I spent about 18 years in Italian public schools: compulsory school (6 to 13 years old), high school (14 to 18), and university (19 to 23). Two decades after the end of this journey, I think I’m old enough to make a proper assessment about the education I received. Basically, I’ll express this judgment under a specific perspective: I’ll consider the effectiveness of Italian schools’ teaching approach in terms of understanding today’s world. I believe, in fact, that the comprehension of the world in which live is indeed one of the crucial goals of education. First of all, I want to say my overall judgement about Italian education is undoubtedly positive, especially if I take into account how cheap was the public education in my country. Nevertheless, in these posts, I’ll focus on what I believe didn’t work well and that can be improved significantly. In this regard, I feel I can afford the luxury of saying how I would fix it, if I were in charge of the Ministry of Education. This is the first of a series of articles describing how I would change the teaching approach of the Italian schooling system based on how I know it to be.

Teachers Recruitment and Training

Who teaches the teachers how to teach? At first glance, this apparently silly question looks like a tongue-twister. As a matter of fact, it puts a tremendously serious issue on the table when it comes to the Italian public educational system.

A large number of teachers at the high-school level don’t have a permanent contract (I think that in the English speaking countries this role is generally called substitute teacher). Surprisingly, these teachers aren’t required to have specific training to do their job. It just requires a degree related to the subjects they apply for. So, for instance, an electronics engineer like me can teach computer science. However, it’s obvious that, even if the aspiring teachers master the subject in which they graduated, it’s not necessarily true that they are also good teachers. Do they know the communication techniques used to make the lessons engaging and compelling? Do they have an idea about how to communicate with digital natives effectively? Are they aware of the importance of the teacher-leader charisma in the classroom? Do they know the tricks to find, nurture, and develop passion in their students for the subject they teach? And, first and foremost, does anybody verify if these aspiring teachers themselves are passionate about teaching? Incidentally, the same concerns apply to professors who work on the university level, as I described in detail in this post.

In my opinion, we should drastically reform the recruiting and training process of applicants for teaching positions. No matter if they apply for a permanent contract position or for a substitute teacher position, they should be evaluated thoroughly, not only in regards to their technical knowledge. It makes sense that they should pass a practical test in which they deliver instruction to real students. A committee composed of teachers, communication experts, psychologists, etc. should judge how they performed. In particular, I believe the members of this committee should put themselves in the students’ shoes and evaluate the passion the candidate puts into doing this demonstration lesson. His or her passion is a crucial factor of effective teaching that students can easily perceive. In this regard, students can read their (aspiring) teachers like open books. If the wannabe teachers can’t connect with students based on enthusiasm and fervour, they’ll hardly be able to hold on to the class’ attention, regardless of how well they know their subject.

Historical Matrix

I guess there is no doubt about the fact that, among traditional subjects, history is one of the most important when it comes to understanding the world in which we live. Regarding how history was taught in Italian schools when I was a kid and a teenager, teachers generally adopted what I call “the matrix approach.” Of course, we studied the historical evolution of many civilizations and countries. For convenience, this long and complex process was split in time periods (for example, centuries) and in homogeneous geographical areas (for instance, modern countries such as France and China or the city-states of the Ancient Greeks). From a teaching methodology point of view, one can pictured all of this like a large matrix. Its columns are associated with time periods, while its rows are geographical areas. When I was a student, the flow of history was usually split in time slots like the 19th century, the Renaissance, and so on. For each slot, we studied what happened in every geographical area of interest. For instance, when we studied the 18th century, we were taught the the (First) Industrial Revolution started in England and then spread over other countries, in Europe and in other continents as well. Almost 30 years later, I wonder if this approach was too rigid.

An example of “historical matrix”

There are historical processes that cross centuries or even millennia and that perhaps would rather require a “vertical” approach. I take as example the fascinating and painful history of the Jewish people, which, according to their calendar, started 5,780 years ago at the time of this writing. No matter what one thinks about Judaism and religions in general, there is no doubt about the fact that Jews’ history influenced directly several world-scale events. Think, for instance, about the birth of the Christianity or the Holocaust that occurred during WWII. The point is: does it make any sense to talk about the history of these people by splitting this long and complex matter in smaller, unrelated pieces, like the Diaspora in the 8th century BCE and the Holocaust in the 20th century CE? According to the traditional “matrix approach”, these two events are studied separately, as they are so distant in time. In other words, they would be placed in different rows of the matrix. In my opinion, dealing with complex matters like the history of the Jewish people should be addressed in a different way. Topics of this kind should be treated as a continuous flow of interconnected events, from the beginning to the end. Since these events are strictly related, this approach would make the links and the cause-effect relations among them more understandable for the students, even if they are far apart in time. In a nutshell, this approach—if wisely alternated with the traditional “matrix method”—would help pupils to get the “big picture” about processes of such an importance and complexity.

Another thing that I found pointless is to pay much attention to memorize tons of dates and figures. Is that important to know that Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent on October 12th, 1492? Wouldn’t be enough to remember that this pivotal event occurred at the end of the 15th century CE in order to get the big picture? I think that the energy and time spent to memorize all these numbers could be used more fruitfully. For instance, to focus on the relevant facts of the past that are crucial to understand the contemporary world. Ultimately, I believe this is the goal every history teacher should pursue relentlessly.

This last consideration leads us to the heart of the matter. In the past history, we can find several patterns that are repeating themselves nowadays in a very similar fashion. It would make sense that history teachers should point out these patterns and stress them by using frequent analogies with the actuality. For example, when explaining the Roman Empire, they should underline the very strong similarities with the American empire that is under our noses nowadays (I already explained in this post that the American empire expression has not a negative connotation in this context).

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Karl Marx

The combination of a more efficient use of students’ energy and recurring references to the contemporary world would lead to an innovative teaching style when it comes to history. I strongly believe that this novel method, in turn, would result in more engaging, interesting lessons for students because they would get an implicit answer to the underlying question most of them wonder: “Why in the world do we need to study all this stuff?”

To conclude this section, I express a suspicion that could explain why a different approach hasn’t been adopted so far: I’m afraid that those who have been in charge of the Italian schooling system during the last 50 years have not changed anything deliberately in order to prevent young students from getting the big picture. Otherwise once becoming adult citizens, they would not be so easily manipulable.

Historian’s goal is not to find the truth, but to hunt down falsehoods.

Professor Maurizio Viroli


Editing assistance by Dr. Emily Braswell.

Featured image by NeONBRAND on Unsplash: