A school in the open air. But this school goes a step further – it’s a place where learning is game-based and stimulating at all times. This is even true for science subjects that we normally associate with a more methodical approach. This is Dario Gasparo’s vision of education. The 58-year-old maths and science teacher at the Valmaura Institute in Trieste won the Italian Teacher Prize in 2017, a recognition awarded by ministers of education to the teacher who has most distinguished him or herself for their innovative teaching practices and for the learning outcomes they have achieved.
Gasparo had no hesitation in deciding to invest the 30,000 euro prize in clearing up a derelict grassy area next to the school so that he could teach in his special way. That means open air lessons where games and short trips are the order of the day, while desks and blackboards are only used when really necessary. His methods have proved to be particularly useful in times of Covid – social distancing and hygiene rules are driving both school principals and pupils mad. It’s also an example of an alternative kind of teaching and learning, which his pupils “have always enjoyed” Gasparo assures us.
Mr. Gasparo, where did you get this idea for an open-air school?
I’ve always loved the outdoors, I was a boy scout which was a kind of school of life. They teach you how to be happy, to appreciate and make do with what you have. As a teacher, I also show my pupils how to put in a bit of effort, like going for a hike: it’s much more gratifying for them to achieve a goal they have set themselves. I also take my pupils hiking in the mountains to a refuge in the Carso area around Trieste where we cook our own food. My approach is rooted in my childhood, sports like volleyball, running and skiing were very much part of my growing up. I believe that exercise is very important especially for today’s youngsters who tend to avoid exercise. Games include a risk factor, they bring children together and help them grow as a group: these aspects come to the fore when they do something practical and potentially dangerous. Suddenly, children take a greater interest in what they are doing, they have to experience how difficult things are. All these aspects prompted me to try out an approach that came naturally to me. I personally get bored to death if I’m shut in a classroom. Classroom lessons also have an element of play. But there’s a completely different outcome when you can do these things outdoors. I enjoy this way of working.
How do you design your maths and science ‘syllabus’?
This year, in seventh grade we are studying medicine and the human body. We do exercises to learn about the skeleton, which muscles are working when we try to get our balance, what the function of each bone is. We can only use the outdoor classroom as long as the weather permits. So far, we have managed to spend three out of four days outside. Many people see the weather as a hurdle and let that stop them. I prefer to find solutions to make things possible. If it’s cold, wearing an extra jacket is often enough. I use our school yard for science lessons, we have drawn a huge heart on the ground to learn about the cardiovascular system so the children can learn while they are moving around. It turns into a game, they memorise things more easily and they are active. My concern is that these children – these digital natives – spend more and more time in front of a computer screen. I am constantly reminding them to disconnect because otherwise they lose focus, they need to log off from the virtual world and do real things. We go cycling together and I teach them how to use the gears, and when we are on top of the Carso plateau, we study geography. I really hope I won’t need to change the way I teach my lessons; a lot will depend on how we manage the Covid virus. So far, I don’t see any reason why I should scale back.
How did you use the money from the Teacher Prize?
Without those 30,000 euro, I can’t imagine how these kinds of lessons would be possible. I had already used that area for my lessons, I had the children jumping around and playing, but the brambles and shrubbery were a bit of a problem. When the minister of education asked me how I would use the money, I showed him my project. I was also lucky to bump into a former pupil of mine who is now an architect and he was excited by my plans. Thanks to his help, we were able to raise an additional 30,000 that allowed us to create a pond, a pathway and a small amphitheatre, which is now much more than just a place to sit. It looks good now, but I would like the children to understand the importance of following the seasons by creating a small garden, a place to study botany, teach them about woodlands, the trees typical to this area and plant a hedge to hide a concrete wall. Our school is quite well-known for its architecture, people even come from Japan to take a look. It was designed and built by Aldo Rossi and a local architect in the late 70s and it has unusual porthole windows. In those days, concrete was very much in fashion, so we are surrounded by high walls that make the school look a bit like a prison. Part of our plan is to decorate them with graffiti so the children will be able to put their passion for art to good use. We also want to create an ecosystem to attract dragonflies, frogs, newts, woodpeckers, with wooden creates for bats and art on the grey concrete walls. We will get there, step by step.
