The Future Is A Lovely Day
Tara Papandrew was asked to review The Future is a Lovely Day for the Summer 2020 issue of Innovations in Early Education: The Reggio Emilia Exchange, a periodical published by the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA), that focuses on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Innovations was developed in 1992 through an agreement with Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia educational project, and the editors of Innovations continue to work in collaboration with Reggio Children, Istituzione of the Municipal Preschools and Infant-toddler Centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and the Reggio Children- Loris Malaguzzi Center Foundation.
With permission of the publisher, we post Tara’s piece here and encourage you to consider becoming a NAREA member.
The scientist thinks with his imagination. You can do lots of nice things with your imagination. Sometimes you have to wait for other scientists to invent what you thought of. At first inventions look like impossible things, like those of Leonardo da Vinci, but then they turn out to be really useful. But to invent things you have to go to school a lot, have a lot of brain, lots of ideas and discover new things in your study.Dario, The Future is a Lovely Day
Dario’s idea of having a lot of brain might also be translated as having a lot of imagination. Many people think the imagination is an escape from reality, but the children of Reggio Emilia continue to remind us that it’s actually preparation for it.
Just like Dario, geneticist Eric Lander believes scientists make discoveries by learning to play with lots of ideas. When asked, “What’s your theory of the qualities that are in people who are capable of innovation and scientific discovery? What’s the DNA of an innovator?”, he quickly rejected the idea that scientific innovation — what he calls “really bold stuff” — comes from our DNA. Rather, he believes scientific discovery comes from a series of learned skills, such as the willingness to float lots of ideas, a real persistence with ideas, comfort with failure, and approaching problems from different perspectives.
This is how novel ideas are generated, Lander says. And yet, we fail to teach people how to be good scientists. Instead, teachers often emphasize facts so students can pass exams – and that’s nothing like the science Lander describes. Science is playing around with ideas, looking for patterns, learning to ask good questions, failing, and bringing a fresh perspective to a puzzlement.
Lander thinks children are natural scientists, curious about the world, asking zillions of questions, experimenting with ideas and tinkering with materials. (So, perhaps it is in our DNA?) And, oftentimes adults actively drive that natural disposition out of them. Since children show up in the world as curious, creative and competent beings, our work, as the adults in their lives, is to keep these innate gifts animated.
Dario’s theories, woven among those of his friends and educators, fill a captivating book called The Future is a Lovely Day, published by Reggio Children in 2001. This delightful and engaging book shines a light on the children’s thinking, in words and materials, as they make sense of the unknown, grappling with the uncertainty of the future.
Throughout the book, many divergent perspectives are offered: the future is ubiquitous (Federico, for example, says that “the future is like the air … it is all over the sky”), the future is predestined (as when Elena proposes that “it’s the future that decides”), and the future is manifested by us (Davide says that “no-one knows your future, you have to think it up yourself”).
As a writer, I’m delighted by these children’s ideas; as a teacher, I’m attentive to the conditions that catalyzed them. I know the children don’t exist in isolation. They’re part of a cultural context in which the values of inquiry and inventiveness are alive. This book demonstrates the adults’ competencies, too, their deep respect for the children’s intelligence and imagination, as well as their abilities to document and interpret the quality of the children’s thinking. It’s a stellar example of the culture of inquiry, created by the children and adults within it, which relies on the unique gifts of childhood to play with unanswerable questions in complex and surprising ways.
As I read this book, some of the children’s expressions from 20 years ago felt familiar to my work today at Opal School in Portland, Oregon. One day, as we were thinking about what lives beyond the present moment, four year old Eliana told me, “the most important word is yet. It means you can’t do something now. It also means that you can do it later, but you just need to practice! Practice means that you keep doing something over and over until you get it. It feels good to practice, to me it feels loving. And it makes me feel strong next to my heart.” This idea reveals a belief about the future being inside us, as Davide said in the book, “No-one knows your future, you have to think it up by yourself.”
As I read this book, I was not only drawn in by the children’s imagery but the cadence and beauty of the adult’s words, too. As someone who creates documentation, I recognize that there’s an inherent tension in the relationship between the children’s artifacts and the teacher’s synthesis. With this in mind, I wonder about the space between these two places in this book, and I’m curious about how that may have evolved over time. The work presented in this publication makes me more sensitive to the work I’m doing. I feel driven to continue elevating the ideas of young children, since they’re often discounted, while being even more careful about maintaining the integrity of their meaning (not projecting mine).
While the book is a solid collection of these children’s ideas, I wish there was a companion piece, documenting the adults’ pedagogical questions, their dialogue about how to move the work forward, their uncertainty, their missteps, the patterns they noticed along the way – in essence their research as scientists. I’m curious about this part of the story, not in an effort to replicate any of it, but rather because I’m really eager to understand the greater context in which this project sits, to know more of the invisible interplay among the children and the adults as they constructed these theories together.
I noticed that these young children have an awareness of the beautiful parts of the world, as well as the painful parts. They aren’t shielded from knowing about the impact of human choices on our planet. This reveals even more about the adults’ beliefs about children’s emotional capacities and cognitive abilities to consider tensions related to interdependence. This pushed on my own comfort and challenged me to consider trusting the children I work with in new ways – to narrow the gap between my values and my practice. I believe children are capable of grappling with complicated, even devastating, ideas. Yet, if I’m honest, in practice, I sometimes make choices to protect them from encountering the stuff that makes my heart ache. This book nudged me to pay attention to this tendency and ask what I can learn from children about how they make sense of turbulent times.
Turbulent times are ubiquitous. Times were turbulent in post-Fascist Italy when Loris Malaguzzi and others built the schools of Reggio Emilia, brick by brick; they were turbulent in 2001, when this beautiful book was published and Opal School opened its doors and the World Trade Center towers fell; they are turbulent now, as fascism rises anew. The stories we read from the past – and the stories we dream of the future – guide us in the present. When I read Dario’s words, “sometimes you have to wait for other scientists to invent what you thought of. At first inventions look like impossible things, like those of Leonardo da Vinci, but then they turn out to be really useful,” it made me think about the cumulative nature of research, how it spans generations, connecting thinkers of the past and future. As a teacher-researcher, I like to imagine I’m walking amidst a lush and layered ecosystem, absent of space and time, and alongside Dario, Davide, Eliana, Vea Vecchi, Loris Malaguzzi … Their provocative ideas are alive in the work we — you and I — are continuing to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct today, about what it means to live and learn alongside children, about what it means to be human in a complex and uncertain world.