The School-Enterprise for the Reality-based learning approach

Conventional education is based on competences that are no longer useful for the expectations of today’s labor market. In fact, methodologies such as learning by doing and experiential learning are better “targeted” and more instrumental to the working environment not only due to the quality of professional skills they convey, but first and foremost of the soft skills. The School-Enterprise tool thus becomes a core building block for establishing a connection between subject-matters in school and the real world in an educational and training setting. This case study focuses on the Cometa Formazione new learning approach for 14-18 years old VET students.
(Article by Francesco Campiotti, Mariachiara Gomaraschi and Marianna Nicotra, based on the Erasmus+ project Trio2Success outputs)

In the daily global challenges of educational and training activities, the importance to help students, mainly young kids, to develop a personal resilience is paramount. Entrepreneurial and digital skills, and creative thinking are only some of the main key elements pointed out in the recently approved EU Skills Agenda (EC, 2016). Cometa Formazione, operating in Como (Italy), is strongly active to create and preserve those conditions to help the kids to recognize and deepen the knowledge of their own attitudes.

Based on the concept of “Experiential Learning”, Cometa Formazione and its Oliver Twist school have implemented the “school-enterprise” approach aiming at developing resilience, involving students in creating real products for real customers in school’s workshops: a carpentry, a fashion studio, two coffee shops and a restaurant. This challenge is more and more critical if compared with the main goals of the international and European education policies.

As an example, in 2014, dropping out is one of the most severe problems of the educational system, recognized at European level. The path towards Europe 2020 targets (dropping out level under 10%) is still far to get: in 2013, in Italy, the rate is 17%. The number of Italian NEETs, in 2014, increased to 22%, from 17% in 2005 (Eurostat 2014), one of the highest rate in the EU. Furthermore, at national and regional level, the gap between the education system and the job market is wider and wider, due to both the decrease of public investment in education and the rapid changes in the economic context where new skills are required (i.e.: ICT, knowledge of the English language).

The Province of Como, in particular, shows a dropping-out rate higher than 30% in 2014. One of the reasons of this level concerns some youth-related issues which affect the attitude of young people to get maturity and responsibility, often due to poverty or lack of family ties. This problems, unfortunately, can have consequences in terms of poor performances at school and, eventually, dropping out. At the same time, in 2014, the unemployment rate in the province of Como was 9%, but more than 25% for young people (15-29 years old). Furthermore, more than 50,000 immigrants now live in the Como area and 14% of males are unemployed, with high risks of low integration for their families and the kids.

Theoretical framework

During the past century, several pedagogists expressed a positive opinion on the educational value affecting students as they perform working activities. . Bertagna (2012) says that

«a fact needs to be acknowledged, apart from any other evaluations: the time when you would first prepare to perform a job and then practice such a job, possibly all your life long is now over. […] “Learning by doing” and vice-versa, “doing by learning”, has now become crucial; professional dimension cannot and must not be the one and only qualification of a person and his/her personal and social assets, but rather has to integrate with all the other distinctive assets. That’s why it is no longer possible to think in terms of school as a “place to prepare for one job” (which, incidentally, you never really find while studying) and of work as an experience that is alternative to school. Either these two moments proceed jointly or they’ll end up mutually damaging one another».

The experience implemented by J. H. Pestalozzi (1806), opens up a new chapter in the history of Western educational sciences, one that focuses on the educational value of work, able to express the three distinctive features of a person: hand, mind and heart. As he described the working setting conceptualized by Pestalozzi, Meireu (1995) declares that as unusual it may appear to see kids of different age busy completing a multitude of tangible tasks, it would still be less unsettling a picture than that of a classroom with school desks arranged in front of the teacher’s chair […] with pupils sitting to listen to the teacher questioning other school mates, or introducing a new topic, or giving instructions on how to complete homework and then again listen, listen and listen.

