Category Archives: Italian education

Education in Italy: One Foreign Parent’s Views & Experiences

Caveat: The articles in this section are based on my family’s experience of the Italian education system in a specific time and place: Milan, and later Lecco, from 1991 to 2007. I haven’t lived in Italy all my life, nor ever attended any Italian educational institution myself, so my views may be biased, and your mileage may Read More…

Caveat: The articles in this section are based on my family’s experience of the Italian education system in a specific time and place: Milan, and later Lecco, from 1991 to 2007. I haven’t lived in Italy all my life, nor ever attended any Italian educational institution myself, so my views may be biased, and your mileage may vary based on your location, specific school, and specific child.

Homeschooling in Italy

Yes, it is possible. I don’t know much about it, though I investigated briefly a few years ago.

Adult Continuing Education

One option for distance learning: the Open University (I did my MBA with them).

A School Year Abroad

In my encounters with fellow alumni of Woodstock School, many naturally ask me if and when my own daughter will attend. The answer is: with a great deal of luck, she will start in August, 2007, for an exchange year which will be her fourth/senior year at Woodstock, but only her penultimate year of Italian Read More…

In my encounters with fellow alumni of Woodstock School, many naturally ask me if and when my own daughter will attend. The answer is: with a great deal of luck, she will start in August, 2007, for an exchange year which will be her fourth/senior year at Woodstock, but only her penultimate year of Italian high school.

The application process has not been easy. Not surprisingly, the application forms and process for SAGE (Studies Abroad in Global Education, the US-based outfit that runs Woodstock’s exchange program) are slanted towards US students. There are differences between Italian and US school systems and cultures that could cause an Italian applicant to look “weak”.

American private schools and universities are fond of “well-rounded” applicants, expecting students to be doing sports, public service, paid work, arts, etc., in addition to lots of schoolwork (apparently, no one is allowed time to just be a kid anymore).

Almost none of this is likely or even possible for Italian kids.

Italian Students Are Not “Well-Rounded” – Here’s Why

There are no extra-curricular activities in Italian public schools (I assume for lack of funding). The only sport is PE. There is no music, no school newspaper or yearbook, rarely drama, no clubs. There is student government (mandated by law), but only two class representatives (plus two for the whole school) are elected per year, and they don’t do much. There are occasional special events that students can volunteer to participate in (Ross is usually the photographer). Ross’ current private school does try to get their kids to do volunteer work, in a very limited way (Ross tutors a younger girl in English).

Some kids do after-school sports or dance, a few competing very seriously, but participation at that level is expensive and takes a lot of time. Otherwise, Italian kids don’t have opportunities for awards or recognition. Volunteerism exists in Italy only on a small scale, and few kids are encouraged to participate. Almost none but the truly needy work after school or during summers – it was unusual that Ross did an internship last summer, at the company where I worked.

Italian kids simply don’t have time or opportunity to do much of anything outside of school and homework. One effect of this is that kids who are not good at academics may never get a chance to shine at anything, nor to realize that they may have non-academic skills that are useful and valued in society. This can’t be good for their self-esteem. No wonder so many seem to be drifting and unmotivated.

The SAGE application asks about a “guidance counselor,” a role which doesn’t exist in the Italian system. No guidance is offered about university entrance or careers – kids figure these things out together with their parents, which may be part of the reason that many university students seem profoundly uninterested in the degrees for which they are studying.

Some high schools used to have part-time psychological counsellors available, but those positions have disappeared from public schools with recent cuts in education funding.

There is no tracking in Italian schools, no honors levels or anything of that sort: everyone does exactly the same classes as their classmates, sink or swim. If you fail three or more subjects in a year, you repeat the year, and the failure rates are astonishing. In Ross’ first year of high school, six or seven of the 25 kids in her class failed. The same thing happened again in her second year (which was when Ross herself failed). I’m not crazy about the American practice of “social promotion,” either, but there’s got to be a happy medium somewhere!

Italian grading is a mystery to me. In high school, students are graded on a scale of 1-10, with 6 being a pass, but grades above 7 don’t seem to be assigned at all routinely. Given that, and the high rate at which students fail classes and entire grade levels, I was amazed to learn last year that 97% of students pass the maturità (school leaving exam) on their first try, with some high proportion getting very good marks. Perhaps the teachers grade harshly throughout high school to keep them humble. In discussion about this on the Expats in Italy forum, one Italian participant opined that some high school teachers grade punitively to enhance their own sense of power. (Hey, she said it, not me!)

The SAGE application further asks: “Smoking, use of alcoholic beverages and drug abuse are unacceptable at SAGE schools. Does the applicant have a history of using any of these?”

