Learning in Italy

The patrician nature of Italian education takes students on a one-way journey of factual regurgitation – but sometimes cracks in the system let a little light in.

Italian schoolchildren
Children in class, Rome, Italy. Credit: colaimages / Alamy Stock Photo

‘I’m being interrogated,’ one of our kids says to us every week. Sometimes it’s: ‘I have to justify myself.’ It’s a diction that reveals how inquisitorial Italian education is. The country has the oldest teacher population in Europe, and schooling is still surname-based with teachers preaching from their cattedra – their desk or lectern. Teachers in primary school are called ‘master’ or ‘mistress’ and, after primary school, ‘professor.’ Learning is almost always the empty-vessel model, in which the child is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Pupils then parrot the knowledge and are rewarded for the exactitude of their replication.

Our twenty-first-century instincts tend to scorn such one-directional learning. But in a way, I admire its sternness. Our three children memorise facts, those solid, necessary bricks like chemical formulae and historical dates. When we still lived in England, our eldest’s Shakespeare homework, in her first year at secondary school, was to bake a cake and ice a scene from Othello: although the cake tasted OK, I did yearn for more rigour.

My loose translations exaggerate Italian schools’ authoritarianism: ‘interrogare’ really means ‘to be questioned.’ It alludes to a regular oral test in front of the whole class. And ‘justifying oneself’ refers to providing a legitimate reason for absence – so not that different to what happens in any self-respecting school around the globe.

But there is something fascinating about seeing your children go through an educational system that is entirely alien to you. I’ve watched them learning not just facts, but also performative talking. We all do it (it’s hard to imagine unperformative talking), but one Italian friend tells me her nation is notoriously prolix because, for years of school, children are unintentionally nurtured to become orators. Knowledge-cracks can be covered by verbal flamboyance and confidence.

The Italian university system perpetuates and sharpens the patrician nature of learning. Instead of lectures, professors often read out their own books. Large chunks have to be learnt by rote and spoken back to the professors in vivas. It’s as if the students’ role is to hold a mirror up to a narcissist. The seating of every lecture hall I’ve taught in is linear: straight benches meaning all eyes are focused on the high-priest. There are no moveable chairs so that peers can face each other.

I notice the consequences in my students. Because my subject is broadly story-telling (from journalism to creative writing) there’s only a limited amount of facts I can give. I can’t tell them which voice to assume or what their stories are. Over the years, I’ve noticed there’s a bit of indignation from the students at the outset. They understandably fret about passing the exam, because I haven’t told them what to tell me in it. If I ask a genuine question, one they haven’t been told how to answer, I’m met with silence. The truism of teaching (that you learn as much from your students as they do from you) seems a long way off.

It’s the same in different contexts. A friend of mine was recently leading a Bible study in a Waldensian church (a proto-Protestant movement which emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the Italian-French border). She was asking the earnest disciples what ‘members of one another’ might mean, genuinely asking for a personal response. But the students wanted to be told the answer and, when the teacher didn’t, a loquacious man put on a display of his wide learning.

I often fret that I’m unprofessional; a bad teacher because I curate a space rather than dish out wisdom. I sense my departmental peers frown upon my ‘immeasurable’ learning outcomes despite my pleas that it’s hard to give numerical evaluations to a story. Over the months, though, something strange happens with my students. After going through the anxiety of ‘not being taught,’ they begin to enjoy the freedom of not having to parrot facts. They give up hope of professorial approval and (some of them) start creating original work. It’s often made me wonder whether the stereotypical creativity of Italy is because the educational pressure cooker bottles it up for fifteen years. Perhaps never being asked for a response means that, for years, you stew and steam until, sometimes, you find out outlet and discover your own, pitch-perfect whistle.

When it comes to exams, though, that inquisitorial education becomes indulgent. Students can reject their marks. Like criminal trials in Italy that have consecutive and often contradictory verdicts (because of appeals, and appeals of appeals), exams come with multiple verdicts. They’re even called ‘appelli.’ There’s a chance to erase the previous judgement, and students can appeal many times within the same calendar year. Exam inflation is the inevitable result, because poorly paid professors don’t want to mark 140 papers the first time, let alone a second or third, and a compromise appears – something acceptable to both sides.

I worry, though, about children’s robustness in these Counter-Reformation-style classrooms, especially because Covid is accentuating the frontal nature of teaching, with repeated lockdowns and quarantines forcing children to listen and repeat. Free-for-all group sessions are almost impossible on digital platforms, so lessons become ever less stimulating – simply exercises in absorption.

When thinking about teaching, I often come back to an extraordinary TV series made in 1973: Diario di un Maestro (A Master’s Diary). It dramatised the efforts of an inspiring teacher (the real life Albino Bernardini) to bring Roman truants and tearaways back into his classroom. Fifty years on, it seems more relevant than ever: gently impatient with factual regurgitation, the teacher slowly turns his children into self-teachers. But in doing so he undermines the authority of the system and, in the end, it’s the teacher who is ‘interrogated,’ reduced to the status of pupil as the price of turning pupils into teachers. That’s the revolutionary potential of education.


Tobias Jones