Teaching in a changing society

For Panorama this week we go back to school, visiting a class of 12- and 13-year-olds at the grammar school in the old town of Havlíčkův Brod, about a hundred kilometres south-east of Prague. We are here to find out more about a pioneering teaching project that has been made possible thanks to the enlightened attitude of the local town hall, which gave financial support.

Like much of Europe, Czech society is going through many changes. Even in a small town like Havlíčkův Brod, it does not take long to notice that there are growing numbers of people of different origins, cultures and languages who have moved here to live and work. Historically this is nothing new, as the old lands of Bohemia and Moravia have always been a crossroads in Europe, but in recent decades, this reality has rarely been reflected in the school curriculum. Dr Marie Hofmannová from the Department of English Language and Literature at Charles University in Prague has been working on a pilot project to redress the balance:

“The initial inspiration came to me while I was attending a seminar in Graz in Austria in ‘context-based teaching plus pluri-cultural, pluri-lingual awareness’!”

So what is the actual basis of this project?

“The project is embracing a number of areas, like history, geography and local history, because I fear that the students only learn about the history of the Czech Republic, but they don’t get in touch with the real grass-roots context, the history of their own places. The idea of doing it in different languages is completely new and it just comes with the real situation again, because we tend to have more and more pupils coming with different origins.”

So a central part of the idea is helping children to be more aware of the fact that they live in an environment that is multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and that this is something normal?

“Yes, I think it’s always been normal to live in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment throughout the history of this region. It’s been a norm. And so I think the students, today’s children, should not perceive it as something out of the ordinary. They should take it as a norm.”

In the context of the rather conservative Czech education system, Dr Hofmannová’s project is unusual in that it breaks down the barriers between different subjects and fields of interest. For a start, the children were working through English, going through a series of tasks, exploring life in their town, past and present. Until the Second World War, the population was very mixed – Czech, German and Jewish – and one of the children’s tasks was to find out the old German names of some of the villages around. In this historical context, the fact that some of the children in the class themselves are not of Czech origin, suddenly seems less exotic. Dr Hofmannová, who herself comes from Havlíčkův Brod, continues:

“After World War II, the people living in this town thought that this place is only for Czechs. It’s not like that. The world is not like that, and it will not be like that in the future. So I think that young children should get used to living together, cooperating with each other and thinking that cooperation is normal.”

Here are two of the pupils staging an interview, in which one of them, Abdul, whose father is Jordanian, plays the role of his father….

Abdul [as his father]: “I was born in Damascus in Syria”

Pupil: “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

Abdul: “I have got five sisters and three brothers.”

Pupil: “What is the job of your father?”

Abdul: “My father is a police officer.”

Pupil: “What was your favourite subject at school?”

Abdul: “My favourite subject in school was English.”

Pupil: “Why did you come here?”

Abdul: “I came here to study at university.”

Pupil: “How long are you here in the Czech Republic?”

Abdul: “I am here sixteen years.”

Jana DvořákováJana Dvořáková In the class there are also children with roots in Vietnam, Russia and Belarus. Their English and history teacher is Jana Dvořáková, and she has been working with Dr Hofmannová on the project. She stresses that projects like these do not need to be at the expense of the traditional curriculum:

“I’m not against memorizing facts because at first children don’t know the facts. They have to accumulate them. But then the next step should be to build something new on this basis, and in this way it is a very pioneering and good thing to do. And they need it, because they can create something new.”

I found it very interesting in your lesson today, how you were connecting several different subjects: English, history, geography… I’m trying to think if there was any mathematics in there….

“No, I hate maths [laughs]! That’s why I didn’t put in any numbers of immigrants!”

But you were very much putting the dots together and connecting different ways of learning, which I should imagine must be refreshing for you as a teacher as well as for the children.

“Yes, I like it when the lessons are interesting. I think the children really enjoyed it very much, because after a whole year of tiring work just with the text books and all the grammar exercises and so on, this was really very refreshing for them, and they love it, because they like doing something new. It is really great that it is about real things that simply are going on around.”

So does the project have a future? Marie Hofmannová again:

“I think this is just the beginning. We could work on similar things for a number of months or years maybe. It’s just a new theme to be introduced.”

We have just sat through a lesson with a group of children of around 12 or 13. What were your impressions of the lesson?

“Well, I was very much impressed. The enthusiasm was quite apparent. It was wonderful.”

And they seem to be interested in the theme as well. It didn’t seem to be a theme that was foreign to them.

“Yes, indeed. You’re right. I thought they would take it as a textbook and they would recite something or would want to show us that they’d fulfilled the task. And I was really surprised and impressed that it came as a game and it was quite natural.”

You are involved at a university level in developing methodology of teaching at schools. Do you think that you will be able to develop the ideas further? Is this going to develop into further projects that could become part of the curriculum throughout the country?

“Yes, on the one hand some schools already work using such projects, and this could be one of them. On the other hand I think that unfortunately we are not as far as we could be, as regards integration of the curricular subjects. We still tend to divide subjects historically – this is mathematics, geography etc - but somehow the English language and learning things through the foreign language, makes it possible that the students experience something new.”

Photo: author