28 March 2011

we can all learn from each other, italians and americans

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!


  1. What an interesting cultural exchange opportunity, Dana. I enjoyed reading your observations and look forward to hearing about your impressions of Italian and American first grade.

    My teaching experiences in the Japanese public high school system were similarly enlightening. There the students are placed on tracks in middle school that clearly identify if they will eventually go to college, vocational school, or into agriculture. It was very hard for students to veer from that track. There were also some very striking cultural differences in the classroom, both good and bad. Similar to your description of Italian schools, Japanese classrooms are orderly, quiet, and focused. Teachers have a role of very high respect both in the classroom and in the larger community. Corporal punishment was used and shockingly a student was killed by a teacher at a school in our district while being "punished". The parents came to the teacher and apologized for their child's behavior which had led to the need for the teacher's punishment.

    I didn't mean to get off on this tangent, but your post brought back memories of cultural exchange and comparison in the classroom. One of my favorite experiences in Japanese schools were the daily cleaning sessions. Each day at the same time all teachers and students would work together to clean up the school. I can't imagine this happening on a daily basis in an American school, but it was actually a nice way to encourage team work, responsibility, and pride.

  2. Dana, I too enjoyed your observation of this school. I wonder if this sort of curriculum/program is used all throughout Italy? I believe American schools are in deep trouble, unless we adapt some of these same ideas of tracking our students and placing them in the appropriate curriculum,without the so called insult, that some would think it is, if there child is not put into a curriculum of preparing for univeristy. Until Americans realize that it is not a shame not to go onto college,we will continue to have problems with our educational system. Our ideas that, your are nothing unless you are something,and can't achieve it unless you go to college, is ridicuous, and is ruining our children. Even we as parents have been brainwashed into thinking that we are nothing if our children have not succeeded into attending a university and graduating. It is crazy. Praying for change. And, looking forward to your first grade observation.

  3. Most of this comes from my unique point of view (interacting with mostly young Italians but not their teachers) and my proclivity to generalize excessively:

    Coming from the perspective of those who just got out (“got out”..like it’s prison) of the Italian education system, my friends definitely tell a different story. Although their system does not force everyone into a certain educational track like the American system, I think the pressure is also largely internal. I don’t believe that Italians don’t expect everyone to go to college. In fact, I think it is the opposite: a university education is seen as tantamount to being given the keys to a good life. Although they don’t use education as a means to size each other and put value in one’s social achievements (I’m surprised when “elite” schools such as Padova and Bologna does not elicit the gasp that a Harvard or Stanford does in the US), they nevertheless are much more enslaved to the idea that they need a university education to achieve anything in life.

    To this extent, I think Italians aren’t merely in school to “discover their passion” (something we Americans obsess over). Although their education system veers more towards the liberal than the vocational arts, their goal is more utilitarian than ours: go to school, get a diploma, get a job. Vocational training is also not as prominent or acceptable in Italy as it is in say, Germany or France, which in turn forces everyone into accepting and succeeding within a single education system. There’s nothing to fall back on but a college-prep track. Students are more obedient and eager to succeed not just because they want to, but also because they have to.

    Although we have made our education system far more complicated than it really has to be, I think the end result somewhat justifies the means. Although our system does leave a lot of children behind, we nevertheless produce a society that forces everyone to determine individual tracks and to “make something out of one’s self”--something that complements our system that tends to provide little in terms social support. In short, our system is based on extreme competition and perpetual one-upmanship, and our system is designed to address that. This in comparison to a system that treats education as an obstacle which, once conquered, leads to a life of comfort.

    As evidenced by the student protests that happened a few months ago, Italy’s system is faulty because higher education’s promise to a good life is now increasingly being broken. It’s not uncommon, among my friends at least, to have menial jobs or no jobs at all as much as ten years after college. There may be a host of options and possibilities for everyone, but for a people trained to believe that a college diploma makes them good enough for certain jobs and too good for others, the fact that options and choices exist is a moot point.

