Malaussène Scheme

Haven’t you ever wished to have a Benjamin Malaussène in your family or circle of friends? That is, somebody always willing to take all the blame, even if it is you who has been caught with your hands in the cookie jar? Well, in case you have never heard about him, Benjamin Malaussène, is the protagonist of Daniel Pennac’s  popular saga of crime thrillers, and he works as ……scapegoat. Actually, he is in Quality Control of  “the Store”, but de facto he is the person called upon to take the rap when customers come in with complaints. It works more or less like this: Malaussène manages to assume all the blame, confessing his guilt in such an affecting way that customers take pity on him, so, “the Store” doesn’t have pay for any refund, and everybody is happy.

Being the scapegoat is Benjami’s fate outside “the Store” too. Even if the situations he finds himself are caused by a series of interests and precise logics which have nothing to do with him, he ends up hopelessly guilty. This scheme, which I would like to call Malaussène scheme, is fun on books, but when you realize that what you call fiction is nothing but the reality, you start to look at it with a different eye. In short, the scheme in constituted by the following 3 main steps : 1) spotting a problem, 2) finding the scapegoat, that is, demonstrating that somebody/something else caused the problem, 3) using the scapegoat as means to go back to the status quo ante or simply to upset the status quo, as scapegoats can be used both ways. The field of application I want to use to demonstrate how this pattern works is the one dearest to me: school.  

Step 1: PROBLEM. Every year in Italy there is a learning assessment that we call INVALSI.  It is aimed at measuring the level of competence in Italian, Mathematics and English of different groups of students: in essence, it photographs the state of health of our school system.  Well, it seems the  Italian school system is far more than sick, it has a foot in the grave, actually. Just to give you an idea 44% of high school students do not reach satisfactory levels in Italian , 51% in Mathematics, 51% in English-reading and 63% in English-listening in 2020/21. The figures for Italian and Mathematics are shocking, as for English, well, everybody knows there are no good English teacher in Italy, so, no surprise.

Step 2: THE SCAPEGOAT.  If data were  taken seriously, after such an outcome new strategies would have been studied, and quickly, but, of course, effective strategies have a cost,  particularly, if we think that there have been no investments on the school for decades here. Furthermore, I wonder whom the strategist might be, as I detect no such mind capable of drawing the guidelines of the new school or somebody who is not  in the pay of political forces. As it was crystal clear that there was no intent for a change and , of course, no money on the table, a scapegoat was necessary to justify such a downfall.  It  was not so arduous to find one, but  quite the opposite, it was handed on a silver  platter.  Since these were the first tests after the outbreak of the pandemic, the designated scapegoat couldn’t but become what had characterized education in the years of Covid 19: on-line learning.

Step 3: THE  SCAPEGOAT  EFFECT. Hence, on-line learning has become the source of any ill regarding school and more. Is a student depressed? It’s because of on-line learning. Anorexia or bulimia? On-line learning. Demotivation and frustration? The same answer. Even when talking to parents, on-line learning has become the perfect justification to any behaviour and achievement below the expectation, thus demanding indulgence on my side. The consequence? On-line learning has been banned. We are about to go back to school with more than 200.000 Covid cases per day, in small classrooms with about 30 kids, with no ventilation system working and with the most absurd plan to follow in presence of  Covid cases in class. In short, 6 months of on-line learning in two years have caused a drastic drop in the levels of competence of Italian students and mined their psychological stability. Is it to be believed?

THE VARIABLE. Scapegoats cannot always work, as sometimes significant events, let’s call them variables, happen.  These variables contradict mainstream narration so manifestly that they can neither be overlooked nor hidden.  The fact in questions was the selection of magistrates held from July 12 to December 2 2021: out of 5,827 candidates only 88 passed, and most of them were “rejected” because of the written test. The writing skills of the aspiring magistrates were regarded poor, as there were not only technical but also grammatical deficiencies . We are talking about candidates who have a university degree and a master at least and, this is no small detail for what I want to demonstrate, they must have been in their early thirties, so they could not be the product of on-line learning, but rather the clear effect of years of policies made of cuts only and reforms at zero cost. For years all the methods concerning education have constantly converged to one main goal: inclusion. What’s wrong with inclusion, some of you may ask? Absolutely nothing, it  is a very daring objective, but the only way we have to include all, and avoid what today is considered a mortifying selection, is by lowering learning standards. There is no other way, no other miracles can be done, unless governments decide to invest on education.  Hence, in order to avoid depopulation, universities couldn’t but lower their learning standards too. And this is the result.

You may now object that all this talking didn’t but demonstrate that scapegoats are ineffective. Quite the contrary. In case of variables, strategies have only to be integrated a little: you overwhelm means of information with contrasting data, thus creating chaos and wait till the event is forgotten. And this is how we keep proceeding to nowhere.

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?

A Midsummer Comedy

September 14th: back to school. So close! Too close! Yet, we don’t have a clue about how the new school year will start. Of course, I understand that everything depends on the trend of data and I don’t want to preach about what ought to be done, because I really don’t know and I respect whoever holds such an office as Minister of Education these days, this said, I think it is worth telling what has happened in these two past months, just to get the picture to what degree of confusion and dismay we’ll tackle our going back to work. It may sounds like a comedy but it is more like a tragedy and one act is yet to be written, the most important one.

