Between 1960 and 1968 RAI aired Non è Mai Troppo Tardi (It is Never too Late), a show aimed at fighting illiteracy, as more than 10% of the Italian Population was still, at the beginning of the 1960s, unable to read and write. Alberto Manzi was a pedagogue, a writer and, above all, an elementary school teacher: he was the one who, with success, hosted the show, teaching lessons that went well beyond the alphabet and that are still extraordinarily relevant today.
Right in the middle of the Covid-19 emergency, with all our schools closed and distance learning being the status quo for all students, at all levels, it became clear we are in front of a never-before-encountered challenge. Many feel lost, and navigate the labyrinth of the online world in the hope this is going to be nothing more than a parenthesis before a swift return to normality takes place. Others simply apply to a new context habits they already have. Others still fear this experience may change forever the school system and the way we teach and we learn. Maestro Manzi’s name and his TV lessons are evoked almost on a daily basis, proposed as an inspiration and example of methods and solutions to apply. Without a doubt, Manzi still has a lot to teach and his didactic vision, based on active participation and discovery, should be of guidance to us. But who was, truly, il Maestro Manzi, what does he (or does he not) have to do with distance learning and how can he help us face the challenges of our time?
The type of distance learning imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic is rooted, above all, in the necessity to maintain social distancing. Teachers and pupils, professors and students, are no longer allowed to be near one another. The type of school we know, at the heart of so much of our socializing, relationships and , of course, learning, has all of a sudden become a dangerous place where the virus, our invisible enemy, threatens the day-to-day nature of our connections. Distance learning takes the place of in-class learning, becoming a parallel universe to it. It is a type of learning where the challenge to create continuous stimuli, to open people’s minds and rise curiosity for learning continues, but without some fundamental aspects of the process, those that do not simply involve the mind, but also the physicality of movements and social interaction, the senses, the meeting of living bodies that move and explore. Distance learning no longer supports these avenues — which we know so well and love so much — so we are forced to explore other ways.
Let’s go back to 1960, the year when Maestro Manzi began hosting his Non è Mai Troppo Tardi show. Here, the type of distance learning we find is profoundly different from that of today, not only because of the instruments used (more than half a century makes a big difference), but also because of methods and aims. Television was not a simple technological device, but an educational system, with a precise formative mission. Manzi’s show, to which he contributed also as a content creator, was supported by a precise and well structured network of “on-the-field” interventions that went well beyond the TV show itself: learning hubs popped up around the country, teachers and TVs were sent to every region, exercise books were created and distributed to integrate TV lessons and to stimulate learners further. The goal was that of educating a large amount of people who, otherwise, would have never had the opportunity to go to school in a traditional way. It was, in other words, an institutional answer to the educational needs of a country still profoundly scarred by social inequality and economic problems.
While Covid-19 distance learning must, through a never-seen-before mechanism, become a didactic instrument for the whole of society, orphan in its entirety of the possibility to interact, Maestro Manzi’s distance learning was addressed to a specific stratum of our population: the excluded, those who, for a reason or the other, were on the margins of society. Reaching were in-class learning could not reach, Non è Mai Troppo Tardi built bridges for those who needed it the most.
Today’s distance learning imposes (but fails to guarantee) equal use for all of a computer or a tablet, equal access to the internet and to adequate spaces to learn online, thus boldly defining the social and digital gap present in the nation. Alberto Manzi’s distance learning, though, used to do the opposite, because it filled that gap offering to the most fragile in our society the opportunity to redeem themselves through literacy.
What can we, therefore, learn from a fifty year old experience, one so different in means, objectives and rationale? If we look at it from the right perspective, we can learn a lot; yet we must resist the temptation to think about Maestro Manzi only as a precursor of distance learning. On the other hand, if we look at him as the educator who inspired thousand of Italians to learn how to read and write thanks to his respect, his patience and passion, his TV lessons will not only become an example of advanced multimedia techniques, but also guidance and representation of those humanistic values that, today more ever, have become essential. All the 484 episodes of Non è Mai Troppo Tardi are inspired by the fundamental principles of that Movimento di Cooperazione Educativa (Movement of Educational Cooperation) Alberto Manzi embraced: respect for the individual, social solidarity, the importance of asking questions, the development of critical thought and responsibility. These are all essential tenets for the cultural and intellectual formation of modern active citizenry.
Athough, in his TV lessons, Manzi intuited a series of principles that were to become pivotal for today’s online teaching, such as using images, videos and drawings, or personalizing lessons and dividing them in sections, the fundamental value of his work is not in his technical abilities (or, certainly, not only in this), but rather in a clear and visible learning path based on empathy, respect for the individual and a continuous search for meanings that transcended the curriculum and the alphabet. Let us go back to the 14th of January 1966: on that day, Maestro Manzi’s show was on. From the screen, Manzi greets his audience, chats with them about anything and everything and creates the best condition to support learning: trust. Even if the lessons are created for adult illiterates, a large number of pre-school children learn how to read and write thanks to his TV classes, as the thousand of letters they send him declare. “We are here to learn and know better the world and ourselves. This is what, in the end, reading and writing is useful for.” That’s how Manzi would start each lesson, making clear how reading and writing are just instruments. Through questions and challenges, il Maestro stimulates his public’s interest and its curiosity, with the aim of keeping what he calls “cognitive tension” always working. After writing on his large white notebook (the TV equivalent of the iconic blackboard) words that his students still cannot read (pino, mare, nave, casa), il Maestro looks straight into the camera, into people’s homes, and says: “What did I just write?” It seems almost apologetic when he admits he knows his friends at home cannot read those words. “That’s why — he says reassuringly — we are here together. To overcome this problem.”
With only a few, precise black charcoal strokes on white paper, Manzi then brings to life a marine landscape, evoking images his audience knows well: a pine with the sea on the background, a ship sailing on it and, finally, a house on the shores . “Here you could read them (the words). Why?” And so, he explains simply and clearly that images are symbols and that’s why people at home can understand them. Other signs, Manzi continues, like the graphemes that create the words pino, mare, nave and casa are symbols, too, that allow us to communicate and to read what other people wrote. When he introduces his viewers to the concepts of signifier and signified, our TV teacher brings language learning to a higher cognitive level. When he brings their attention to the role of reading as an instrument to understand reality, he tells them they are part of Non è Mai Troppo Tardi’s didactic process, not simple recipients of it. The following 30 minutes, on that Thursday, 14th of January 1960, and the lessons on the following days, were to be filled with ideas, activities, guests, day-to-day inspirations so that his public would not forget how reading and writing are a fundamental part of their lives, but also that they have to work hard at it.
Alberto Manzi’s TV lessons were more than a mere attempt to alphabetize 1960s Italy. They were meetings livened by questions, by pauses to be filled and things to be guessed, by poems to reflect upon and values to learn and make one’s own. By rising the cultural expectations of his viewers and in proposing a path steeped in empathy and shared values, Alberto Manzi stated that neither writing nor reading could exist apart from the centrality of the Human Being; he said that literacy and culture could be built only around the idea of community, by looking more carefully into ourselves and at others. This is the lesson we truly need when thinking about the type of distance learning Covid-19 has been forcing us to experience. We need to set ourselves finally apart from a type of learning that focuses on the means but not on the aims. By sitting in front of a computer or a TV we don’t learn anything and it isn’t by simply pushing content through a screen that we teach something. We must keep on asking ourselves about the values guiding us, about where they will lead us and about how (and whether) the pedagogical processes, means and methods we choose are — or are not — coherent with them. Let us take, then, Alberto Manzi as an example, but let us embrace his message fully, especially when he talks of honesty, participation, responsibility and respect.