A focus on methodology in Italian educational research

A few months ago, the book Prospettive di metodo per le politiche educative (tr. eng.: Perspectives on Methodology in Educational Policies – 315 pages, €25) was published by PM Edizioni – Naples, as part of the Sociology Series edited by Prof. Fabio Corbisiero from the University of Naples Federico II. The book has been edited by researchers Amalia Caputo, Gabriella Punziano and Barbara Saracino.  The content of this volume ranges from reports on research studies to analytical observations of the Italian school system. This text presents a research symposium on the latest topics in the sociological and evaluation debate concerning Italian educational policies, from work experience programmes to school inclusion policies. Featuring a total of sixteen chapters, which involved over thirty collaborators from different methodological research fields and various national research networks, the volume includes a chapter specifically dedicated to inclusion in the schools self-evaluation as well as external evaluation, which was written by INVALSI’s researchers Michela Freddano, Letizia Giampietro and Donatella Poliandri. The main aim of the volume is to give cause for reflection on the methods used to design, develop, analyse, monitor and assess the main programmes and schemes currently in place in the field of education and vocational training aimed at tackling issues like early school leaving, and social and work exclusion. The role of the three co-editors stems from the desire to publicly disseminate the essays presented and discussed in the sessions coordinated by the three researchers for the 11th ESPAnet ITALIA Conference.   

The three editors

Amalia Caputo is a researcher in Social Research Methodology at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Naples Federico II, where she teaches Methodology and techniques of social research. Her research is focused on the themes of inequalities and social differences, youth culture and virtual communication. She is in charge of the research activities of the Territorial Youth Observatory of the Campania Region and she is the Student Orientation representative for her department.  

Gabriella Punziano, PhD in Sociology and social research, is a researcher in Sociology at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Naples Federico II, where she teaches New data and new methods for analysing communication. Prior to that, she was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Gran Sasso Science Institute in L’Aquila. Her research interests include: social research methodology, new analytical perspectives and the challenges introduced by new data; social policies and welfare regimes in relation to social inclusion, territorial cohesion and community integration. 

Barbara Saracino, PhD in Social Sciences Methodology, has been a researcher in Sociology at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna since 2019. She is interested in the methodology and sociology of science. She is an expert in investigation techniques and both quantitative and qualitative data analysis. She is a member of the board of research of the Italian Osservatorio Scienza Tecnologia e Società (tr. eng.: Observatory on Science, Technology and Society).   Valu.Enews’ Editorial Board met with Dr Saracino from the University of Bologna to examine the main aspects of the recent volume.     

Doctor Saracino, what research tools does your book suggest as useful in order to analyse the main contemporary trends in educational research? What contribution to this topic has been made by the large group of scholars involved in your project?   

«The book stems from the desire to publicly disseminate the essays presented and discussed in the sessions coordinated by us as part of the 11th ESPAnet ITALIA Conference, held in Florence in September 2018. The diversity of the contributions in terms of origin (from universities, as well as different Italian research institutions such as: INDIREINVALSIINAPPIFEL, etc.) fostered an interesting moment of debate and exchange between the various institutions that deal with issues related to education and vocational training. Preserving this precious diversity, therefore, became the main objective around which this text was organised, to allow scholars who for various reasons conducted studies in this area, to openly communicate on different topics including: educational planning and design (analysing practical processes and mechanisms through which programmes and projects take shape); the assessment and monitoring of the implemented programmes; the impact that the programmes have on local areas or final recipients. This is an open dialogue that also aims to suggest possible analytical extensions to projects other than those studied in the specific cases presented here. In any event, these analytical extensions are centred on the tools and issues that have developed around the most urgent problems regarding education and vocational training in the fight against early school leaving, as well as social and work exclusion.»  

Moving on to the main aspects of research covered in the book, why is the fight against early school leaving and social exclusion a relevant topic both for educational policies and for the social system as a whole? What tools are the most suitable to detect whether or not these issues are being dealt with effectively in the institutional assessment of schools?  

