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

Published by the Editor at 9.22am on Sunday, 29 September 2013.

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. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.  

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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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Comments

Posted by Phil at 8.16am on Wednesday, 2 October 2013.

Interesting insight into the Italian education system. Like you state there's more room for imagination and creativity in the English system.

Posted by Celeste at 8.17am on Wednesday, 2 October 2013.

I grew up in South Africa and the education system is very similar to the Italian one, learn everything off by heart instead of interpreting.

Posted by Jack at 8.41pm on Wednesday, 2 October 2013.

This is an interesting debate. I enjoyed the historical content of the article.

Posted by Marie at 12.49pm on Thursday, 3 October 2013.

Interesting comparison between two European education systems. Having a good memory is useful but interpreting texts, poems and then situations in general is important too.

Posted by Sara at 9.21pm on Sunday, 6 October 2013.

I liked to read this article. I am Italian and agree with the opinion here, learn by the memory, just learn and remember.

Posted by Kate at 1.35pm on Tuesday, 8 October 2013.

I find this article very interesting and thought provoking and I agree completely with the sentiment, education should surely lead to the ability by each student to offer their unique view on the subject matter. How disappointing to read that students are deprived of this opportunity as in my opinion it is crucial for success at 3rd level.

Posted by Oliver Cassidy at 1.50pm on Tuesday, 8 October 2013.

I enjoyed reading this well constructed and thought out argument criticising learning by rote. The whole reason for education is to develop the independent thinker.

Posted by Catherine at 2.03pm on Tuesday, 8 October 2013.

My immediate response to this fascinating essay on the Italian education system is-well done. the mind should be given every possible opportunity to develop and not be stunted by concentrating only on the student's ability to regurgitate information given. Students surely have more ability than parrots

Posted by Bridget. at 2.13pm on Tuesday, 8 October 2013.

As a teacher, I have to compliment you on the article, you have captured completely the essence of the problem with the educational system that hinders the development of independent thought. How boring life will be if we humans loose our ability to think outside the box.

Posted by Helen Sheridan at 9.56am on Thursday, 10 October 2013.

I enjoyed reading this essay, and was surprised to read that the Italian education system had adapted and maintained this approach to learning.

Posted by Cristina at 8.54pm on Monday, 14 October 2013.

Very true for literary subjects. I am Italian, graduated in foreign literature and my educational path was close to what described. Luckly our innate sense of creativity saves us from this indoctrination...

Posted by Marco at 12.20pm on Tuesday, 15 October 2013.

I am Italian and agree that learning off by heart is typical in Italian schools. Another big problem is a lack of motivation from teachers, they are not paid well, have big classes with discipline problems and so do the job without passion.

Posted by Kattrina. at 1.34pm on Wednesday, 16 October 2013.

Very interesting and informative item on the Italian education method, disappointed to learn that students are deprived of the opportunities to share their thoughts,ideas and opinions on the matters studied

Posted by Eleonora at 9.54pm on Wednesday, 16 October 2013.

I'm Italian and this article has opened a door closed for a long long time. You are right, School system inhibit free thoughts, Only the study of philosophy gave me the chance to have a real opinion on what happens in life but it was hard to develop a true feeling or thought about poems, history or literature. It was all written and Teachers didn't care about my point of view, they never asked for it... I had a diary to write it on and thanks God I had a great mother who didn't study as long as I did but read lots of books by herself and used to ask me "What do you think about it?"

Posted by Silvia at 1.39pm on Thursday, 17 October 2013.

I am Italian, but maybe I was a lucky student.

Our English teacher didn't ask us to learn by heart, but gave us the opportunity to think and be able to analyse a text, to express our ideas and to really understand the text, its meaning and the view of the writer.

I really enjoyed my English classes, and my teacher was great!

For this reason, when I had the opportunity to teach in a school, I tried to do my best and give my students the chance to speak and to work in groups to collect their ideas on the text they were given... it is very important to make them feel more confident.

Anyway I have to admit that is not so easy having to finish the programme by the end of the school year.

Posted by Beata at 5.03pm on Thursday, 17 October 2013.

Very interesting, it makes me think my past at school.

Posted by Veronica at 6.07am on Tuesday, 22 October 2013.

I have a good memory and it was developped at school where we had to learn many things off by heart. I studied languages at university in England and the early years of studying was dedicated to learning grammar rules off by heart as well as vocabulary. Later we were free to critique literature but this was only possible due to the foundation we had created over the years. I agree with a lot of what you write, my student friends and I often resorted to study guides and rattled off their content for exams, and it's an interesting read, but in some subjects, especially foreign languages, much has to be learnt by rote just to get to the good stuff later.

Posted by Jim Bogle at 12.35pm on Tuesday, 22 October 2013.

Well written and presented essay. I was not aware of education methods in Italy.

Posted by Paul Wallace at 12.41pm on Tuesday, 22 October 2013.

I consider that some rote learning in the early years may prove a useful grounding of the basics, but agree that to continue with this method into secondary education is a major mistake.

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