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Best Practice 8 June Jun 2020 0700 8 June 2020

What Italy’s small schools can teach us during the coronavirus emergency

The unprecedented isolation forced upon us by Covid-19 has not disrupted the lessons of eight thousand Italian schools located in mountain communities and on small islands. For them geographic isolation is a normal way of life. Here are the three key words to describe a model worth imitating

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It was a victory for Italy’s small schools. Not that there was a competition in the first place of course, but during the coronavirus emergency the small schools scattered across the country’s remote inland areas, mountain communities and islands found themselves at a distinct advantage when it came to thinking up innovative solutions for remote learning. It is no coincidence that those schools in areas where geographic isolation is a normal way of life were well-prepared for the shutdown brought on by the health crisis. They already had two major assets in their teaching programmes: strong ties with the community and technology.

The Small Schools Movement was officially founded in 2017 on the island of Favignana off the west coast of Sicily. By February this year, 300 educational institutions had joined the network, rising to 400 during the lockdown and representing a total of 1,800 individual school complexes. The Movement even has its own three-point manifesto: schools and their communities, ICT and inclusion, and the multi-age classroom as a resource. By the time the new school year starts in September, all three points will become fundamental to driving the changes needed in all Italian schools.

Jose Mangione is a researcher at the INDIRE (the National Institute for Documentation, Innovation and Educational Research) and manager of the Small Schools Movement research team. “There are more than eight thousand small schools in Italy accounting for almost one fifth of all pupils, which is a significant figure”, she is swift to point out. “During the emergency, the Small Schools Movement did not advocate for ‘resorting’ to technology, it went a lot further than that. Our considerable experience combined with the support network that has developed among schools and with INDIRE, has enabled us to design teaching models that have overcome social isolation and linked up classes across the country.”

This support network has enabled us to design teaching models that overcome social isolation

Jose Mangione, researcher at INDIRE

The first key word is “multi-class management”: a small school could be an institute with 18 school complexes in villages that are miles apart “where schooling via a network was already a reality,” Mangione explains. The second keyword is “synergy”, especially with local government and other organisations. “To safeguard their role as cultural strongholds, small schools have for some time been running projects in cooperation with local government, associations, enterprises and foundations and thanks to this network, nobody has been left behind. At first, we worked together to identify the best technology provider and now we are analysing how local government can become part of the school and partner us in managing the ‘spaces’ where schooling can take place. Museums have made their content available online, we have internet radio stations and much more besides. These extended spaces for learning have been at the core of our movement for years.” The third keyword is “flexible remote learning” and for many small schools it was already routine. This is true for class-to-class networks where a class works on ‘twinned’ programmes with a class in another school (for example there is a multi-age class on Favignana twinned with the small town of Sassello in the province of Savona in Liguria) and also where the home becomes the classroom. The reason for this is that in Italy’s small schools it is not unusual for pupils to be obliged to learn from home due to the lack of roads or essential services (the areas hit by earthquakes still have such problems today) or because they are unwell or hospitalised.

How did the Small School network react to the coronavirus emergency? What lessons can larger schools learn from this? “A network of solidarity formed immediately with teachers and heads coming on board to create a daily virtual schedule with 40 webinars and 8 thousand trained colleagues,” Mangione tells us. “During the first phase we spoke about tools, platforms and resources and then we reached the next level as we dealt with topics like privacy, how to create a virtual academic board, how to maintain the teacher-pupil relationship and how to review it. This enabled us to see distance learning not just as technology but as an educational model.”

In April and May, new levels were reached when “schools asked us to help with course content.” The INDIRE team took up the challenge and Jose Mangione, together with Laura Parigi and Giusy Cannella, designed two workshops. “Spaesi. A workshop on the geography of the imagination” and “Where school is at home” showing how the home is full of opportunities for learning, which is a particularly useful ‘low-tech’ solution in an emergency as in many areas connectivity can be challenging.

The Small Schools Movement promotes the concept of widespread schooling where the natural and cultural environment connects learning to the real world

Jose Mangione, researcher at INDIRE

“These two workshops are part of the concept that the Small Schools Movement is promoting – school and the community, and widespread schooling. We’ve described this in our manifesto: we see the natural and cultural environment as a resource when learning is connected to the real world. How can we make something dirty clean again? Can books become musical instruments? Questions like these open up a whole host of learning opportunities and the home becomes a laboratory.”

The third step will take place in June and goes beyond teaching techniques. Called “A scuola di prossimità” (bringing learning closer), it is designed to “showcase what widespread schooling is all about and how it can take shape as of next September. Sharing their experience will be schools, local government, associations, class networks, supporters of cities as places of education and experts on forming territorial agreements. It is an opportunity to review school curricula and understand what it means to bring the territory into the school curriculum”, Mangione concludes. This is surely not an easy task, but it is a great opportunity to bring innovation to Italian schools.

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