School in Haná bets on innovation

At a glance, the Primary School in Horka nad Moravou in the Olomouc area is a school like any other in a larger rural community. However, just by entering any of its 17 classrooms you will find that the local 430 children smile more than many of their peers in other schools. The teachers are more relaxed. “We are a standard primary school, yet we do many things differently, we have many rituals and we experience a lot of small things that, while they may not be apparent, build good relationships. In addition, teachers can convey the good atmosphere to students and parents,” says Kateřina Glosová, director of the school.

This may be why the school in Horka nad Moravou was selected to participate in Helping Schools Succeed, a project of The Kellner Family Foundation intended for primary schools, five years ago. “Initially, we wrote our own projects for innovating the school’s educational plan. As a result, we could invite well-known and proven lecturers for the further education of our teachers. During critical thinking workshops, we learned from Hana Košťálová (ed. note: Programme Director of Helping Schools Succeed) that the The Kellner Family Foundation would make a call for tenders for schools in the Olomouc Region, so we enrolled. This proved to be the best decision in my professional life. A challenge! There were about fifteen schools from across the region vying for one spot, and eventually the Foundation chose our school,” Kateřina Glosová describes a decision made five years ago. Involvement in the project was subject to the approval of every single teacher, and they had to respond anonymously as to whether they would like to continue the project in its second and third year too. “Some teachers were enthusiastic and took it as a really great challenge for their further work. Then there were some ‘healthy sceptics’ who asked critical questions and inquired about the risks, and they are needed on the team as well,” the director explains.

After five years in the project, the teachers in Horka see the biggest difference and change versus the status prior to joining the project in the quality of teaching and in the approach to educating students and to their own professional education. “When we came on board, we analysed the current status with our instructional coaches and prepared a plan for the school’s pedagogic development for the next five years. We used our own good practice – what we saw as efficient and relevant in our own work. We identified our needs and asked for specific support. We were able to introduce everything that we justified as something that our students needed,” the director says. From the second project year on, each teacher writes their own annual personal pedagogic development plan. They define their goals for the academic year – what and how they want to achieve in their work.

Project schools cooperate with each other, hold experience-sharing events, and teachers organise peer-to-peer exchanges. “Together we do things that make sense for children, work and educate. We offer our teachers and assistants workshops for entire teams as well as on a selective basis. The project allows us to approach the best education experts, lecturers and psychologists. What is more, our school can now use forms of support that are not commonly available and that make learning more efficient for students. Tandem teachers work in classes with numerous students. They assist students in learning maths using Professor Hejný’s method, reading and working on project days,” Glosová adds. Instructional coaches help the teachers three days a week. Their main task is to check that the teaching benefits every child and, together with the teacher, devise new methods to make sure that truly every single student is learning and increase the demands for learning.

Daniela Hrnková, a first level teacher in the Montessori section, admits that the project benefits both her and the Montessori teaching method where children work individually – each on their own. “Thanks to reading workshops and the Cosmic Education projects, this method now benefits from teamwork. We work with texts in a targeted manner and develop reading strategies in children, and this has really improved the standard of our section. Children who were used to learning individually are now enriched by others’ views. As a teacher I am really happy about this because I can see progress and a great joy in learning.”

Teachers must be well-prepared
Instructional coach Kateřina Sobotková believes that teachers often work unnecessarily hard in “standard” schools. “You see him or her at the blackboard, explaining the entire bulk of the material, piling it all up for the children, writing it on the board, maybe even printing handouts and handing them out, and the children know they will learn it for the next time. Then the teacher examines them and they may get an A grade,” she describes the teaching process in a “standard” school, adding that this is fast and efficient for teachers and parents. “But when you come to Horka, you see children working on their own, in pairs or in small groups on tasks prepared by the teacher, since the teaching is based on the children’s activity. The teacher is in the background at that time – his or her role is in supporting and focusing on those who need help.”

Another teacher, Marcela Otavová, adds: “Each teacher incorporates many various things in preparation. We use what is known as a constructivist teaching model, which assumes an active role and intensive involvement of the student in teaching during all phases of the class. So the role of the teacher in teaching is different. Teachers do a great deal of work in the class planning and preparation phase, which should be perfect in terms of setting the goals, strategies and forms of teaching, making it individualised, defining the specific outputs and demonstrating the students knowledge and evaluating it. Teachers also have to consider diversions that may occur during the class since the students are encouraged to ask questions, seek alternative solutions and think critically,” she describes the process.