My answer: “In Italy, it was until a few months ago perfectly legal for 16-year-olds to buy and consume alcohol. A new law says 18 [I’m not even sure this passed], but it’s doubtful that this will survive as law, let alone be applied in real life. Most Italian kids drink wine at home with their families from age 12 or even younger – this is a cultural norm. Smoking is legal from age 16, and many kids (unfortunately) smoke. Light drugs such as marijuana are treated lightly by the law. (Ross drinks, but she knows the rules, and will abide by them at Woodstock.)”

Anticipating a Difficult Re-Entry

A huge question mark over this whole exchange idea is what happens when the student returns. The Italian government encourages students to go on exchange programs during both high school and university, and increasing numbers are doing so, usually to English-speaking countries so that they can become fluent in English. But their re-entry into the Italian system is difficult.

The classes they take as high school seniors in average American public schools are far behind the levels at which their Italian peers study in the fourth year. Unless they had excellent grades when they left (which is difficult – see above), upon return to Italy most face the unappetizing prospect of studying (alone) all summer to make up the deficit, then trying to pass comprehensive exams before the new school year starts in fall, so that they can rejoin their peers in the fifth year. If they choose not to do this, or fail too many of the tests, they must repeat the fourth year.

Some of this process would be easier if we had signed Ross up to one of the several established exchange programs in Italy, but these give you no control over where you end up and for Ross, who doesn’t need to learn English, going to some random school in the US is not particularly appetizing. For the sake of future Italian students who may wish to attend Woodstock (which likes to be as international as possible), I may eventually talk to some of these agencies and see what the prospects are for working together, but they would not move in time to help Ross for next year (one I wrote to months ago never responded to my email).

So we’re doing this on our own. Because Woodstock has much higher standards than most American public schools, I am hoping that Ross will be able to avoid some re-entry hassles if we carefully match what she studies there (e.g., in math, physics, and science) with what she’ll be missing here. Some subjects, such as Dante, she will certainly have to do on her own.

Assuming that she’s even accepted to Woodstock in the first place. With Ross’ long history of being a misfit in the Italian school system, her grades are disastrous. But the prospect of going to Woodstock seems to be a powerful motivator: now, when it’s almost too late, she is throwing herself into her studies, and starting to see results. It’s not easy for her, and probably never will be, but she’s trying hard. Let’s hope it achieves the results she desires.

what Ross wrote about it

Further Addendum from D

Mar 4, 2007

In the flurry of gathering papers and filling in forms, I forgot to mention perhaps the most important result I’d like to see for Ross if she attends Woodstock: friendships. Not that she lacks for friends here, but there’s something qualitatively different about the friendships one makes in a situation like Woodstock. My classmates, staff, and other friends from Woodstock are my family: the people I can rely on to understand me deeply and be there for me, as I am for them.

And this doesn’t just apply to the people who happened to be there when I was there. With the shared bond of this very unique (okay, weird!) experience, superficial differences like nationality or religious belief simply fall away. I can meet any Woodstocker, anywhere in the world, and, no matter whether I’ve met them before or they’re twenty (or more!) years older or younger than me, I know that, at the very least, I can look forward to a good conversation.

Addendum: Rossella was accepted into Woodstock School. Now we have a lot to do.

School Cheating in Italy

School continues to be hell, not just for Rossella, but also for her parents. She scraped through her repeat second year at a new (private, Catholic) school with two academic debits (failed classes) – math and physics, as always. Being in private school has advantages: last year she had private tutoring in math from a Read More…

School continues to be hell, not just for Rossella, but also for her parents. She scraped through her repeat second year at a new (private, Catholic) school with two academic debits (failed classes) – math and physics, as always.

Being in private school has advantages: last year she had private tutoring in math from a retired teacher with whom she got along very well, and even came close to passing a test or two towards the end of the year. Her regular math teacher was pleased with her progress, and actually in tears at losing her to another teacher this year.

This new teacher appears to be… inexperienced. While discounting for Ross’ prejudices against teachers, and especially math teachers, I do suspect there’s a real problem there. Ross’ story is that the teacher can’t keep control of the class or keep their attention; suggestions from the students on how to do so (e.g., have them do problems on the board, as their previous teacher did) were not heeded for long. So the teacher, out of some spirit of revenge, or because she thinks they should know the stuff, gives them long and complex tests which few of the class have any hope of getting through.

One group of students decided to divide up the test, each doing a part, and then swap their results. Those results were not necessarily correct, but at least they got through the whole test, which is more than most of the students toughing it out on their own were able to do.

I don’t know how they are pulling this off under the teacher’s nose – like most teachers in Italy, she seems to be blissfully unaware of (or deliberately ignoring) the massive cheating that goes on in her classroom.

This has long been a mystery to me. Every child and parent you speak to in Italy is well aware that cheating goes on. Many parents will admit to having done it themselves, and tacitly or explicitly condone their own children’s cheating. So how can the teachers not know that it’s occurring? Perhaps those who choose to become teachers were such academic swots (secchioni – big buckets – is the Italian term) in their own schooldays that they never needed or wanted to cheat, and therefore never learned the techniques, and don’t know what to look out for.

