Wow, I have had a wonderful week in Malta finding out more about its history, culture, and people and in through ‘teacher geek’ style about how children learn about food, nutrition and healthy living there.
Prior to my visit, I tried rather unsuccessfully to use the internet to uncover a basic summary of food education in Malta. It was difficult to find a great deal of information. While researching, I came across the name, Dr Suzanne Piscopo, who is head of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Consumer Studies at the University of Malta. Her online biography is impressive and I thought that this woman would undoubtedly be the right person to speak to about food education in Malta.So,I cheekily decided to email her to see if she would like to meet up to discuss how Home Economics is taught in Malta.
While, on a holiday in Malta I met with Dr Piscopo — Suzanne. She was so welcoming and from the moment I met her I could tell how passionate she was about food education not only in her own country but internationally. She spoke convincingly with enthusiasm, knowledge and passion about how food education has evolved in Malta and believes that the status of food education, through the subject of Home Economics has improved significantly albeit slowly in recent years. Although some people, still believe that Home Economics is just about cooking, many are becoming aware that it includes actively learning about nutrition, sustainability, health and learning valuable life skills necessary to look after one self.
Suzanne, encourages her student-teachers to teach what they know most about with confidence using active learning styles .She speaks with obvious pride about her students past and present and is realistic about how demanding the role of being a home economics teacher is especially in terms of time and organizational skills. She introduced me to two of her students who are currently studying their master’s in education; at the same time teaching home economics full time and also running community sessions one evening a week for ten weeks to teach adults how to apply home economics skills to improve day to day living and health. The work these ladies do is truly impressive and they are clearly dedicated to the cause of highlighting the value of Home Economics in Malta.
So here is a brief summary of food education in Malta following my conversation with Suzanne; which is much more insightful that simply browsing the internet.
Food education has for some time been named and taught similarly to how it has been in UK schools. For many decades it was taught primarily within Home Economics, though Biology always tackled the Nutrition science of course. More recently, apart from Home Economics, aspects of nutrition and healthy eating have also been taught in Personal and Social Development and in PE. And up until quite recently food education with a more product development orientation was also implemented in food technology.
Since 2014, Home Economics has become a compulsory subject for 13 sessions a year for two years in state secondary schools to pupils aged between 11- 13, in Forms 1 & 2 .Church and Independent schools can opt to offer it as a compulsory subject but most are choosing to offer it to their pupils due to demand from parents requesting that their children have at least the option of studying It. After that, it can be offered from Form 3 upwards in preparation for the Ordinary level exam and eventually also at post-Secondary level at Intermediate level and Advanced level. Home Economics is designated as an English language subject but admittedly a few Maltese words creep into these lessons; such is the nature of teaching in bilingual schools.
Home Economics teachers are offered links to up to date resources and CPD training through the Home Economists in Action (also known as HEiA) professional association (ask to join on facebook).
Very recently, HEiA has been commissioned by the government to run courses on Sustainable Living, comprising 10 weekly 2 hour sessions, in local authority areas, of which there are 68. This project has many aims but among them are to teach life skills to help break poverty and tackle health inequalities. Home Economics teachers teach adults about healthy and sustainable eating, nutrition, cooking on a budget, choosing appropriate snacks or healthy recipes for their families, to mention a few. Originally, the uptake for these courses was slow and numbers were low but it is gradually building as people begin to spread through word of mouth how enjoyable and fulfilling these courses are. Participants receive a certificate of completion for attending which gives them a sense of pride and many of the skills learned are transferable. Ultimately, these courses may help those who are unemployed gain confidence in their abilities and skills and perhaps increase their confidence to apply for skill based jobs. As Suzanne pointed out these courses are extremely beneficial but as with all behavior change initiatives, it takes time for progress to be made and seen. She is optimistic that these courses will certainly encourage people to uptake positive life changes for the better.
In her free time, Suzanne, is equally dedicated to the cause of encouraging children to embrace healthy living lifestyles from an early age. I was gob smacked to learn that she found the time to work alongside her creative husband to launch a website which features animations and songs to encourage Maltese children to adopt a healthy lifestyle and regularly visits primary schools to give whole school assemblies. See www.fonzulfenek.org The lead mascot for the website is a rabbit called Fonzu and according to the nearing 385,000 hits of one of their song video clips on you tube, children are loving it, learning from it and singing along to Fonzu and his friends. I will certainly introduce Fonzu to my three year old niece. Have a listen to these catchy informative little songs on the following links:
In English: https://youtu.be/PJzKSJdkUnw
In Maltese: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=261OoBDrCXQ
During my visit, Suzanne arranged for me to visit the Home Economics Seminar Centre, which is within the Department of Curriculum Management. According to Lorraine Dimech Magrin, the Education Officer for Home Economics, it has been set up to improve the quality of everyday life for pupils, their families and the community through the sustainable management of their resources as well as to create and maintain supportive environments which promote healthy living. It houses teachers of Home Economics whose remit is to support schools and other entities.