Act I

The Minister of Education and her advisers have summoned 20 teachers, each as representative of one Italian region, to inform them of her decisions about the start of the new school year.

Minister of Education (smiling with satisfaction 😏): “As we have to keep distanced according to our guidelines, I order that from now on there will be no more crowded classes. 15 students each class top. This is my wish. I am happy to say that this is the dawn of a new era for schooling in Italy.”😑

Teachers (with deference): “Splendid! It was about time! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered  that at least 200.000 teachers are to be hired plus, doing the Math, we need twice as many classrooms”.

Minister of Education: “How dare you mistrust your Minister, you dummies! Of course, I have thought about the spaces required (haven’t I 🤔?)! There is no need to build new schools: there are cinemas, theatres, B&Bs and much more that can be of use in this emergency. You, for example, you!

Teacher (😳):” Me?”

Minister of Education: “Yes, you? Where do you teach?”

Teacher (😳😥) : Casalpalocco… near Ostia Lido… Rome.

Minister of Education (triumphantly): “You see? You are the perfect example!!

Teacher (😳): “Me?” “How so?”

Minister of Education: “Yes! There are plenty of suitable sites where you work: apart from the splendid beaches, which can be utilised from September to early November and, if the season is fine, from March to June, you have the fortune of being close to the Roman site of Ostia Antica.” 

Teacher (😰):” I wouldn’t call 10 km close, Madam, but even if this were an option, how  could we get there? There are about 1.300 students in my school. Do you mean that 650 of them should be sorted among cinemas, beaches, B&Bs, theatres and Ostia Antica Roman site?”

Minister of Education (smiling): “Clever, isn’t? And after two weeks they will rotate with the other half!!”

Teacher(😤): ” I beg you pardon, but I, for example, teach in 6 different courses, so do you actually mean that in a day I could bounce from school, to the cinema, to the theatre, to the B&B, to the beach and eventually end at Ostia Antica to meet my students? Did I get it right?”

Minister of Education (😡): “Are You telling me, that you don’t wish to help your country and make sacrifices in such desperate times?”

Teacher (😢): “Of course I am not, Madam, but I was wondering, what about December, January and February in my case? And what about those who live in places where they are not so fortunate in sites or weather? Any tips?”

Adviser : (whispering)” May I suggest to take some time and think about new solutions, Madam ?”

Minister of Education ( quite annoyed): “As I see you don’t wish to oblige me, you are all dismissed for now. You will be summoned, you as soon as I can break something new to you.

All teachers exeunt

 Act II

A week has passed and the Minister has summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education: I am proud to announce that in only a week we have found the proper solution. The school year will start and we will be able to satisfy all the safety protocols and the wishes of those who selfishly seem to care only about their needs (glancing  at the teacher who had spoken the week before). I decided to divide each class in two halves and while one half remains in class the other one will follow the lessons at home. Well, what do you have to say now?”

(The teachers confabulate for a while till one takes the floor😟 )Teacher: ” Hem! Splendid! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered that since the quantities of the data flow uploading will enormously increase with this option, the IT connection of thousands of schools will have to be enhanced, so…..there is a chance that we may not be ready.”

Minister of Education (😤) : ” Again! ” ” Of course, I’ve thought about the general situation of IT connection in schools ( 🤔haven’t I ?), by the way, ( she hesitates), as representatives of the school community, how many of you would be or will be ready by September? 

 6 Teachers (in unison) : ” We would “!

Minister of Education ( 😳) :” Six!!” ” Six out of twenty?” ” And what do the others have to say ?”

Teacher (😟): “I am glad to hear that some of my collegues may boast such effective connections, in my case I can only say that despite our numerous requests, we have received no funds yet, we have also been waiting for the making of 10 classrooms for three years, but still in vain”,

Minister of Education (very annoyed). “Who is speaking?” ” Ah, it is still you from Ostia Antica,…..”

Teacher (😩) “Casalpalocco”

Minister of Education : “Whatever”!😡

Adviser ( whispering): ” As you can see Madam, those who declare to be ready come mostly from the North of the country. Large investiments will be required for the South in particular and, if I may (passes a letter), a note has just arrived: the State Council has given an adverse opinion about the matter. May I suggest to take some more time and think about new solutions, Madam?”

Minister of Education (muttering): ” It seems the the State Council has nothing to do but meddling with school matters these days”. (to the teachers): ” You are all dismissed for now. You will be summoned, you as soon as I can break something new to you.

