A Modest Proposal

There has always been  a lot of talking  about how to reform the school system  since……ever, and I understand  that this topic is a major issue worldwide. If there is a debate, it means that there is a problem. I am also sure that nobody has a clue of how to solve it – sometimes I suspect even the will -.  I have experienced  in years the most insane, pointless reforms –  usually at no cost – with the only result of systematically taking down the old educational system – which requires to be modernized, no need to say  – without adding anything worthwhile, sensible, effective. The consequence? At  first an imperceptible crack was heard (and ignored) , then  a tiny slit became visible (and ignored), till, in one fell swoop, an endless chasm opened before us, the chasm of ignorance.

I teach to students from 14 to 19 and whenever it is time to meet the new young classes , my  colleagues and I always end the first week in shock, as every year we believe to have seen the worst and every year we realize that the worst has yet to come.  It has now become customary to refer to students of 14 years of age, who have “ freely”  decided to join the family of the   “Liceo Scientifico” ( which is a high school whose main object should be to train for university) as “not schooled” yet. That is : a 14 year old scholar, after  8(!!!) years spent in the educational system circus, can barely know how to behave properly or develop any  learning method and, more recently, even produce an intelligible writing. You can imagine my amazement when few days ago I asked one boy  to write some words ordered in a column on the blackboard and to see that he was, actually, organizing them  in a sort of “cloud” rather than in a column. Words scattered here and there with no logic or any logic I could decipher, let alone his handwriting: cursive, capital and  small letters were all displayed before me in a hypnotic dance.😵

It seems, in fact,  that the latest generations are no longer used to holding a pen in their hands. They are so disoriented and naïve in a certain way, that dialogues as the one that will follow have  become routine:

Mario: but Teach… why did you mark this word?😕

Mrs Tink: because it is wrong. The correct word is “pet”.😏

Mario: This is what I have written.😇

Mrs Tink:  No Mario, you have written “cet”, the first  letter is something between a “c” or an “i”… but it is not a “p” for sure…🤔

Mario: but Teach, had it been an “i”,  I would have dotted the “i”!😐😇

Mrs Tink: Mario…..do you know what an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: Yes , of course,  a,b,c……….?😇

Mrs Tink:  Mario wait, I need to rephrase the question:   do you know what the function of an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: (no answer)…🙄

Mrs Tink: well, an alphabet is a sort of  convention, by which we agree that the sound at the beginning of these words, for example, like: “Pub, Police, Pop and Pet” , takes the form of this graphic sign: “P” in the written form. This sign cannot be changed at one’s pleasure or state of mind, otherwise,  we could not understand one another. In fact, if I rewrite those words with the sign you used, they might become : “Cub, Colice, Cop and Cet”, and this is what I assume. So, as long as I have to grade your tests, you’d better  make sure I understand what you  write……. because you want me to understand, don’t you?🤨

Mario: of course, I do!🥴🤕

Mrs Tink: good boy!😏

Assessment board (a child neuropsychiatrist , a psychologist  and a speech therapist in a reproaching tone) Mrs Tink ! Have you ever considered that Mario might be suffering from dyslexia or dysgraphia?🧐🧐🧐

Mrs Tink: (annoyed)😖😤 I have, and, if I may, it should be none of my concern at this stage, because,  as far as I know,  the assessment of graphic competence should be performed after the so called “ learning phase” which is usually at the end of the second grade and Mario attends the ninth grade. Hence, Mario could be either the victim of a system which has not been able to assess his learning needs or he is simply lazy, just like many of his peers, who are no longer used to seeing  neatness and correctness as a value, as it requires time and effort, effort they wish to direct somewhere else ( with the support of their families), of course.  When they get to the ninth grade in such conditions, it is almost a lost battle.😑

Assessment board: Mrs Tink, we believe it is urgent that you take a training course on learning disorders of 25 hours starting from tomorrow!😑😑😑

Mrs Tink:😭😭😭 if you think that yet another course will solve the question, all right, let’s take the course, but allow me to say a few words more. Don’t keep burying the school under loads of useless projects or “prodigious”” reforms,  if you cannot imagine beforehand  to what  those plans will take. As for now, their effect on teachers – on me – is only cultural frustration and paralysis of creativity. Before thinking of something grand, I would suggest you to start with something  apparently small, but more effective.  Any school reform should start from the beginning, that is, the “elementary “ school. It is in the first five years that you lay the foundations  of an effective  learning process even through the aforementioned diagnosis, which would have positive outcomes, as done in due time. Otherwise, if  we keep building on clay, we cannot but sink in that chasm and I am sure many – you?- would not be displeased about it.

