Pedagogical Time Travel

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Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.

 

Image courtesy of NBC News.

 

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