Italian School Culture: Encouraging Unity in the Classroom

One interesting and very successful aspect of Italian schools is how the entire system works to promote social cohesion among the students.

The basic unit at all school levels is the class – not in the sense of year (grade), but subsection of a year. There are usually multiple sections per year, identified by a number and a letter, e.g. Classe I C is section C of the first year. The following year this same group of kids will be section II C.

You are with the same people (including teachers) for all five years of elementary school, then change schools and find yourself in a new group for the three years of middle school. In five-year high schools, the classes stay together for the first two years (biennio), but may change composition for the last three years (triennio) if they subspecialize. For example, at the Liceo Artistico (art high school) that Ross attended, kids going into the third year had to choose between graphic arts, art history and conservation, and two other specializations that I don’t now remember.

There are minor changes to a class population each year because some kids repeat years (this happens frequently in high school) or change schools entirely (rarer) or move to a new town (extremely rare). But basically the same group of kids and teachers can expect to be together for years.

Each class does everything together, all day, staying more or less in the same room; it’s the teachers who go from classroom to classroom, except those whose subjects require labs or other special equipment.

Everyone in a section takes the same courses. There are almost no electives in Italian schools, since, by high school, you have chosen a specialized school and program which is hopefully what you’re interested in (if not, you have to change program or even school – difficult if you lack the prerequisites for the program you’d like to move into).

In public high schools, each class – by law – has two elected representatives, to protect the students’ interests within the institution. Each class may use two class periods per month for a class meeting in which to discuss class business, unencumbered by the presence of teachers. The representatives refer any complaints, troubles, or suggestions to their teacher committee or, if they think they won’t get a fair hearing from their teachers, to the principal. Class representatives meet regularly with their class’ teacher committee, and once each semester there’s an assembly of all class representatives in the school, headed by a pair of “institutional” representatives elected by the entire student body. Class representatives also attend the biannual parent-teacher meetings.

This gives students some direct and useful experience with leadership, representative government, and bureacracy. The elected leaders learn to deal with authority (we hope in a constructive manner). Class government helps to unite the class: they must act together to find solutions to problems, and elect leaders who can carry through those solutions effectively.

All these factors work to bind students into a cohesive social group; I assume that this is one of the basic, if undeclared, aims of the Italian education system.

And there is little going on in Italian schools that would tend to work against class cohesion: very few extra-curricular activities, no school sports except PE class, no band, cheerleaders, chess club, etc. All sports and hobbies are done as after-school lessons and activities (by those who are interested and can afford it). There are no school-sponsored dances or proms – anyone can go to a local disco, not even necessarily with a date.

Italian schools, quite reasonably, concentrate on academics, but not in the fiercely competitive way that seems to be the norm at some American schools. From what Ross tells me, there aren’t any publicly-recognized geniuses in Italian schools. Grading seems rather flat: on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 or lower is a failing grade, 6 is a bare pass, and most grades seem to fall in the 5 to 7 range – few 8s, fewer 9s, and I’ve rarely heard of any of Ross’ classmates (in any of her schools) getting a 10.

Italian schools don’t suffer anything like the clicquishness and bullying that characterize (some? many?) American schools. I won’t claim that no one ever gets teased nor feels excluded in any Italian school, but I have an attentive inside observer in Rossella, and she has never mentioned anything like the miseries that I went through in American elementary and middle schools. (Ross herself is keenly alert to that sort of thing, and works hard to integrate anyone she perceives as being excluded. That, and her let’s-fix-this-attitude, got her elected class rep last year.)

Physical violence and bullying in Italian schools are almost unknown. Rape or sexual harassment are unheard of. An Italian student is more likely to commit suicide (over bad grades) than to try to harm anyone else. They do get up to mischief, but it’s usually the school itself that suffers, in some form of vandalism. Sometimes students go on strike and take over the school completely, running classes themselves. (This seems to have gone out of fashion these days, but it’s an interesting illustration of student social cohesion.)

I’ve written a great deal about what I don’t like about the Italian education system, but when I see American kids passing through metal detectors to get into their schools, I heave a sign of relief and thanks that my daughter isn’t going through THAT.

8 thoughts on “Italian School Culture: Encouraging Unity in the Classroom

  1. Katie

    I am in school to be a teacher in America but we are doing a research paper on Education in another country. I chose Italy and this was great stuff!!!! Thanks sooo much!