There is no “theoretical thinking” without “technical practice” in a laboratorium; abstract and tangible constantly blend and a second degree intellectual thought process is done, founded on a book, on written words, whose ultimate destination is understanding of a theory. Giving thoughts to something is always open to being placed, conceived and experienced as an issue, as a personal project, whereby conscious action is the independent aim of the educational exercise and not merely a situation instrumental to enhance theoretical knowledge.

The conclusions from the meeting held on 7 June, 2010 in Brussels: New skills for new jobs: the way forward 39th employment social policy, health and consumer affairs, Council meeting, reveal that goals to be achieved by the UE and set forth in the Europe 2020 strategy include reduction of the school dropouts rate below 10% and increase by 40% of individuals aged 30-34 completing university education (source: Eurostat data, employment rate, December 2015). Core competences to achieve these goals are: communications, mathematics, science and technology, learning how to learn, social skills, business flair, intercultural knowledge, teamwork, flexibility and adaptiveness to change, balance and awareness of acquired skills, ongoing education.

In this respect, G. Bertagna (2006) deals with the topic of work, knowledge and job-school rotation (work-related learning). The author specifically underlines the relevance of making experience for the purpose of learning as the only chance for knowledge to be bound to tangible environmental and social circumstances. In this phase, conscious learning is the key point for the pupil’s mind to figure out new scenarios, as properly outlined by Pellerey (2006). According to Roncalli, in order to avoid school being disjointed from society, the school is not required to adapt to work but to commit to “action to prepare new generations to stand through their future professional and social life” (2003: 77).

Experiential Learning in the School-Enterprise

The model adopted by Oliver Twist school at Cometa Formazione focuses on experiential learning and job-school rotation (work-related learning), which implies bringing the outside world into a classroom/office and vice versa. Pupils attending school are from the age of 14 to 18 years.

In Cometa, teaching activities take place in actual apprenticeship studios (Bottega) where, just like in the Renaissance, the pupil learns by following his/her master in the process of making a product for the public. There are four apprenticeship studios in Cometa, namely: Bottega del gusto (Taste), including a bar, a restaurant and a pastry shop open to the public; Bottega del legno (Wood), including a planning and design dept. plus a carpenter’s workshop; Bottega del tessile (Textiles), including a design dept. and a textile and tailoring shop; Bottega della natura (Nature), including gardens, orchards, forests. In these real work contexts, students offer their products/services to paying consumers. As this is not a mere simulation, the urge for professional competency emerges more sharply and, consequently, drags along the urge for learners to acquire all those cultural and human skills that are also mandatory by educational curricula.

Job rotation is practiced in the apprenticeship studios. It is a well-established practice in some large businesses which translates in getting an employee (typically a newly-hired) rotate through various company depts. in order to clarify the area he/she is more apt to, to facilitate circulation of silent knowledge, to motivate the human resource through full awareness of the part played by his portion of work in the overall manufacturing process.

Bottega del gusto runs a bar, a restaurant and a pastry shop. Staff includes teachers and pupils. In addition to daily service operations, they also organize events in the premises of Cometa association as well as external catering services (working lunches, theme-specific evenings, à la carte dinners, gala dinners, buffets, welcome coffees and coffee breaks for company events, social day, various ceremony services, birthday parties), in the spirit of Cometa brand or accommodating the taste and requirements set by customers.

Pupils attending the Bar room course, job-rotate two days a week for 8 hours at the Bottega del Gusto, which to them means training in a working set-up.

These depts. are the settings where pupils learn by doing. In each area, pupils are assisted or, better, they “work with” their masters/instructors who train pupils on the job, thus delivering their knowledge and facilitating them to practice their skills as maîtres, chefs, pastry cooks, bartenders.

The Bar or Restaurant service is one of the most important and demanding settings as the qualification to be achieved at the end of the program is certified dining room and bar specialist. Pupils are expected to wear a uniform and comply with HACCP standards as well as to set up the dining room and provide for the mise en place; they receive and welcome guests, take the orders, serve meals (lunch or dinner) to internal and external customers who have their meals at Cometa’s restaurant and then are required to clear, clean and set up again the dining room.

