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A response to the RSA essay on education for enlightenment from an Italian perspective

In this blog, Dr Agata Lo Tauro FRSA, with contributions from Maurizio Fantato FRSA FRGS respond to the ten points identified by The RSA as ‘Education by numbers’, offering an alternative perspective from a southern Mediterranean angle. These responses are based on a brief qualitative survey that was carried out among teachers in the island of Sicily and in particular in the city of Catania and surrounding areas. Some points were merged, in order to shorten the response.  

The importance of measurement and of what is measured
We generally agree with the perspective highlighted, but we notice that there is greater emphasis in the Italian system to offer a dual objectives approach. An educational one, in which progress is measured with the aim of detecting how pupils understand new knowledge and a summative check one, which serves to detect the progress of each learning unit.   

The first objectives must respond rather than to the criteria of validity and reliability, to the criterion of utility. That is, the educational objectives must be useful to adjust the pitch, to adapt the teaching activity to the different needs and characteristics of the students. 

The second ones are more conventionally measurable objectives, belonging aimed at detecting progress but also providing feedback to students on their performance levels and allowing to correct any errors and carry out the last didactic interventions before moving on to another field of contents. 

That aside an understanding of whether the student really enjoys acquiring that specific knowledge, or if when they will move out of the system they will use the knowledge in question for positive objectives is also lacking, even in the dual approach above.

Putting institutional interest before those of the pupils
A similar set of powerful institutional interest exists too, from economic, social, moral interests and the various sets of interests are partially in competition with each other (the full satisfaction of some can lead to the sacrifice of others) and this happens to the detriment of the interests of the students. When this happens there is also an obvious asymmetry between what the educational institution offers and what the pupils receive. The various relationships are often characterized by the ‘strength of the stakeholders’ which may not coincide with the interests of the students. Many of the students' expectations are often implicit, that is, not always clearly stated or taken into consideration, but often implied in the educational values ​​and teaching habits offered by educational institutions. 

Schools in the most disadvantaged areas struggle to keep teachers
This perspective is rather different, reflecting the varied economic development and disparity between the north and the south for example, or even within the metropolitan areas which have seen the highest levels of migration from less developed EU and non EU countries. 

Comparison is made more difficult by the fact that employment processes are much more convoluted in Italy, subject to public competitions, complex contractual negotiations between unions and government and a point based system.  In general terms though, and like in most countries with high unemployment, there is a high supply of teachers facing an artificially deflated demand, either for budgetary or administrative reasons or both. So a large number of posts are covered under temporary contractual arrangements. 

A new legislation restored the right to ‘venue ownership’ for all teachers. This means that each teacher can present a transfer request (both professorship and tenure) by expressing 15 preferences.  Evidently very few teachers would express a preference for schools at risk, more commonly presenting requests either for those entities geographically closer to the applicant, or more prestigious.  This new approach is therefore likely to create a problem for schools in disadvantaged areas where teacher retention could be lowered, with increased reliance on part time teachers as opposed to permanent ones. There is some pressure therefore to establish a bonus system for school in disadvantaged area to incentivise teachers to take up and remain in those posts. 

Encourage short-term approach
In general terms we are in full agreement with this point. There is a tendency to ignore long term consequences, applying quick fixes addressing short term issues only, appealing to cost efficiencies as a prime area of concern and with little regard to the long term needs of the pupils. 

The disengagement of students
Supporters of a socio-cultural approach to educational psychology for years have highlighted the importance of teacher-student interactions as indispensable factors in promoting pupils' motivation and participation in classroom activities, in turn considered as essential prerequisites for a good school career, useful tools to combat pupils' disengagement. At the same time, in a more psycho-social context, there are now numerous signs that testify how engagement is fundamental to protect young people from the danger of failure, disengagement or, worse, school dropout, to help avert the adoption of other risky behavior . Despite the evidence from several fronts and areas of our investigation, there are still numerous gaps regarding the links between the quality of classroom interactions, engagement , scholastic and psychosocial outcomes, positive or negative, above all including disengagement. First, empirical research has often analyzed class interactions and  engagement separately, while efforts to check whether and how these two dimensions are linked to each other in order to combat pupils' disengagement have been scarce.  More specifically, it remains for example to clarify whether the perception that students have of the interactive modalities adopted by their teachers is reflected on their level of commitment. Secondly, those studies focused on the existing associations between engagement, on the one hand, and motivation, risk of dropping out of school, school disengagement and risk behaviors, on the other, are still scarce today in Italy. 

The suffocation of the experimentation and innovation
In Italy there is more fertile ground for experimentation and innovation.  In fact, the country has a dedicated autonomous educational agency with the sole objective of fostering innovation in education through a series of actions that, in line with the Triennial Training Offer of the individual educational institutions, also involve the families, aiming to implement innovation that brings into the system the most significant experiences of transformation and latest didactic models. Italian educational institutions are also setting up innovation workgroups consisting of teachers selected by school administrators. 

