Palladio in Pisa

In most Italian towns and cities teachers have been protesting against the school reforms proposed by education minister Stefania Giannini under Renzi’s government. Many of these reforms seem old hat to one used to many years of teaching in the UK but I can fully understand the anger of the teachers demonstrating in Piazze throughout this country.

What are the salient points of these reforms? It would be very tedious unless one is an educationalist to go through the intricacies. However, three points stand out. First, the head teacher or “preside” is now to be known as “dirigente scolastico” i.e. school director, with powers to dismiss underachieving teachers and appoint new ones. This role is somewhat similar to the situation in many English educational establishments which are directed by managers, who may or may not have years of teaching experience under their belt but who have been appointed for their administrative skills. This reform has really made Italian teachers fume since, in the majority of cases heads of schools in Italy have traditionally worked their way up to the top by sheer hard work and good results in the classroom.

The position of “precari” (or “visiting lecturers” as they are often euphemistically called in the UK) is also another sore point. Too many teachers have been working for years without fixed contracts and with a very uncertain future. The educational minister has assured that more teachers will be lifted from the “precarious” position into stable jobs but this is hardly believed in by the majority of protesters, so used to false promises.

I have got myself involved in two further aspects of Italian educational reform, directly through my previous teaching experience. One is the increased use of IT as a learning and teaching aid. For example, Gesam, Lucca’s gas company, has sponsored tablets to the majority of the first three years of secondary school (Scuola Media). This, in theory, is a great idea, except that the children have now become teachers to their “Profs” in how to get the gadgets to work. As for help at home, this is difficult when Italian parent are said to be some of the most digitally illiterate people in the EC.

The second aspect I have got myself involved in is the increasing use of the English language to teach subjects. In many schools the standard of English teaching is highly variable and often ineffectually applied. It’s almost as if the students were learning Latin. Their writing in the language may be adequate but their spoken skills are somewhat lacking.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I took up an invitation by one of Pisa’s most prestigious Licei artistici the “Francesco Russoli” to deliver a lesson, last Saturday, on the influence of Palladio on English architecture. The preside  – sorry, the “dirigente scolastico” -was most happy to see me and explained that, like so much in Italian administration and policy the cart had been put before the horse, especially in education where it would be rather more difficult to find Italian teachers of English to expound their lessons effectively in something other than their mother tongue and, more importantly, get students to understand the subject.

Why Palladio anyway? To simplify matters: after three years of scuola media equivalent to the first three years of secondary education, students can choose between various Licei (high schools) including classical, artistic and scientific. The students had already learnt something about the great architect, Antonio Palladio, in their classrooms.

(Palladio’s Villa Capra)

I thought it might be a good idea to see how Palladian concepts “translated” into the architecture of the English country house built by those nobles who had done their grand tour in Italy and fallen in love with Palladio’s villas on the Brenta river and wished to create their own “little Italy” on the banks of English rivers, like the Thames (Chiswick house, Marble Hill etc.) for example.

(Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House)

As with any class there was a wide variety of interest – the keenest students being sat up the front and asking the questions while the end rows merged in the twilight of the Aula Magna (or assembly hall) to secretly dabble with their mobiles.

(Colen Campbell’s Mereworth Castle in Kent)

No matter. I think the main interest was obtained and I carefully graduated the talk into Italian and English parts. For example, a discussion of the individual architecture examples projected on the screen was carried out in English as the students could actually see what I was talking about, and the more theoretical parts were delivered in Italian.

Again, as normal, I hardly touched my notes but spoke “a braccio”, literally off the cuff, as this would make the lecture more spontaneously alive.

At the end of my hour of chat there was a sincere applause. The dirigente scolastico and her staff warmly thanked me and I got a personal message of thanks reaching shortly afterwards on my cell phone when on my way to visit some of the lesser delights of Pisa.

I don’t know how far the educational reforms will take to teaching subjects in English, a language whose fluency is sorely needed for the Italian job market. I am sure it’ll be easier to take lessons in maths or economics but artistic subjects will need to have some very linguistically proficient teachers and students on hand. Again, the cart looks splendidly multicoloured but the horse appears to be trailing rather laconically behind at present.

No matter. I did enjoy myself in Pisa and was glad to be invited to one of their best high schools and receive a warm welcome.



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