«With the issuing of the Regolamento sul Sistema nazionale di valutazione in material di istruzione e formazione (tr. eng.: Regulation for the National Assessment System for Education and Training) (Presidential Decree no. 80/2013) and the consequent launch of the National Evaluation System (known with the acronym SNV in Italy), educational institutions have started to reflect on how and if the inclusion and differentiation activities they have promoted are successful, within a larger framework of reference regarding school quality, developed by INVALSI. As the three INVALSI’s researchers who collaborated on our volume Michela Freddano, Letizia Giampietro and Donatella Poliandri contributed to highlighting, in particular, the Schools Self-Evaluation Report (better known in Italy with the acronym RAV), in the section on the processes related to educational and didactic practices, contains a specific area dedicated to the theme of inclusion and differentiation on which each educational institution is called to evaluate itself. Moreover, external evaluators have also been tasked with expressing their points of view on this same area, after having had the opportunity to explore the different school life’s aspects. After having developed both the self-evaluation tools for the schools themselves and the external evaluation tools for external evaluators, INVALSI began then a process of reflection aimed at studying the quality of evaluation processes implemented by schools, given the importance these reports have in public policy development, since they are viewed as levers of internal change and to support the improvement of the system as a whole. In Chapter 5, the three INVALSI researchers present the results of an interesting secondary analysis conducted on the results of both the self-evaluation and the external evaluation rubrics, to compare the results schools gave themselves with the points of view expressed by external evaluators. They also discuss the results of a survey taken by external evaluators who conducted school visits, to find out about the perceived usefulness of the indicators present in the RAV in the economy of external evaluation itself. The results presented by the authors contribute to our understanding of how the indicators support the evaluation of all aspects relating to the area of inclusion and differentiation outlined in both the self and the external evaluation framework and whether or not they are considered useful and exhaustive by the people in charge of conducting the evaluation. The entire process related to the evaluation of school inclusion proposed by the INVALSI researchers takes into account the framework made available by Legislative Decree no. 66/2017, on Norme per la promozione dell’inclusione scolastica degli studenti con disabilità (tr. eng.: Regulations for the promotion of school inclusion for students with disabilities), a ruling that encourages INVALSI to define increasingly more precise indicators to assess the quality of school inclusion.»   

What about universities? How can we promote full inclusion for people with disabilities and specific learning disorders in higher education? 

«Full inclusion for people with disabilities and those with specific learning disorders in education at all levels is now a widely recognised right by the laws of various countries, including Italy. However, to guarantee an effective power for these kind of rights, it is necessary to implement diversified strategies through measures aimed at encouraging students in disadvantaged conditions to keep on with their studies and help them achieve academic success – peer tutoring, for example, is one of such tool. The contribution by Claudio Torrigiani from the University of Genoa, in particular, presents some results of an evaluation research project that analysed the peer tutoring service aimed at students with disabilities or SLDs enrolled at the University of Genoa, to clarify the implementation process, identify the crucial steps for effective implementation as well as a suitable set of indicators to evaluate it, with particular reference to the characteristics of the peer tutor that were considered most important by the various parties involved. Results from this study suggest, for example, that the role of the tutor is burdened by strong expectations from all the different stakeholders involved, which makes necessary a significant investment in training and education. Other universities, in contrast to the University of Genoa, have opted for a service provided by professionals, but the author believes that while, on the one hand, this choice may guarantee a higher quality service, on the other, it can lead to asymmetry in the tutor-student relationship, which can also show a negative effect on a student’s inclination to request the service or on how easily they relate to their tutor. Another aspect that should not be overlooked concerns the relational dynamics between these students and their fellow students enrolled in the same course: it is not uncommon, for example, to find cases of distasteful behaviour that arises from a tendency towards individualism and competition rather than collaboration and solidarity. The author highlights how a cultural issue arises which underlies all these dynamics, beyond the jurisdiction of inclusive education, concerning the attitude, of teachers and other students towards the inclusion of students with disabilities or SLDs. As the data reported in this contribution show, among other things, the presence of the students with disabilities or SLDs in university institutions has grown considerably in recent years. This fact, which in itself is undoubtedly positive, however, represents only the starting point to achieving full inclusion at university level for these students, and this process calls all parties involved in this challenge to action.»  

How can education help to promote the importance of active citizenship? 

