A group of children, aged between four and six years, is trailing through olive groves into Tuscany’s countryside, smelling flowers, spotting deer tracks from the night before. Some are looking across at their medieval town in the distance, through binoculars brought by a teacher.

“My grandma lives there,” shouts one. “There’s my old nursery,” says another, excitedly. “I can see the Befana tower,” whoops a third. The children love Befana, a legendary witch with a broomstick who lowers herself down the tower every January on the eve of the Epiphany, bearing Christmas gifts. As they walk, the children gather pebbles at the foot of the Apennine mountains.

This morning is the beginning of a creative adventure for the children at their scuola d’infanzia, Marino Marini, in Pistoia, northern Italy. No-one at this point, not even the teachers, knows where it will lead. In fact, the adventure lasts for the whole school year. In a couple of days, the children take another trip into the centre of their ancient town, to walk around the Piazza del Duomo, looking at the Befana tower close up. Later, they’ll draw the buildings they saw from the countryside, labelling them “campanile”’ and “piazza”, learning how to read and write words as they need them.

“There is no curriculum. Formal reading and writing is not taught. Nor is there a head teacher: these schools have a flat structure, led by a philosophy rather than a hierarchy. There are no targets or metrics.”

Their parents bring stones, pieces of marble, old tiles and recyclable materials into class. The children spend hours using these and the pebbles they gathered to recreate the mediaeval town on their classroom floor. Eventually, everything is carefully photographed and professionally curated, exhibited on the school’s walls, like an open book.

This school and similar ones across northern Italy are some of the jewels of European early education, much loved by children, parents and teachers. For over 40 years, they have pioneered a pre-school ethos that is focussed on young children’s citizenship and relationships. The town’s website declares Pistoia to be “at the service of children and constituting a resource for their education”.

But the educational practice challenges many of the principles that underpin learning elsewhere in the world, notably a current focus on making children “school ready”. Marino Marini, named after the Italian sculptor, is, like similar schools in the region, committed to the creative lives of the children. It has no curriculum or uniforms. Formal reading and writing is not taught. Nor is there a head teacher: these schools have a flat structure, led by a philosophy rather than a hierarchy. There are no targets or metrics. Although the children’s lives and work are exquisitely documented on walls, in leaflets and in DVDs, this is not about measuring outcomes. The contemporary focus on constant educational evaluation is considered anathema to their ideals for early learning.

Children are architects of their own learning

Rose Drury, who has studied the Pistoia approach, explains: “Early childhood education in Pistoia is all about the child being actively engaged in the world, a citizen right from the start of life. The children’s social and emotional experiences are key to their learning, which places relationships among children, between adults and children and between schools and families at the heart of education.”

A spotlight is cast on Pistoia by a forthcoming paper in the Journal of International Research in Early Childhood Education and a series of short films by Dr Drury, who is Senior Lecturer in Early Years at the UK’s Open University, and her colleague, Dr Myra Barrs. Dr Drury talks about children being seen as “protagonists in their own learning”, capable agents, with teachers there not to instruct but to guide, support and frame an agenda rooted in the children’s relationships and curiosities.

In Pistoia, these principles are put into practice very early in life. At Il Grillo, an asilo nido (infant-toddler centre) for younger children, aged from 6 months to 3 years, it’s lunchtime. You might expect perhaps a quick plate of pasta, served on plastic plates by staff. In fact, they are having a three course meal lasting over an hour, accompanied by songs, stories and rhymes. Toddlers are laying the table, bringing glasses one by one from a trolley. There is adult cutlery. The children eat, like grown-ups, from china plates.

“They place relationships among children, between adults and children, and between schools and families at the heart of education.”

Nicoletta Guarducci, one of the teachers, explains: “When a child takes a plate to another child who is waiting to eat, they become more attentive to each other, which is very important. We don’t just sit at the table. We talk together and tell each other news, what happened during the day, for example.”

Parents are highly involved in Il Grillo. On its walls is a display in which parents explain why they gave their child his or her name. It aims to tie together parents, school, community, and children. The text explains: “Behind the choice of a name, there is always a story that tells a little about yourself: about an aspect, a memory, a feeling; about a tradition, an ideal, a wish; or simply about your personal taste.”

Myra Barrs explains: “Documentation creates a biography of a child from when she or he enters the nido to the point of transfer to the scuola d’infanzia. It’s handed over to parents when the child leaves the nido. The importance of the diary is the way that it shows the children in a social context.”

Model develops key educational skills

Looking at this standout model of early years education, it is tempting to see it as at odds with contemporary trends, particularly given its lack of measurement data and opposition to making children “school ready”. However, says Dr Drury, there are no signs that the children’s learning is held up when they eventually move to more formal educational environments or that their reading development suffers from the ad hoc approach of their early years.

Indeed, the focus on the children’s social and emotional learning aligns it with latest research findings which show that mental well-being is the cornerstone of educational and lifelong achievement. As is often noted, the US Headstart early years programme may have largely failed to meets its targets to improve cognitive achievement. However, the programme seems, unexpectedly and in hindsight, to have equipped its beneficiaries with something more important: social and emotional skills that have led to greater lifetime success.

The triennial evaluation of national education systems, undertaken by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), is due to report in December 2016 for the first time on how well schools foster collaborative problem solving, a key skill needed by modern economies. When you look at Pistoia’s children working together to recreate their ancient town on the classroom floor, or setting out lunch for each other, you see collaborative problem solving working beautifully. It’s hard to dispute, even without metrics, that these schools have a lot to offer in preparing children for the world that they will face.

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