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Italy vs. Britain - School: A different approach

Maggio 2016
Le scuole italiane hanno grossi problemi, si sa. Quelle inglesi non se la passano molto meglio, ma la vera differenza sta nel metodo, nella didattica, in una parola nella mentalità. Ecco cosa ha spinto la nostra autrice inglese, residente in Italia da anni, a una soluzione drastica: ritirare la figlia dalla scuola e scegliere l’istruzione domiciliare!

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

This is going to be a difficult subject to write about. Although I’m sure most English mother-tongue readers will agree with me, I’m aware that many Italian readers may find my comments hard to accept.
For ex-pats who are happily settled in Italy with families and children, there is one thing that is guaranteed to cause huge amounts of stress, and that’s school!


Very few people from Anglo-Saxon cultures feel happy about the way their kids are taught in Italian schools. There is just so much we don’t agree with. Why, we ask ourselves, do kids get hours and hours of homework from the age of six, starting with the laborious job of memorising the alphabet in an elaborate cursive script that nobody ever uses? Why do they have to memorise pages of facts so that they can then be “interrogated” in front of the class? To us this sounds like a nasty encounter with the secret police!
Why do our children run the risk of public humiliation and lifelong stigma by having to repeat a year if their teachers decide they are substandard?  And what is the deal with going to school on Saturday? Surely kids need two days a week to chill out and do their own thing!


My own experience has been so devastating that I recently took my daughter out of school. We just couldn’t cope any more and we’ve opted for home schooling. This turned out to be a great decision! We started off badly at the local elementary school. My daughter hadn’t been there long when she received some maths homework I didn’t understand. It consisted of a faded photocopy with tiny box containing the rule for the “commutative property of addition.” She had to memorize the rule, then colour in the illustration and go round the contours of the illustration in black felt pen.


I had to look up “commutative property” on the Internet. I’d never heard of it. At my school they just gave us some marbles to play with and showed us that 2 plus 3 makes 5 and 3 plus 2 makes 5 – end of story.
I made the mistake of going to talk to the maths teacher about the homework and asking her to explain its didactic purpose. “What is the point?” I asked, genuinely curious, “of going round everything with the black pen? How is that maths?


Of course this was the wrong approach. The teacher was immediately offended and coldly explained to me that colouring in the illustration and going round the contours in black pen was a vital lesson in rigour and obedience to the rules. This, she declared, was the first and most important thing the children had to learn. Otherwise there would be anarchy.
At that point I just knew we would never agree. And it’s been the same story ever since, for me and all my ex-pat friends with kids. It’s the first thing we talk about when we meet up, and we exchange painful anecdotes about our children’s test results, public humiliation and general demoralisation.


You see, we have very different ideas about education. For us, the first and most important thing is not obedience to the rules, but curiosity and love of learning. We think group work is very important and that physical activity and sport, far from being an expensive after-school activity, should be part of the curriculum, because kids are full of an explosive energy that disappears in later life and will never return. Expecting them to sit still at their desks all day listening to someone going “blah, blah, blah” in front of a board, is not only boring, it’s torture and teaches them very little.


In British schools during the science lesson young children are given a container of water and told to try and float a cork, a piece of wood, a metal nail etc. on the surface and to make observations. In Italy my daughter started by memorizing the fact that the molecular formula for water is H2O. When she asked me to explain, I didn’t know where to begin.

coming soon

Of course there are complex cultural reasons for these differing approaches to learning and I’m sure Italian parents who move to English-speaking countries often worry that their children are not learning enough. Now that I’ve said the worst, next month I’ll try to provide some cultural justifications for our difficulties with each other and hopefully offer a few tips for non-Italian parents.
to be continued

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