It had already become clear before the coronavirus health crisis that the traditional education model with its textbooks, lecture-style lessons and oral tests was no longer sufficient for Italy’s 8.4 million pupils. The pandemic has simply brought forward an inevitable shift within the ‘Italian model of schooling’. Leaving their comfort zones behind, being willing to challenge themselves and try out a different model of schooling is not the easy option for the country’s teachers. But today it is more than ever a necessity. Ten Italian teachers have ‘disobeyed the rules’ and proved that a new way of schooling is possible.
Rachele Furfaro, Naples. “Let’s dispel the belief that school has to stay the way it’s always been - a closed space, classrooms chock-a-block with desks, and pupils packed in for five or six hours a day. School is not about teaching, it’s a place where we kick start the process of learning. We need schools to be more in tune with their local area: the classroom should be the place where we share and learn from experiences in the world outside.” There are no doubts in the mind of Rachele Furfaro, President of Foqus (Association of the Spanish Quarters in Naples) and head of the school network ‘Dalle Parte dei Bambini’ (On the side of children). “Schooling can take place anywhere and at any time: on the street, in woods or parks, from dawn to dusk, at different times and places to the traditional ones we are used to. The whole city can become a classroom.”
Today the network ‘Dalla Parte dei Bambini’ brings together nurseries, infant, primary, secondary and international schools. For the more than 1,200 pupils who attend the schools in this network, classes have a maximum of 16 pupils, with lessons held between 8 am and 4 pm and optional workshops until 5.30. “The whole city,” Furfaro explains “is our school environment. Every day, pupils of all ages leave their classrooms and textbooks behind. For instance, to explain chemistry, we take them to the bakery and instead of boring them with formulas, they learn from watching the process that makes bread rise. Another regular stopover is at the workshop of maestro Talarico, his family has been hand crafting umbrellas for 5 generations and here children learn about geometry and technical processes.” Then there are lessons at the museum or the library. Walks at 6am serve to explain what dawn is and nights on the beach to explain the birth of the Great Bear constellation through the story of Callisto, the nymph with whom Zeus fell in love. “This is how,” she continues, “children create their own physical, mental, emotional and interpersonal places, where play nurtures their growth and learning.”
Alfonso D’Ambrosio, Vo’ Euganeo. A maths and physics teacher with a passion for innovative teaching practices who was named ‘Innovative Teacher’ at the Global Junior Challenge 2015, D’Ambrosio heads a cluster of schools in Lozzo Atesino in the Euganei hills: nine schools and 33 classes from infant to secondary level in three towns. The school in Vo’ was the first in Italy to close when the pandemic hit. Today the entrance hall at the primary school has been turned into nine classrooms where subjects from coding to debating are taught: “We want to start now to give children a new image of school and a very different experience to the one they’ve been used to over the past few months,” D’Ambrosio says. “We now have comfortable soft chairs in the common areas, no backpacks and leafy plants to ensure social distancing.”
The infant school at Cinto Euganeo has a very practical kind of open-air classroom. It’s where chicks hatch, 30 litres of oil have been produced, and vegetables grown for the school canteen. The school now has brand new brightly-coloured single-seater desks, soundproof panels to create extra classrooms in the large corridors (which means classes don’t need to be split up), tablets, robotics kits, three large multi-touch monitors and also around a hundred of the famous comfy chairs with wheels and a foldable flap. “Our aim,” he says, “is for the whole school to become a stimulating and comfortable environment for learning.”
Amanda Ferrario, Busto Arsizio. “Digital lessons are no substitute for attending school, though it is a good idea to give youngsters the digital skills they will increasingly need in the future. It was actually the only way we could keep the classes together and still give them a full timetable of lessons.” Explaining the choices she made is Amanda Ferrario, head of the Tosi school in Busto Arsizio who was also asked by the Ministry of Education to join the task force of experts managing the Covid-19 emergency. The Tosi technical institute comes ‘top of its class’ – it is the only Italian school among the 25 best in the world as ranked by the World School Forum. With its 300 teachers, 2,050 day pupils and 500 students at its evening classes, the institute is open Monday to Friday from 6 am to 11 pm. Its strong points are its international outlook and its focus on work-based learning. Pupils will not be graded on their work but rather on the skills they have acquired, and they cannot conclude a course until they have acquired those skills. The brightest ones will follow extra online courses with pupils from other classes and schools. To learn physics, for instance, they will join up with students at MIT.