Progression or Regression?

I fell asleep. I fell asleep and for a couple of months I have been lulled by the sound of waves, sun kissed. I fell asleep and fluttered every single day on leisure-land where a pleasant and reinvigorating breeze weakened any attempt of the few sensible thoughts left hidden somewhere in a synapse of my dormant brain to make me quit that state of bliss. I would have slept even longer, in fact, but for that annoying bell, a school bell, actually , which forcibly brought me back to the dullness of the real world and duty. Good-bye leisure-land, I must go, uncertain of my fate.

When you have to start afresh, it is advisable to begin with baby-steps, something effortless and pleasant, if possible, at the same time, to break the ice, otherwise one always tends to postpone the initial effort, which is usually perceived as huge. I thought that filing all the works, projects, power points I had left scattered on the computer the year before would have been a good start and so I did. While watching the screen, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology had actually helped me beat my natural disorganization ( and laziness); in fact , all the school years with papers, tests etc. . were there, beautifully ordered before me. It is memory. Whatever I needed , with a click it was at my disposal.

And I clicked. I don’t know whether it was an evil school-elf or just curiosity which induced me to do so, but I clicked on year 2015 first, 2010 then to get to the early twenties and then I stopped, a bit puzzled. Evoking memories, even working memories can be cruel sometimes.  What remained of that summer state of bliss and dizziness definitely faded away as the facts were plainly before me and needed to be assessed.    

What facts? To make myself clear let’s take a class as example: the third year of high school , average age 16 and let’s follow how learning and expectations have changed in these last 25 years. I have always enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet at this stage, as the theme of love is captivating and it is a good starting point to get to know Shakespeare, but how has the way I do it changed in time and why?

LATE NINETIES: in those years I was a devout reader of the Arden Shakespeare editions with all those beautiful notes and explanations, hence, I wanted all my students to have one. Despite it was not so easy to find it as we are in Italy and there was no Amazon then, they found a way to get one eventually, all of them . As far as I can remember they enjoyed the accurate study of lines and sources of Romeo and Juliet. How do I know? Well, the following year they asked me for more, so I infer, they liked it. But, did it really matter in the late nineties whether students really enjoyed or not a lesson?

EARLY 2000s: all of a sudden it seemed  it had become quite hard to find the Arden edition anywhere, hence, I told them to buy whatever edition they could find, I would have provided them with the missing information . Of course,  there were always two or three students in the class  who managed to find the Arden edition, but the decline was now inevitable.

LATE 2000s: As in the last years I had found hard managing to read the entire play by the end of the school-year, I decided that they could have used a bilingual edition. We would have read and analysed the most important parts in class in English, while the rest could have been done even in Italian if they wanted, and they wanted .  After all, the knowledge of the main themes of the play was what really mattered I said to myself. It seemed a good compromise to me.

EARLY 2010s: These where the years when school started to be overloaded with projects of any kind, hence, as I was always running out time I decided that the reading of Romeo and Juliet would have been limited to the “Balcony scene” and the end of the play. I also made them watch the catchy “Romeo and Juliet version”  with Di Caprio. It seemed they truly enjoyed it. I was satisfied.

LATE 2010s: I thought it was I good idea to make them act  the “Balcony Scene” and shoot a video. I chose 6 couples e six directors, one for each couple, and gave them the lines. They shot from the balconies of their homes and eventually the films were assembled together with soundtrack, titles, backstage funny moments etc. . It was creative, it was fun. I was proud of them – and myself.

