This year I've been involved in a teacher exchange program that matches teachers from our American high school with teachers at a local Italian liceo scientifico. Six teachers from our school have been partnered with Italian colleagues in similar teaching positions. We've spent time at each other's schools and have had the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions of curriculum, pedagogy, politics, and, my favorite, teenagers.
I've previously shared my observations after a visit with a group of our students to this school. Today, I visited only with our cohort of teachers, allowing a different look into the school. After arrival we were given a tour of the new (4-year-old) facility by the principal, which includes both an impressive auditorium and gymnasium, and then we were welcomed into his office for a general Q&A session, followed by un caffè, of course. The public school has nearly 1400 students, and is one of two of its type in the city. About 95% of the students from this public school continue to college.
I believe that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
I was absolutely, positively blown away by the general behavior of the students. Of the classes I observed, not once, not one single time...as in, never, was there a confrontation between a teacher and a student. There was no persuading students to listen, to be engaged, to pay attention, to stay awake. No threats of referrals or emails to parents. This wasn't due to engaging, student-centered learning, I assure you. Mutual respect was obvious, but so was the position of authority of the teacher.
Learning was not "fun."
I sat in on a lesson that took place in a computer lab setting with a group of first-year students, ninth graders. As the professoressa delivered a lesson entirely in English on ecology as part of an English / content area collaborative project, each and every student remained on task. I sat in the back of the room where I could see all of the screens; not one single student clicked away to places he or she should not be. We were there for over an hour; the teacher talked the entire time. When the teacher offered the students the opportunity to download the files to USB drives, each student was prepared with his or her drive.
Learning did occur.
Generally, it is no longer considered sound educational practice in the American school system to track students, to group students according to ability level. Instead, students are placed together, and educators are expected to differentiate instruction daily, hourly to meet the needs of each individual. The abilities and interests of those students varies, greatly. Even advanced placement classes are losing elite-only status as research shows that most students benefit from an AP curriculum.
Though many cultural factors likely play into this, I am convinced that the reason for the general atmosphere of this particular Italian school is because students are tracked and placed successfully. This is essentially a public college-prep school that meets the needs of a certain population of students. In general, only those students attend this school.
About Italy ... Not everyone attends college. Not everyone is expected to go. It is not shameful to choose other paths. It's not part of achieving the "Italian Dream." College does not equal success in life for everyone.
Within five minutes of meeting an American for the first time, the inevitable, "So, what do you do?" is asked, if it hasn't been voluntarily offered: "Hello. Nice to meet you. My name is Dana, and I am a teacher. And you? What do you do?" or "This is my sister, Kris, she is a PA in a pediatric ER." College matters. First encounters with Italians don't go this way; I have to believe that it's because it's not as important. We use occupations to sum each other up, to define ourselves and our general place in society. They do not. Frankly, they don't seem to care. I've learned to stop offering the information in conversations with Italians. This is not to say that credentials and achievements don't matter; they just don't hold the same meaning.
In Italy, it seems ... There is no reason to force a college-prep curriculum on someone who has shown no propensity to succeed in the environment. Only those who show promise of a future that includes college attend the rigorous academic high schools. This is all sorted out in middle school. Once they reach high school, needs are better met. Behavior is better. Everyone is happier. More learning takes place. Define their strengths and point them in the correct direction -- that's the plan. The "late bloomer" is out of luck, mostly, to rejoin this track but he has a host of options as well that are suited to his needs.
Don't throw stones at me. I'm just telling it like I see it.
Admittedly, my view may indeed be limited to my neck of the woods and could possibly be blurry. I never want to generalize, but I fear I do.
Coming soon...so what's so different between Italian and American first grade, from the perspective of a parent who happens to be an American teacher? First up -- not all Western parents (Italians are Western, right?) expect learning to be fun. Shocking, but true!