Many educational institutions are recognizing the principles of Educational Avant-gardes and are already experimenting with one or more of one of those ideas. Students are beginning to receive new experiences that can then evolve into further innovation. The schools adopting the projects described above, which adhere to the Movement, participate in a presence and online assistance / coaching process: operational materials, in-depth documents, and food for thought analysis to download, webinars with leading schools, Talks with experts , workshops and face-to-face training sessions. 

The Italian Ministry of Education strongly encourages experimentation with the expressed possibility of “dedicating a part of the total hours for training laboratories to study visits by newly hired teachers, to schools characterized by projects with strong elements of innovation”. 

Speaking in particular of digital innovation and experimentation we can see and verify the widespread presence of teachers who work digitally day by day facilitating access to a fully digitised world by the educational system as a whole.  In particular, the Ministry of Education (MIUR)  has addressed the issue by promoting a National Digital School Plan which outlines the overall strategy for improving the positioning of the educational system in the digital age.

Schools approach this new paradigm by trying to understand how to best exploit emerging technologies, how to favor the conscious use of technological devices with the possibility of expanding learning environments. 

Increase in the workload of teachers
It is clear that these are hard times for those who work in education due to the ever increasing workload for all teachers and in particular for class coordinators.  Our survey shows that school operators often manifest psychosomatic symptoms, but also a sense of frustration, fatigue and detachment that threaten the quality of their daily work and social relations. The general cause that produces stress is the imbalance between theresources that are believed to have, personal or instrumental (for example those that make the school and administration available to manage the work), and the numerous requests that come from work, such as bureaucratic tasks, high rhythms, problems and complexity that come from contact with users. Managers and teachers work directly or indirectly, to foster the development of individuals and, at the same time, they carry out work that obliges them to confront and negotiate with other stakeholders. This exposes them to high cognitive demands - because they have to keep many elements in mind and make difficult and decisive decisions for many people - but also emotional, because they have to manage their emotions, especially the negative ones, keeping those that could threaten less evident and more controlled the relationship with others. This requires daily, often strenuous efforts. All of this is linked to the growing workload that is greater for secondary school teachers, as well as for secondary school leaders, compared to other school grades, a sign that working with preadolescents and adolescents poses very high challenges and there is a great sense of responsibility.

Demoralization of teachers
Burnout is common among teachers and head teachers in Italy too. The continuous contact with other people in need of attention and the need to put their needs in the background to dedicate themselves to others, maintaining the necessary availability and lucidity, can be very tiring for the worker in the long run.Precisely for the purpose of monitoring the well-being of Italian teachers, the lecturers subject to the survey recalled the work carried out by the establishment in 2012, commonly known as the National Observatory for Health and Teacher Welfare Institute (Onsbi), which brings together professors university students, scholars and experts. This body collected data that allowed us to understand of ​​how teachers and (more recently) school managers feel. A negative picture has emerged highlighting the growing demoralization of teachers. A teacher subjected to an excessive workload, who is unable to regenerate and use the resources that the school can provide them and who may assume an attitude of self-defense from what it perceives as threatening. Or a teacher who is professionally worn out from work and lacks support and who may consider any novelty and request coming from pupils, parents and manager to be threatening to his or her health and balance. The high burnout levels highlighted in the survey are obviously detrimental to the motivation of students and to the creation of a positive climate within a classroom.

Concluding remarks
We have noticed many parallels with the UK reality highlighted by the recent RSA research, in particular in the case of teacher demoralisation, short term vs long vision or excessive workload and student disengagement. In other areas the two models diverge greatly, in others differ simply because they represents two discrete modalities, such as in teachers recruitment for example. 

One of the areas of greater diversity relates in particular to innovation, where in Italy there is substantial support for experimentation, involving not only the schools themselves, but also families. The presence of a government agency fully devoted to innovation and experimentation in education makes it possible therefore to offer alternatives and new innovation which may otherwise be difficult to achieve in the UK especially in the state sector. 

Nevertheless, even in innovation, underlying negative factors such as excessive workload and demoralisation may make improvements ineffective and results may also be difficult to quantify utilising measurement models which are designed either for short term results or are still focused on more conventional curricular attainments. 

In both countries, despite some differences in the organisation and running of the state educational system and greater emphasis in experimentation, there isn’t yet an overall vision for the kind of educational enlightenment highlighted by the RSA. There is also little aimed at moving towards the achievement of individual greatness and enlightenment. The creation of inquisitive students in particular is a moot point and one that cannot be left entirely to schools or to the educational system, but needs to be fostered across society, commencing by many of the media channels that countless young people are using and which by definition expose them to a culture that may have diametrically opposed objectives than those reflected within a country’s own system.    

On this point and in respect to a more international approach to the issues in question, we were surprised to see no reference by the RSA to other models such as the European schools model - a system which has a pedagogical footprint which arises from the fusion of the best parts of the various European models, it’s family centered and focuses greatly on students psychological welfare, self guided learning and students’ happiness, together with a very high level of participatory decision making process across other community stakeholders too. The degree of success of these educational institutions is well proven, yet sadly limited to very few selective schools across Europe, primarily for political reasons. 

The opportunities for improvement are available and in some instances exist already, but they require a joined up approach across government departments, institutions and society as a whole.

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