At the same time, food and meals are prepared in the kitchen. Another group of pupils in the pastry shop will have arranged for the basic preparation lines for breakfasts (sweet and non-sweet), mixed salads, ice-creams, desserts for the restaurant as well as for pastries and other confectionary products ordered for external events or take-away purposes. Another group of pupils takes care of booking in and checking stocks in the storeroom, the place where all the materials and raw materials for various preparations are stored.

And finally the Bar, that is the other work setting pupils qualify for. The “apprenticeship” bar opens daily from 8.30 to 16.30. Some pupils, as they rotate, also serve an additional hour before opening and after closing time. This is the place where pupils learn how to cater for a very wide target of customers, both indoor as well as outdoor, and serve café bar as well as pastry products, ice-creams, cocktails and happy hours. In addition, they constantly clean up, replace, restore and rearrange the area and check the stocks. The school bar is an international bar, that is to say that communication skills in English are required.

As far as external events and catering services are concerned, some of them are entirely arranged for by the pupils with the support and under the guidance of their instructors. In some other instances, the organizational process is accomplished by the teachers and the implementation phase is shared with the pupils. The tendency, however, is to increasingly engage pupils in the ideation and design of each event by assigning them greater and greater responsibilities.

In short: two days a week, each class is divided in small sub-groups whose members will be assigned to a specific area for two weeks and then pass on to another role. By doing so, several benefits are ensured. First of all, the level of professionalism gets perfected directly on the field in a heterogeneous and yet comprehensive fashion as all pupils can perform different tasks in the pipeline and learn how to cope with the different problems and how to mutually exchange suggestions, but also how to enjoy the possibility to express their own personality (some realize they are more apt for the bar area, some for the dining room or for the pastry shop); over time, they will acquire a growing number of skills and upon different occurrences they become more and more competent; skills and competences circulate to the benefit of everyone and not of restricted groups; each pupil is given the chance to make experience in all settings and to recognize the one that fits him/her best and, finally, this process opens up to individualization based on one’s own aptitudes; indeed, if a pupil shows a particular interest in a specific area, that very area can take on a leading role in his/her educational pathway or become the focus of other extra-curriculum activities.

What is the meaning of experiential learning in Cometa

During the XX century several attempts were made to bring studying closer to the pupil’s real experience of life, through the so-called new or progressive schools. It is necessary to clarify what this actually means in Cometa.

Learning through experience (learning by doing) first of all implies the utilization of work as the privileged context for discovery of self and one’s own aptitudes and potentiality, which may extend beyond the profession you’re studying to practice and yet are to be found out through it.

One’s own self is to be acknowledged when one is in action. This “self” is not to be intended as what you say about yourself (which may be a downhearted and discouraged opinion), but it is rather about what you find out you want and can be like.

Learning through experience is a situational type of learning as it happens as the pupil is set in a practical working environment (in the bar, at the restaurant, in the management and marketing offices), populated by his/her peers and teachers.

Competences are conveyed by engaging the pupil directly into the working activity, with increasingly higher responsibilities and without fear of making any error which is already seen as part of the game, although striving to excellence remains the ultimate goal.

For this reason, pupils organize an event and its communications campaign in the office of the teachers of letters, thus interacting with all the stakeholders and getting inspired to plan the event or understand themselves and who they want to be, backed by works of letters or history; the economic and quantitative aspects are managed in the hospitality office, in cooperation with all the stakeholders of the pipeline, from the supplier to the customer; they learn the profession on a job rotation and think over it in the classroom which becomes a sort of a consultancy office. Therefore, it is not about a propositional learning: the moment when the teacher teaches, revolves around the time the pupil works, just like learning how to write a formal letter by actually writing it or how to brew coffee by actually making it. The teachers share their knowledge at the very same time when questions are raised by the situational learning process.

