Pioneers: Donaldson and Malaguzzi

Written by: Estelle Martin
30 November 2017

Margaret Donaldson and Loris Malaguzzi came from very different cultures and backgrounds, but had a similar passion for ensuring that the natural abilities of children were at the heart of early years practice.

Key points

  • Donaldson believed that when children’s thinking is embedded in context it makes ‘human sense’ and influences their understanding and sense of self
  • She developed changes in the way children were set tasks, and tests of thinking and understanding
  • Malaguzzi believed that children are connected to others through relationships (to their family and society) and that parents are central to the education process; children have rights
  • Documentation makes learning ‘visible’, educators are learners and researchers

Note: This article first appeared in the January 2008 issue of eye


In the fourth of our series on early years pioneers, we take a look at the work and influence of psychologists Margaret Donaldson and Loris Malaguzzi, who used their experience to influence the education of young children, and to extend our knowledge of how children learn.

Margaret Donaldson (1926-)

Donaldson is one of the most eminent developmental psychologists, researchers and educators of recent times. She was born in 1926 in Scotland where she lived and was educated. Having obtained her first degree at the University of Edinburgh – with first class honours – she then obtained a Masters degree in educational psychology, with distinction.

As a researcher she continued to study children’s thinking and learning and achieved her doctorate in 1956. The fascinating observations of work with children described in her book Children’s Minds (1978) and subsequent Human Minds (1992), which explores the relationship between emotion and thought, reflects the powerful influence her research has made in the fields of developmental psychology and early education.

Margaret became a Professor of Developmental Psychology while at Edinburgh. During her distinguished career she also studied with Piaget and worked with Jerome Bruner at Harvard University, in the USA. These experiences influenced how she was to take her ideas forward and reformulate the ways in which children’s thinking could be understood and observed in practice – rather than using ‘testing’ as the main investigative medium.

Donaldson established a children’s nursery in the psychology department at the University of Edinburgh where observations of children, aged between three and five-years-old could take place.

Understanding learning

Donaldson was inspired to research and try to understand children’s learning, thinking, and language in the context of child development and, like Piaget, saw children’s abilities unfolding to a set sequence. However, her ideas differed from Piaget because she did not see development as being limited to a fixed stage – her theory describes modes of thinking.

For children, these modes of thinking are established and developed because the child tries to make ‘human sense’ of a situation, using their prior experience. They are not simply trying to respond to a question or task. At the core, the theory has four modes of thinking:

  • Point mode.
  • Line mode.
  • Construct mode.
  • Transcendent mode.
Children will pass through each of these modes of thinking in their progression towards more abstract thought and capacities in their intellectual processes. Donaldson was also interested in Piaget’s theory of egocentric behaviour in young children – the inability to ‘decentre’ from their own perspective. Using Piaget and his ‘three mountain task’ as her starting point, and changing both the type of question and the way of explaining the tasks to the children – including the materials and characters (see observations in Children’s Minds) – Donaldson and colleagues found that children were able to make sense of the tasks and behaviour of others and were successful in their understanding of the situation presented, including being able to de-centre. However, this ability is dependent on the child’s level of language acquisition and their ability to interpret the social situation. Donaldson attributed this to children’s understanding being contingent with familiar everyday activities, where children relate to the characters and events in their world and thus make human sense of them; this is known as embedded thinking.


Donaldson showed that children make sense of their experience and the behaviour of others by being able to interpret social situations, developing reflective awareness by using what they already know and can do. This has become a fundamental principle of early years pedagogy. Practitioners can enable children to progress, to value their contributions, and to respond to the interests and thoughts of the child by setting appropriate tasks – rather than limiting their thinking by setting tasks and tests that children are unable to relate to, or ‘make sense’ of.

Donaldson focused on the effects of disembedded experiences where children demonstrated their lack of understanding of goal or purpose. This research related, in particular, to the experience of children in school. Donaldson was instrumental in challenging the ways in which children’s thinking and learning in school were facilitated. She believed that practice current at the time was having detrimental effects on children’s perception of themselves as learners because their thinking was disembedded.

Children are competent and social actors from birth and strive to make sense of their experiences through social play with their peers. Indeed, recent research has found that children in the early years learn best through shared sustained thinking. For Donaldson, the role of the educator is to recognise the significance and importance of social and personal relationships in developing language and thought.

Vygotsky also advocated the importance of social interpersonal relationships in developing children’s language and thought through meaningful interactions and experiences that scaffold the child’s disembedded thinking and learning.

Current early years practitioners are aware of the constructions of the developing child through the foundation stage framework; informed by the Birth To Three Matters literature review, and research, such as the REPEY project (2002), that help us to see cultural and social differences that impact on children’s holistic progress and individual learning journeys.

Key concepts of Donaldson’s research

  • Donaldson argues that the development of children’s thinking is reflected through stages/modes.
  • Children’s perspectives are important – adults should be aware of the limits of their experience and of how to extend and scaffold thinking through meaningful interaction.
  • When children’s thinking is embedded in context it makes ‘human sense’ and influences their understanding and sense of self as a competent social actor/learner.
  • With colleagues, such as Hughes and McGarrigle, she developed changes in the way children were set tasks, and tests of thinking and understanding.
  • She believed intellect and emotion to be of equal value in the developmental process.

Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994)

Loris Malaguzzi was born in Urbino, Italy in 1920, graduating in the field of psychology and pedagogy from the University of Rome. He became an inspirational leader and visionary of early childhood education and care in the Northern region of Italy – known as Emilia Romagna – in the city of Reggio Emilia. During the restoration of community life and civic amenities following the end of World War II, the community of Reggio Emilia worked collaboratively to define and establish how parents wanted children of the future to be educated and how that would translate into the new schools and infant-toddler centres.

This development proved important because the people/parents of the area were engaged in a ‘rights’ approach for their children the right to experience an education that respected them as people. It was the democratic tradition prevalent in Northern Italian cities that paved the way for this approach to be established in the early childhood provision.

The political and social climate that existed in the years after 1945 also played a significant factor in the culture of this Italian community, where democracy and equality were part of the emerging philosophy of education in the city. Indeed the parents, especially the mothers of the children, were very active and participated in establishing and running a new school for their children. These parents, with the support of the wider community, literally built the new school from scratch.

Loris Malaguzzi was inspired by the work of the community and was later appointed as a teacher and Head of Reggio Emilia’s first municipal nursery. During the 1960s, city funding from the municipality of Reggio Emilia was established for the parent-run schools. The development of these schools and the introduction of infant and toddler centres has continued through the 1970s and on to the present day. The provision of care and education are not viewed as separate processes.

Malaguzzi was a charismatic and inspirational educator who had strong ideas about how children should be educated and what kind of environment created the conditions for optimum engagement and learning. His philosophy was based on an overarching structure for the theory and application of early education and was influenced by the work of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget.

The construction of the child is fundamental to this approach; in 1993, Malaguzzi asserted: ‘Our image of the children no longer considers them as isolated and egocentric, does not only see them engaged in action with objects, does not emphasise only the cognitive aspects, does not belittle feelings or what is not logical, and does not consider with ambiguity the role of the affective domain. Instead, our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent, and most of all, connected to adults and other children’.

Malaguzzi’s poem, The Hundred Languages of Children, demonstrates the high value placed on understanding the holistic nature of learning and the provision of an expressive arts-based curriculum to support children’s diversity of ‘languages’ in their learning process. is should be supported through meaningful social interaction with both practitioners and other children. Links can be made to the theory of multiple intelligences (Howard Gardener), Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky.

The role of ‘documentation’ is central in the Reggio schools approach. Observation of learning can be made ‘visible’ by collecting documentary evidence of the children, rather than using ‘testing’ as a form of assessment. e idea of documentation is to capture and track the individual child’s learning journey.

Malaguzzi described his approach to education as a ‘theory of relationships’. Children are given opportunities to work collectively in groups and are able to represent their experiences, feelings and ideas in a variety of ways or ‘languages’, through a range of creative materials, and visual and expressive arts.

For Malaguzzi, the child is already whole and an environment that encourages connections between different aspects of experience supports knowledge and understanding, through the relationships to these aspects and to others in social relationships. Therefore, the curriculum is integrated and not compartmentalised into separate subjects or types of learning. The educators respect all aspects of development and the range and quality of children’s work is evidenced everywhere throughout the settings.

Children are educated through a network of relationships that extend to the wider community. The culture of the school, including staff members, works in a democratic way, with little hierarchy. is supports dialogue and communication between members of the wider community, leading to a shared understanding of the curriculum and early education.

More recently, academics and scholars of early childhood education in many different countries have become involved in projects that seek to take the philosophy of the Reggio schools into their own communities of practice. Those, such as Lilian Katz, an American professor, are advocates of the project approach. Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardener have both been closely involved in research and ongoing links with Reggio Emilia schools that seek cross-cultural comparisons about theory and practice in early childhood education and care.

Malaguzzi’s key ideas:

  • Children are competent and have potential.
  • Children are connected to others through relationships (to their family and society).
  • Parents are central to the education process.
  • Documentation makes learning ‘visible’.
  • Educators are learners and researchers.
  • The expressive arts at the centre of the curriculum.

It is important to reflect on the approach taken by Malaguzzi. is philosophy of evolving practice works towards making connections between objects, processes and people and to recognise similarities through relationships rather than differences.

Reading list

Abbott L, Nutbrown C (2007) Experiencing Reggio Emilia Implications for Pre-school Provision. Open University Press: Maidenhead, Berkshire

Donaldson M (1978) Children’s Minds. Fontana: London Donaldson M (1992) Human Minds. Allen Lane/Penguin press: London

Donaldson M, Grieve R, Pratt C (eds) (1983) Early Childhood Development and Education. Blackwell: Oxford

DfES (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY). DfES: London

Edwards C et al (1993) e Hundred Languages of Children – The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Education. Ablex Corp: US

Gura P (ed) (1997) Reflections on Early Education and Care: Inspired by visits to Reggio Emilia Italy. British Association for Early Childhood Education: London