Preprimary & Primary Education
Schooling usually begins with noncompulsory early childhood education or nursery school for children aged three to five. Nursery school education is free for public institutions. As more women enter the workforce, more government sponsored and private childcare facilities are available for infants and young children. In 2000, approximately 96 percent of three to five year olds attended public or private nursery schools (Scuola Materna, Scuola dell'Infanzia, and Giardini d'Infanzia). At age six, children enter free, compulsory elementary schools (Scuola Elementare or Scuola Primaria), which last five years.
Nursery school teachers emphasize activities that enhance creativity skills, social attitudes, autonomy, and the learning process; children are readied for elementary school. Often children are placed in classes by developmental level, rather than age. Schools must accommodate students with special needs. Most classes have 25 students. Teachers are responsible for allocating the necessary hours and activities to meet the educational objectives. In 1992-1993 there were 27,274 preschools with approximately 1,569,811 students and 75,601 teachers. In September 2000, preprimary schools were given the autonomy in terms of organization, pedagogy, and curriculum, as long as the schools complied with the general objectives of the national educational system. Educational objectives for early childhood education include the interaction of culture and language with identity, autonomy, and competence. Curriculum includes body and movement; language (speech and words); spatial orientation and order of things; time and nature; and the self and relationship to others. There is a similarity between Italian and American early childhood curriculum and pedagogy; both have the goal of preparing children to become members of a democratic society.
Early childhood education in Italy has become world famous. The Reggio Emilia schools have become "laboratories" studied and modeled by teachers from many countries, especially the United States. The philosophical model of Reggio Emilia nursery schools and kindergartens focuses on constructivist theoretical foundations that emphasize a learner-centered curriculum and teaching methodology. These preschools link their practices to the theoretical perspectives of John Dewey, a progressive American educator.
The Reggio Emilia schools create an educational world in which children work and play in communities and learn to respect other persons and divergent points of view. Teachers guide children through critical inquiry. Many of the activities include building structural art objects that require critical thinking skills using linguistic and mathematical processes and the ability to work in cooperative groups. The curriculum includes long-term projects in a variety of media that foster connections between school and the home, family, and community and develop awareness and appreciation for regional, national, global cultural heritage.
Another influential early childhood theorist was Maria Montessori, the well-known Italian educator, who believed that children could learn math and language skills by applying knowledge. Her philosophy, curriculum and teaching methods have given impetus to Montessori schools in the United States and other countries. Montessori concentrated on the goal and process of education, rather than its methods. She defined the educational process as the development of the total human being in relationship to the environment and cultural context. Montessori believed that schooling should correspond to each child's developmental stage. She wrote that children begin exploring the world around them at birth, gradually moving from sensory to cognitive awareness.
In Montessori schools, children are introduced to materials in a sequential and logical progression. They are taught that freedom implies responsibility, self-discipline and working cooperatively with others. Montessori educational materials are designed for exploration and self-discovery. Academic study must have long, uninterrupted blocks of time to allow students to explore, reflect, and problem solve. For Montessori, the ultimate goal of education for a young adult is to develop within the individual the desire for life-long learning.
In 1985 and 1990 there were educational reforms regarding the curriculum and structure of primary education and its connection to preschool. Legislation in 1985 promoted early literacy and the development of the individual child. A 1990 law called for curricular connections between primary school activities with those of preschool and lower secondary school. These links encourage consistency of curriculum, pedagogy, and student cognitive development.
In 1999, compulsory education was extended to 10 years. Students begin the mandatory program when they are six-years-old. Primary/elementary schools (Scuola Elementare or Scuola Primaria), which can be public or private, must follow some national educational regulations; however, the 1997 Bassanini law 59 allows some freedom in curricular and pedagogical structure. The number of number of hours spent in class varies; students may attend classes for 27, 30, or 40 hours per week. Teachers have the autonomy and opportunity to design flexible curricula that meet student needs and national educational objectives. They ensure that the curricula includes examples from the European perspective, develop cross-cultural activities with a European focus, and establish contacts with other schools via pen pal and other programs.
Schools are required to provide students' families with an instructional plan describing subjects and activities for regular and optional curriculum; student assessment methods; research and experimentation activities; and the role of teachers in the school organization. Support is given to special needs students. The inclusion of learning disabled students provides all children with an opportunity for understanding and respecting differences.
Children usually attend schools closest to their home. Most classes have 25 students, but schools are established when there are 10 or more children of compulsory education age. The school year has a total of 200 days per year. It begins in September and ends June 30 with holidays at Christmas, Easter, and in the summer. Classes are usually from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. with a lunch break of approximately 90 minutes. In 1992-1993 there were 22,710 primary schools with approximately 2,959,564 students and 264,615 teachers.
Elementary education is divided into two cycles. Cycle one is two years, and cycle two is three years. Students pass automatically from cycle one to two. During cycle one, teachers play a dominant role in the classroom and use a multidisciplinary curriculum. At times various classes may be grouped together and team-taught. Classroom activities are the responsibility of the Teachers Assembly (Collegio dei Docenti). During the second cycle, teaching is divided into subject areas and different teachers teach the various subjects according to their specialty. Teaching is organized into modules around three main areas: linguistic expression, scientific-logicalmathematical, and historic-geographic-social. Teachers coordinate activities to ensure coherence and uniformity. Textbooks are chosen by individual teachers. Primary school curriculum includes Italian language, foreign language (French, German, or other) depending on the region of the Italian border, mathematics, science, history, geography, social studies, art, music, physical education, and Catholic religion (optional).
Student assessment and progress are tracked throughout the year by teacher observations; homework; and written work, oral work, and presentations. Parents or guardians received non-numerical reports (scheda) about three times per year that emphasize the student's overall development commitment to learn. Parents are allowed to meet with teachers for an explanation of the report. At the end of the fifth grade students must pass written and oral exit examinations (Esami di Licenza Elementare), which will allow them to enter compulsory lower secondary or middle school (Scuola Media).
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