The role of the teacher is fundamental both for the directions he can provide as an expert to the individual trainee and also as a guidance to think about the learnings, the happenings and their meaning. That’s why learning through experience means starting from doing and landing to knowledge, just like when you think about what you did during the job rotation, or review how an event went. What actually makes the difference between trying to be a mechanic engineer, doing it and making experience is, ultimately, awareness. People need to make sense out of things and experiencing them means to understand, to grasp the gist of them.

Learning by doing also means to start back from experiences and tackle new ones in a better shape. It also means that knowledge and skills learned by the pupil before “the doing part” also have a tangible and sensible purpose. It is often immediate, at times potential: learning is an experience and it serves the purpose of making experience.

This happens when one’s own senses are re-trained to perceive, to find one’s own body place in the world. For this reason, the first phase of any productive process, that is ideation, actually starts from educational outings, like wine or food tasting and similar activities.

Subsequently, learning through experience is a way to name things people encounter and to see and sense them: like describing food after tasting it or a place you’ve visited or telling about the experience made to grasp its meaning. It is about thinking about what you experienced to get a better understanding of it, embed it and turning it into fully-fledged knowledge. Experience cannot qualify as such unless a judgment is expressed.

In order to learn by doing at Cometa, each learning proposition is tentatively turned into an encounter bound to extend the pupil’s horizon. An encounter after which he/she feels different, better. Also, it is about learning as the starring character of the process, actively and not passively. It means that each pupil has to see a chance for himself/herself in the learning proposition and learning must be a sought-after accomplishment, something that is achieved after making efforts.

Learning through experience also means to conduct group discussions in a form of cooperative learning or with the entire class: ideas that are common treasure do not add up to one another but they actually multiply themselves and a group discussion helps a single unit achieve real understanding.

Learning by doing is about finding out that the world has a time and spatial dimension and those two factors (time and space) actually make it what it is like. This is much more than just studying history or geography; it is about meeting people, customs and mindsets; people get to know their space if they are aware of how mankind was able to measure it and bring it within its realm of awareness. Knowing space and time of a place, a phenomenon, a man, really means to truly master knowledge. If knowledge is about loving, making an experience is a way to start loving. Experiencing things triggers the desire to make other experiences.

Learning through experience, as implemented in Cometa, takes place when a pupil asks to consult with a teacher or an expert, be it at work or in everyday life; when a question is asked and the pupil tries to reply to it successfully or unsuccessfully, and then he/she tries again. Being creative at work when solving a problem becomes an experience to learn from.

In order for this learning experience to be completed, Cometa does not rely only on chances or on experiences or circumstances of life, as life does not present itself as something preparatory in the midst of other experiences. This is one of the first remarks expressed by educationalists of the new schools. Provided that a school aiming at training an event planner is supposed to help him/her face the highest number of circumstances so that he/she can become an expert, Cometa’s experience with event organization at school showed them that issues specific to an event did not come across alike for another event which actually will them with some other needs. It thus became evident how some learning is unavoidable and others are circumstance-induced.

How is unavoidable learning supposed to be dealt with? Experiences should be planned so that they are preparatory to learning and vice-versa. Although a teacher is always present as a facilitator, there are some higher skills (such as organizing an event) who embed minor skills (writing a formal e-mail, drawing up a project) and learning that is impossible to gain unless certain key basic concepts are there (such as the difference between formal and informal language and the concept of a target).

The teacher helps systemizing experiences so that they turn into organized knowledge, just like for subject-matters whereby, through thinking over them and through guidance, specific terminology and methodology are conveyed. Sometimes this is the background, at other times the framework within which experience is to be set, some others a discovery. Sometimes a starting point, some others a destination.

Planning requires ongoing change according to circumstances. There are two strategies to plan experiences in the apprenticeship studios and both of them assign the key role to the teacher in the studio and flexibility as well as co-planning across various disciplines.

