Saturday, June 14, 2014

School daze: A glimpse at education in Italy

What I know about Italian school comes from spending days and days collecting data in two private high schools, one day at a public high school, 51 high school students' essays about how they would improve the school system, and talking to teachers, students, and parents about school experiences. The Ministry of Education website also helped me out!

Let's start with a general overview of the K-12 system. There is no kindergarten here, and preschool is optional. Kids can enter grade 1 at age 5 or 6. They then complete elementary school (la primaria, grades 1-5), middle school (secondaria di primo grado, grades 6-8), and high school (secondaria superiore/liceo, grades 9-13). You got it, there are five years of high school in Italy. Also, most schools run from 8:00-1:00, Monday-Saturday. Kids go home for lunch, but they go to school on SaturdaysNational testing occurs only at the completion of 8th grade and 13th grade.

Before entering high school, the students choose a track. There are true vocational/professional schools, but the "academic" high schools are also divided into a few different options (this is the same on a national level). In all tracks, students study the basics like Italian language/literature and mathematics; however, specialized courses and time spent in each subject differ based on the chosen track.

Tracks include: 1) Classical: considered the most "scholarly", for star students. Here students study philosophy, Latin, and ancient Greek. 2) Linguistic: where I spent all of my time; in these schools the emphasis is on languages. Students study Italian and English, plus two additional (generally European) languages like Spanish, French, German, or Russian. 3) Scientific: here the emphasis is on laboratory science. This is considered by some to be a more "technical" option, as students graduate prepared to work. 4) Artistic: with an emphasis on fine arts. It would have been a tough choice for me between linguistic and artistic when I started high school.

Students begin high school in a class of 30 or so students that all have the same schedule. They stay with the same class all day, all year, for 5 years. In fact, they even stay in the same room all year (e.g., Year 1-A, Year 3-B). The teachers move from room to room when the bell rings. In fact, I was surprised at that, at one of the schools I worked with, during bell time and breaks, teachers completely abandoned the classrooms, leaving students to their own devices until the next teacher showed up.

Another surprisingly tolerated student behavior was smoking. Kids smoke right outside the school door before class. They are not supposed to smoke inside the school, but many do, in the bathrooms. Several students complained in their essays that they would like to have smoke alarms installed in the bathrooms so they didn't have to smell smoke in there.

So how did the kids want to improve their schools? Remember, these were the private (linguistic) high school students. Many students wanted to start school later (typical teenagers want to sleep in!), e.g., 9:00 instead of 8:00. Of course, they also requested longer breaks (they have a 15-minute break where they wander around, eat a snack brought from home, go outside, and/or buy an espresso from a machine). Many students complained that they weren't allowed to use their cell phones at school (imagine that!), and some wanted more technology at school. In their defense, I have to agree, technology in the Italian classrooms that I observed was rather sparse.

Picture from:
This still looks like what I found to be a "typical" Italian classroom in 2014. 

One of the schools I worked with did have a cafeteria, and almost all the students complained about the food: too much pasta, not enough variety, bad taste. The funny thing is, to me, coming from the U.S., that school cafeteria seemed like a five-star restaurant. Kids ate real, fresh-cooked food on real plates with real flatware, drinking water out of real cups (no disposable anything!). This real food consisted of a primo piatto (always some kind of pasta, but that is the Italian way!), a secondo: meat or fish, along with a side of cooked veggies, salad, and a piece of fresh fruit (apple or pear). That's it. No processed/packaged junk food, no french fries, pizza, or burgers… no drink options (just water). I can see how the kids may have felt limited, but at least they had an actual meal made with decent ingredients. I wish we could move in this simpler, but healthier, direction in the U.S.

Another major difference between Italian and U.S. high schools that the students here are aware of is the emphasis on sports in U.S. school culture. Here, it's just academics, no sports (the same is true at the university level). If they wish, kids can participate in sports outside of school via community centers, clubs, etc. Makes me wonder how sports got to be so important in U.S. schools and universities.

There are so many facets to education that I know I have just scratched the surface. Basically, with only four months in two, northern Italian (private) high schools, my vision has been limited. However, overall, it was a great experience working with the students, and they taught me a lot in a short time. Maybe through more comparative research on students' perspectives of schooling around the world, we can all find ways to improve our respective systems.



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