The Reasons Behind a School System that Doesn’t Work – Elena Vedovello, Italy

If you look at the statistics, you will notice that students in Italy spend more time at school than most of their peers from other nations, while also spending more time studying than 90% of students in other countries. Yet surprisingly, Italy does not rank at all high in the top nations for academics.

In fact, students in Italy spend an average of thirty hours at school every week five hours per day from Monday to Saturday and on top of that, they spend an average of nine hours per week doing homework, while the same statistic is 4.5 hours globally. They have less free time and many more tests than students from other countries, ranking in the top five for both hours of studying and amount of homework. However, contrary to the extreme amount of work Italian students must undertake, the knowledge and the assets they obtain are still not up to par with the ones gained by graduates from other parts of the world. For instance, one in four students does not understand Maths and ends up failing the exams, while in reading, one in five students lacks basic comprehension skills. Furthermore, there are huge differences between the Northern and Southern regions; in language abilities, students in the South do 30% worse academically than their peers in the North.

The number of students that decide to attend university after finishing high school is constantly decreasing. The percentage of students who further their studies at an university declined from 72,6 % in the 2003/2004 academic year to 55,7% in the 2012/2013 year. 20% of 15 to 29 years old do not study or work, meaning Italy has the second lowest youth employment rates in Europe, right after Greece. All these differences are even more exaggerated amongst students from a low-class background and those who live far from the school.

The main reason for this inequality is that the Italian educational system is quite an old one.

It was created in the 1930s by the fascist government to teach children how to read, write, reach a basic understanding of mathematics, as well as encouraging the creation of a far-right society. Since the collapse of the fascist regime, subjects such as “History of Fascism” have been abolished, but few other changes have been made since then. The mandatory years of schooling have increased from two to ten, programs have been improved, and subjects have been added. In addition, different high schools were set to focus on a big variety of subjects – which means that in Italy you choose the high school path you want to follow, not the subjects.

Since its creation, the Italian school system has depended almost solely on memorization, textbooks, testing, standardisation, the infallibility of the teacher, and an extreme control of the pupils. Above all, the system encourages quantity over quality, basically an omologation of all students. It’s a system that doesn’t work on a global scale and can’t really fulfill the needs of the constantly-changing young generations of the developing world.

In a country where education is about listening to the teachers, taking notes, gaining knowledge from a text-book, doing exercises over and over, and then having tests, students only learn facts, not the reasoning behind them. When you only memorize dates, you can’t really learn from history. If all the information you learn is provided by a book or a professor, you’ll never develop critical thinking skills. In a system that wants everybody to be omologated, creativity and different methods are not encouraged. Visual arts, music, film and theatre are not taught in the majority of Italian schools. The way of learning tends to be the same for everybody, without the open-mindedness to think that education is something deeply personal.

When you just have to retain the facts the teacher has given you, questions are seen as ways to take up time and nothing more. Curiosity and the desire to learn more are not things you can have in a place where curriculums are too extensive to be thorough and where the lessons follow the textbooks step-by-step. In a school where rigorous studying is the only way to learn, testing becomes the most important part, and so it is for many students, teachers and parents. At school, grades are more important than understanding, and learning stops after you pass the test or leave the classroom. Since school is like this, not many people think it plays a central role in “sculpting” the citizens of the future. That’s why only 4% of tax spending goes towards education.

Because of this prejudice we have about school, teachers are not seen as an integral part of our society. Teaching is one of the less important jobs in Italy and therefore, one of the most underpaid. Teachers are paid less than half of what specialized workers are paid, meaning the best graduates will never pursue this job unless they are really driven by another motive. Luckily there are still some willing! However, If your choice of pickings are slim, teaching can be a good idea; teachers have long holidays, a salary that increases (though not by much) as they get older, and it’s really difficult to lose the job.

This cycle of money, misconceptions, and advantages attracts indifferent teachers and repels those who might actually make a change. Furthermore, in a system that doesn’t look for innovation, teachers below the age of 44 represent 26% of all teachers, those over 55 represent 31%, while those between 44 and 54 account for 41%. Becoming a teacher after finishing university is very hard in a nation where you have to work for years to get a stable job, no matter how good it is.

Of course, there are many different kinds of teachers, just like there are many kinds of actors, musicians and politicians. Some really love what they’re doing, some are too strict, some have obsolete methods, some may not even come to school most of the times, some don’t care at all, some don’t know how to manage a class of 25-30 pupils, and then some will just read the textbook with you, word after word. Yet, no matter how different they may be, teachers have a central role in the school system, since they’re considered foolproof.

Many times, it is seen that one’s education revolves around the teacher’s decision. For instance, when doing homework or when studying, it’s mostly what the teacher wants and not what you want from your education; even your notebooks are sometimes strictly controlled by the teachers to see if they are exactly what they want them to be.

Recently, there was a school reform by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Education Minister Stefania Giannini. The reform was expected to bring new things to up to the plate, but looking closely at it, after many changes were made to please most of the people, these changes focused mostly on teachers rather than students.

The biggest thing that students in Italy are worried about is the assessment system. There’s one big difference between Italian schools and other ones around the world–vocal tests.

During a vocal test, random students are verbally asked questions by the teacher for the entire duration of the period. The number of students tested in one hour varies from teacher to teacher and ranges from one to five, and sometimes more. These vocal tests take place almost everyday and students might even have three or more of these in one day. When the teacher gives you a mark after this kind of test, it is hardly ever objective or fair. Everyone has their preferences, so there’s no one to check if the mark is just and students can’t argue, because, as said before, the teacher is always right and arguing can get you in trouble. There are also some teachers who don’t want to do anything at all and decide at the beginning of the year that in their class you can do anything you want and the mark for you will always be 6 out of 10. Since the marks are not accurate and vary based on the teacher’s rigidity, how much they like you, and their mood, assessment will never be exactly what you deserve, which makes the whole system very unfair.

If you would like to know more about the way we run the school system, seen from a foreigner’s perspective, please refer to these videos:

Please note that it’s one person’s perspective and that the system varies a lot from region to region, town to town, school to school and even class to class.

Once an Italian student finishes school (if they ever do – almost 20% of the students drop out of school prematurely) there’s the bare truth waiting for them. With a youth unemployment rate of 32% in 2012 that increased to 46% this June – and the number seemingly eager to go up – young Italians have to work too hard to find a job. Italy is a country where new workers are not welcomed and old ones stay until an excessively old age.

When youth reach the age of 18, the legal voting age, almost 70% of youth don’t vote, because they believe that all the politicians are “corrupt, poor and mediocre”. The reasons can be one of three: the frustration at a government that doesn’t represent its citizens, the gap between politicians and citizens, or the lack of information about politics and political parties. At school, politics can’t be discussed in class, and in the majority of institutes, students are not taught about the government, how it works, or what different parties believe in. If political, local, and global affairs are neglected, many young people won’t be interested at them, and the future of the country may not be the brightest.

In a country famous for its cultural heritage, its landscapes, and its monuments and paintings, the educational system is still an old one. It is a system that thrives on omologation, inequality, memorization, and testing. It is a system where many teachers are mediocre and strict, and where globalization and innovation are not valued. What will our destiny be, with an education that instead of preparing us for our future, prepares us for our past?


2 responses to “The Reasons Behind a School System that Doesn’t Work – Elena Vedovello, Italy

  1. Pingback: Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 10. When in Doubt, Study « [quem dixere chaos]·

  2. This is so interesting, and I can relate to this article a lot, as Spanish educational system is very similar to Italian. To get into teaching you only need a very low score on your entrance examination for universities (how ironic, right?). I really hope things change soon enough.


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