Teachers can lead to fill the job order in all its aspects, thus improving or fine-tuning things that are not yet well executed by pupils as they are out of the scope of their potentiality (for example a menu proposition that is not well-balanced and needs correction, or when they forget to order tablecloths on rental and the maître quietly provides for them and subsequently points out the error during the debriefing session, or when pupils draw up a project book needing review for morphology, syntax, formatting and the teacher re-reads everything together in group). By so doing, pupils are prompted to practice a competence that goes beyond what they already master, in accordance with the theory of proximal development zone, whereby the proposition must be wider and more complex than potentiality in order for learning to occur.

Learning through experience in Cometa has the pupil as its starring character and yet the teacher’s presence is important, like a travel companion whose role is not just limited to procuring materials or organizing experiences. The teacher’s company is the one of an expert almost like a parent (specifically a father) who introduces and opens up to life and offers suggestions and regulations at the same time. A man who passes judgment is a man who also teaches how to pass judgments to others by asking questions or investigating before giving his/her contribution. An experienced man who educates helps find answers to the questions of an adolescent, thus backing him/her in their personal experience and confirming to them that a sense is out there to be found.

How can all this be achieved without resorting to traditional teacher up front lectures which do not fit the purpose of learning by doing? All is needed is the entire learning process (and not a single class) to be set in a long-term project such as filling an order or daily performance of a job that gets pupils in touch with the public.

Those who object to experiential learning being prone to an instrumental exploitation of its contents, need to be clear on the fact that seeking a non-remote and non-incidental purpose for learning means that this is not about merely accomplishing a result/target in the professional area or about making a product, but rather it is about teachings for life, both in terms of methodology and contents.

Making experiences, that is to stay establishing a relation with reality, also through literary authors or history, allows first of all to get an understanding of reality and not just to manipulate it; experiences first have to educate people to human acting and to consciously choose what is good, beautiful, right and true.

Professional Skills in Experiential Learning: Bar room case study 

As far as the development of professional skills for the café lounge is concerned, they are first acted upon in the job rotation, that is to say by experiencing the different process steps of the apprentice studio and then reviewing them once a day during the debriefing. Moreover, especially in the first academic year and with regards to nutritional sciences skills, professionals will teach basic theory and contents through regular class hours whereby topics emerging during the job rotation are further dived into.

Skills developed in the working environment are first of all those required by the regional professional profile (eg. planning operations to accommodate the request of a customer, setting up working spaces, serving meals and drinks, filling orders). However, direct exposure to customers also prompts to enhance soft and business skills such as empathy, communication according to ranks hierarchical roles and the public, business flair and product promotion.

Bottega del Gusto (Taste) is composed of 4 workshops attended by students on a rotational weekly scheme: lounge bar, where pupils spend most of their job rotation hours, bar counter, pastry shop and kitchen. With regards to working in the lounge bar (bar room), pupils not only have to cater to the customers but also take care of all the preparations for the room so that it is fit and comfortable, including housekeeping. Working at the bar counter, instead, means exposure to customers from the very first time; it is open to public and pupils deal with meals, drinks and café bar products. As for the kitchen and the pastry shop, work is composed of preparing dishes for the restaurant service, starting from processing of raw materials down to arranging foods on a plate.

Ordinary activities performed within the school compound (bar and “apprenticeship” restaurant are located inside of Cometa and yet offer their services to the outside public) go hand in hand with catering services for external and internal events, as ordered by customers. These types of events represent an opportunity for pupils to test their organizational abilities and to acquire managerial skills that are fundamental in the fourth academic year.

This short summary of measures in place would not translate in any experiential learning if it were not backed by debriefing sessions moderated by the relevant teacher and the tutor after working hours to reflect upon action and arrange them in a set of knowledge. This is a time when mere “doing” turns into real experience, that is to say understanding one’s own actions and profiling a model. Debriefing varies according to the class; it is generally driven by questions leading to give thoughts about what happened at work, about new learning, teamwork and about how one changes when at work. As the pupils’ abilities develop, they are requested to identify the strengths and areas of improvement in their service performance; pupils receive corrective suggestions from their teacher and any issue emerged at work is identified and reviewed in depth.