  2. Laura

    Hellooo!
    I am reading your website with such great interest!I am actually Italian (from Italy) but living in the USA at the moment planning to finish my studies here. I go to College here and I have loved it so far! I love the way Professors interact with students, so different by the way I was treated as a student in Italy! I have to say I agree with you in all you said in your articles about the Italian school system and it is great to read about an American observing the Italian school system and coming down with the same observations I make (which I am sure would be common to those that have experienced both systems!). I agree big time on all of it! You are a great observer and you seem to have a great relationship with your daughter which is ammirable! I am actually dreaming about moving here for good one day, and seriously the thought that any of my future children will have to go the “negative” aspects of the American School System (such as the socialization part) really scares me. The pros and cons are just so many! Oh well, I guess I will cross that bridge when I will get there. All I want to say is that it is cool to see my same thoughts written by an American living in Italy! I will sure pass by soon!:) Have a great day!

  3. LOrenzo

    Sono anzi ero uno studente italiano in italia mi ha fatto molto piacere leggere la sua osservazione,
    io sono innamorato della scuola italiana sopra tutto del liceo perchè infondo anche se è duro sono gli anni più belli il sistema è fatto per far capire che il mondo non fa sconti a nessuno e che infondo è meglio daarsi una mano che ammazzarsi avicenda. Il clima che si cre tra compagni è unico e non tornera più nella vita il pregio della scuola italiana è di creare un ambiente amichevole di sereno scambio tra individui, anche i professori sene dimenticano e infatti si fa sciopero.

  4. LOrenzo

    Indeed I am an Italian student in Italy has given me great pleasure to read your comments,
    I am in love with the Italian school, above all because of the high school even though it’s hard to instill are the best years the system is made to understand that the world does not discount anyone and instill a hand that is better daarsi kill Avic. The climate of growth that is unique among comrades and will not return the value in the life of the Italian school is to create a friendly environment of peaceful exchange between individuals, even the professors sene forget and makes himself a strike.

  5. Gia

    I am in Italian student and I went to a Academic School Liceo specialized in languages. It can be extremely rigorous, but I disagree with the bullying aspect, I saw it and experienced it first hand, both directly and indirectly at all stages. Usually teachers and students believe it’s up to the students to handle the issue, they rarely believe they should get involved even if teh kids are very young.
    As far as competition goes, it varies. I witnessed a lot of it. The tight nit community also creates very powerful mechanisms of exclusion.If the main click doesn’t accept you, you have no say. You also seem to forget that cheating is strife at all levels (a sociologist has also written a book exploring this topic and it’s relation to high levels of corruption later on in life).
    Overall you depiction of Italian school does have some positive points, some observations I believe fit in with reality very well, but you also commit a common fallacy. You infer a general statement regarding education in Italy from a limited and unrepresentative sample. In other word’s Rossella’ s experience is not enough to portray a country’s system. It is limited and therefore it does not encompass the large majority of realities of the country, Many people who have studied at school have a rose-tinted memory of it, because nostalgia gets in the way of clear judgement.

  6. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    As I said in the beginning of the overall section about Italian education, I am very much aware that what I know about it comes from one set of places and times, and mostly one child’s experience.

  7. Rebecca Ream

    Hello, I came across your blog by simply googling :is the American school system easier than the Italian….and you popped up! Was wondering if I could pick your brain a bit.. I am an American mother of three children living in Italy. My kids are born here and attend school here . My oldest is currently in the midst of preparation for her maturita’ exam. My son will be entering highscool in the fall and my youngest will be starting 4th grade. We are planning on moving to America this summer and the kids all be enrolling in the American school system. My 14 yr old really struggles with the work load that the Italian school system demands. He failed the 8th grade and is currently repeating it and is nonetheless struggling still. I don’t remember the American school system to be so demanding and difficult!!! Im wondering if any one could give an opinion on whether its easier in the US or is that just my idea? Im hoping that it has a less stressful academic experience in the states because quite frankly its sad that at 14 he feels slightly burned out and has developed an aversion to school because of the giant workload here…Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

  8. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    I don’t have much recent experience with the US school system myself, but I can say that a change of school system worked very well for my daughter, who was similarly burned out in Italy, had flunked her 2nd year of high school, was at risk of flunking again, and developed a test phobia. For her 4th and, as it worked out, final year of high school she attended Woodstock School, the international boarding school in India that is my alma mater. It runs on a more or less American system but is not an “easy” school. Ross thrived there and made decent grades, including passing math for the first time since elementary school!

    One thing I like about American schools is that there are many areas to thrive in, not just pure, old-fashioned academics. Different people have different talents, and it’s good for every kid to have at least one area that they can shine in. In Italy it’s all and only academics – no sports, drama, or music.

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