More independence, more decision-making freedom, clearer direction for the use of technology in schools and a more purposeful study of languages. These are Nadia Cattaneo’s ‘pillars’ for education in the future. She is the headmistress of a multi-award-winning Italian technical college – a branch of secondary education in Italy – and her school, which specialises in economics, management and law, is said to be the best school in the country. At Enrico Tosi, students have a choice of six languages to study. The school runs language exchange trips abroad and, in certain cases, students can ‘graduate’ within four years, rather than the usual five.
Ask Cattaneo what the main problems are in Italian schools today and she will reply: “Schools have not achieved full independence, as the 1999 Decree (number 275) intended.” Cattaneo believes that promise of total freedom to experiment and make changes never left the paper it was written on. Not so much in terms of teaching itself, but in terms of management. Timetables and class arrangement are just the same as they always have been. And it is difficult to crowbar change into a “set-up that never moved away from the old system,” she says. For example, “Taking a teacher out of the classroom to set them working on a project is a challenge. The concept of an operational workforce has not yet reached schools.”
Cattaneo does not rule out schools collaborating with companies, establishing a link between schools and the rest of the country. In fact, “It is vital that schools interact with the world around them,” she says. “If we allow school to be seen as a closed-off unit of society, that’s a failure. That means we aren’t modernising it any more.” So that’s a yes to building work-school links: “The relationship that a school develops with the world of work can drive that school to place more emphasis on skills, without – of course – neglecting knowledge and education.” And yes to working together with parents, including their criticisms – “as long as they’re constructive, of course.”
It is vital that schools interact with the world around them. If we allow school to be seen as a closed-off unit of society, that’s a failure. That means we aren’t modernising it any more
That way, schools will not lose touch with the outside world. On this subject, Cattaneo suggests going well beyond textbooks. “Especially in this digital age, text books aren’t sacred. Instead, they are one of many tools we can use to build specific educational paths,” Cattaneo explains. And language learning also needs a shake up: “School should create less ‘metalinguistic’ systems of learning and teaching languages, methods linked more closely to the use of language. That doesn't mean ceasing to study grammar, but that grammar should be an end goal rather than a hard-and-fast starting point. Cultural exchanges and work placements abroad are an example of this, as well as lessons on other subjects in a language other than our own.”
Then, there is the unavoidable matter of technology, which does not just mean bringing a few computers or interactive whiteboards into classrooms: “Innovation does not just mean introducing technological tools. Teachers need to be trained and their role in the classroom restructured. They should be guiding figures, not just lecturing at students but working on how best to manage these digital tools.” Should smartphones be allowed in the classroom? “Smartphones can be used in the classroom, as long as that use is structured. We need to teach children that smartphones and tablets aren’t just devices for chatting or having fun, they can also be used for work or study.”
This year at Enrico Tosi, the first students passed their final exams under an experiment in which they completed their studies in just four years, rather than five. “The outcome was very positive. So many of them passed the university entrance tests, some have enrolled abroad, others are entering the world of work – and they’ve all got there a year early,” explains Cattaneo. “They have an extra year, which they could take as a gap year, to gain more experience and perhaps make a more informed choice on what they want to do with their lives after school.” In fact, Cattaneo would prefer to get rid of final year exams entirely. “It has become a very expensive practice, one that doesn’t help universities assess young people.”