Alfina Bertè, Acireale. The Giovanni XXIII cluster of schools in Acireale comprises seven schools with 700 pupils in infant, primary and secondary education. Today it is a hothouse of experimentation where the places of learning and timetable have undergone a transformation. The Head has made lessons shorter and, in the afternoon, pupils have been ‘given back’ the freedom to choose their own courses and workshops based on their interests. Computer skills, English, sewing, art, journalism and film making are just some of the offerings. “The youngsters,” Bertè tells us “learn by doing. Replacing traditional style lessons with workshops on a variety of subjects and allowing pupils more freedom to choose where and when they learn for at least a part of the timetable, has been a bold yet winning solution.
Our classes have become open spaces for students to come together, which we alternate with study periods called ‘islands of learning’ where students are split into smaller groups. We have become an ‘open-air school’. We have started to fully use every available space in our schools and created vegetable gardens together with the children. The city of Catania has given us permission to use part of a suburban park ‘Il Bosco di Acii’ and with the support from a scouts group, we can hold lessons there too. We want to create connections between the various initiatives, projects, financial and professional resources, and this is only possible thanks to the relationships we have built with other local stakeholders: nowadays, close ties with the local area provide greater freedom for teaching.”
Massimo Belardinelli, Città di Castello. “The success of schooling is dependent on proximity and a framework of responsibility. But above all,” explains Massimo Belardinelli, Head of the San Filippo cluster of schools in Città di Castello for the last 14 years, “it rests on the strength of relationships.” Belardinelli manages a school cluster for children aged three to eleven in a group of 12 schools, two of which are in mountain areas. Thanks to teamwork, the school has been able to renovate its classrooms and redesign the layout, which has attracted both national and international attention.
“Since 2015,” Belardinelli explains “we have been creating less constrained, inclusive ways of learning so that we empower our pupils. We followed – and continue to follow - a set of guidelines. The first is a cultural investment in the framework for learning and inclusion. The second is to use information and communication technology in our teaching. The third is to focus on intercultural understanding, inclusion and integration.” Even during the coronavirus emergency,” Belardinelli continues, “instead of enforcing drastic solutions or implementing solutions from the authorities, we followed a very precise plan to create even more spaces both inside and outside our schools. This means that the children are not all doing the same thing at any one time, and the wide range of activities available also gives adults the chance to listen in and support our efforts on inequality and diversity. That said, the children themselves will take care of these spaces, which gives them the opportunity to learn something new: how to manage risk. We had no remote lessons but learning ‘in proximity’: we took school to homes, focusing on relationships and not just on content.”
Giampiero Monaca, Serravalle d’Asti. Two corner stones - experience and empathy- are at the heart of ‘Bimbi Svegli’ (Smart Kids), an experimental methodology for open-air teaching designed by primary school teacher, former scout leader and WWF campaigner Giampiero Monaca. “Children today are still excited by earth, twigs and insects,” he explains as he describes the project he has set up in two classes at the Serravalle d’Asti primary school, 70 kilometres from the city of Turin. “There are 17 of us, first we work in groups in the classroom, then we go out into the woods to observe Nature or simply to read. We may even spot a pheasant, or a ladybird and come across a stream. We even take care of a neighbour’s young goats, letting them graze on our grassy areas.” The wonders of Nature help children grow, and they satisfy their curiosity of the outside world through their books or by asking questions.
This is a school without homework or backpacks and no teacher’s desk “because the children sit in a circle and work in groups.” And if they like, they can even go barefoot. The school has also become a training ground for integration: asylum seekers from Mali, Nigeria and the Gambia who live in a nearby refugee centre “have helped the children in the maintenance of school facilities. Working side by side, the children and the refugees spoke English together.”
Filomena Massaro, Bologna. Head of the school cluster 12 in Bologna comprising two nursery, one primary and one secondary school with a total of 1,350 pupils from the Savena district of Bologna. She is the spokesperson for a network which, since its foundation four years ago, has brought together 35 schools from six Italian regions. As she explains, the model “was built from the ground up thanks to the cooperation between a group of parents and teachers at two local infant schools. It is attracting a great deal of interest because it successfully introduces a nature-based approach to learning and allows us to hold almost a third of lessons outdoors, which makes it much easier to comply with social distancing and health and safety rules. We are getting ready to hold more than the ‘authorised’ 33% of lessons outside the school.” But what does that mean in practice? “The time we spend outdoors is actually learning time, a multi-discipline approach that our teachers have been trained in.” Can she give us an example? “When we go outdoors it is not necessarily for lessons on the environment, or not just about the environment, we also teach history, Italian, maths, science and so on.”
