True science citizenship for a future-oriented school

Even with many exceptions, mainly due to the initiatives of individual schools and individual teachers, the situation of school curricula requires significant changes, especially in terms of the development of scientific skills, the real engine of development. The Italian school is in fact fundamentally rooted in programs of the last century with a literary-philosophical-artistic approach. If I want to know if the earth is spherical, if I want to change the properties of a plant, if I want to know if a substance is good or bad, I can not ask philosophy, music or Greek: I have to ask science, which how all human activities make mistakes, but it has in itself the ability to correct them, because in science it is only that which is reproducible by other scientists and with other methods that has value. Science belongs to ‘knowledge’ which consists of many types of knowledge that the school must be able to integrate through teachers, at all school levels, trained to function in the specified sense. There is enough to ask ourselves what needs to be done.

Not to forget that information opportunities have been enriched with new technologies such as radio, television, databases, information platforms, the internet. In addition to profound changes in the population. 20 years ago there were one million eighteen-year-olds in Italy, today they are less than half. Finally, the important changes that have taken place in society have increased the ‘non-scholastic’ knowledge of young people, with the result that adolescence has fallen from today around the age of 10. Taking these elements into account, to simplify, I will refer to three – necessary – major changes, of course without going into detail, which are the skills of the experts in teaching and pedagogy. The first change requires the presence in the science school as part of the culture. Unfortunately, the constitution itself says that the state supports science and culture. Are these two different things? In any journalistic or cultural television program, science is rarely present, and it is often discussed on a separate page or program.

Some might argue that science is present in school through scientific subjects such as chemistry, physics, biology. True, but it is the content of science that is often overtaken by other knowledge that is added quickly in ever shorter times. What is missing is science as a source of knowledge, a unique irreplaceable knowledge obtained thanks to a specific methodology. In other words, the school does not educate in the work of the scientific method. Another change concerns the excessive anchoring of the Italian school to the ‘past’. In reality, history is taught in almost every subject: literature, philosophy, art, although the teaching of the history of peoples and nations very often stops at World War I, and not infrequently shoots over what it was fascism, Nazism, dictatorships, Shoah. Nevertheless, this certainly determines in the student a good knowledge of the past.

We know well – and it is important to know – where we are coming from, but we do not know where we are going. This determines a poor ability, which is also logically reflected in the political class, to think about the future, to understand what needs to be done to get a better one. The lack of protocols to deal with a pandemic or to think in time to prepare a vaccine is also the result of this distortion. We have a very hard time developing strategies. For example, how many are the multi-year plans at municipal, regional, national level, which are then implemented and managed in terms of energy production and consumption? Knowing where we are going, which port we want to land at, can only be learned if the school provides us with the basic elements. A third change concerns the ‘passivity’ of students from primary school to university.

The ‘frontal’ lesson still prevails where one has to listen, but there is no incentive to ask questions, to express different opinions. Instead, it is necessary to ensure that students do at least part of the lessons. Today, there are huge sources of information that can be referred to so that students can do part of the lessons themselves. Professors should be helpful in pointing out sources, correcting mistakes, filling in gaps. Less ‘themes’ and more concise. Many graduates are not able to adequately summarize what they have read. The school must also be more active in offering internal or external laboratories, where students can see how theory is then translated into practical activity. This should facilitate education that allows us to be closer to the demands of business and the world of work. One must hope that politicians understand the need for these changes. If they are not done, schools will increasingly be the source of the culture our society needs.

Founder and president of Mario Negri Irccs Pharmacological Research Institute

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