The project

This case-report describes a project called Dialogues in the square (DiS), where alternative places – rather than the classroom – are exploited to implement learning processes, namely a popular square and a modern art museum right in the center of the city of Rome.

The DiS project -still active in 2020-  was started in 2017  and has involved over 200 students from primary school (age 7) to upper-secondary school (age 16) and 20 teachers, in two schools situated in central Rome: Istituto Comprensivo Settembrini and Liceo Machiavelli. Within a framework of activities targeting global citizenship education (Reimers, 2009Sobe, 2012Reimers et al., 2016) and Sustainable Development Goals run by a national school network (, students started brainstorming about their environment, focusing on the needs of a nearby well-known square in Rome: Piazza Annibaliano.

This important space, recently restored (2014), was soon left in a dangerous abandonment. A new metro station, situated in a context of ancient monuments, is now surrounded by litter and unfinished flowerbeds, left uncultivated. Students were encouraged to observe the square and engage in planning its regeneration, meanwhile, negotiations were started with the municipality to have their support, resulting in a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the schools. Artists/experts in various fields were involved to help students figure out suitable actions to undertake, in order to improve the state of the square, eliciting its potential as a social and artistic site.

The methodology

From a methodological viewpoint the  DiS project is rooted in a trialogical learning approach (TLA), that we deem .  The TLA calls for the construction of the so-called trialogical objects: the learning process revolves around the construction of “objects” addressed to a community that is different from the one in which they are built.  To have recipients from another community gives involves students of all ages opportunities for confrontation, contamination of practices, and ways of thinking. Therefore, learners become professionals of knowledge building, capable of creating valuable material objects containing knowledge, which can then be exploited outside school or academic contexts. When objects are used in concrete situations, they create further knowledge through processes of confrontation, generation of ideas, and creativity. Learning becomes a strategy to solve emerging problems and to constantly seek new and innovative ideas.

In the DiS project students’ plans are conceived as trialogical objects, i.e., knowledge that they create addressing communities external to the school: parents, inhabitants of the area, stakeholders, policy makers (e.g. the municipality) that will watch their videos, brochures, leaflets and get ideas to act on the square or support the students in their planned actions (e.g planting new seeds, drawing ad hoc graffitis and murals). We believe that an approach such as the TLA  responds with a particular effectiveness to the demands of training competences for the twenty-first century, enhancing the skill to work with knowledge and to contribute actively to the development of modern society (Karlgren et al., 2020). Furthermore, it capitalizes on insights coming from the socio-constructivism and the cultural approach by giving relevance to context and situated dynamics.

The actions

In 2019, an important opportunity arose for the DiS project: a well-known museum of modern art – MACRO, not far from the schools and the square – launched its pilot project MACRO-ASILO aimed at promoting the connection between citizens and art. The museum made available a variety of spaces, equipped in different ways, encouraging  artists or citizens “with ideas” to book them for free and to exploit them going there to work . In particular, the MACRO’s “words room” appeared to be the ideal venue to work on the DiS project.

This is a classroom-style room equipped with rolling chairs and tables and with an enormous traditional blackboard, measuring 22 × 3 m. The museum also became the venue of the Rome Rebirth Forum, an ongoing initiative promoted by the world-renowned artist Michelangelo Pistoletto to enact his idea of the “third paradise,”1 involving artists and social actors to develop and spread a deeper awareness on sustainability issues. The DiS project became an active member of the forum and benefited from the opportunity to invite several artists to cooperate.

Several sessions took place in the “words room,” where different classes worked with/on the blackboard to accomplish “planning activities” concerning Piazza Annibaliano. Students sketched their proposals after lively discussions with artists/experts. Each session was public, had a title, was scheduled ahead, and was published in the museum’s catalog: invited guests and occasional visitors were welcome, allowing students to share and discuss their performance with various audiences (see a detailed visual presentation of the full project in the Supplementary Material)

New Learning Spaces : Getting Into the MACRO Museum “Words Room” to work

Let’s travel into one particular event taking place in the MACRO museum’s “words room,” focusing on the learning environment, the materials used, and their impact on participants’ reactions and interactions undertaking the task.