«In 2001, the National Civil Service (in Italian: Servizio Civile Nazionale) was established. In this context, starting from the assumption that the key skill of “active citizenship” is a fundamental educational tenet of all National Civil Service projects, as part of an investigation promoted by INAPP in this sector, the authors of the chapter dedicated to this topic – Federica De Luca, Sergio Ferri and Pasquale di Padova – wondered if investing in the active citizenship of young people could improve their level of employability. In other words, is it plausible that a higher level of employability could be the result of more conscious active citizenship? Is there a relationship between active citizenship and employability? How is it possible to measure these aspects and what impact do they have on the probability of being employed? Therefore, the authors examine the dominant active labour policy paradigm, which considers education and training as the only real tool that can be used to intervene on the employability of the workforce, and they hypothesise that this approach should be enriched with an additional aspect, which has thus far been overlooked, i.e. active citizenship. In this chapter, the authors evaluate whether active citizenship should be a variable to be considered in the employability process – and more generally in the social inclusion process – of young people. They used their results to create two innovative indices, which they present in the chapter: an active citizenship index and employability index. They describe how they created these indices and the results that can be gleaned from them, while acknowledging the fact that these two tools can be adapted to and replicated in other research contexts.»  

Apart from the ‘basic’ skills, what other skills should be promoted by a high-quality national school system? What opportunities and limits can be found today when it comes to promoting individual well-being in Italian schools? 

«Investing in people, especially in young people, is a top priority in Europe: the quality of their education is a key aspect for the prospects of young people and their chances of a successful life. A good quality education is hence the basis of an inclusive and resilient society. It is the starting point for a successful professional career and the best protection against unemployment and poverty. Schools play a key role in lifelong learning and therefore affirmative action is needed to improve the quality and performance of second-level education. In the European Union, there is a great variety of educational institutions and education systems. At the same time, almost all EU Member States face a number of important challenges. Shortcomings exist regarding the development of skills at second-level education. The latest results of the OECD PISA survey show, for example, that one pupil out of five has serious difficulties in developing sufficient reading, mathematics and scientific skills. As a result, these young people are more likely to face major obstacles in accessing the world of work. Many young people do not have adequate digital skills, let alone formal qualifications, although many EU Member States have made excellent progress towards achieving the Europe 2020 target. On average, over a third of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the EU have a low level of education. This percentage is four times higher than that of their peers from non-disadvantaged backgrounds. This is then further aggravated by other specific problems that weigh on pupils from an immigrant background or those of Romani ethnicity. Far from curbing social inequality, these differences help to widen it. Therefore, access to high-quality education and vocational training is the key to a more resilient and equitable society. A number of European Commission documents also focus on social and civic skills. The authors of Chapter 13 of our book – Lucia Fortini, Emanuele Madonia, Maria Santoro and Domenico Trezza – tell us that these skills are linked to the development of individual and social well-being and therefore it is necessary to draw on the field of so-called “emotional intelligence”, from which the elements of empathy and social skills are of fundamental importance.»  

The volume also analyses the specific context of Italian Provincial Centres for Adult Education (in Italy known under the acronym CPIAs) in Italy, taking its cue from a number of real-life experiences. What added value can Italian Provincial Centres provide in the area of lifelong and life wide learning? 

«The authors of the chapter dedicated to the analysis of the teaching policies and practices of Italian CPIAs, Amalia Caputo and Luca De Luca Picione, start from the observation that Italy is a country of immigration and they tell us that, in light of this evidence, it is even more necessary to reflect on the role and condition of non-EU citizens and on the opportunity for Italy to promote an effective policy to prevent social exclusion and therefore promote integration in the economic and social context of the country. While it is not easy to define the level of integration of the immigrant population, the authors have identified four main analytical aspects that come into play: human and social capital, relations with the community of origin and with the host community, the interaction process with a welcoming environment and, finally, insertion and complete integration in the school and work context. In the context of integration through education, CPIAs play, then, as key actors. CPIAs were established by the Ministry of Education in 2012 with the implementation of Presidential Decree no. 263/2012 and they are a form of state educational institution with autonomous features. More specifically, CPIAs have a specific organisational and educational structure that focuses on providing access to professional requalification and the acquisition of skills to Italian citizens and foreigners alike, who are over the age of 16. Moreover, CPIAs are organised within larger networks that also include other local schools and organisations involved in workplace, professional and vocational training. Other distinctive features of CPIAs lie in the way they structure their educational programmes, based on learning units or modules, and in the certification of skills: in other words, it makes it possible to tailor study programmes, their contents and methods according to the different students’ starting-level. Because of these aspects, CPIAs can be considered one of the most innovative examples of lifelong learning, of particular importance in the education and vocational training of foreign adults.» 

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