From one of the most interesting and intelligent sections of the 10th version of the Triennale Design Museum, a trip into the room of the Masters, curated by Monica Guerra and Franca Zuccoli, researchers at the Department of Social Sciences for Education at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

In this joint interview they offer an unusual perspective: from school to design, to the ideal museum.

It’s a nice surprise to find a section in the latest edition of the Triennale Design Museum, entitled “Giro Giro Tondo. Design for Children,” called “Maestri,” which nevertheless focuses on names extraneous to the history of Italian design…
The decision was made together with Silvana Annicchiarico, who was determined to include an educational section in the show. It was a challenge because the word “Maestri,” in the world of design, immediately suggests famous figures. Instead, we want to tell another story, though it is closely connected to design as we know it.
We wanted to talk about those who experience schools today or in the past, ‘building knowledge,’ day by day, together with children. We chose a historical but not academic approach, but one that would reach all the way to the present, clarifying the fact that we have presented only some of the possible personalities that could have been included.
We wanted to address well-known figures like Maria Montessori (1870-1952), alongside others know mostly in the field of pedagogy, like the Rosa sisters (1866-1951) and Carolina Agazzi (1870-1945), Giuseppina Pizzigoni (1870-1947), don Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967), Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), Alberto Manzi (1924-1997), Ettore Guatelli (1921-2000), Mario Lodi (1922-2014), Gianfranco Zavalloni (1957-2012), Franco Lorenzoni (1953), Alex Corlazzoli (1975), together with different ways of thinking about education, like the Reggio Children Approach, Rete delle Scuole Senza Zaino, Asilo nel Bosco: always without making value judgments, in a situation of open reflections.
Though with different accents, each of these stories reveals the concerns of our “Maestri:” belief in the potential of children, their thirst for knowledge, nurtured through constant, expert and professional efforts on the part of adults; to offer opportunities for direct experimentation, always including a passage of systematic organization and reflections on a higher level; to prepare educational spaces and facilities that stimulate shared construction of knowledge; to propose different tools and methods; to believe in the scholastic institution and its values of democracy and participation; to passionately struggle, if necessary, against institutional power when it moves in unproductive directions.

Another term shared by both education and design is “project.” How can we teach a project-design approach, in your view?
We are not experts in the field of design in the narrower sense, so we have simply offered suggestions, for example linked to a design that takes its user into account, that opts for participation wherever possible.
We make extensive reference to school buildings, where if the voices of students, teachers and parents are heard, the constructions become places that can grow and evolve, being shaped as they are used. In our view, this can be a good example of a shared, collective project.
At the same time, we have to confirm the need for precise preparation and expertise in the various professional fields, which is indispensable to guarantee innovation and durability at the same time. Every project can thus be seen not as an isolated case, but as part of a global composition, that of the overall system, as if it were a single organic element.

Vice versa, how can good design have an impact on pedagogy?
This question connects directly back to what we wanted to say about the “masters,” namely the teachers, which in Italian education belong to a story of women, though even today the men are the ones who most often get publicized.
We make a comparison between teachers and designers, who set objectives in their professional process of teaching-learning, and to follow this path together with children use things, materials (natural or artificial), tools.
So the history we present narrates this people also thanks to the objects they have directly invented, designed or utilized, bringing them from the world outside into the school, changing their context, constructing them directly together with children, or even letting the kids build them on their own. The objects, with the necessary skills, become valid tools for teaching, concrete vehicles of cultural meanings. For example, the chairs made in clay by the students of Reggio Children show us how much discovery, observation and manipulation happen before making, and how the product that is then fired contains the entire project development. What interests us is precisely this design thinking, more than the product.
Or the stamp of Alberto Manzi, when he refused to assign grades, personally paying for that choice, with the message “Do what you can, don’t do what you can’t,” which speaks of a project of education that would be called ‘inclusive’ today, that tries to help everyone to participate without blocking a process of growth, while working on the personalization of proposals.

“Giro Giro Tondo. Design for Children” narrates a world of playthings and tools for kids. In your view, can it also be an exhibition for children? Does it even make sense to distinguish between exhibitions for adults and those for kids?
Inside the exhibition, with kids in mind, we have developed a strategy to encourage contact, experience, the possibility of free interpretation. From the Overture by Stefano Giovannoni, the children are asked to crawl, to sit, to lie down, to experience the magical setting of off-scale design objects, as if they were Lilliputians, listening to and imagining impossible stories.
Many objects cannot be touched, because they are valuable, but this too can be communicated to kids. Regarding the distinction of levels of comprehension and expertise between adults and children, we believe that working on making things easy to understand is an exercise that helps any museum to call into play knowledge and practical actions.
Maybe it should be an almost obligatory activity, because as Amos Komenský (Comenius, known as the “father of modern education”) already taught in the 1600s, it is useful and possible Omnes omnia docere, to teach everything to everyone. To teach, or perhaps even better to prompt participation in the cultural legacy, is a duty of schools, but also of museums: one simply has to choose how to do it, and nothing is more fascinating than concentrating on this practice

Text by Chiara Alessi