In May 2017 I had the privilege to be a guest of Cometa Formazione in Como, Italy. I learned that this organization employs a set of philosophical, pedagogical and educational design principles which makes it quite unique in the world of vocational education within the European Union and beyond. Started as a fostering association of a group of families, it evolved in an organization for vocational education for both foster and regular students. Beauty is seen as an essential driver of respect and attraction, which influences behaviour and learning. The set of principles on which the practices of Cometa Formazione are based will be shortly described below. The principles go very well together with notions of progressive education, which is an educational philosophy developed by Dewey. He stated that discovery learning and applying acquired knowledge to the world around children was the right pedagogical approach for all education. Experiential learning thus became an essential ingredient of progressive education.
The principles used by Cometa Formazione can be understood as a collection of Reality-Based Learning principles. Reality-Based Learning is similar to experiential learning, gamification, and – currently – virtual reality, but goes an important step further. According to Smith and Van Doren (2004) reality-based learning implies focusing on student learning, implementing student co-responsibility, expanding student experience (beyond the classroom), and aiming at transferability of experience. Studied in marketing education, the work of these authors is confined to classroom teaching, whereas the approach used by Cometa Formazione goes further. Real simulations some the closest to what is being done. Simulations like office, bank, factory and flight simulations have facilities which provided protected learning environments. By simulating practice, errors have a learning function, but do not cause personal, material or environmental damage. Reality-Based Learning takes place in a more authentic environment, a real working context. Yet, it is different from Work-Based Learning, as the context in which students learn is still a school context, although by its composition, the appearance of Cometa Formazione is not of a school. It is a hybrid of school and workplaces (Cremers et al 2017). There are four workplaces in which the Reality-Based Learning takes place: 1. a bar, restaurant and pastry shop; 2. a planning and design department plus a carpenter’s workshop; 3. a design department and a textile and tailoring shop; 4. gardens, orchards, forests. These places relate to education in the fields of taste, carpentry, textile and gardening and forestry. Programs result in formally acknowledge qualifications.
Principles of Reality-Based Education at Cometa Formazione
- Engagement in the education programs starts with welcoming, hospitality, appreciation and showing respect for the entrants in the program. This makes students feel welcome and recognized by who they are, irrespective of their background and personal history. This principle follows from the original goal of Cometa, wich is fostering.
- As an extension of this principle, Cometa uses a strong community approach in which students get a strong sense of belonging, which is found to be an important characteristic of successful learning (Willms, 2000).
- The actual learning activities are related to a process which starts with an order received by the students; this order requires engagement of the student, and the process of service or production affords various learning opportunities to acquire new competencies, which do not only consist of knowledge, but also of skills and professional attitudes (Mulder, 2017).
- The programs employ the practices of learning by doing (Dewey, 2016), experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), and action learning (Marquardt & Yeo, 2012). However, learning from practice is not supposed to be happening spontaneously all the time. Therefore, debriefing sessions are held to reflect on work activities and to transcend the experiences with doing to actual learning experiences.
- Learning in the programs is a form of situational learning (Billett, 1994) in a School-Enterprise. Students deliver real services and produce real outputs. In the gourmet shop, bar and restaurant, they deal with real clients, in the textile department, they deal with real orders for fabrics for furniture, for instance for the hotels in the region, in the carpentry workshop, students work on real furniture and ornaments which are also commissioned by regional organizations, and in the gardening-forestry department, they work in real green spaces.
- By a system of job rotation, students practice with a variety of tasks; during two days per week, classes are divided in small sub-groups, of which the members are assigned to a specific area for a period after which they alternate and get the opportunity to work in another role.
- Reality-Based Education is interdisciplinary. Work situations, processes and problems are interdisciplinary by their very nature. Practice provides ample opportunities to align theory. Cooking can be related to the origins of recipes and their socio-cultural dimensions, proposal writing can be related to language education, literature, style, communication and formatting, to name a few examples. So, the humanities are integrated in the whole learning process and the content is based on reality which is experienced by the student.
- Learning is seen as an unavoidable and thus natural part of professional practice, as all practices have unique features for which solutions have to be sought and in which learning takes place.
- Students are conceived of as (new) apprentices, who learn from masters in workshops.
- Individual learning is made collective learning by discussing individual experiences during task performance. Reflective group discussions are an essential part for the educational process.
- Learning goes beyond the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), by giving assignments that are just outside that zone, by which the chance of making errors is enlarged, but also the opportunity to correct these from which learning results.
- Learning is embedded in longer-term projects, which signifies that teaching is for life, not just for a task or a job; the students understands and appreciates this and it contributes to intrinsic motivation.
- The role of teachers gets hybrid: they are experts, coaches and pedagogists. They help students to find answers, and confirm that they can find answers themselves, thus contributing student self-esteem and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977). In their role of coaches, teachers help students to systemize their learning experiences and facilitate meaning making.
- 21st Century Skills (P21, 2015) are integrated in the curriculum. Entrepreneurial and digital skills, creative thinking, and personal resilience are all essential.
These principles together constitute the education philosophy of Cometa Formazione. In the next and final sections the tentative results of this approach and the pertaining implementation conditions are indicated.
Results of the Cometa approach of Reality-Based Education
Since its inception, Cometa Formazione has gained insight in the results of the pedagogical approach in practice. Summarized, the organisation notices the following:
- student motivation increases;
- student self-efficacy and increases;
- feeling of worth of oneself is getting more positive;
- creativity and competence increases;
- drop-out rate diminishes.
In total, programs of Cometa Formazione contribute to the personal and professional identity of the students, and harness them with future-oriented competencies (Mulder, 2016) which are relevant for learning motivation, effective performance, social inclusion, and citizenship.
Conditions for implementation
There are some implementation factors which are seen as being conditional for the successful implementation of the Reality-Based Education approach of Cometa Formazione. There are:
1. Sufficient legal and organizational flexibility to organize the curriculum based on series of work processes (Boreham & Fischer, 2009);
2. Commitment of multi-level governmental organizations;
3. Stakeholder commitment of companies as partners of the initiative.
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