This widespread cheating is damaging in so many ways. In situations like the one with the current math teacher, Ross and others who don’t cheat will fail the test – without the cheating, according to Ross, almost all of the class would have failed that particular test. Were that to happen, the teacher and the principal would (I suppose) have to take note. I’m not a strong believer in bell curves, but if 90% of your class fails, something went wrong that you can’t just blame on the students.

However, those who cheated got higher marks than they otherwise would have, skewing the results. Were the teacher to be confronted on her unsuccessful teaching style, she could point to those kids and say: “Some of them obviously succeeded in learning from me.” They didn’t – they cheated. So the teacher can continue to believe that she’s doing a good job. And Ross, and others, will continue to struggle and fail – honestly.

Last year at this school, a girl close to graduating was discovered to have been cheating on her Greek tests for years. She was not allowed to take the maturita’ (school leaving exam), and was forced to repeat the year. But why did it take her teachers so long to catch on?

Jun 26, 2007 – The math teacher finally caught on when, on the last test of the year, 90% of the tests turned in were identical. Only Ross and one other student (out of a class of ~25) had not cheated. The teacher zeroed out the results of that test and gave another one the following week, which was to Ross’ advantage as she had not done well on the first one. But the teacher did not go back and re-evaluate what had happened on the previous tests, nor did she recalculate anyone’s final grades.

To my mind, there should have been a penalty for the cheaters. All these kids have now learned by experience that cheating is fine, as long as you can get away with it, and there are no real penalties even when you do get caught! And this in a class where the physics teacher had earlier been angry over the degree of cheating he observed on one of his tests, and warned them that if it happened again there would be consequences. But when it happened again with a different teacher, there were no consequences. Again, very poor moral lesson: if one "boss" catches you misbehaving, try it on another.

Situations like this make me just want to go and slap somebody.

Your thoughts and experiences on this?

Education – What Skills Should We Build for a Lifetime?

I have written about my vast and varied experiences with education. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about what education should be, I just know that a lot of what I endured didn’t work for me, and much of our daughter’s schooling to date has hasn’t worked for her. And it’s very hard to say Read More…

I have written about my vast and varied experiences with education. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about what education should be, I just know that a lot of what I endured didn’t work for me, and much of our daughter’s schooling to date has hasn’t worked for her. And it’s very hard to say what will work for kids in the future, or to know what sort of citizens schools should be aiming to form, let alone advise them on how to do so.

I had the good fortune to go to a remarkable high school with high academic standards, small class sizes, and talented, dedicated teachers. Given all that, I could have achieved straight A’s and a scholarship to MIT, right? The fact is, I could never be bothered to put in the work that straight A’s would have required. I studied just hard enough to stay on the honor roll (so that I could study in my room instead of in the dining room during mandatory evening study halls). I worked hard on the subjects that interested me, and coasted through the rest – I was never motivated to get grades for their own sake.

I don’t remember most of the facts I learned in high school – who does? What I remember are skills: writing (and typing!), page layout (I worked on the yearbook), editing (school newspaper), leadership (student government) and community service (I did art for the school). Some important skills (research and writing) I developed in English and history classes, but most were acquired during extra-curricular activities.

Some of the skills I use today I couldn’t have learned in high school because they simply didn’t exist back then: desktop publishing, word processing, building websites, communicating by email, designing software. As the world changes ever more quickly, it is likely that our children will need skills that we cannot imagine today, let alone teach them in school.

My college studies were even less directly relevant to my working life today. I was one of only 15 undergraduates majoring in Asian Studies at the (enormous) University of Texas, but our department was swamped with business school undergrads taking courses in Japanese language and culture, as an “obvious” asset to their business careers.

“What are you majoring in?” these young preppies would ask me.

“Asian Studies and Hindi.”

“What are you going to do with that?” they would sneer.

Lo and behold, twenty years later, my life experience and academic knowledge of up-and-coming India may well be more valuable than their knowledge of Japan. (And how I wish I’d stuck with my Chinese language studies!)

So what use is education as we know it today? I wonder. It still fulfills its social function of keeping young people out of a crowed job market, but I’m not sure that that’s a service to the young people themselves. The best we can hope for is that they learn a few universal skills that are likely to serve them later (more on that below), and, most importantly, learn how to learn – as has been said by wiser folks than me, in today’s world we must all expect to go on learning throughout our lifetimes.

