The University of Bologna - The Birth of Student-Centered Education


The University of Bologna

The Birth of Student-Centered Education

My Short Story about The University of Bologna

This blog comes to us from Bologna, a town in northern Italy, nestled on the edge of the foothills of the Appennino Mountain Range. The year is 1091 AD. The town is abuzz with excitement and activity as new classes are beginning at the University of Bologna. The University of Bologna was formed by students who united for the purpose of their education; it was something different from the monastery schools or the traveling, lone scholar approach to education and learning. The students hired their teachers, supervised their teachers, paid their teachers, and ultimately fired their teachers if their performance was less than desirable—as determined by a student panel. Professor Alfredo, a returning professor who has been at the school since its founding in 1088 AD, cannot believe what just happened to one of his fellow professors, Professor Macaroni…He was marched out of the city by his students …and the students were chanting something as they swept him and his stuff out of town: “OOO SA SA SA, OOO SA SA SA, Hit’em in the Head with a Big Kielbasa, OO SA SA SA, OOO SA SA SA, Hit’em in the Head with a Big Kielbasa…” Professor Alfredo wondered out loud if a school centered on the interests, desires, and needs of the students could ever survive. Professor Linguini assured him that it was possible—that the two of them, two of the best Legal Scholars of all of Europe, were proof enough that students will always come to learn from the best of the best, regardless of who is in charge. (A short story that I never finished…some day…and the chant comes from my dad’s high school days in Ohio in the 50’s…the crowds at football games used to chant cheers from the stands back in those days. :))

The University of Bologna: Survival of the Fittest

Only the best teachers need apply at the University of Bologna, because anything less just won’t do. The University of Bologna is known as the oldest university of Western Civilization. At the time of its founding, students didn’t decide where to attend school by the name of the institution, or a particular city, but rather, they made their decision based solely on the instructor. Students would travel long distances to foreign countries just to learn from a scholar who was known as the best in the business…the top instructor in their chosen field of interest. As time went on, the number of master teachers and students grew in a certain area, and they formed unions or guilds to govern their rights and responsibilities—the universitas system was born. In the city of Bologna, the foreign students formed a union to protect their rights. Those rights included protection against higher prices for food, lodging, and higher fees charged by their teachers.

The Golden Rule—“Whoever has the Gold, Makes the Rules”

The students were paying the teachers and supporting the city where they were studying, so they made the rules. The University of Bologna truly started out as a student-centered institution…if the students didn’t like it, they went on strike, no one was paid, and things changed real fast. Teachers were expected to follow some pretty tough rules that governed their professional and private life if they wanted to keep their job at the University of Bologna. Many of the rules were put in place to guarantee the teacher wouldn’t skip town and take their students to a city across the mountains that had a more lucrative offer on the table. Other rules dealt with how the professors should systematically cover the material of their class—start on time, end on time, and the amount of material that should be covered in a semester. One rule that I find particularly striking, and it relates strongly to this blog, has to do with a teacher securing an audience for their lectures. A teacher was fined if he could not attract at least five students to listen to his lecture—“A poor lecture indeed which could not secure five hearers.” There were no mandatory attendance laws…there was a mandatory “student interest” law.

The Push and Pull of Attendance

Attendance laws are designed to “push” students into the classrooms of every school in our fine country – we believe education is important enough to force students to attend, whether they like it or not. On the other hand, the positive experiences that a student encounters inside of a classroom tend to “pull” a student into a teacher’s classroom. How many of your students would attend their classes if there were no mandatory attendance laws? How many of your students would stay away if they knew that the teacher would be fined for their non-attendance? Teachers should constantly strive to ensure that what is going on in their classroom causes students to want to show up every day, whether they are required to or not? I admit that this is a bit idealistic in nature, but it is certainly something that all teachers should set as a goal for themselves in a student-centered classroom.

The Pay is the same?

“Fitzpatrick, I don’t care if they like my class, I don’t care if they like my subject, and I don’t even care if they like me … the pay is the same whether they like me or not. My job is to cover the material –that’s what I’m paid to do.” I was mildly shocked when this experienced teacher who taught in the classroom next to me responded in this manner when I mentioned that I thought it was important that we send students away with a positive attitude toward our subject matter, which happened to be history. Technically, he was right, our pay was decided before the year began, and there was nothing we could do in the classroom to make our pay go up or down—this supposedly isn’t the case now that we have “performance pay…but I’m not so sure this proves to be true at our most challenging schools. What he wasn’t right about, which makes all the difference in the world, was the fact that likability pays dividends that may not be financial (sometimes they are during the holiday season), but they are real, and they do make a difference that reaches far beyond a teacher’s spending power. Likeability leads to higher attendance, increased expectations, greater anticipation, higher engagement, increased effort, greater participation, increased instructional time, and ultimately, higher achievement—and you will also notice, down the road, an increase in the amount of students that come back to you and say, “Thank you, I really enjoyed your class, and it definitely played a part in making me the person I am today.”