The school psychologist, Kateřina Lerchová, confirms that children enjoy this style of teaching – and not only that. A few days ago, she asked ninth grade students about what the project gave them and if they noticed a change in teaching over the course of five years. “Many times, they said they realised that just sitting in the class would be easier for them, with the teacher writing all the new material on the blackboard and them memorising it. However, they like being involved in teaching and discovering new things in the process. That makes classes interesting and enriching for them,” Lerchová says adding that the students who leave the school this year obviously loved being the co-creators – instead of just consumers – of the classes. That is what they enjoy.

Learning for life
Miroslav Kubíček is the form master for the 9.A class. “I am about to say farewell to my class. I know they are leaving with knowledge of not only maths, history or English. We find it important to learn how to collaborate, to think critically and to solve problems. These are the things our students should learn for the future instead of being just burdened by knowledge. They see education differently – with different eyes today. I find this quite mature. If this is what we taught them, it’s simply good,” he says.

According to Otavová, this is related to the formative evaluation that is an integral part of learning. “The school guides the students to participate in the overall evaluation of their work. It is important for them to assume personal responsibility for their education, to watch their progress, and not to wait for someone outside to rate them, be it a teacher or a parent who pats them on the back and says, well done. It’s that they perceive their own improvement and that we, the teachers, can give them room for self-evaluation: This is what I find important for their sound self-confidence and self-reflection,” she adds.

Each child should learn with full involvement and with joy. This is precisely the goal of the project and the responsibility of each teacher. Hrnková notes that a teacher should pay attention to every single student – not just individually, but also in an individualised manner, which means preparing several various activities for a single topic so that a student can choose the one that suits that particular student best, such as “find the main idea of the text and tell me why you agree or disagree with it”, “write a short story” or “formulate questions regarding the text”.

Parent involvement is a matter of course
The project was a change for teachers, students and parents. Otavová, who teaches maths according to Professor Hejný, saw it too. “The hardest work for maths teachers with this method is making parents cooperate with the school at the beginning. They may be used to going over maths with the child, practising the individual mathematical skills and counting one set of examples after another, mainly at the first level. But this is not asked of parents in Hejný’s maths. The brunt of maths work is done in classes where mathematical discoveries take place. Children often do expert homework, but that stems from their inner motivation to figure something out, to try something and maybe even explain something to parents at home.” Parents often have problems understanding this ‘reverse’ process. “We knew right from the start that we need to work with parents too so that we all eventually work towards the same goal,” she adds admits that there used to be some difficult periods.

‘Maths Café’ events for parents helped solve some of the problems in introducing Hejný’s maths method. Professor Hejný even attended one of the sessions. “The cafés are one of the ways to pull parents into the process of collaboration,” notes Otavová and adds that in addition to maths, the school also does café sessions with reading, chess, a psychologist, a native speaker… “The café is a meeting where teachers get to present some of the forms, strategies and methods that we use in teaching. To be specific, during Hejný’s maths sessions, we offer parents classes where they can work along with children in didactic environments and use various aids. They can have a cup of coffee and discuss their experience with other parents,” she says.

How many cafés has the school held in the project time? Several dozen, without a doubt. “I do reader cafés for my class parents and try to make sure the parents bring their personal experience of reading along with their child back home,” Hrnková notes.

Is it all over?
Five years later, the initial five-year phase of Helping Schools Succeed is ending for the school in Horka. The teaching team will however keep meeting their colleagues from other project schools and sharing experience. The financial support for the pedagogic development of the school will continue, albeit in a restricted form. “The teacher team has been the school’s strength before, during and after the project. It’s a team of people who collaborate, it’s our pride and joy and our school is built on it. Like teacher, like students – that’s my motto,” Glosová says and adds: “We keep rolling and are proud to be a project school.”
The project was initiated in 2010 by The Kellner Family Foundation, which donates approximately CZK 35 million for the project every year * The project contributes to improving the quality of teaching at public primary schools, aiming to enable as many children as possible to study at good schools, with full involvement and with joy * The project involves more than 400 teachers and, through them, more than 6,000 students * Sustained and systematic support contributes most towards transforming school culture into one focused on the success of every student * The forms of project support are adapted to the needs of the individual schools, and teacher teams plan their pedagogic development independently with expert support from instructional coaches * Schools involved in the project have introduced tandem teaching, sharing experience among teachers, plans for pedagogic development of the school and individual development plans for the individual teachers, formative evaluation, reading workshops, help in developing reading literacy across subjects and teaching maths according to Professor Hejný.

Author | Pavel Karban


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