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Italy vs. Britain - School: theory vs practice

Giugno 2016
Troppa teoria, troppe nozioni imparate a memoria. Sono queste le pecche del sistema scolastico italiano che gli anglofoni trovano più fastidiose. Ma il problema è essenzialmente culturale, come ci spiega Rachel Roberts.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Last month I outlined the problems British and other English-speaking people have with Italian schools: too much testing, too much homework, too much theory and not enough practice.
It’s true to say that this aversion works both ways. Many Italian parents going to the UK or USA worry that their kids don’t do enough.


One Italian student I coached, who was planning to continue her studies at the London School of Economics, told me very confidently that she was sure she would find her course easy, as British students didn’t study much. I didn’t say anything – I didn’t want to ruin her admirable self-confidence – but I’m sure she was in for a shock! For a start she’ll need to write perfect paragraphs!

are you sure?

Our attitudes towards teaching and learning are greatly determined by our cultural values. One area where we differ greatly concerns a value called “Uncertainty Avoidance,” and you can find out more about this on the website of social psychologist Geert Hofstede.
Although not all experts agree with Hofstede’s data collection methods, I think that the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) really does apply to Italy and the UK, especially where schools are concerned. In strong UAI cultures, like Italy, you’ll usually find a very structured, teacher-centred style of learning. Most people believe there is a body of knowledge that everyone should know, and in any test there will usually be one correct answer to every question.

expert opinion

Teachers are expected to be experts who have already memorised the answers to all these questions and students gain higher marks the more accurate facts and figures they can remember. As the teachers “know” everything, students will rarely disagree with them, from an intellectual point of view. Teachers and professors also frequently express themselves using very difficult terminology. Students expect their university professors to speak this arcane language of experts.

too much information

Needless to say, we Anglo-Saxons, especially the Brits with our weak UAI culture, just don’t see it like that. For a start we tend to approach the acquisition of knowledge on a far more “need-to-know” basis. If I can’t remember the exact date of birth of Winston Churchill, who cares? I can find that information any time I choose with a touch of my smartphone. If that piece of knowledge should ever become more important to me, for my studies or because I happen to find a job as a tour guide in the Imperial War Museum in London, then I can always decide to learn it.

presenting your case

Far more important, from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, is the ability to understand Churchill within the context of his life, to compare him to his contemporaries and most of all to say something new and original about him. It’s also essential to present your fascinating point of view in clear persuasive language that everyone can understand. Students and intellectuals in weak UAI cultures have a great respect for plain language and for books that explain difficult issues in ordinary terms.


We don’t like the idea that there is one correct answer. Of course two plus two always makes four, but a fresh approach to just about anything will always be appreciated far more than the ability to regurgitate accurate facts. Facts change anyway. It only takes one new scientific breakthrough, or the discovery of some historical document, for all those memorised details to become invalid! It may scandalise you to learn that the British leader of the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower, even suggested recently that it was unnecessary for schoolchildren to memorise their full times tables because they can look up the answers on mobile phones. I’m sure many Brits agreed with her.


Sadly, things are changing in British Schools too, with more and more testing and the Prime Minister praising “Tiger Mums” – strict and demanding mothers who push their children to high levels of achievement. Perhaps in a few years’ time there will be fewer differences between the experiences of British and Italian school kids.
To the Italian readers, please try to put up with our grumbling. We can talk about food soon, and I’m sure that will make you feel better!

School - 1. A Different Approach was published in our May issue.

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