We now need teachers to realise that children can learn outside the four walls of the classroom.” What happens when a school does not have any outside spaces nearby? “You need to go and look for them. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Erik Gadotti, Trento. “In the past, we offered a traditional training course in graphic arts. Since 2007, the Istituto Pavoniano Artigianelli in Trento has become a veritable ecosystem with companies very much at its core. We offer a course which leads to a qualification and a diploma in graphic arts with a strong focus on vocational training,” explains Erik Gadotti who manages the school. The institute has workshops where students can develop projects on product and process innovation for the companies who have become its partners and “which range from local businesses to major multinationals in a variety of sectors,” Gadotti explains. “The workshops involve groups of mixed ages and ability with pupils from various secondary school years, neurodiverse students, university students and a number of researchers.” Bertolini Imballaggi is one of the companies with which “we are carrying out a research project to develop innovative packaging based on artificial intelligence. This is the kind of activity that companies cannot do alone, they do not have the time and the school does not have the know-how. By working together, this becomes possible.”
By working with youngsters, companies become environments for learning, and this allows them to develop the skills they need. “We have what we call our Contamination Lab Trento, both a physical and digital space for interaction and problem-solving which is sponsored by the University of Trento to encourage entrepreneurship,” Gadotti adds. “We also support start-ups by giving them use of our facilities for their first two years and, by involving them in some of our projects, we help them to develop their business.” This is how a school not only serves its own purposes but also manages to fully integrate with the business community. The school has made structural changes too, creating open spaces that are more conducive to interaction and the cross-pollination of ideas.
Angelo Lucio Rossi, Milan. The ‘enlightened’ Head of the school cluster ‘Alda Merini’ in Milan’s district 8 has no doubt. “School,” he says, “should be seen as something intrinsically productive. It should constantly generate otherwise what kind of school can you call it?” Rossi is a manager who has opened up his institute to the whole neighbourhood: “We are working to create an open school and I don’t just mean that metaphorically. We really are open from 8 am until midnight and this is only possible if we build relationships. Local associations, the church, and businesses all share our vision of education and they are helping us to make it a reality. The school becomes a space for everyone. The ‘open school’ concept is an unusual yet amazing way to give the school back to its local area, it is not mine, I haven’t bought it”. At the ‘Alda Merini’ the curriculum is merged with extra-curricular activities. “We have an arrangement with Fondazione Milan and they renovated the grounds and gym at our school. The Fondazione Laurens together with the Garignano sports club and the Santa Cecilia church has been taking care of our more vulnerable pupils, accompanying them to sports activities both during lesson time and in the afternoons.”
“The management of the school’s facilities is outsourced to third parties that also organize activities for the local population,” Rossi continues. “Music is one example: five young volunteers formed an association called ‘Palestra di Musica Popolare’ (Popular music workout) which now has 40 musicians. The school gives them the use of a room and the instruments, and they organize music courses in the afternoons. This inspired another association called the ‘Orchestra 8 note’ (8-note orchestra). We are especially proud of another key aspect: working the land, which is the result of an arrangement we made with a private company called Natura Sì. With their support we have created vegetable gardens in our four schools. Three times a week, our classes take care of the plants helped by a local group of elderly volunteers and a technician from the company.”
Milena Piscozzo, Milan. Head of the of the school cluster ‘Riccardo Massa’ in the suburbs northwest of Milan with 1,400 pupils. Since 2001, the cluster comprises primary and secondary schools and has several Montessori classes. “School,” Piscozzo explains “should not just give students a solid education for their future lives, it should also offer them a whole world of meaningful experiences and discoveries that engage their minds and bodies.” For many years, one of the schools was the only public Montessori school in the province of Milan. “After a first trial phase in the primary school,” Piscozzo continues “we extended the concept to the lower secondary school and the results were so positive that we asked the Ministry of Education for support.”
“We have created a network of schools – four schools in the city of Milan – and we have been granted experimental status. This created a virtuous cycle of active education practices which has kicked off a number of processes within our institute.” During the coronavirus emergency the Institute has managed to hold lessons in its classrooms but “we also bought kits to create outdoor classrooms. We have two outdoor classrooms for each school, so until October we can also use the garden for lessons. With the strict regulations we have to observe, any opportunity for our pupils to enjoy learning outside their normal classrooms is most welcome.”