If you ask Czech kids what is their most hated subject at school, the answer is nearly always the same: mathematics. This may soon change, however, with more and more schools pushing an alternative way of teaching mathematics, the so-called Hejný method. It has now been adopted by more than 350 schools around the country and for the first time this year, it will also be tested in grades five to nine.
While Czech students show only average results in mathematics in international competitions, the number of those who dislike the subject is overwhelming. In an attempt to address the problem, an increasing number of Czech teachers are switching to the Hejný method, which allows children to discover math on their own, instead of memorizing formulas. They claim that children who are being taught the alternative way are showing very good results.
The method was founded in the late 1980s by mathematician Milan Hejný, who was unhappy with the way the subject was taught at schools. Along with a group of colleagues he developed a new teaching method that would allow children to enjoy the process of learning. The system is aimed at constructing a network of mental mathematical schemes, which are formed by each student individually. But how exactly does this work in practice? I asked Megan Fraley, who has been using the method with four-graders in the town of Jesenice:
“We try to use different kinds of materials, if we are learning for example to calculate the size of an area, we have little cubes that students can use, to measure and count, and then try to multiply them to get the answer. If we are doing shapes, we might use pretzels, for instance, to help them figure out angles and directions. It means using a lot of visual and concrete objects to help them work out the problems.”
Some teachers refuse to adopt the method because it requires a radical change of approach on their side. Instead of telling children how things work, they have to let them solve things on their own and try to interfere as little as possible. Megan Fraley again:
“The teacher is really just supposed to facilitate the learning process and oversee the students but without actually getting too involved, to try to let them figure it out by themselves or working in groups as well, that is another method, and to help them get the answer, to help with the steps in order for them to reach the conclusion on their own.”
Though some teachers argue that the Hejný method is more suitable for students with good visualisation, and may not be good for everyone, the number of its supporters is steadily increasing. Megan Fraley says the new method has helped her as well, forcing her to be more creative:
“It makes me try to learn more different techniques and different methods and to see what works and what doesn’t with the students. It is nice to work outside the normal bounds, to really think about what helps the students and to engage them more. It is more rewarding to see them work out problems on their own or in groups, so it’s really great.”
A Hejny maths textbook, which has been approved by the Ministry of Education, is now being translated into other languages, as several European countries have expressed interest in testing the method in practice.
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