The Hundred Languages

When I first started writing books about technology for kids, I knew almost nothing about pedagogy. For me, computing was magical, charming and imaginative — but the materials teaching it often dull and uninspiring. I enjoyed programming, but mixed Piaget to Papert, didn’t recognise computational thinking from constructivism.

Luckily on my journey to early childhood education I stumbled upon Montessori and Reggio Emilia. I owe a huge thank you to these Italian pedagogical movements. They offered me the frameworks of thinking I needed to create Ruby’s world.

From Reggio I learned to love the idea of a hundred languages. The core idea of Reggio is that a child has hundreds of ways of expressing themselves: with clay and gestures, paint and rubber stamps. However in schools we often limit the children to only writing and reading. Reggio educators treat a computer as just one more material to learn alongside paper, ruler, pens and movement. One of the hundred.

“The computer is like a foreigner, and if you want to talk to it, you have to speak its language.” “Yes, but the computer has to understand how we talk, too, and it has to do what we want it to do.” — Children from Diana Preschool, Hundred Languages of the Child

One of the aspects I enjoyed in Reggio Emilia was the open-ended nature of projects that can take all sorts of twists and turns. Many of my own favourite exercise start with kids posing questions that interest them like “What kind of a computer would a dolphin doctor need?”, “What is the worlds most dangerous animal?” or “ What if my paper computer could print candy?”. Throughout the process of exploring and experimenting they learn about abstraction, collaboration, media literacy, and develop a plethora of powerful ideas I would never have anticipate. That’s why most of the exercises include discussion points and very few of them have right or wrong answers. I think it’s important to give kids permission to trust themselves and allow for many right answers to a question.

Montessori on the other hand has influenced my writing process. I’ve learned to observe children at work and respond to their unique needs. I’ve learned to simplify, creating exercises and materials that have only a single concept to teach.

Much like in Montessori, the book suggests that we shouldn’t use words as shortcuts to knowledge. Computer science is riddled with abstract words like functions, booleans and decomposition. But how does a loop feel like? And can we find conditionals from Ruby’s clothes closet? Computational thinking concepts are more fascinating when we understand their presence all around us. Inspired by Montessori, I’ve practiced making computer science concrete, specific and understandable to the child. A computer can take a thousand forms.

The first duty of an education is to stir up life, but leave it free to develop. — Maria Montessori

So why is it that, a hundred years later, the Montessori method still works? And why does Reggio keep inspiring me after 70 years of existence? I think the answer lies in wonder. Both of these pedagogical movements have helped me rediscover my own wonder around technology. And it’s wonder that allows me to invent new teaching practices that offer unusual and beautiful pathways to computing.

This essay first appeared in the Italian edition of Hello Ruby.