In this session, a single class is involved, composed of 27 pupils aged 12 (grade seven, 15 girls, 12 boys) from mixed socio-economic backgrounds. They are familiar with the square, as they all live nearby. The class is very active within the DiS project; nevertheless, it is their first time in the MACRO museum. The session is observed and videotaped: our data consist of extracts from students’ dialogues as well as “thick descriptions” (Denzin, 2001) elaborated by the external observer.

It is 7 February 2019, from 10.30 to 13.30, when our class goes to the museum with their art and technology teachers to meet Rachid Benhadj, a leading Italo-Algerian film director particularly interested in diversity and intercultural dialogue (see Figure 1). The students know him, having watched one of his videos. As is the case for artists/experts in other sessions, he was invited to support students’ creative process of elaborating the idea of the “square” as a venue for proposals and new atmospheres that can add value and expand the possibilities of inhabitants and visitors.

In a preliminary meeting in the museum hall, five teams (four or five students each) are formed, following the teachers’ suggestions. Benhadj presents his proposal to the students: “Think deeply of Piazza Annibaliano, figure out new settings, and portray them following the wave of your dreams: how would you like the square and why, pushing your imagination as far as possible…” Students are, therefore, invited to elaborate the idea of the “square” representing their ideals, without worrying about feasibility at this stage. With this task in mind, they enter the “words room,” and it is clear how impressed they are from the beginning by its lights, the arrangement of the rolling furniture, and the giant blackboard.

At Work: Flexible Use of Mediation Tools

Benhadj sketches a quick map of Piazza Annibaliano and surrounding streets at the center of the blackboard and better clarifies the expected delivery: paper-and-pencil sketches to start, then the teams will move to the blackboard to represent their project with chalks.

Now that the task is clear, students start working on white sheets. Talking becomes intense, ideas are shared, and sketches circulate within/between teams. Technology comes into play naturally; no need for adults to suggest it. For instance, phones become cameras to store pictures that make possible comparisons and overviews crucial to inspire the work on the blackboard. Finally, about 45 min after starting, the five teams position themselves around the map sketched by Benhadj, easily defining their action space on the blackboard .

Students sketch their ideas for the square. Images © Martina Pavia, graduating student at Academy of Arts and New Technologies, Rome, Italy.

The “genius loci” of the room lies in the alteration of the dimensions of traditional tools used in the classroom. This setting ends up disregarding a consolidated stereotype: the blackboard is by definition an “exclusive” place generating a markedly vertical relationship. It is used by a single person – or a few – who is expected to report something to an audience to whom the back is turned. Here the blackboard is “open to all”: the teams work horizontally and simultaneously, observing one another’s work and sharing ideas. Apparently, the confusion is remarkable, but the works develop efficiently; students’ active engagement is visible. Someone moves his or her chair near the blackboard, others use the ladder available in the room, and someone else even sits on the shoulders of a friend to use the space at the top of the board. Others shoot videos or take pictures.

Even the colored chalks become important actors, with their immediate but fragile effectiveness enabling creativity (see Figure 3). Paradoxically, the awareness that whatever was created can disappear with just a few passes of the eraser pushes students to refine their work: “to take pictures before it disappears,” as a student clarifies.

Depending on what students want to achieve – create, store, transform – they move from using their smartphones to using chalks, always as a tool to shape their ideas and to “materialize” them.

