If there was one thing I could change to improve education in my country…

By Anna Marie Clerkin. Anna Marie is a freelance English teacher in Italian primary and secondary schools as well as in companies where she teaches Business English. She lives in Ceriano Laghetto, Italy

I am not Italian by birth but I have lived and worked here for eighteen years, am married to an Italian and have an Italian passport. I have nine years teaching English experience in Italian primary and secondary schools. These conditions permit me to consider Italy as “my country” for this article.

One of my happiest educational experiences was studying “Songs of Innocence and Experience” by William Blake for A ‘level English at my London secondary school. Our teacher encouraged our interpretation of the religious and social messages portrayed in the poems and the analysis of good and evil. I loved these lessons where we debated the tone and language of each poem. We participated in the lessons as free thinkers and learnt how to critique and appreciate literature. Our teacher guided us along this learning path and welcomed our thoughts and opinions. Her method can be summed up in Albert Einstein’s belief that “the aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals.”

I have frequently taught English to “maturità” students, (the Italian equivalent to A’Level students.) Many a time “Songs of Innocence and Experience” has been on the curriculum and I was looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for Blake’s writings with my Italian students but have always been deeply disappointed. This is mainly because the Italian educational syllabus promotes committing chunks of information to memory. English students have a text book with a critique of each poem and need to be able to repeat this word for word on exam day. Having a good memory is the most important skill a student can possess at secondary school in Italy.

Italian secondary school teachers have a bulging program to get through and due to time restraints it’s easier to steam ahead in a lecture format to ensure covering everything. Secondary school students have written tests each term and oral tests at their teachers’ discretion. Oral tests are in every subject, except religion, which is unusual outside Italy. My experience of oral tests for English has been quite shocking. In studying Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” the students can choose to comment on a poem of their choice from the syllabus. They recite the text book review from memory so if, by coincidence, every student has chosen to comment on the same poem the teacher listens to the rattling off of the same critique over twenty times! What stands the student in good stead is a strong memory. Analytical skills, appreciation of language, vocabulary and tone are superfluous. Being a robot is rewarded and I believe Bryant McGill warns of these dangers when he declared “The supreme lesson of any education should be to think for yourself and to be yourself; absent this attainment, education creates dangerous, stupefying conformity.”

Disaster strikes should the student lose his place during his performance. It’s usually impossible to pick up from where he left off so he is forced to start at the beginning and launch into his narration for the second time. This is problematic because it’s time consuming so often the test is interrupted by the teacher and the student is assigned a low mark labeling him a failure.

Thankfully I did not do any of my schooling in Italy. I have a poor memory and despite loving history as a subject at school I struggled with memorizing the dates of important events. I was able to get around this by using phrases such as “During the Middle Ages” and “Under the reign of Elizabeth I”. This would not have been acceptable in an Italian school, the more dates and statistics you can reel off the cleverer you are considered.

In February I taught an intensive English course to maturità students for one week. We studied English for five hours a day and the theme was English culture. I prepared material on the Royal family, the Beatles, London Parks and Harry Potter to name a few topics. When it came to discussion, for example “For or against the monarchy?” I was met with silence. The students had no opinions and were waiting for me to give my input so they could furiously scribble it down, like a dictation. Their brains had been dulled by enduring such a passive way of learning for so many years. They were used to the teacher lecturing, them taking notes and then memorizing said notes. This quote from Henry Adams conjures up the idea: “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of facts.”

Italian university students often struggle during their first year. Used to being spoon fed they are unprepared for the individual organizational skills university education demands. There are few lectures while most of the syllabus is made up of self learning. Students are issued with a long list of books they must read and will then be tested on throughout the year. No longer coddled by their teacher they are unable to keep up with the syllabus as they have never learnt to study independently. In fact only a third of Italian university students graduate, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

It’s hard to believe that Italy, the country which Leonardo Da Vinci called home, squashes independent thought in secondary schools today. Da Vinci is widely regarded as an Italian Renaissance genius. He had spectacular talents in fields ranging from art, sculpture, engineering, science and inventions. He’s famous all around the world for “The Last Supper” and the “Mona Lisa” and “invented” the bicycle, airplane and parachute five hundred years ahead of their time. He was a free thinker (which was a synonym of pagan in those days) who questioned everything. With Da Vinci in mind I find the following quote by Charles F. Kettering to be fitting: “An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn’t take his education too seriously.”

The Italian secondary school education system promotes indoctrination. Students are awarded high marks for having learnt whole texts books off by heart. Having a strong memory is more important than individual interpretation, criticism and analysis. This restrictive way of teaching produces intellectual robots who are unable to form personal opinions but can repeat, word for word, a text book critique. Should a student diverge from this indoctrination at secondary school he’ll find himself shunned by his teachers and punished with low marks. Such free thinkers tend to fare better at university where they can incorporate their own learning with those provided by their course books.

If I had a magic wand and could be granted one wish for the improvement of education in Italy it would be to remove the emphasis of learning endless facts off by heart and to endorse individual interpretation. I am sure that this would lead to more stimulating lessons, more motivated students and more interesting adults. Being able to think for yourself, agree and disagree with others and debate important issues results in a more open and tolerant society. This can only be positive.

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