Francesco Tonucci, an Italian psycho-pedagogue, thinker and draftsman, has listened to children all his life. Meeting with them to ask them what they think of Education, of the classes, of their cities. From these conversations came the project The city of Children, a multidisciplinary initiative that became a book in 1996 and is already a world reference as to how cities should be if they thought a little more about the little ones that inhabit them. Among the most recognized initiatives of The city of Children there are the school roads, safe corridors in the cities so that the children can walk to school, an activity that, Tonucci defends, only has advantages: autonomy for the little ones, exercise and less pollution in school environments.
From these months of confinement, Tonucci believes that the little ones have not suffered as much as some might think and regrets that the school, in general, has tried to replicate its habitual activity in the homes almost as if nothing had happened. He believes that this crisis, like all of them, offers a good opportunity to change things at school that do not work. “If many students go to school without wanting to go, they get bored, they learn little, and teachers are also among the workers with the most occupational diseases, we are doing something wrong.”
How have the little ones passed the confinement?
There is much alarm, but I think these concerns are exaggerated. I would say that teenagers suffered more. The little ones, in Primary, had to give up very important things for them; What came out the most in our surveys was the lack of friends. I think the children lived the confinement quite well, because they lived it in their house and with the presence of their parents, and that has been a gift. So much time at home and many times doing things together … That gets along. Another thing is that the only children are left alone with their parents, while those with siblings have been able to share the experience, and that is different. I think that in general they will not suffer much. I am often asked how children will get through this trauma, as if they have lived through a war. There are different situations, some limits with a bad relationship with the parents or episodes of violence, but this does not depend on the situation either, it already existed. Children will have a much higher recovery capacity than us.
Since you mentioned the parents and their stay with the children, were you ready for this? To have to take care of your children, help them with school, keep them at home all day?
Of course not. We have all learned things. But I think the one that has made the least effort has been the school. The schools closed and now. Everyone has changed their way of acting, but the school has tried to do the same. She has failed to see that the world has changed, at least for a time. The school has tried, at least the Italian experience, to say that nothing happens and that we are going ahead as before. The motto of the Italian Ministry of Education was “school does not stop”. I think it is serious. The school had to stop and reflect, to realize what was happening. It does not make sense that while the world suffers the tragedy that we have experienced, the school continued with the Phoenicians, adding, subtracting and asking for homework. The first thing we did when this started was to talk to the children. Everyone has cared about children talking to experts, asking psychologists for advice from parents, from teachers. But no one thought to ask the children what was happening to them, how they were experiencing it and what they were proposing. It was the first thing we did with the cities in our network, mainly in Italy, Spain and Latin America, requesting that children’s councils be convened virtually. It was done, and often, because children like to participate and express their point of view. Very clear things came out.
Three things mainly. We are talking about children from 8 to 11 years old. And they said the same thing in all countries: that they missed friends, that they were fine with their parents and that they were fed up with homework and tired of following classes on screens. It was very evident: distance education suspended, it did not pass the filter of its users. It has also happened with teenagers. It was difficult to do this for many hours. Thinking of September, many schools propose to continue with distance learning, but it is not plausible. From these three elements more interesting things could be thought. We proposed to make the house a laboratory for the school. That the school take advantage of the presence of the parents to ask them for help and that the domestic activities were the new duties. You could search the kitchen math, the language of recipes, collective reading at home as a theater, look at photos to reconstruct the personal history of the children. I think this is an interesting element that could have been used for the quarantine, but it can also be used for the return.
Do you think that the school needs to change globally or does it help us to wait until there is a return to some type of normality and to return to the old?
It depends on how we see the school that we have left in March. If we think that it was adequate to the needs of our society, it is correct to think of going back to the old days. But these days I give the example of a car factory. If it produces well and has had to stop due to the pandemic, now it is holding out of necessity to return to producing as before. I don’t know if the school can say the same. From my point of view, it doesn’t work because it doesn’t respond to social needs. Our countries have constitutions that affirm that citizens are equal. But after saying they are the same, the constituents realized that it is not true. Therefore, affirming that they are is a commitment, not a reality, and the school is a fundamental element to correct what birth does not guarantee. But the research we have done says that the school is an agent of differentiation and not equality. The last remain last and the best remain so.
