Tuesday, 3 June 2014

From the panopticon to the streets: a couple of days in Bratislava / Pozsony / Pressburg

What do the students concentrate on while sitting in the classroom? What do we really learn in the school? Experts say that in many cases, a “hidden curriculum” is more important during our school years than the facts and explanations we seem to learn… The Scollons in their book entitled Nexus Analysis: Discourse  and the emerging internet claim that the traditional classroom is like a panopticon: the students are mainly passive viewer-listeners who are not expected to share their ideas or be creative. Instead, they are expected to learn and reproduce what they have heard or read while preparing for the classes. When they “discuss”, they seem to speak about the topic of the course but many times, implicitly, the emphasis is on their personal status in the school… As the authors write about a university seminar:

”The discourse is oriented on the surface toward understanding these texts but, more crucially, since this understanding is evaluated by the teacher, we can say the discourse is oriented toward a mutual agreement between the teacher and the student about what grade should be given to the student at the end of the course” (page 44)
That is, the students can choose between a couple of roles the teachers offer: “good students”, “average students”, “bad” or “rebellious students”. If I think of my personal school experiences or my research visits in dozens of schools in Hungary, I can say that this is the mainstream. However, there are teachers who don’t really like to give only this limited opportunity to the students. One of them, as I read in an interview, asks his students to decide upon what to learn, how to learn and how to evaluate their performance in the English class. They can collect scores for their work and make their own portolio. The traditional grades are not as important and the evaluation criteria are set by the students themselves. A journalist asked this teacher (my own translation):
hvg.hu:  What did the students say when you came out with this system of evaluation?
Teacher: There was great doubt and resistance from the students’ part. They realized that autonomous decisions are always more complicated than [situations where] others tell from the top what to do. The operation of a democratic system is more laborious than that of an authoritarian system. They can’t pass responsibility on to me, the teacher. It’s not the case that “the teacher was a jerk and that’s why I couldn’t do this”: they must face the case that “it was me who didn’t do this”.
Based on these quotes (among others), I presented some of my findings at a Bratislava conference, comparing what I found interesting as an observer while following the lessons and what the teachers highlighted in interivews, reflecting upon their practices. Generally I have data from and about the teacher-centred “panopticon” classroom. Hopefully, next year I can visit schools where the latter approach is preferred, and then I will able to say more about how democratic and student-centred education works in practice.

Bratislava from the tower of the old City Hall
After closing the conference, the organizers offered a guided tour in Bratislava, led by Lucia Satinská who is an expert of the linguistic landscape of this city. I really enjoyed it, not just because I like this city in general but because this trip gave us insights into the multicultural past of Bratislava / Pozsony / Pressburg. As the three names of this city show, Slovak, Hungarian and German were simultaneously used for a long time, and, from 1536 to 1848, Bratislava / Pozsony was the Hungarian capital. Lucia showed us bi- and trilingual texts, for example on the façade of a pharmacy. She also emphasized that Jews played an important role in the cultural life of Bratislava. Sadly, the old Jewish quarter has been demolished in the 1960s because of the “modernization” of the city.

'Pharmacy to the Salvator' in Hungarian, Slovak and German

A memorial table for the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók – only in Slovak

'Young Hearts' Dance Theatre: the name appears only in Hungarian, other info in Hungarian, Slovak and English

21 May 2014. Hungarian educational policies from two perspectives: A comparison of researcher’s observations and the participants’ narratives. Language in Political, Ideological and Intercultural Relations Conference, Bratislava, Slovakia.

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