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The real head start

Research shows that infants enter the world with an innate capacity to learn about language, numbers, and nature. Can our schools build on that?

THIS PAST WEEK, millions of 3- to 5-year-olds made their way into classrooms across America to begin their formal education. To our predecessors in the Middle Ages, the idea of schooling for such young children would have seemed ludicrous. Not only was education restricted to a small, male elite back then, but the notion that the mind of the young child could contain or attain any kind of systematic knowledge would have seem far-fetched.

Nowadays, some kind of education before the age of 6 has become common, whether it comes in federally funded Head Start programs or at expensive Manhattan preschools with admissions procedures to rival Harvard's. President Bush's recent proposals to steer Head Start funds to the states while stiffening the program's academic standards have stirred up debate over whether such an approach would widen inequalities or narrow them. They have also raised the age-old question of just how our youngest children, rich or poor, really learn.

. . .

Ultimately, what goes on in any preschool program reflects two factors: assumptions about the mind of the child and conceptions regarding the kind of society that we desire.

In the 1960s, two powerful movementsone scientific, one societalconverged. Under the influence of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and others, the young child was seen as equipped with clear ways of coming to know the world. Far from being the proverbial blank slate, infants were born with sensory and motor capacities that would allow them to explore objects, find their way about, pick up important features of language, and come to know other people. Even the 3- or 4-year-old was seen as ripe for fruitful educational interventions.

At the same time, in the wake of epochal civil rights rulings, America for the first time was taking seriously the obligation to educate all of its children. It was evident that many children, especially those from disadvantaged families, were coming to public school at age 5 or 6 with very little preparation for the classroom. All too often, such children had neither the discipline to learn outside of the home and other ``natural settings'' nor the preparation to acquire reading, writing, and calculating skills.

The convergence of scientific knowledge and social needs led in 1965 to the creation of Head Start, a defining landmark of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. This popular legislation set aside federal funds to create programs for 3- to 5-year-olds, primarily in the inner cities. In addition to providing nutritious meals, teachers and aides would get young children used to the classroom setting, help them get along with one another, and nurture their emotional and cognitive development.

It is fair to say that Head Start has succeeded in its broad mission of annually preparing close to 1 million youngsters socially for kindergarten and beyond but that its

achievements in the strictly cognitive sphere have been modest. Put another way, unless a Head Start program is succeeded by effective kindergarten and elementary classes, any apparent boost in academic performance vanishes. This is part of what prompted the Bush administration to call for a far greater academic focus in Head Start classes. The goal, in effect, is to extend a curriculum reminiscent of kindergarten and first grade down to 3- or 4-year-oldsa period of life where pretend play, hide-and-seek, listening to stories, or watching TV cartoons might seem more ``age-appropriate'' activities than the three Rs.

But the distinction between promoting children's academic skills and their general social development is in a sense a false one. Whatever one thinks of traditional Head Start or the changes proposed by the Bush administration today, these programs scarcely represent the full range of options for the young child. Indeed, a solution to the familiar conundrums that dominate talk about American educationtrade-offs between rigor and freedom, nurturing and learningcan be found in an unlikely place: the remarkable infant and toddler schools in a quiet region of northern Italy.

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The preschools in the municipality of Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna, an agriculturally rich and technologically sophisticated province in northeastern Italy, show that it is possible to enrich the cognitive experience of young children and allow them a wide degree of freedom.

The story begins with Loris Malaguzzi, a young Italian journalist who returned to his home in Reggio after World War II to discover a ravaged town with little hope. Well-read, energetic, and idealistic, Malaguzzi decided to devote his talents to the education of young children. Mobilizing resources in this socialistic municipality and gathering around him a remarkably talented and dedicated group of teachers, this social reformer succeeded in devising an educational program that drew on the distinctive capacities of young children and prepared them not only for conventional school but also for active citizenship in a region of the world that, according to the political scientist Robert D. Putnam's 1992 study ``Making Democracy Work,'' has featured civic engagement for centuries.