The Dividends of Likability

If there is anything I’ve learned during my 43 years in education (I like to include my time on both sides of the desk), it is this: If a student likes the teacher, regardless of what subject it is, they will like the class and look forward to coming to it each day. I still remember when a struggling student, who had so much going on in her life outside of school, said to me, “I came to school today just so I wouldn’t miss your class.” Not only did likability increase the attendance of my students in my class, but it was also affecting my students’ attendance in their other classes. Likability can change a student’s entire life. In fact, that is precisely what caused a “bored-to-death of history” student like myself to decide to become a history teacher…one class, one teacher, one semester in college…the rest is history, literally!

The Social Media Generation

When students like something, their world has a tendency to revolve around it. Take social media for instance—most of the interaction that takes place centers around what people like. Likability is so powerful that if we drill down and analyze its elements, and implement what we learn, I believe we can unlock corridors of educational experiences that lead right through the gateway to limitless learning. Limitless Learning can only occur when a student catches the passion of their teacher. You can teach until you are blue in the face and never touch the effectiveness of a teacher who successfully passes on their passion. “Some things are caught, not taught!”

What Likability is Not

Likability is not a teacher trying to get students to be his or her friend. Likability is not worrying about whether or not students will like you if you do something that is displeasing to them. Many times, when teachers set out to increase their likability, they actually undercut much of what they are doing by losing the respect of their students. Case in point: Allowing a student to come into class without a pass after the tardy bell. The teacher may think, “These students will like me if I let their tardiness slide.” Students pick up on that, they see that the teacher is not enforcing a school rule, and then they look at the teacher as someone who wants to be cool, who wants to please them, who wants to be their friend – the students have the power, and the teacher loses their respect. Where does it end? It will probably sound something like this: “I like you Mr. Fitzpatrick, you’re cool. Why are you giving homework? Why can’t we use the textbook on the test? Why can’t we watch more movies in this class? Why can’t I go to P.E. if we are not going to do anything in this class? Why do we have to write all of these notes…can’t you just give us a copy of your notes? Why don’t we ever do anything fun in this class? Do we have to do another project…I hate projects! This class is a joke…we never learn anything in here!”

Likability—What is it? How Does One Increase It?

Simply stated, likability is the natural result of great teaching? It doesn’t matter what you look like, your age, your background, or whether or not you coach a sport, if you possess the qualities of a great teacher, students will tend to like you. Students like teachers who are organized, who have control of their classroom and create a safe environment, who are interesting, knowledgeable, nice, fun, funny, challenging, encouraging, happy, caring, real, understanding, flexible, forgiving, passionate, professional, fair, and on and on and on…I could write a book just on these qualities. In the 8th chapter of the flagship book, The Art and Science of Teaching, by Robert J. Marzano, figure 8.1 charts the research of the effectiveness of different teacher interactions with students. The highest gains were the result of the duration of time a teacher spent with a student. Following close behind time was the act of encouraging students, smiling, and gestures. I would add to this, a teacher can increase their likability by clearly sending a message--by what they say and do--that they care about their students’ success, and they are here to help them learn. With this as my working definition of likability, I believe every teacher should care about whether or not their students like them. But teachers should not seek to be liked as much as they should seek to be likable--having the qualities that garner the affection of their students. Teachers should not seek to be a friend as much as they should seek to be friendly.

School Reform and Likability

In the end, if school reform continues to go the route of charter schools, vouchers, and parental control of their tax dollars and educational decisions, we need to think about creating a school environment that students strongly desire to be a part of during their high school years. Students will flock to the best of schools and teachers—where they have the best experiences, learn the most, and are ultimately best prepared for their future. We can hem and haw about the destruction of public education and the loss of funds, or we can become students of our trade, do what it takes to become the very best at what we do, and create an educational environment that is second to none. If we build such a learning institution, the students will come…in droves. Students and parents want quality and safety, more than anything else, when it comes to education.

The Degrading of Student-Centered Education at the University of Bologna

Eventually, Bologna grew tired of having to cater to the every whim of the students in their town, so the town raised a tax in order to pay the professors, which made the them less dependent upon the various fees paid by the students. The student-centered nature of the University of Bologna was weakened. In looking at the way we fund schools in our day, we should never forget that the taxes that we raise to provide high quality schools comes from the citizens, regardless of whether or not representatives decide how the money is divvied up. Currently, I think our state representatives are listening to campaign contributors more than they are listening to the actual people who pay taxes. I am amazed with how many people I have encountered on the campaign trail that want discipline and order in classrooms, high-stakes testing to be curtailed, instructional time to increase, recess for all elementary students, Common Core to end (especially CC-Math at the lower levels), vocational education to flourish, and teachers to receive the proper respect and compensation that they deserve. The common voter does not know how to make these things important to their representatives at the capitol. I intend to make sure that our representatives place sufficient interest in building strong schools in order to educate this generation of children. If we fix education, we fix many of the nagging problems we continually deal with in society. Education affects the eventual careers of all students, the level of unemployment in society, the level of crime due to desperate citizens, the level of burden on our systems of support, the health and welfare of future families, the discoveries and technological innovations of the future, healthcare breakthroughs, and the very civility and character of our electorate. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”


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