All teachers exeunt

Act III

It is almost the end of July and the Minister has just summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education (visibly satisfied)😃: “ I am very proud to annouce that we have reached a final and definite plan. As one meter distance has to be guaranteed, I have disposed to buy one and a half million brand new one-seater desks with wheels (general startle😳😳😳), which will replace those old two-seater desks at the cost of 325 Euros each. Hence, never say again that this Ministry doesn’t invest on education. We do. I do”

(The teachers confabulate in agitation, till one takes the floor😟 )Teacher: ” Hem! Splendid! We all rejoice with this resolution Madam, but, if it has been so decided, I am sure you have considered that those desks are quite….. cramped. We are all aware these kind of desks are largely used in other countries, but they have different systems of education, they use tablets and test through multiple choice. We don’t. We still have books and use dictionaries to translate from Latin or Greek and to write compositions, let alone the wheels………”

Minister of Education (now infuriated, interrupts the teacher 😡). “I have had Enough!” “The point is that you live in the Middle Age, YOU are the Middle Age. You don’t want to update you teaching methods, you have made a crusade agaist the use of technology and on-line learning, you despise any novelty! It’s about time you renew your strategies and make them more suitable for the new generations. The mind of our students is not a funnel to be filled but a fire to be lit”😑

Teachers (all together😕😳): ” A funnel !” “You mean, a vase!”

Minister of Education (out of her senses 😡😡) : ” You have not come here to impart ME a lesson!” “If I said a funnel, it is a funnel!” “Check Wikipedia and you’ll see” (somebody laughs😆 ). “Who dares? I am sure, it is always you from Ostia Antica!”

Teacher : “But, I didn’t say a word!” 🤐”By the ways, Casalpalocco”.

Minister of Education (shouting): ” Whatever!”😡

(A teacher attempts to say something after a few minutes of silence) Teacher (gently): “It is not a bad idea after all, Madam, the wheels…..a more lively ….. why not? But, may we ask to be informed if the desks can be sent by September 14th, so that we may arrange things in our schools?

Minister of Education (to her advisors): “What do you answer to this?”

Advisor (clumsily🙄) : “They will arrive, of course, in due time”.

Teachers : “And when is it ?”

Advisor (whispering to the Minister) : ” May I suggest to take some more time so that we may check this matter about the desks, Madam?”

Minister of Education (to her advisor😩) :” I can’t believe it, we don’t know when they are ready!” (addressing the teachers) “You are all dismissed for now. I’ll call you as soon as I can break something new to you”.

All teachers exeunt

Act IV (a short one)

It is August and the Minister has summoned another meeting.

Minister of Education: ” You will all wear masks at school”. “That is all”.😑

All teachers exeunt 😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳😳

Act V

September……….💪💪💪

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facing the Uncertain

I have always followed a successful rule in my life: if you don’t know how to solve a problem, copy those who are better than you – and when possible, make some further improvements afterwards. The point is that for what concerns the reopening of schools in September, it seems that every country is tackling this burning issue without having any real clue. We’ll have to find our own way, I am afraid.

In the name of school autonomy, introduced in the Italian system about 20 years ago, the Ministry of Education has proudly given birth to a series of smoky guidelines, inspired , they say, by the principles of flexibility and simplification, which could be summed up as follows: “it is up to you”. In compliance with health indications, there should be daily or weekly shifts and class reorganization with a division into several parts;  lessons might be provided for groups of students of different classes (and even of different years) and reunification of similar subjects for common explanations.

According to the indications of the Scientifical Technical Committee, no more than 15 students will be allowed for each class ( 25 is the average), a distance of one meter must be ensured between the students and between them and the teachers. It might seem a difficult goal to achieve to anyone, but don’t you worry,  the Ministry has cleverly developed a “computer dashboard” with the data of the students of all the rooms available (classrooms, laboratories and gyms). Apparently they had no cadastral maps, how strange. The instrument in question should allow rapid intervention in the most compromised situations in collaboration with local authorities to offer alternative solutions. Moreover, according to the School Building Registry, there are 3,000 abandoned buildings to be recovered for educational activities. The lessons could also be held at locations such as museums, archives, theaters, etc. .

It would sound splendid, but I know how things work here unfortunately and there is one word that makes me doubt more than any other: rapid. Nothing is rapid as far as bureaucracy is concerned in Italy and in summer time in particular, even in emergency times. An example? In my school we have been waiting for the making of ten rooms for three years and it has been said that very likely they will materialize next January, so how could I expect that 3.000 abandoned buildings will be recovered for educational activities in two months only? Let alone how lessons could be held in museums, theatres etc. respecting the protocol distance or the consequent insurance matters.

This said, we are to divide classes, find new places, imagine on line learning integration, but what about teachers? How many teachers are required to make this plan come true? Twice as much? Can a country with 2.500 thousand euros of public debt afford such  a scheme? In my opinion there will be only 4 options for the future:

FANCIFUL: new buildings miraculously will be erected by August 31th just close to schools, so it will be conceivable to split groups and definitely solve the problem of overcrowded classes. Thousands of teachers will be hired putting an end to the problem of precarious employment in education. If possible, some increase in salary would be much appreciated.

AUSPICABLE: Covid vaccine is found and we will go back to normal.

POSSIBLE: the splitting of groups will necessarily have the consequence of making double shifts and finding new buildings, but if we mean to avoid night shifts, an integration with on-line learning will have to be planned.

CERTAIN: after the first Covid case, the school will be closed and we’ll go back to on line learning.

Mala tempora currunt sed peiora parantur. (bad times are upon us but the worst has yet to come”)