COVID YEARS: on-line learning has required a new way of communicating in order  to be effective. Words couldn’t but go hand in hand with images to be catchy. In this respect I have found useful GIMP,  a cross-platform image editor which I have adopted to embellish my power points. For Romeo and Juliet I decided to take and edit some shots from Di Caprio’s movie and create a sort of photo novel of the “the Balcony Scene” and make  William Shakespeare himself comment and explain the lines of the play:

It was fun, I have fun exploring the news frontiers of learning, I must admit it,  but looking back to what I used to do almost 30 years ago, I cannot help but wonder: what chances of success would my precious Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet have with today’s students? How should I consider all this process of continuous adaptation to new generations’ educational needs a progression or a regression in learning ? Are these needs real or I have simply surrendered, choosing the shortcut of light entertainment? Is it possible that eventually I am the one to be blamed?

The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

 

Everyone, who has been teaching for many years now,  knows how learning has changed, since we started. We are now requested to be entertaining, dynamic, technological and on this purpose we are continuously overwhelmed by new educational theories in a sort of didactic frenzy. Another thing I keep observing every year is that school books have become way less extensive than they used to be with a great deals of patterns, photos  and alluring covers. When I was a high school student, schoolbooks were made of words only, dull and the very few pictures were usually/unfortunately placed  at the very end of the book, so when we had a daily assignment of twenty pages, twenty meant  twenty, no discount.

 Books nowadays are 50% made of pictures. Learning must have a visual and quick impact to catch the students’ interest, who actually strain in being focused for more than 20 minutes. One of the most recent learning theories is to segment the lesson in 3, 4 different moments in order to keep their attention constantly alive. But, is this what we have become ? Comedians who seek for the audience’s clapping by means of a good laugh or the wonder of a magic trick? As, there is another thing I noticed. There has been  a growing lexical gap between me and them in time, and I don’t mean in English, but in our language: Italian. Not long ago, I remember translating the word “bedside” into “capezzale” and they looked at me as if I had all of a sudden started to speak German. We are talking about  18 year old teenagers who have never come across a simple word like that and  which they understood only translating it literally from the English: bed= letto,  side = lato, “ al lato del  letto”= “capezzale”. They are of age and can vote.  What has become clear to me is that the outcome all our endeavors in order to keep them away from  the  “boredom-land”  of activities like reading, writing etc.  has only brought to a dramatic impoverishment of their language eventually.

Several studies have demonstrated that the outcome of the decrease in lexical knowledge and the impoverishment of the language consists not only  in the reduction of the vocabulary used, but also in the linguistic subtleties that allow to elaborate and formulate a complex thought. The gradual disappearance of tenses, for example,  gives rise to a thought almost always in the present, limited to the moment: incapable of projections in time. How is it possible to capture a temporality, a succession of elements in time, whether past or future, and their relative duration, without a language that distinguishes between what could have been, what has been, what is, what could be, and what will be after what might have happened, actually happened?

The use of capital letters and punctuation has become on option of late. An increasing number of my students (who theoretically  are supposed to  be used to studying  Latin, philosophy, physics..) are absolutely refractory to start the sentence with the capital letter , for example,– due to the extensive usage of WhatsApp, I know -, but,  every now and then,  they use it with some nouns, like “ Book”, for instance.  Why? Are you German? No useful answer is produced, but distraction. Let alone punctuation. They master “the stream of consciousness” technique without having read a single line from Joyce’s Ulysses;  it just comes natural.  These “deadly blows” to precision and variety of expression  are but symptoms of the difficulty in organizing thinking,  which affects not only learning, by the ways.  Fewer words, fewer conjugated verbs, lack of speech organization mean less ability to express emotions and process a thought. Without words to construct an argument, complex thinking is made impossible. The poorer the language, the more the thought disappears. If there are no thoughts, there are no critical thoughts and  there is no thought without words.

The historical moment we are living, dominated by mass medias way of communicating, reflects exactly what we have said so far. What is this constant polarization in any matter : vaccines, masks, politics, football, but the consequence of the habit of simplification, which leads to the rarefaction of critical thought? We are no longer used to seeing or better understanding the nuances of a question; everything  is black or white, and you know why? Because it is the simplest thing to do, but “ the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

School should give the tools to understand what is complex, rather than yielding to this process of simplification. Let’s start from words again. Let’s make read and practice the language in its most diverse forms, even if it looks complicated, especially if it is complicated, because in this effort there is freedom. Everything that creates complexity is the real architect of the improvement of human mind. Without complex thinking there is not any truth.