Life Skills

No one should leave high school without knowing how to:

  • Type at least 50 words per minute. Sure, someday voice input with computers will become truly viable. But most of us don’t speak the way we write, nor would we want to write the way we speak. Formal writing is and should be different from everday speech, so, unless you’ve had a lot of practice at formal speech, the fastest way to get formal writing into a computer is to type it.
  • Use the Internet for research, including critical evaluation of sources. Before the web, the fact that a text made it into print for mass circulation was more or less a guarantee of quality, and it was usually reasonable to believe what you read. The Internet has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher, so we now have billions of sources, but very little quality control. The ability to distinguish true from false is therefore critically important.
  • Create websites/blogs (that is to say, publish yourself online, with whatever technology is prevalent).
  • Use other forms of online communication, including video. Today, those of us who write well have an advantage on the Internet. Over the next decade, video may well supplant the written word as the primary means of communication. People who perform well in front of and behind the camera will then have the advantage. Start practicing now!
  • Get along with all kinds of people. In today’s small and globalized world, sooner or later we find ourselves living and working with people of different cultures, languages, religions, etc. Misunderstanding and incomprehension lead to strife. You don’t have to agree with everyone you meet, but, if you could at least see where they’re coming from and imagine why they think the way they do, perhaps it would be easier to live together.

I’m sure there are more essential life skills we could be teaching our teenagers – suggestions from the floor?

Suggestions from Jakob Nielsen

Private School in Italy

It’s been a while since I wrote about the Italian education system, specifically as relates to my daughter. Last year, her second at the liceo artistico, was a disaster. She started the year with three academic “debits” – courses she had failed the year before, and was expected to study over the summer and be Read More…

It’s been a while since I wrote about the Italian education system, specifically as relates to my daughter. Last year, her second at the liceo artistico, was a disaster. She started the year with three academic “debits” – courses she had failed the year before, and was expected to study over the summer and be tested on in the fall. She and others in her situation were given extra tutoring by the same teacher who had done such a poor job of teaching them math and physics the previous year. Needless to say, it did not do them a lot of good, especially as they were at the same time trying to keep up with all the new material being introduced in class (by the same poorly-organized teacher*). They were given two chances at the make-up exams; Ross flunked all of them.

We were puzzled as to her status at that point. The head teacher (of her class’ group of teachers) explained that she would carry forward the academic debits, which would be taken into consideration when determining her status at the end of the second year. If she passed the second year, the debits would simply be erased and forgotten. This seemed odd, since failing to pass the tests meant that she had never properly assimilated the first-year material, and now would never have another opportunity to do so.

In any case , Ross had fallen into a vicious cycle of assuming that she would fail tests, and then fulfilling that promise; none of us was surprised to be told that she would have to repeat the second year (along with a number of her classmates). Local headlines said that it was a record year for flunking in Lecco, with students at one school even contemplating a lawsuit (on what grounds I don’t know).

Although she partly (and with some justice) blamed herself, Ross was bitter, and did not look forward to repeating the year at the same school. We couldn’t think of any workable alternative, except to try the “traditional” four-year curriculum at the same liceo artistico, which would involve more hours of studio art, and no math or physics after the second year. None of us was sure this was a great idea, since the traditional program had the reputation of being a parking lot for kids who had failed repeatedly and were simply waiting to be old enough to leave school for good. But we gritted our teeth and hoped for the best.

As we got closer to September, Ross increasingly dreaded returning to school, and was thoroughly depressed by the time it started on the 12th. The first day confirmed her worst fears: her new classmates were all demotivated rejects from other schools and classes. Liceo artistico tradizionale was not the answer.

But Ross quickly found her own solution. Many of her friends attend, and recommend, a local private school. So Enrico visited the place on Tuesday, Ross and I had a look on Wednesday, we enrolled her Thursday, and she started Monday morning. Ever since we made this decision, Ross has been motivated and enthusiastic about school as I haven’t seen her in years – which is wonderful!

One irony lies in the curriculum. This school offers two indirizzi (tracks), liceo linguistico Europeo (European linguistic) and liceo della communicazione. Ross can’t do the linguistico now, having missed a year of Latin and German – too much material to catch up. The curriculum that best fits the work she’s already done and the subjects she’s interested in is communications, with a subspecialty in technology, leading to a maturita’ (national school-leaving exam) in science. This is the same exam she would have done if she had gone to liceo scientifico, an option she would never have considered! In this curriculum she’ll have extra math (five hours a week total), plus physics and chemistry, as well as IT courses. And, so far, she’s perfectly tranquil about this choice. Maybe she got her father’s math gene after all.

So, after years of pain, things are looking hopeful on the educational front. I’m sure it won’t be an entirely smooth ride, but, hell, it couldn’t get much worse than what we’ve already been through!

Tuesday: Two days in the new school – so far, so good…

* We later learned that this teacher was trying to cope at home with a husband dying of cancer… In the circumstances, it would have been in everybody’s best interest – especially the students’ – to give her a paid leave of absence.

next: school year abroad?