In Italy there was a survey of this pandemic that says that 30% of young people are functionally illiterate. Imagine that Seat produces 30% of cars that do not walk. Could you say that you are looking forward to your normal production? No. It should close. If we think that many students inadvertently go to school, get bored and learn little, and add that teachers are one of the professions with the most occupational diseases, we are doing something wrong. As I was saying, part of society that believes that it should change, but raises doubts because changing costs. The directors themselves, inspectors, even the ministers, seem to be in the part of those who stay. Those who want to experience something new, to move, have a favorable time to do so. Crises allow experiments. I clarify: an individual person has always been able to do it. Good teachers always are. With this approach I hope that a group of people, from schools is willing to get around a table and see what can be done. I think it would be interesting if four protagonists were brought together at the reopening: the city, the school, the family and the students to seek a new educational pact. It will not work if it comes from above.
Include cities at this table, one of their specialties. What role would they have in relation to school?
I think that one of the proposals in which we must move forward is that the school should not be done only within the school. But not because it needs space, the interesting thing would be for the city to invite public or private entities to offer new experiences. It can be a farm, a theater, an industry. You have to think about significant experiences. When in Italy the time pieno, eight hours at school, who was born in Turin, a working-class city, the teachers looked for what to do to avoid having the boys sit for eight hours. They thought of the city, offering things to them, and the classes included very diverse things. For example, bakers invited children to make bread, and children went to class with bread made by them. It is a small, simple, but interesting experience for children. And then the school could start working from there, with the bread, the wheat, whatever.
The second idea of what the city can offer the school is that the streets surrounding a center are the responsibility of the school. That the school can use the streets around it as a reserved space, that this space can be used as a gym, for certain classes … There is also the environment. Six months ago the main topic was climate change, it seems that we have forgotten. It seems to me basic to think that there is a zone of respect around the schools without traffic, less polluted and without noise. The other question I propose is that the children go to school on their own. This limits the number of people that move and ensures the distance.
In Spain they are beginning to present the plans for September. It does not seem that there are many people thinking about changing things, the main concern is where they are going to put the students.the main concern is where they are going to put the students
Because the logic that is followed is that we don’t see the moment to go back to what we used to. There is no awareness that it did not work. Many topics should pass critical review. If the school loses 30% of the students, it is not working. We must take advantage to think that the school can be different. For example, a counselor from an autonomous community in Spain called me. I was wondering what he could do to promote change. I told him to take the side of the changers, instead of facing them. There are teachers who take advantage of these situations to propose changes. Colleagues, directors and inspectors are going to be found against it. It is important that whoever has power uses it to promote change, not to prevent it. Although I insist that good teachers have always done it.
With distance learning, one of the measures being taken is to try to equip all children with technological equipment. Are you afraid that they will take advantage of it since they are to be used more regularly?
I think there are many market interests that are pushing in this direction. For those who produce computers and tablets, school is an impressive market. If someone decides that all children should have a device, there are millions of them [en España hay más de 8 millones de escolares]. The question is whether it is useful. I think having connections and instruments is, the thing is that when we put them in education we have to be careful and not think that this is the solution. Its an instrument. Powerful, important, but as always happens with tools depends on the hand that uses them.
Furthermore, distance learning has again shown differences between students. They are gifted, with instruments and connections, and others without. People are very concerned about what students have lost in this time. What I propose to the school is the opposite thought. Let them think about what the students have gained in these months and work on it.
I think they have all won important things for life. At the level of character, emotions, autonomy, and concrete learning as well. They have learned to do things they have not done before, I think it would be interesting to work on this on the way back. What have they learned, what has not, what has happened, what has gone well, what has not. It is important for the future, also in case it happens again. More important than equipping yourself, be it at the level of technology or knowledge.