What’s important are skills, not knowledge

What’s most important isn’t knowing everything, but being able to discuss things, says JANA KOPECKÁ, the first-ever winner of the Global Teacher Prize Czech Republic. She’s been teaching the junior years at Kunratice Primary School in Prague for thirty years now, and one of the things she talks about is how the education system has changed during this time.

In one interview you gave after winning the Global Teacher Prize Czech Republic, you said that one of your goals was to improve the prestige of teaching as a career. Is it really that bad?
I’m afraid it is. If I’m honest I have to say that sometimes it’s justified. A lot of teachers see their work – and you’ll have to pardon the cliché – just as a job, rather than a vocation. They teach their lessons, go home and don’t take any more interest in their school and the people who go there. But teaching needs something more! Luckily most teachers aren’t like that. The majority of them love teaching children and try to do the best they can, but then that should be reflected in their pay. It’s a shame there isn’t a career system where salaries would take teachers’ quality into account. Everyone knows that salaries in the education sector are generally dismal.

How can young people be persuaded to try teaching?
We have to tell them that while other professions can be draining, working with children can very often be energising. Feedback is also important, as is the fact that you’re doing something meaningful. Where else can you tell yourself every day after work that you’ve achieved something? I can see progress on a daily basis.

You can follow children’s progress if you work with them individually, but how can you do that if you’ve got a class with, say, twenty-five children?
Our school has an advantage in that for the first, second and third grades we use co-teaching, meaning there are two teachers working with the children. There’s also an assistant teacher, who was assigned to us to work on inclusion, and an assistant for foreign nationals. So in some classes there’ll be four of us, and it’s very different from when there’s just one teacher who has to do everything.

Why did they introduce co-teaching at your school?
We took that model from the Helping Schools Succeed project, initiated and financed by The Kellner Family Foundation, and our school has been part of the project for over five years now. Under the project a teacher will have a colleague, who isn’t just an assistant who gets everything ready, makes photocopies and keeps the keys, as some people think, but a fully-qualified teacher. Co-teaching has proved its worth and parents like it as well, so they’re willing to contribute to the school financially to help pay for co-teaching.

Isn’t co-teaching difficult in terms of having clear arrangements and dividing up responsibilities? How can children in the first grade cope with having two authority figures in the classroom?
To tell you the truth the children didn’t really have any problems with it. The people who struggled with it the most were the teachers themselves (smile). I’d spent twenty-five years as the only teacher in the classroom, so I was sceptical, and I felt it was a bit as though they were telling me they didn’t really trust me. And with this beautiful young teacher just out of teaching school standing next to me, I felt old and ugly. So initially it grated a bit, and in the classroom it looked as though one of us was teaching and the other was more of an assistant for the children. But eventually we managed to make the switch and teaching became genuine cooperation. We’re partners in the teaching process, in the classroom we address one another as Miss this and Mrs that, and from the start the children see us as a team who are there to teach them something. Obviously we plan everything in advance, and we know what part of a lesson I’ll be leading and what part my colleague will. So proper planning is essential.

Last year the jury for the Global Teacher Prize Czech Republic said that one of the reasons they chose you was that “you think deeply about what children are going to need in life”. What does that consist in?
I’m not a prophet, so obviously I’ve no way of knowing exactly what the children are going to need one day, but I try to present learning as a process that will be useful for them, and which could produce results straight away. For example, recently I started holding writing workshops, where children can write with pen and paper about topics they choose. As well as improving their motor skills, it also develops their creativity and spelling. So in the workshop they realise it’s important to learn to spell correctly. They can make active use of knowing whether they should use “i” or “y”. I give them newspapers, magazines and books, and they can see that as well as proper spelling, style is also important. And then when I’m teaching Czech the children pay greater attention to what they’re learning.

In the years you’ve been teaching, how have the children changed?
Children don’t change. It’s still the case that if you can get them interested, they learn better and they enjoy it. What has changed is our approach as teachers. When I started, it was all about frontal teaching. The teacher decided what was important, presented it to the children and then tested them on what they’d learned. I work differently now: I’m more of a guide than an authority who always knows best. I rely more on children’s ability to make connections for themselves, think about things and work them out. But sometimes parents don’t want that. As a teacher I want the children to cooperate and achieve results through teamwork, but many parents are more interested in their individual child’s success. So sometimes we have conflicting aims.

Parents probably aren’t interested in the class as a whole, but quite logically only in their own child. I’m sure you sometimes hear people say that children don’t know as much as their parents did.
That’s a common criticism. As far as knowledge goes, knowledge gradually becomes outdated, and I don’t think the education system should primarily be about knowledge. Today it’s very easy to find out things for yourself, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different in the future. What’s important are skills, children today have better skills.

Okay, but then we read in the media that university professors are saying their students can’t solve even trivial exercises without Google and the internet. Isn’t that a problem?
Of course we have to keep teaching facts, but we have to find a happy medium. I remember something Professor Jiří Zlatuška said, that it’s good if children know how to discuss things, but they shouldn’t be discussing an empty vessel. That’s essential: I provide children with knowledge that might not be entirely complete, but they can discuss it. Children can use certain facts to support their arguments, but there shouldn’t be too many facts. And in the other part of my work I can teach them skills, use modern teaching aids and prepare children to go out into the world.

According to Zuzana Majerová Zahradníková, who’s the Civic Democratic Party’s education expert and was originally an English teacher, the main thing we need is a teacher who’s an authority figure, the teacher’s voice, a blackboard and chalk, and a student who wants to learn. And we can dispense with everything else. What do you think about that?
I don’t know why she said that, maybe she was basing it on her own experience. But research has shown that the greatest influence on how well students learn is how enthusiastic the teacher is, and I agree with that one hundred percent. You can be the greatest expert in the world, you can have been educated in critical thinking and a range of modern teaching methods, but if you can’t convey your energy to your students and motivate them to work on themselves, it’s practically impossible to achieve anything.

So if in a school I see a drooping figure who looks like a zombie shuffling down the corridor to the classroom, and I find out it’s the Czech teacher, does that mean they’re not the right person for the job?
I couldn’t say. You know, sometimes I worry I’ll end up like Daniela Kolářová in that film, The Elementary School – hang on, I’ll just splash some ink on myself and wander off into a field… (smile). Teaching is a wonderful profession, but it’s very difficult. The difference between being burnt out and being full of energy is very slight. You keep giving and giving, and one day you find out you’re not on fire, you’re burnt out. Maybe those zombies – the teachers you’re talking about – have given everything they can. And we can only hope they’ll find the will to start a new life as soon as possible.
Jana Kopecká (58)
A teacher for the junior years at Kunratice Primary School, Jana has over thirty years’ experience. She studied at the Faculty of Education in Brno. She is the winner of the Global Teacher Prize Czech Republic for the best teacher in the country. She supports the introduction of new teaching methods, which she works on in collaboration with The Kellner Family Foundation’s Helping Schools Succeed project. She is married with two adult children and five grandchildren.

@Vladimír Barák, Týden magazine
Photograph: Robert Sedmík
Caption | I ENJOY DOING NEW THINGS. The teacher incorporates new teaching methods into her lessons, which has made her popular with children and parents alike.


Klíčové jsou dovednosti, nikoli znalosti

More media articles

All news