We have learned a lot about teaching during lockdown. Now that schools have tested the usefulness of new, completely digital tools to round out the overall offerings of education, turning back will be impossible… and it wouldn’t make much sense

* Stefano Mirti, designer, teacher, partner of IdLab. Director of the Scuola Superiore di Arte Applicata del Castello Sforzesco in Milan, President of the Fondazione Milano and curator of a daily newsletter Letterine

What have we discovered about teaching (and learning) in this period of obligatory suspension? And what will remain? These are two hefty, important, necessary questions that have an impact on the lives of many of us. Since we have a limited attention span to deal with here, let’s concentrate on certain considerations of a general character, and set some clear parameters (or at least some that could become clear).

First of all, we can say that we have understood (directly, in real time, in a situation of learning by doing) what it means to say “yes, we can,” in all of that phrase’s ramifications. Professors in their seventies who in a few days have become black belts of Google Meet, 8-year-olds who teach their teachers how to transform a domestic backdrop into a landscape from Minecraft or a tropical beach. Whatsapp groups in which tutors and professors of all ages and social backgrounds swap tricks, links and tutorials of all kinds. As a whole, these phenomena have been exciting and full of enthusiasm. A new world opening up before our eyes.

Obviously a few far from secondary distinctions should be made: many of our students do not have access to the Internet. And there is another very important concept: online instruction cannot take the place of traditional classroom teaching.

Let’s start here, then, with what is perhaps the main conceptual issue. I have spent over a decade experimenting with and trying out every possible form of remote knowledge sharing. At this point it is plausible to say that the new medium (a class on Zoom) has not replaced its predecessor (a class in a classroom). At best, under the best conditions, it can be a supplementary action, of great usefulness and extraordinary multiplication of value (for the traditional medium, which should not be lost).

An example. When Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type, people began to print many books: this was a quantum leap (in terms of media history). The previous medium (the manuscript) is a very costly object. The new technology reduced costs greatly, so knowledge could reach many more people. Let’s imagine being in a medieval university, when printed books began to arrive: it was an amazing thrill, because the possibilities and horizons opened up in an incredible way. Nevertheless (and obviously), the book could not take the place of a traditional lecture: it was simply an auxiliary tool. What changed in the university (as an institution) with the arrival of books printed with movable type? In banal terms, it revolutionized and boosted the function of the library (or libraries). Gutenberg’s movable type (and the subsequent refinement by Aldus Manutius) made great libraries flourish, open to many people. Apart from this, where teaching was concerned (with a lecturer and a class), nothing changed.

It is the same for us. The chance to conduct online classes, the possibility of inviting special guests from anywhere in the world, the interactive and horizontal work with students (in remote teaching you cannot have the top-down mode typical of our usual courses), form a new device that supplements an entire series of already existing teaching tools.

A good school has talented teachers and an excellent library, well-organized laboratories, the possibility of travel and visiting professors. It can then organize internships or work/study programs, and many other things. Sports, social activities, lodgings for students arriving from elsewhere, lots of different facets. So today that school has tested, in the field, the usefulness of a new completely digital tool, to round out its overall educational system.

The world that awaits us will not be all white or all black. As always, it will be colored with tones of gray. We will not be closed off in our homes forever, but we will not return to the usual routine, either. We will exist in an intermediate way. In September we may return to school wearing masks, with separated seating, perhaps on double shifts. But there could also be a return of the virus, plunging us back into lockdown and remote education. On the other hand, the whole problem might vanish (as in the case of the Spanish flu) from one day to the next. In that case, we will remove our masks and push our seats back together. In short, it will be a future in which we can join new systems to the existing traditional methods. The new paradigm has been absorbed, the cognitive leap has been made: turning back is not just impossible, but also senseless.

It is true that “video killed the radio star,” but that famous song by the Buggles does not apply, in this case. Nothing is getting killed or erased this time around. We’ve simply gotten a bigger toolbox.

One last thought. Never mistake the container for the content. Saying we will be rescued by a tablet or an IWB (interactive whiteboard) is just dumb. As if in the 1950s we had said that giving a Bic pen to every child would improve the quality of our schools. Zoom, the tablet, the whiteboard and the wax tablet and stylus are nothing more (and nothing less) than tools. The quality of the board (or the chalk) is not as important as the quality of the person doing the teaching.

As has always been the case (and always will be), today the important factor is the quality of the teacher. If the professor is capable of understanding the new paradigms and using the many (old and new) tools made available by technology, everything else, a little at a time, will fall into place (until a new Gutenberg or Manutius comes along, to re-ignite our discussions and our thoughts).


Cover photo and photos in the text: the renovation of the Enrico Fermi school in Turin curated by the BDR bureau studio, founded by architects Simona Della Rocca and Alberto Bottero. The result of Torino Fa Scuola initiative, the project transformed the school built in the sixties in a community schoolPh. Simone Bossi.