This article, prepared by Paolo Nardi of Cometa Research, presents Cometa Formazione, an innovative vocational training provider in Como, Italy which follows a model of Reality-based Learning. Paolo Nardi @paolonardi80 is International Affairs Officer and Responsible for Research at Cometa Research. He is also a researcher at the Centro di Economia regionale, dei trasporti e del turismo – Università Bocconi and assistant editor of the journal Economics and Policy of Energy and the Environment.
School: More than just Providing Information
In the daily global challenges of educational and training activities, helping students – especially young students – to develop a growth mindset attitude is paramount (Pouliakas, 2017). Entrepreneurial and digital skills, as well as creative thinking, are just some of the key elements highlighted in the recently approved EU Skills Agenda. There is therefore great need of a system where developing students’ capabilities (Nussbaum, 2011) becomes the main goal of teaching and training activities. Indeed, future workers will not only require professional skills for (less and less) permanent employment, but will also have to develop personal capabilities to keep themselves employable and to become smart citizens for the “unknown future” (Mulder, 2017).
In a nutshell, schools should be required to do more than simply provide information: education implies inquiry into reality, to catch the meaning and the beauty of it, but above all to ensure the right questions are being asked. Schools should therefore support their students in developing a deep self-knowledge, emphasising their capabilities and encouraging the emergence of their authentic value and excellence (Nussbaum, 2011).
Beyond Typical Schooling: Reality-based Learning, a Holistic Approach to Education
Against this backdrop, an effort is needed to overcome the division between subject-matters and academic disciplines, as well as the historical dichotomy between doing and knowing, theory and practice, vocational-technical subjects and core academic subjects. Indeed, experiential learning is pivotal for skills development and should include the development of “non-technical” skills that are activated in the making or rendering of a product or service. However, competency in academic subjects such as mathematics and languages is equally required to deliver an excellent final product or service.
Such an integrated teaching structure, which requires complex and remarkable organisation, underpins so-called “reality-based” learning (Campiotti et al. 2017), where an order received by the students in the workplace represents the point of engagement and provides endless learning and skills development opportunities, rather than just attainment of new knowledge. In this way, the entire teaching methodology is not only interdisciplinary but actually pervades multiple disciplines. Indeed, students in action are required to put into practice skills of a diverse nature, which ultimately enables them to overcome traditional divisions of knowledge in the making of their masterpiece. Working actions and aspects of “typical education” can also be taken into the workplace. In fact, the workplace is intended to act as a cultural resource field that the school can draw on for educational purposes, thus actively facilitating the combination of school and work-based learning. To this purpose, criteria and operational methods are needed to analyse working processes and to locate the knowledge and skills required by national regulations for both secondary school programmes and vocational training programmes in the day to day activities of the workplace.
Cometa Formazione: An Example of “Reality-Based Learning”
Cometa Formazione, a Vocational Education and Training (VET) provider operating in Como, Italy, is strongly active in creating and preserving those conditions which help children to recognise and deepen the knowledge of their own attitudes. Based on the concept of “reality-based learning”, Cometa Formazione and its Oliver Twist school have implemented the “school-enterprise” approach which involves students creating real products for real customers in the school’s workshops and gives them the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial skills in a training environment.
In Cometa, teaching activities take place in “apprenticeship studios” (bottega) where, just like in the Renaissance, pupils learn by following their master in the process of making a product for the public. There are three apprenticeship studios in Cometa: Bottega del gusto (Taste), which includes a bar, a restaurant, and a pastry shop open to the public; Bottega del legno (Wood), which includes a planning and design department and a carpenters workshop; and Bottega del tessile (Textiles), which includes a design department as well as a textile and tailoring shop. In these real work contexts, students offer their products and/or services to paying consumers under the guidance of instructors. As this is not a mere simulation, the impulse for professional competency emerges more sharply; at the same time, this approach urges learners to acquire all those cultural and human skills that are also mandatory in educational curricula. This approach is the pivot for learning and developing non-technical skills: in addition to “soft skills”, competency in mathematics and languages are required to deliver a final product of excellence, as students are requested to prepare budgets, to write reports, as well as to draw on literature and poetry as essential cultural elements for a high-quality design of products and services.
Reality-based learning approaches practiced by Cometa Formazione have seen the following results, as emerging from the 2016 social impact analysis implemented by Politecnico di Milano:
- Increased student motivation
- Increased student self-efficacy
- Improved positive feelings of self-worth
- Increased creativity and competence
- Diminished drop-out rates
Looking Ahead: Learning to Apply and Applying to Learn
In conclusion, the educational and training systems today have to enable young people to gain not only technical skills apt for future professional employment, but also soft skills. The great drive towards work-based systems, including dual systems and job-school rotation, is based on the acknowledgement that workplaces can provide an opportunity for learners to perform work tasks and also gain the knowledge typically learned in school. The workplace can be conceived as a cultural heritage that the school may instrumentally use in pursuit of its educational goals, thus adequately combining both school and work-based study. Research and study into these models, however, have identified decreased interest in school subject-matters, with a growing risk of a gap in literacy and numeracy (Billett, 2011; Hagen and Streitlien, 2015). In addition, there is a perception that so-called theoretical and professional subject-matters have merely been juxtaposed, at the expense of academic rigour.
Given this, it is necessary to establish a more solid relation between places and moments of learning and the moments when learning is applied. This should then prevent the concept of school-work rotation from implying a separation between the two. The school-work integration model adopted by Cometa Formazione and the “reality-based learning” process developed over the past years have addressed this need by bringing work experience into the school and also by orienting teaching methodology to the aims of the manufacturing processes. Work processes and operational modes have been analysed and criteria developed to ensure that learners gain the knowledge and skills required in national and regional VET standards.
Billett, S. (2011). Vocational Education: Purposes, Traditions and Prospects. Dordrecht: Springer.
Campiotti, F., Gomaraschi, M., Nicotra, M. (2017). The School-Enterprise for the Reality-based learning approach. Available at: http://cometaresearch.org/uncategorized/the-school- enterprise-for-the-reality-based-learning-approach/
Hagen, A. and Streitlien, Å. (2015). From talent to skilled worker. Telemark University College: Final report.
M. (Ed.) (2017). Competence-Based Vocational and Professional Education. Bridging the Worlds of Work and Education. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Nussbaum, M.C. (2011). Creating Capabilities. The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Pouliakas, K. (2017). Strengthening feedback between labour market signals and vocational education and training, in Alessandrini, G. (Ed.) Atlante di Pedagogia del Lavoro, Milan: FrancoAngeli
Photo credit: @amicidicometa
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