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Children are wonderfully creative, says Professor Hejný

23. August 2012 - Professor Hejný, a renowned expert in didactics and a respected international authority, explained in an interview for Právo what good instruction in mathematics should look like. He thinks mathematics can be fun, but the teacher must not deprive kids of the delight of discovering new things. Generally, the teacher should minimize his active presence and should only watch the direction the kids are going. This method develops the intellect and, in addition, it helps build a value hierarchy and the concept of citizenship.

How are you going to carry out the educational project sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation?
We want to analyze mathematics instruction at four schools and offer teachers possible improvements. In my view, the greatest untapped potential in this respect lies in giving the students more autonomy. The teaching system based on our textbooks has been tested at quite a few schools for six years now, but the number of teachers who have mastered the new method has been growing only slowly.

Now the issue is whether we in The Kellner Family Foundation are able to find more effective ways to persuade teachers to come to terms with these methods. They need to be persuaded that the delight of discovering the secret of mathematics rather than quick counting is the main objective of their teaching effort.

What is the main difference between the traditional methods and your approach?
Each child is building their mathematical understanding in their own head, because understanding is not transferable. It is possible to transfer information such as that London is the capital of the U.K., but you cannot transfer the Pythagorean Theorem. A student may learn to recite it, but without understanding what it is about. We want the kids to understand.

Hence, what teachers need to do first of all is to focus on an individualized approach?
Yes. It is the individualized approach, but also the minimization of the teacher’s acoustic presence. The best thing to do is to let kids talk among themselves. It is best to go and see some of these classrooms. One of the Deputy Ministers has already done so, and he was surprised to see what fun the kids had. I myself used this way of teaching in Bratislava quite a long time ago – those who were my students there are now really mature people 45 years of age. Their results show me that the approach was good and correct.

Can the method be applied on a wider scale?
It’s not just maths. It’s about intellect as such, about the hierarchy of values, about citizenship. People fail to think critically. This instruction method teaches them humility and respect for education, and also critical thinking – it is well-nigh impossible to fool these people into believing anything. So it also has a deep social impact.

Is the new method well accepted by schools?
My textbooks have been tested on many classes and about seven percent of them have accepted the method. Where this method of teaching is used the results are excellent. We are going to have a third meeting of about 35 teachers to let more of them in on this secret, encourage them not to be afraid.

We want to persuade them not to look so much at how the kids master multiplication, but that it is more important to watch the light and curiosity in their eyes. When kids like it, they can achieve unexpected results.

What discourages teachers from the method?
One of the reasons is that they do not believe strong enough that it will work. They go and see how other teachers do it, become enthusiastic about it, and want to teach that way, but they fail to realize that they need to change their educational style: avoid lecturing the kids, avoid interrupting them when they are speaking – in fact they should do managerial work.

Children talk among themselves; they naturally get together in twos or threes, the smarter kids helping their weaker friends, who thus become smarter. In one class of third-graders even the weakest student scored more points than the Central Bohemian average in the competition called Cvrček [Cricket]. In addition, the problems in our textbooks are sophisticated, difficult, and some teachers are afraid they will not handle them successfully.

So is this the “Schooling through Playing” ?
We can call it this way, but it should not be regarded as just amusement, it’s still hard work. And kids learn through that. It is frustrating to realize that now, in the 21st century, most people still think that “learning is excruciating”.

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