Is it possible to bring a mix of computer science and entrepreneurship into the old, chaotic Italian school system, turning it upside down and ending up the winner of an international award for the best teacher in the world? Daniele Manni, who teaches computer science and entrepreneurship at the Galilei-Costa-Scarambone secondary school in Lecce, is living proof of this. This 61-year-old, former entrepreneur, who has a deep passion for teaching, is the winner of the 2020 edition of the Global Teacher Award, the "Nobel Prize" for teachers. He is the first Italian teacher to attain this important recognition. The secret to his success is about constantly breaking the mould, aiming high and involving students by making them take the lead.
Mr. Manni, how did you attain this major achievement of winning the Global Teacher Award?
My path into teaching was quite unusual because I graduated in computer science in 1984 and was an entrepreneur until 1999. People with backgrounds like mine were in high demand in companies, but I didn't care about being an employee. During that period, I came to Lecce for family reasons and have finally ended up staying there. I'm not what you'd call the conventional entrepreneur. I found that I liked to set up companies, make them successful and undertake different projects. Until 1986 I had no desire to teach. It happened that the Education Inspector in Lecce asked me to cover as a supply teacher. He managed to get one over me and I agreed. I shouldn't have done it because I became really fond of the kids. The turning point came in 1999, which is when I decided to stop undertaking external activities and bring what I had learned into the classroom. This is how I started encouraging kids to develop entrepreneurial skills. Because I loved doing this, I was hoping to create 24 entrepreneurs out of 24 students. This didn't happen, of course. In some ways I was a little disappointed as, on average, only 1–3 kids chose this path. Then I had a guilty conscience because teaching entrepreneurship meant taking away hours from computer science. But after they had left the school, the kids came back and thanked me for what I had taught them. That's when I realised that this approach was a winner, not because it means they have to become entrepreneurs, but because they acquire the right mentality from it. They gain cross-disciplinary skills from it, they find that they are problem-solvers, resilient, can easily adapt, work in a team and learn how to handle failure. In Italy, this last point is seen as negative. The kids actually get angry when I want them to fail. But I put a positive spin on it, like they do in the US. These skills also involve the kids gaining greater confidence in themselves and in their own abilities. You can transform an idea developed in a classroom, put it on the market and find people who are willing to spend money on that idea. For 15 years I have been speeding ahead like a train. I ask to always have the top classes. In all of them, I get them to invent a micro business idea. This is the reason why I was awarded the prize. This alternative kind of teaching I do is very rare. Nowadays, entrepreneurship is mainly taught at university level. In the US, for instance, it is offered as an optional subject, but not even as that in Italian universities.
Should we start earlier, then?
Based on my idea, entrepreneurship should not be first taught in the upper years of secondary school, but already from the start of secondary school. For five years, I've been running a workshop with 10 secondary schools in Lecce, involving students in the lower years, once in the afternoon every 2-3 weeks, known as the Start-up Garden. I find that even younger kids are very receptive to this way of thinking. Not to mention that we have great fun as well. The idea behind it is: you love surfing the Net, using social media and video games, but is it cooler to play a video game or invent one? They realise that they can be not only players, but creators too. At first, I was told that children were too young to talk about the world of work. But we're not talking about work, but about creativity. There are two points I would like to emphasise. The first point is that, in Italy, very little is done to stimulate the creativity of children. It is done only in the early years of primary school and only in subjects such as art. When it comes to all the other subjects, children stop being creative at the age of 7 or 8. This is what the problem is. On the other hand, it's very wrong to look down on creativity. If you can channel it and convince kids that they can grow up to be changemakers, that's the kind of energy the school needs. I would make it compulsory for students in the lower years of secondary schools to be given lessons in entrepreneurship, innovation and change. But it would be too much to hope that something like this would happen in Italy. So, let's at least start doing this in the technical and economic establishments. It is ridiculous that these subjects are not taught in these establishments. There is no secondary school where you can become an entrepreneur. Everything is geared up to train students either to enter the professions or become employees. But the third option should be available, allowing them to create something of their own.
It's very wrong to look down on creativity. If you can channel it and convince kids that they can grow up to be changemakers, that's the kind of energy the school needs.
Do you have any examples of your kids becoming entrepreneurs?
There aren't as many as I'd like, but we have one: Alberto Paglialunga, who left the school about 10 years ago. Alberto did a wide variety of jobs and always ended up either being fired or leaving. Then he remembered what his teacher used to say: if you don't like the job you do, create one yourself. So, he set himself up in his father's garage and started selling bathroom furniture online, because he had remained on good terms with some suppliers from his last job. Currently, 12 years on, Alberto has a head office covering an area of 14,000 square metres, a fleet of trucks which distribute throughout Italy, and 70 employees under 35 who love him. For two years, his company, Deghi, has won the first prize in the "Showcase of the Year" competition, pushing IKEA into second place. It beats IKEA not on turnover, because IKEA makes EUR 33 million in a week, but on quality of service and customer satisfaction. Another example is a social start-up created in 2016 that goes by the name of MABASTA, an Italian acronym meaning: Anti-Bullying Movement Run by Teenage Students. Thanks to the media exposure it received, this start-up gained instant fame, with the guys receiving an honorary medal from Italy's President Mattarella, and in 2017 they appeared on stage at the Sanremo Music Festival. These guys have now left the school. Some of them have decided to continue with the project and work on it every day. They then came up with a brilliant idea this summer. To help kids access classes despite the lockdown, they invented six basic activities that revolve around the theme of sport. They created remotely a kind of virtual game between sport and bullying, where players are called "tough guys" and "mean guys". They have received support from 27 or 28 sponsors from national sports federations in Italy, from the Paralympic Committee, from the company Sport e Salute, and also from media partners Tuttosport and Corriere dello Sport.
