Monday, 18 April 2011

Education in Hungary - March 2010

This may seem like a bit late coming, but seeing as though I've only recently started my blog, I've got a fair bit to catch up on. The University of Plymouth offers students various opportunities to visit other countries to observe teaching abroad in order to gain experience in a wider range of teaching methods. As a maths specialist, I was able to take the opportunity to go to Hungary (way back!) in March 2010 with 10 other students to observe how the Hungarians teach maths in their schools. 

I've travelled to many countries in Europe, but never one that once belonged to the Eastern Bloc, so I didn't really know what to expect. Flying into Budapest early in the morning, however, gave us all a chance to explore the city and get a good feel for the place. Whilst I'd love to blog about everything that happened and everything I saw and did, I'd quite like to keep it more relevant to education. After all, this is much more my professional blog than a personal one. Sufficed to say though, Budapest is a beautiful city, one that is definitely on my list of places to visit again.
Budapest Market - Lovely, but not relevant!
The reason I mention how full of wonder Budapest was is because of the contrast to the outskirts of the city we were based in to observe some teaching. Nyíregyháza is a city about the same size as Exeter, but the area we were in could not have seemed any further away. The city was very flat and filled with high-rise and fairly run down concrete blocks of flats. The surroundings were fantastic however, lakes, a zoo and a particularly large school.

The school that we were visiting was populated by around 1,800 students, which apparently is not uncommon for schools in Hungary. What I found particularly interesting was that the school houses the students from when they arrive in their first year (aged 6) to when they leave in their final year. This was also a 'University school', as in, a lot of the teachers there are still in training to become fully qualified teachers. It is an interesting concept, one that I could understand the reasoning behind, but I don't think would catch on over here (not unless Michael Gove has anything to do with it anyway).

As I saw in Stephen Heppell's PELC11 keynote, the classroom environment is essential to the children's learning. Children must feel comfortable and at ease, as well as find their environment stimulating. In the classrooms we visited however, it felt like we were in the 1950s. Children all had their own individual desk with a draw and all sat in regimented rows, facing the front of the class. This was right from the start of their school life - no 'carpet time', no collaborative workspaces, just individual desks facing the front. As someone that has progressed through my own education with grouped tables and such and now understands why they are effective from a teacher's point of view, this struck me as fairly odd practice. That was, until, I saw the style of teaching.

The teachers in the school we visited had seemingly an unlimited amount of energy. The amount of preparation that had gone into preparing the resources for each session was impressive. Classrooms did not have a laptop connected to an interactive whiteboard, nor even a whiteboard at all. They had the basics - an OHP and a blackboard. Everything was pre-prepared behind pieces of paper stuck to the board with blu-tac, and each section corresponded to a section on a worksheet that each child had. What was most different and, certainly for me, most surprising about the lessons was the ratio of teacher-child speak. I was recently asked what I think the ideal teacher-child talk ratio would be in a multiple choice question for a job interview, and I chose the lowest - 20 : 80 Teacher : Student talk - for the sheer reason that I think children need to discuss ideas and opinions with peers to get a more rounded understanding of the topic. In this case however, the ratio was MUCH higher - I'd estimate to be around 80 : 20 - 90 : 10, with the adult talking almost non-stop for the majority of the lesson and only really prompting answers from the children.

I mentioned the amount of energy the teachers had - this was especially highlighted by the pace of the lesson. In England, the standard format of a lesson is 5-10 minutes of input on one topic, 30-40 mins of activity and then 5-10 minute plenary to round up the lesson. In Hungary, the lessons consisted of many shorter, sharper inputs and activities. The teacher would talk for 2 or 3 minutes, then the children would work on their worksheets for a minute or two. This would happen three or four times before a more creative activity, such as placing a puzzle piece that the children had 'won' on the board before switching to a slightly different topic and repeating the process, which itself would happen about twice during the lesson. This would be akin to teaching measuring lines, perimeters and areas all in one lesson. The overall topic (Shape and Space) would be the same, but the focus would shift throughout the lesson.

I quite enjoyed the fast-paced nature of the lesson, and the multiple short inputs and activities would be something I would like to try at some point. However, I don't know whether the children in England would be able to cope with such a high pace that they aren't used to. Not only that, but I'm not sure how effective a method it would be in terms of allowing the information to sink in and be processed by the children. Judging by the way the teacher was racing around the room, I'm not sure I'd have the energy to keep up with my own lesson either!

What I would have liked to have found out though, is how the teachers assess the children. How do they know what they have learnt and what they haven't learnt? Why is the more regimented system in place instead of a classroom with more freedom? I felt that the contrast was so stark that I couldn't formulate a comparison of the effectiveness the approaches to teaching between our two countries. What I did notice was the behaviour of the children. I don't think that in our two days there that a single child spoke out of place or moved from their seat without being asked to. Whether this was to do with the more regimented style of teaching or the culture and upbringing or even the fast pace of the lesson not allowing children time to think about misbehaving, I do not know.

The trip to Hungary will undoubtedly stay in my thoughts when thinking of new approaches to teaching, for things to do that I haven't done before. It hasn't been until this year though that I have really been able to fully appreciate what I got out of the visit. I got an insight into an entirely alien classroom environment, a vastly different teaching style and an eye opening look at what can still be achieved without the aid of technology in the classroom and whilst I may not be adopting several of the things I saw, I will most definitely use my reflection and evaluation of them to inform my own style of teaching and my own classroom environment.

If anyone gets the chance to see teaching abroad, I suggest you grab it with both hands and take in all that you can.