  4. It sounds to me that the Italians may have this right, certainly from your experiences.

  5. The longer I teach, the more I believe that “tracking” students would be the best educational practice. There are a number of students (mostly on IEP’s) who are so low, they cannot correctly write a complete sentence, add, subtract, multiply, or divide. These students need remedial help. Mainstreaming doesn’t help them at all. They only get further behind because they lack the skills to even remotely complete the task at hand. Students with such gaps need a separate setting where direct instruction can occur. When this direct instruction happens early enough, many students can get “caught up” and return to the general class. When students are grouped by ability, the needs of the group can more easily be met.


  6. I'm not sure I understand what kind of school this is. A public liceo scientifico? I went to a public liceo classico in Milan, back in prehistory ages, and on "orientation day" was blown away by the public local liceo scientifico that my boy will attend in September: labs actually appeared to be used (I never once set foot in the chemistry lab in my liceo), professors showed up and came to meet the parents and talk to them etc ... we shall see! Btw, the student protests in these last few years had to do with the series of dreadful school riforms and cuts that this government passed (the latest, riforma gelmini), and not with university education promises to a good life.

  7. Camomile (Melbourne)3/31/11, 12:53 PM

    It's fascinating to read your experiences Dana, and the experiences of other respondents. I teach in the secondary system in Australia, mainly 15-18 year olds, who are at the end their schooling before the attend university (or similar). We do not track our students and generally allow them to progress from one year to the next where they all undertake a mainstream curriculum until they have some broad choice of subjects in their final two years.
    I 'teach' many students who are at school purely for the social aspect. I often feel I am not 'teaching' but babysitting until they decide, often in their final year, that they should do some 'work' in order to achieve results to gain university admission.I often struggle to engage the students because they want to have fun, they don't want to be bored, they want me to do a song and dance EVERY class, they want to listen to ipods when they work, they really don't see the relevance of what I'm teaching in their lives....it goes on and on. Their parents often make excuses fortheir children. Homework is often not completed because of a personal crisis, a family holiday, sporting commitments, the dog ate the textbook....Students are late to school for the same reasons. This too goes on and on.
    Learning is not always fun, but our educational system concerns itself more and more with self esteem and nuturing the student rather than academics. Don't get me wrong, those aspects are important, but I see my role as an educator, not a parent - I do that at home.
    The students see me as a teacher but also their equal, and as such have respect for me but not my role.
    American schools sound very similar to Australian schools.I feel we are also in crisis. Italian schools sound like my dream. I'm sure there are many aspects to Italian education which probably stink but as far as classroom practices go....where can I get a job?

  8. Lucia,
    I have been fortunate to participate in this exchange. Most of it is through the efforts of our host nation teacher, but "the command" and our administration is supporting it wholeheartedly. Even some of our students are participaing in 4-day full immersion exchanges. It is certainly enlightening to see how others conduct education and to hopefully learn things from it -- whether those be what to do or what not to do. The tragic death in the Japanese school is unbelievable.

    I think it's time for a radical change, too.

    You make some interesting and valid points. My main point is that at the high school level, there are a host of options in Italian schooling -- college prep science/math, college prep classical education, profressional school, technical school, and even a regional school option. All of those types of schools are full in this area, with students at those college prep ones adn the technical ones preparing for post secondary ed. Those don't exist in America quite the same way, certainly not at the high school level like in Italy. In my experience and the experience of educators I know from across the country, the focus has shifted to the dream of college, college, college in America. Well, everyone is not going to college. It has even become shameful to admit that -- even for kids who just can't cut the muster or simply have no interest or desire to continue to college. This is nonsensical. This is a recent change of values, as when I began teaching in 1996, this was not the case.

    Our American K-12 system is in crisis.

    Leslie from Boston -- I agree. We are doing these kids a huge disservice.

    Thanks for sharing ideas, friends :)