Reflecting on the Work

In about one hour, the blackboard is lively, full of shapes, colors, and writings, and the time comes for a collective report (see Figure 4). Benhadj poses two questions: “What have you done, can you tell us?” And then: “Were there emotions in this work? What touched you the most?” Each team gets ready for their presentation, while someone enjoys looking at their work from a distance, video-recording a full overview of the blackboard. The teams “walk” along the blackboard, stopping in front of each drawing to deliver the presentations: students naturally swing from the role of presenters to that of audience. Feedback is intense. Proposals are detailed, rich in inventions and strategies. They include: architectural and decorative elements, green spaces, and many solutions about how to make them work. Director Benhadj is very pleased; he listens carefully and interacts with students, to their great satisfaction. For example, project 3 presents a wall specifically created to welcome graffiti artists. Next to the sketch, some guidelines appear on how to organize periodical cleaning, to allow for writers’ rotation. In project 4, the main attraction is an artificial tree, a sort of sculpture, with a central clock and four branches, each colored with seasonal vegetation, indicating four different paths corresponding to the seasons and their emotional atmospheres. Luca2 – a student from team 4 – explains: “If you feel sad, maybe for a bad mark at school, you can walk the winter path; but if you are happy, you go for the spring one!”

When the time comes to answer director Benhadj’s second question about emotions and surprises, excitement increases: nobody wants to give up telling their experiences. Keywords in the narratives are: expectations, satisfaction, freedom, and team work. Several students underline how they did not expect to experience such intense satisfaction in working together. Pointing to their drawing, visibly excited, Carla from team 3, claims: “I didn’t imagine we could do something like this… now I see it! I think it’s very original.”

The blackboard with its significant size has made everyone’s work visible in real time: a multiplier of satisfaction, creating opportunities for feedback, expanding the meaning of “audience.” The idea of satisfaction is described by students in many ways: “to see what you just did and realize that everybody looks at it” (Luisa), “to know that before there was nothing and now… look here!” (Angela), “to understand that maybe we will be able to change something with our drawings” (Oscar), “to work so freely in cooperation and share the product” (Eleonora).

More than just simple satisfaction for the work done emerges here. Students overcome the dichotomy between individual and collective approaches to learning, clearly showing the contribution of the TLA approach may function. Productive participation in knowledge creation processes needs the transformation of personal contributions toward the construction of collective products that “embody” the shared enterprise. Our students were involved in such creative processes; therefore, their individual contributions are intertwined in social processes.

Concluding remarks

Indeed, the MACRO-ASILO’s “words room” has proved to be a rich space, creatively challenging students and putting teachers and students in a novel situation. A typical school setting, which traditionally enhances top–down interactions, has now become a space for all through the huge blackboard, where unexpected processes occur and productivity flourishes, creating an impact on students’ ideational processes and their performance. Students have explored all of its potential, positioning themselves – both physically and cognitively – in different ways to draw, discuss, and observe, making their emotions more alive. In our context, we found that students’ engagement improves greatly: it goes beyond learning concepts so that collaborative and creative knowledge building is possible. When students are challenged to produce useful objects for a large community, they feel part of it– becoming active citizens – and feel entitled to improve it.

Using a large blackboard and moving furniture, students have had the chance to work together, experiencing their mutual influence and the impact of cooperation in real time, together with a sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 2010). Learning is now not only connected to the possibility to build knowledge, but it emerges from the deep engagement elicited in the continuous shift from presenters to audience: question–answer processes were intense, and new interpretations of traditional solutions arose, encouraging creative developments.

In our case report, we have tried to explore how learning and teaching change when located in an alternative place.  The TLA approach, has allowed us to understand the learning context as a triadic relationship between learners, teachers, and objects. The triangulation learners–teachers/expert–object was activated by the new “place” where objects composing the setting (blackboard, chalks, cameras, and other technological means) functioned as mediators to build a new common object: the imagined square to be presented and discussed with “others”. Within this framework the museum has offered a place where learning means “giving body” to ideas, concepts, and social interactions.

See the original article for references and further details: When the place matters: moving the classroom into a museum to re-design a public space; di G. Barzanò, F. Amenduni, G. Cutello, M. Lissoni, C. Pecorelli, R. Quarta, L. Raffio, C. Regazzini, E. Zacchilli, M. B. Ligorio;