Experiential learning happens when “doing” in a studio or workshop is matched with meditations/considerations on what happened and learning is acknowledged by pupils themselves in the first place.

Liberal Studies (Humanities) in Experiential Learning

Following are a few examples of how humanities not only support professionalism, but are actually scattered across its span rather than being merely organized on an interdisciplinary basis. Work requires skills in humanities when you need to present a product to the customer, thus raising allure and still be truthful. Work requires argumentative skills when you have to present a project or make a case for it. And even offering typical local products may prompt a long and intense trip in old time’s history of Milanese mondeghili (meatballs), which trace back to the Spanish rule and even earlier to the Arab world. At the same time, thinking about the Greek or Jewish concept of hospitality in relation to today’s concept will make one more aware of the idea of a guest and how I want him/her to feel welcome, regardless of the mise en place technique. The hoplite fighting technique with soldiers flanking one another, carrying a shield that protects oneself and half of the nearby soldier becomes an opportunity to think about the dining room arrangements. Greek dramatists were already aware that thinking about oneself, mediated through someone else’s story is the best way to understand things and understand oneself. Literature, history of the arts, different types of literary texts and the principles of effective communication and active listening can be found and utilized in a reality based learning process that encompasses the entire life of the pupil.

Conclusions: Reality-based Learning and an Across-Discipline Approach

There is an evident effort to overcome the division into subject-matters and disciplines in the same course of studies as well as the historical dichotomy between doing and knowing, theory and practice, vocational-technical subject matters and “basic” ones.

Starting from 2011 a new teaching methodology is being developed in Cometa whereby experiential learning is the pivot for learning and developing different skills, including non-technical ones that activated in the making or rendering of a product/service. In addition to “soft skills”, also competency in mathematics and languages are required to deliver a final product of excellence.

Such teaching structure, which revolves around a complex and remarkable organization, is underpinning the so-called Reality-Based Learning, whereby an order received by the students represents the point of engagement and the source of endless learning opportunities for new skills and not just new knowledge.

In this way, the entire teaching methodology is not only an interdisciplinary one but actually pervades multiple disciplines: a student in action is demanded to put in practice skills of different nature, which ultimately leads him/her to overcome division of knowledge in the making of his/her masterpiece and to favor a holistic approach.

To such end, it is necessary to establish a more solid relationship between places and moments for learning and places and moments for application of the learnings. Working actions and typically educational measures can be taken also in workplaces. In fact, the workplace is to be intended as a cultural resource field that the school can utilize as an educational means, thus adequately combining training actions performed at school and in the selected workplaces. To this purpose, criteria and operational methods are needed to analyze working processes and to locate knowledge and skills required by national regulations for secondary school programs and vocational training programs.

Other key factors to be taken into consideration for implementation: first of all, the possibility for the teacher to put in place a flexible lesson planning scheme, thus building pathways that cover the required skills. The second factor is the partnership with local community institutions, starting from the Regional Government Authority (Regione Lombardia) down to local institutions. The third factor is the relationship with the companies, which act as real competence training enterprises.


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Published by Marianna Nicotra

(Catania, 1984), is PhD in Human capital formation and labour market relations, degree that she got in 2016 at Università di Bergamo. Graduated at Università degli Studi di Catania in Modern Philology in 2011, she is a teacher of Italian, Communication, Literature and History through the reality based learning, and a researcher, in Cometa formazione, where she has been teaching since 2011. Her interests has always been teaching general subject in VET starting from experience, experimenting tools, strategies and curriculum planning involving the student’s personal experience for learning. Her experience brought her to study a complete exemplar curriculum for the Hospitality sector entirely based on work occasion in witch developing the national standards for humanities in order to meet them trough various didactic strategies.

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