solvers and critical thinkers. We believe that they have the capacity to collaborate together, to see each other’s strengths, to support each other in   their learning, and to work together to find a better solution than the one they might be able to find if they were working by themselves. And so in our classrooms you will often see students working in groups, working collaboratively. You will see less frequently a teacher standing at the front of the class lecturing. You will see more often a student sharing an idea or a theory or a possible solution and having other students speak to them about their perception of what’s being shared. You will see students sitting, so that they are looking at each other, rather than all of the answers or possibilities being mediated through the adult in the room.

So there are small nuanced differences that I think that are apparent through our whole school.

Payal: How do the teachers at BSS design the environment so that it becomes a third teacher?

Patti: Again, I think that it looks different at different grades levels and in different classrooms with different students. Certainly, it is a priority with all of our teachers, to make available to all of our students the materials that they will need or might need in order to experience or fully understand a problem or a situation. Things are in transparent containers, they are clearly labeled, because autonomy on the part of learners is very important to us and we really see the environment as providing for that to happen.

I think that the other thing that is true in our school is that the teachers work very hard to create a very beautiful, aesthetically pleasing environment for the students. Every student has the right to be in a beautiful space and when you are in a beautiful space, it inspires you to learn in a different way than you might if you weren’t in a beautiful space.

The teachers also work hard to ensure that the space is reflective of the work of the students and honoring of the work of the students. So you will see in all of our classrooms evidence of students’ work, on the walls, at different centres because it is important for us to make the learning of the students very visible to us for our own planning, but also visible to the students so that they can be inspired by their own work, by the work of their peers, and move their learning forward in that way.

Payal: A very quick one. What would be your advice to schools that are, perhaps, beginning on this journey of contextualising the Reggio philosophy in their own local scenario? What are those key things that they need to keep in mind before they get into this head first?

Patti: I think that it is important that, as with any learning, you do your research first and you really look at and explore different resources that are available from Reggio Emilia and talk to people who have been involved in the Reggio inspired approach and attend conferences and really take time to explore and think about how a Reggio inspired approach might look in your own context.

I think that one of the things that was most meaningful to us as we explored this approach in the beginning was the respect that was inherent in the people in Reggio Emilia as they talked about the fact that Reggio Emilia approach can only happen in Reggio and that each unique context needs to consider what this might mean to them in their context, because each context is different and brings different challenges, different obstacles and different strengths and possibilities. So, that would be my advice, is to look and explore and research make sure that you are building in time for reflection and discussion and collaboration around the possibilities.

Payal: Thank you so much for this. It has been privilege learning from you. And this is the second time, I am meeting you and I thought that I had got everything I needed to get out of you in terms of how things are done here, but there are such nuances that I guess that I will interact with you, there will be new things that will come up, which will be like – alright that’s something else that I need to keep in mind. Thank you so much for you time, Patti.

Patti: It has been a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to our conversations in the future as well.