January 11, 2007

problem solving

Today I read a newspaper article on the dilemma parents face in enrolling their children into secondary school as they wait for new reforms that never come, “Classico o scientifico, tecnica o professionale, that is still the question”. In the article, Prof. Vaciago of the Università Cattolica di Milano commented on the need to modernize secondary school education to include “problem solving” skills that help students slide into reality -- interesting that “problem solving” was in English. How would that translate? Not even a distinguished university professor could come up with an Italian word that would encompass this concept, at least in a concise term.

I have been quite impressed with the liceo classico experience, the breadth and depth of the subjects it covers, the comprehensive approach, the interdisciplinary orientation and high expectations. Both my sons made it through boot camp (quarto e quinto ginnasio) and are seeing the fruit of their labours -- a newly acquired critical sense and capacity for the rigorous consideration of a subject. But…..there is something “missing”, or at least different – my cultural moment for the day.

Empirical approach. Creating a hypothesis. Defining alternative solutions. Putting alternatives to test. Observing and evaluating results. And most importantly, arriving at a conclusion based on all of the above. In other words, the process that leads to a “problem solving” mind-set of which Prof. Vaciago was wistfully dreaming. It is the one area that is glaringly missing in my sons’ elite, rigorous, theoretical, thorough, chronologically ordered, interdisciplinary education. They are never, never asked to take a personal position, research it and present conclusions based on personal observations and interpretations in an empirical fashion. They write lots of essays – pages of writing with no paragraphs that are, at times, based on personal opinion but they never prepare research papers on individually determined topics. Topics are distributed from above, the same for all. They all learn the same material in the same way based on the same positions – a group forming process in act.

Why is this important? American culture, more than any other one, is based on the individual and we learn this cultural orientation over and over in school, in this case, through an emphasis on direct, personal experience leading to personal conclusions. This approach is often seen as intellectually careless and shabby by Italians. Their system is more concerned with passing on other cultural orientations, starting with the importance of finding one’s place in a group and therefore learning what the group thinks, a priori. To each culture its own educational system.

People and systems usually act rationally; you just have to find the rationale.

A domani,

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