The Home Economics Seminar Centre is doing tremendous work at educating both pupils and parents about healthy living. It works with pupils aged from four years of age up to 16 and with parents and community members too. On arrival, one of the Home Economics teachers, Sonya enthusiastically showed me around from classroom to classroom. In two classrooms, two groups of pupils (about 18 in each group) aged 7 where actively involved in playing a game about the healthy eating plate. Their teacher had introduced them to the concept of a balanced diet and the children had to select a range of foods/ ingredients and put them into to the relevant sections and discuss the reasons for doing so.
A parallel session was taking place with parents or close family members of the children. These were in another classroom being educated on the concept of a healthy diet and given practical suggestions on how to achieve this with their children. The session was based on healthy packed lunches and parents were given packets of low salt bread provided by the local bakery to put some ideas into practice at home. Prior, to this the pupils have been involved in a dramatization (acted out by the Home Economics teachers) of the difference between a healthy breakfast (low sugar cereal, with low fat milk) verses an unhealthy breakfast (a fried breakfast or high sugary chocolate breakfast cereals). Children, at this young age were taught how to read the labels to tell if the sugar content was too high. Following, this they sat down to eat a healthy breakfast together which was based on a balanced diet but also on the government recommendations that a breakfast should contains no more than 15 g of sugar. Weetabix, one of the project supporters offers a range of their whole-wheat products from which the children can chose and eating fruit and natural yoghurt is also encouraged. These sessions are delivered daily and last for three hours.
Other Home Economics teachers from the centre visit schools around Malta and offer 45 minute sessions on various topics depending on the age of the pupils. For example, a session entitled Milk Power is targeted at younger children and includes a set of interactive and engaging activities in both English and Maltese which helps children learn more about milk and milk products. Another session, called Mind your Manners teaches children about how to eat in a mindful and mannerly way, teaching them basic skills as how to be polite while eating i.e. elbows of the table, not speaking with food in your mouth and to not using technological devices at the table. Crawford the Cat is often used to demonstrate the concept of good table manners. Older pupils are taught about financial planning in a session called Money Matters, through the medium of food budgeting.
Eight teachers are currently employed in the seminar centre and work under the leadership of Lorraine. Many are educated to master’s level and many work part time as lecturers at the University of Malta with Suzanne. All of them contribute to making engaging resources to impart their knowledge and all are extremely passionate about what they do. The sense of teamwork and vision among the staff was evident and I felt very welcomed into their working environment. I left feeling motivated with lots of ideas to improve my teaching and my preparation and sharing of educational resources. I plan to share some of Malta’s exceptional practice and ideas gained at the seminar centre with my feeder primary school teachers in the future.
So, I hope this gives you an insight into the efforts being made in Malta to teach not only children but adults about health, nutrition and valuable life skills through the medium of the wonderful subject that is Home Economics. I certainly left feeling totally inspired and it has given me plenty of food for thought.
I believe that from my brief meeting with Suzanne that she is a fantastic role model for her student teachers and Home Economics teachers internationally. The future of Malta’s food education is in very safe hands as is that of the USA. Suzanne is currently the president of for the Society for Nutrition, Education and Behaviour, USA. What a wonderful lady!
As for the Home Economics teachers at the Seminar Centre, I felt so privileged to be part of this stimulating educational experience and it brought me back to my days working on the Focus on Food cooking buses where working with both pupils, teachers and parents in a community setting was at the very heart of what we did. I believe that food, health, home economics, PSHE teachers throughout the world who encourage their pupils to actively engage in health promoting behaviours can really make a difference to the well-being of our world’s population.
Next stop, is my native country Ireland but it won’t be for a few weeks as my priority now is to prepare my exam classes for the upcoming state exams! In the meantime, if there are any Irish Home Economics teachers out there who would like to let me know about food education practices in Ireland at primary or secondary level, then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
WCRF International Nourishing Framework
Resources produced by the Home Economics Seminar Centre, towards a better quality of life.