It is clear to see that you have inspired your kids a lot. Did you manage to submit your ideas to the education ministry?
This method of teaching of mine was revealed in 2015, during the first edition of the Global Teacher Prize, in which I was a finalist. At the time, I did everything I could to speak to the ministry, to tell them: what you consider illegal, people abroad think that it is worthy of a Nobel Prize for teaching. Four ministers have come and gone since then, but this dialogue remains difficult. There will be three or four of us throughout Italy teaching like this. I am the oldest, and two of us are leading the world in terms of the number of awards. Isn't it time to wake up? There is a great deal of work involved in sorting these things in the education system, but it needs to be done. We're carrying on, in any case.
Perhaps we need a more entrepreneurial approach in school too?
This is the last thing teachers want to hear, but a business mindset should be adopted. It would help to see schools as places where you create, build, try and pick yourself up again, not just as places where you convey content that's great, something that I defend. But something more must be added both in terms of the means of transmitting this content, because the world has moved on, and in terms of providing more content.
Mr. Manni, let's change the subject. What has your experience been with remote learning in these last few months?
I'd like to take my hat off to the teaching profession. I was personally surprised as I wouldn't have expected that even my peers over the age of 60 would have been flexible and resilient enough to learn how to use this situation in a positive way. They have been excellent. But as an IT expert and teacher, I want to say: we need to take a step forward. The first huge step was to find a form of teaching that worked even if we were not physically present, but now this needs to be remodelled. The next step is to review the form of teaching. Without detracting from what they are doing, they are now using online tools to deliver lessons as if they were in the classroom. They've managed to keep in touch with the kids, but you also need the ability to hold their attention while they're connected. You need a kind of communication to ensure that their interest doesn't wane.
Even I'm struggling to keep myself up to date and study. But I have the advantage of having kids who are bursting with enthusiasm like volcanoes.
Probably more training for the teachers themselves would help, wouldn't it?
Unfortunately, in our profession, the ministry is perceived as an enemy, rather than an employer. Every time training is suggested, we treat it as something negative, as a constraint rather than an opportunity. On some occasions we have even been right, but on others what is being proposed or even imposed does not put teachers in the best frame of mind to learn. This is the most serious problem with training. During the current period, something different has happened: some teaching staff have felt the need for training. Even today we are the ones trying to convince the kids that what we're doing is useful, whereas they should be the ones asking. The same is true for teachers. There are many of them, especially among the over-50s, who no longer have the strength and the desire to update themselves.
And what about you?
I must admit that even I'm struggling to keep myself up to date and study. But I have the advantage of having kids who are bursting with enthusiasm like volcanoes. When I explain something there is always some kid telling me that there is an app for that function. They keep me constantly updated about what lies ahead in the future. I'm the one learning from them. It's lucky for me that I teach computer science, but I understand that it's hard for a history teacher to keep up to date. If teachers want to be curious and deepen their knowledge, however, they can do it anyway.
I mean, everyone has something to learn at school…
I once met a kid in a photocopy shop who was photocopying a PHP programming language text. I remember him telling me that his teachers didn't know anything about it, and he was teaching himself. The problem is that children access content in this way, but without ever being asked about it. But this is how I experience school. I feel lucky because we are doing wonderful things. And even though we have the spotlight on what we're doing all the time, there are still too few who have chosen this approach during their career. But fortunately, there are also many examples of teachers stepping out of line, not caring about bureaucracy, not asking anyone's permission, and working the way they think is best. These stories must be told so that others can say: we can achieve something different.
And what are you aiming to achieve now that you have received the highest accolade in the profession?
I'm 61 years old, and I've been told they're going to show me the door in four or five years' time. During that period, I don't envisage any huge changes. I hope to continue doing what I'm doing now, but externally. Probably, once I'm retired, I'm going to go back to my roots when I was a kid, and become a carpenter, like my father. We used to have a turning workshop. I will reopen a shop. My dream is to get my hands on a piece of wood again. This is not some random idea. I belonged to a generation that, in summer, went and worked with a craftsman. Some worked with the carpenter, some with the auto electrician, and others with the flooring expert. We all learned a trade. You only learn the trade if you do it. I am often portrayed as the teacher who teaches entrepreneurship, but I don't do anything on the board, we just do entrepreneurship. If you don't actually do something, you'll never learn to do it.