We go cycling together and I teach them how to use the gears, when we are on top of the Carso plateau, we study geography
How do your pupils react to your unconventional teaching methods?
Just recently, I got yet another confirmation from two pupils: they told me that they love learning like this. Sometimes I meet up with my former pupils, they remember the experience of learning how to light a fire and some science labs a lot better than other parts of the course. This is very gratifying and the same is true for many other teachers. It is not about the financial rewards, it’s all about the delight you see in the eyes of your pupils. For me teaching is a bit self-indulgent, I do this job because I enjoy myself. I didn’t set out to be a teacher initially. I had studied to work in education, but then I studied biology, worked for a firm of biologists and I came quite late to teaching in secondary school. I think it’s one of the best jobs: the more you study, the more you realise how much you still need to learn. But when I work with children, I see that they are happy and that spurs me on.
But you must come across problems from time to time …
Of course, it does happen sometimes. In these Covid times, we have a lot of problems. We are still short-staffed at our school as not all teachers have been appointed yet. Recently a parent refused to sign the Covid co-responsibility agreement. We try at all times to create a serene, comfortable working environment. Over these past few months, we have been quite successful in setting up remote learning and before school started again, we sent out a video so that the children would know what to expect. Unfortunately, these are also anxious times, and we feel the weight of our responsibility. Then we also have to deal with administrative tasks, and if there is not a common goal, you don’t know how to react. Fortunately, transmitting positive things to the children helps us to stay in tune with their parents, because the children talk about their experiences at home and their families are satisfied. Some time ago, we went climbing and some parents came along too. There is a risk that you will come across a parent who can make your life difficult, that’s why so many colleagues stick to the traditional curriculum and don’t dare to try something different. What does weigh you down is the lack of esteem for teachers. It’s sad to hear people speaking badly of a profession, the vast majority of whom are very dedicated to their jobs. Remote learning was a real test for many parents, they got first-hand experience of how difficult teaching is and the commitment it needs.
Regrettably when public competitions are held, teachers are selected based on their qualifications rather than on how they teach. If a teacher is distant and lectures from the front of the classroom, then it doesn’t work.
These have been very strange months for everyone with remote learning. What was your personal experience?
It wasn’t a bad experience, ironically in some cases children were less distracted when they studied remotely. When we were learning maths, the fact that they were sitting in front of their screens looking at the blackboard I shared with them actually helped them to concentrate. It may have been a bit more boring without their classmates, but it was a positive experience for many of them. Attending school is a different kettle of fish and I like playing, creating the opportunity for children to connect. I hope that we can soon return to normal but even if schools are forced to close again, I think we can still do the job.
To innovate teaching practices, you need a lot more than a computer …
It doesn’t take superhuman efforts to solve the technical issues, children are very adept with their devices and they have quickly learnt to use platforms like Zoom and Meet. The approach is more problematic though: I don’t want people to get the impression that I’ve worked it all out, but I have realised that it is difficult to take on new challenges if you don’t have a natural flair. I always try to get my pupils’ attention during my lessons, you need to be able to take yourself a bit less seriously and that’s not always easy. Regrettably when public competitions are held, teachers are selected based on their qualifications rather than on how they teach. If a teacher is distant and lectures from the front of the classroom, then it doesn’t work. I believe that you can learn how to teach remotely, but to learn how to teach differently, we need training courses where you learn to bring in a variety of aspects. I’ve studied a lot of psychology, which was not a requirement for teachers on other kinds of courses. In the attitude and the recruitment of new teachers there is none of this. It’s not enough to be an expert in your subject, you need to know how to communicate it. The fact that Italian teachers are the oldest in the world doesn’t do our profession any favours. How much drive do you have to take a chance and change the way you do things if you have almost reached retirement age? There is big generation gap between teachers and pupils, and this makes things difficult. On the other hand, I see that young supply teachers are more in sync with the children.
Has the pandemic led to greater awareness on that point, accelerating a more modern approach to education?
I think the cross-pollination of technologies is very positive. I’m happy every time a school is enthusiastic to get on board, though bureaucratic issues inevitably arise. I’m happy when we talk about innovation in teaching: the more people who follow this route, the more achievable our goal becomes.