The approach in these schools is very much in keeping with the thrust of research in infant and child development over the past 40 years. As researchers have discovered, young children, even without formal tutelage, have a stunning mastery of many facets of natural language and an appreciation of the fact that ``other minds'' do not necessarily share their own beliefs. While still in the first decade of life, they also develop powerful theories about the physical, biological, and social worlds. While those theories may be charming, they are typically wrong. For example, contrary to the beliefs of young children all over the world, the earth is not flat, all species were not created at the same moment in time, heavier objects don't accelerate more rapidly than lighter ones, and what you can't see can hurt you.

In attempting to make sense of our theory-making capacities, evolutionary psychologists explain that we did not evolve as a species to have correct theories about physical matter, living protoplasm, or other human beings. We evolved in order to survive until reproduction. Our predilection toward theoretical ``misconceptions'' may get in the way of mastering disciplines in school, but these misconceptions cannot simply be swept under the rug or refuted by edict. Rather, children do best when they are allowed to explore their nascent understandings and misunderstandings, and determine where they are appropriate and where they are fundamentally flawed.

At present, there are 13 municipal infant centers and 21 municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia, and the preschools serve about 50 percent of the small city's population. The schools are generously supported by the city, which channels much of its income to them. Indeed, the mayor, members of the City Council, and other community leaders consider the quality of early education an important part of their political mandate.

At Reggio, the curriculum emerges from the children's own interests. If, say, on the first day of school, children observe a rainbow and become curious about the array of colors, they might spend the next two or three months investigating the nature of light, color, and water, and how rainbows emerge and disappear. Instead of formal teaching of the three Rs, both teachers and students document their own daily activities and learning in symbol systems with which they are comfortable.

Some years ago, when I visited one of these schools, youngsters were attempting to figure out the operation of a then-unfamiliar fax machine. I observed children as they made drawings and diagrams; built models out of Lego bricks; carried out comparisons with computers, telephones, and radios; looked through technical manuals; faxed linguistic and pictorial messages back and forth to their counterparts in an American school; and ended up creating a booklet that put forth their own theories of the faxtheories better than most adults could produce.

In the process of such investigations, the preschoolers of Reggio Emilia explore important questions about the way that the world works, challenge their own intuitive theories (how can the message cross the ocean if you can't see the paper or symbols floating through the sky?), and capture the resulting knowledge in symbol systems that make sense to them and to othersthe very agenda that good schools should pursue.

Significantly, in Reggio Emilia, learning is seen not as an individual activity, to be documented by a single test, but rather as a group activity. For example, when one child is absent from a group, others will try to figure out what she might have said or call on another child who has the similar expertise or might raise similar questions. Children who don't speak Italian yet and children with physical handicaps are comfortably and meaningfully integrated into activities.

Perhaps most important, teachers, parents, and children work together each day to build the kind of community in which they want to live. For example, an amusement park for birds envisioned originally by the youngsters was actually built and the community voted funds to create waterwheels and fountains for the birds. Visitors, especially Americans, often ask about formal follow-up studies of the graduates of these schools. (So far as I am aware, none have been done.) The teachers respond, not without pride, ``Just look at our small cityit really works.''

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As a person who has had the opportunity to visit schools all over the world, I can say that the preschools in Reggio Emilia are the most impressive that I have seen. (The news media appear to agree; in 1991, Newsweek magazine called them the best in the world.)

At a first approximation, these schools bear similarities to some of the most progressive schools in Europe and America. But to assimilate the Reggio example to other modelssay, those based on the theories of Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, or John Deweyis to miss the point. The combination of longtime municipal support, integral ties between the schools and the wider community, the seriousness with which children's playful explorations are taken, the depth with which ideas are explored and projects executed, and the honoring of learning and knowledge makes these schools incomparable.

In fact, I believe the schools of Reggio have succeeded in dissolving the tensions that have dogged debates about the best education for young children. Rather than being dictatorial Gradgrindians or hands-off observers, the school's teachers strive to achieve the proper balance between introducing new ideas and materials and allowing children to make discoveries on their own. The teachers (along with the students) reflect at day's end on the optimal experience for the following day; they cherish important knowledge and traditions of the past while preparing students for a future that is certain to be different.

As we Americans consider what to do with our young children, whether at home, at Head Start, or in a local day-care center, we would be well advised to learn as much as we can from a model that works.

Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among his recent books are ``The Disciplined Mind'' and ``Intelligence Reframed.''

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