When I enrolled on the “Challenging Conventions in Education” course provided by the Masaryk University Faculty of Education, I had no idea what to expect, but I was hoping that somebody would share my own dissatisfaction with some of the practices one encounters in traditional schooling, and I certainly was not let down. Having experienced five great years of homeschooling, I was able to compare this with attending a state school, which I did afterwards, receiving my education from various kinds of teachers, each using their own style of teaching. Through observation, I discovered what I deemed the best and the worst techniques used in my experience of school. It is understandable, then, that I enrolled on the course with an open mind regarding unconventional forms of education. Not only were my views based on my own experience supported, I was presented with many more interesting ideas as well as practical tips to incorporate into my current and future teaching practice. Each lesson was so well structured and thought-through that students rarely had time to fidget because of all the food-for-thought they had to chew on, and also because of their efforts to form and articulate their own opinions on the subject. The course was the more interesting and relevant thanks to the number of teachers who took part in it, providing their own experiences in a given field. Students were encouraged to keep a journal focused specifically on the topic of the course, which would help them keep all of their thoughts and ideas in one place, so enabling them to form an overall, complex view of the whole course. Not only did the journals make that easier, they were also a great aid to the students’ final assignment, organisation of an event called the “Round Table”, where the students as a group would present a topic of their choice related to the course and discuss this with the teachers. I will now describe the topics that were presented throughout the course.
Due to the amount of activities dedicated to each lesson, and in order to be able to participate actively in discussions, it was essential, or at least very beneficial, for students to do some preparation before each lesson, which usually meant reading an article, watching a video, or preparing one’s own ideas beforehand. The first, introductory topic of the course, was a reflection on what school might be good for, what school is and what the difference is between the often interchangeable terms “school” and “education”. Students were encouraged to participate in an activity where they were assigned roles, plus stances to represent, in a lively discussion of state education in general. This allowed students to see the issue from various perspectives, and to try to argue, in some cases against their own opinion, for or against traditional schooling.
This was followed by two lessons on a concept called “unschooling”, which breaks many rules of traditional schooling and gives pupils greater responsibility over their education, usually by giving them free rein to learn about what they are really interested in (Boyinaband 3:01, Robinson 2013 6:26). There are several institutions worldwide that grant this kind of education, the most famous being “Summerhill” (Readhead) in the UK. There is a school based on similar concepts in the Czech Republic called “Ježek bez klece”, which was presented in class by its director. These schools try to provide children with more space in which to make use of their creativity, which would otherwise be somewhat stifled in traditional schools (Robinson 2010 7:40; Robinson 2006 3:05), due not only to a lack of individual attention for each pupil and the frequency of frontal lecturing (Šteffl), but also to the widespread stigmatization of mistakes (Robinson 2006 6:02).
Since students are not pieces of technology but essentially social beings (Robinson 2013 14:55), the course then discussed the importance of values in education as well as of mutual respect, not only between students and teachers but also among the students themselves; it also discussed their possible contributions to their local community or society as a whole (Woodbury). Some teachers may consider these factors inferior in the learning process to actual knowledge acquisition, though in many cases the lack of feeling accepted, respected, or seeing a purpose in a task, resulted in students having severe difficulties learning (Responsive classroom; Nováčková 2011 6:58; Nováčková 2015 2:24, 6:30, 9:15).
Then we took a more practical approach and discussed various techniques and activities on how to teach a class in an efficient and gripping way, including activities that enable learners to feel confident and accepted by the group, which may allow them to stop being afraid of making mistakes, thus ameliorating their learning process. These activities included ice-breaking games based on cooperation and finding out what group members might have in common, as well as several tips for routine habits and customs in the class that help bring the whole group closer together and create a better working environment for everybody involved. As Nováčková implies (2011 6:14), if a student feels under-appreciated, this might lead to a toxic class atmosphere, or to their indifference and failure to make more effort next time.
Since no two children are exactly the same and children may display a range of types of intelligence (Lane; Robinson 2013 3:28), the problem with traditional schooling is that it approaches and evaluates students on a very general, standardized scale with a bias towards certain preferred subjects (Robinson 2013 8:33), which generally does not encourage talented, conscientious and curious students to achieve higher goals; it also leads underachievers to believe they are simply not good enough (Nováčková 2015 9:15). This is then accompanied with the omnipresent importance of grades rather than knowledge, resulting in a counter-productive motivation to study against one’s own inclination to actually learn something (Nováčková 2011 12:45). In addition to this, a major factor causing failure to learn is the connection of stress to learning which is, when compared to other mammals’ learning experience, a contradictory relationship (Nováčková 2011 1:49). Robinson argues that though standardized testing does have its place (2013 8:33), it should be assigned a diagnostic role rather than being the backbone of an education system. A more gentle alternative is the possibility of self-assessment, where students can see their mistakes right away and correct them and learn from them without being subjected to punishment in the form of a bad grade or ridicule in front of the class (JFF).
The course ended with a guided visit to the Labyrinth, a laboratory school in Brno that incorporates several of the non-traditional approaches which were discussed on the course and offers an alternative to a traditional school. Children are given more freedom of movement and self-expression, there is an emphasis on self-assessment based on clear rules and great cooperation with the children’s parents, and its teachers are experts in their field as well as enthusiastic about the school’s vision. We had a discussion with one of the teachers, who provided us with many details about the mentality and practices of the school. The lessons might be twice the length of traditional 45-minute classes, but lots of different activities are offered to facilitate pupils’ learning process as well as to make this more enjoyable.
After all this preparation, students were ready to present their own topic and discuss it with the teachers in the Round Table discussion. We chose to try to gain more insight into the topic of teaching in a school with a prevailing Roma community, how this might differ from schools where this particular minority is not so well represented, and what specific problems teachers might encounter here. Our arguments were informed by several teachers who have had this very experience.
Boyinaband. (8/23/2016). You don’t legally have to go to school. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/FR0_sZtCfJ0
JFF. (8/22/2013). Self-Assessment: Reflections from Students and Teachers. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/CkFWbC91PXQ
Lane, C. Multiple Intelligences. In The Distance Learning Technology Resource Guide. Retrieved from http://www.tecweb.org/styles/gardner.html
Nováčková J. (3/2/2011). TEDxPrague – Jana Nováčková – Jak se z touhy učit se stane sběratelství známek. Retrieved from TEDx talks. Web site: https://youtu.be/7cnxm-OatVs
Nováčková, J. (6/3/2015). Jana Nováčková: Respekt ve vzdělávání. Retrieved from Europe direct. Web site: https://youtu.be/E_-4YTgI6rk
Readhead, Z. N. A.S Neill’s Summerhill School. Retrieved from http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/
Responsive classroom. (2018). Principles & Practices. Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/about/principles-practices/
Robinson, K. (2/2006). Do schools kill creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson. Retrieved from TED talk. Web site: https://youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY
Robinson K. (10/14/2010). RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms. Retrieved from the RSA. Web site: https://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Robinson, K. (4/2013). How to escape education’s death valley | Sir Ken Robinson. Retrieved from TED talk. Web site: https://youtu.be/wX78iKhInsc
Šteffl, O. (2016, 10/23). Bobři, které známe (Potěmkinova vesnice II, pokračování). Aktuálně.cz. Retrieved from http://blog.aktualne.cz/blogy/ondrej-steffl.php?itemid=28207
Woodbury Middle School’s Service Learning Club Vaya Verde. Service Learning at Woodbury Middle School. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/VkrfaL7JgZU