A Hungarian Education: Reflections on a Fulbright Experience
by Gregory Deegan - May 30, 2007
This commentary is part of a special series of commentaries on teaching abroad. The authors discuss their experiences with a foreign school system. Gregory Deegan participated in a year-long exchange to Hungary as a Social Studies teacher.
In August 2004, my wife and I took our two young girls, aged 5 and 3, on an adventure on the Great Plain or puszta in southern Hungary. On so many levels, the experience encouraged me to rethink so many accepted practices and ideas that I attributed to being not only an American, but a teacher in the U.S. as well.
The school at which I taught in Szeged, Deak Ferenc Gimnazium, had been ranked for years as one of the top public schools in Csongrad County. The students who attended there were not only fluent in at least two languages, but they had to be accepted based on a number of criteria. It could be roughly compared to a magnet school in the U.S., because the Hungarian education system starts to track students early. That is, Deak students demonstrated early in their schooling around third grade a proclivity toward success in academics. Students who were not academically inclined were directed to specialty schools typically ones that focused on building a set of practical skills. American systems might call them vocational schools, and in fact not 25 feet away from Deak Ferenc was a food services school for teenagers. Thus, there were far fewer students at Deak who I would say were disengaged or uninterested in learning.
Gregory and his children outside Deak Ferenc Gimnazium in Szeged, Hungary.
The Cafe at Deak Ferenc Gimnazium where students ate snacks.
In the U.S., however, I teach at a smaller high-performing suburban public high school. In the school district, teachers must educate all students who live in the district no matter the students interests or abilities, and consequently students show a much wider range of academic skills than the students I taught in Hungary.
At the risk of sounding judgmental, in Hungary I came away thinking that the education at Deak Ferenc Gimnazium was old school. First, I was struck by the lack of modern technology. Every day, teachers could really only count on having chalk and a chalkboard. For some in the social studies department, large maps were only sometimes available. Numerous times I thought to myself - as I struggled to find adequate chalk, or passed around a book with some interesting photos, or resigned myself to not using the one VCR available for the 19 teachers in my department - that this must have been how teachers used to teach in the U.S. before modern technology became widespread.
Colleagues in the English Department.
At Deak Ferenc, classes (except for conversational language classes) were lecture-based. When teachers I spoke to discussed preparing lessons, they always spoke about reading their material to ensure they remembered the main ideas and details. I did not have a single conversation about pedagogy or ways to engage students with different approaches. In September, after a few weeks of lecture, I tried a geography lesson in which students applied some concepts. Then, in world history, I planned a debate about the legacies of ancient Mesopotamia. In both instances, the students were uncomfortable and asked me, What do you want us to say, Mr. Deegan? Their questions were telling: essentially they were communicating the fact that guided my educational experiences at Deak teachers had the information that the students needed in order to succeed at school, and students generally sought to crack the code.
In terms of pedagogical approaches, the experience in Szeged, Hungary revived for me some long-forgotten and crucial aspects of education. For the last few years, I have come to focus much of my teaching on encouraging students to think critically about concepts we have been studying. An important part of this approach means my lesson plans have had a steady diet of debates, independent projects based on inquiry, and much dialogue in class. The approach has been built on two fundamental ideas: that students should develop habits of inquiry and dialogue that are supported by structured process, and that students should practice critical thinking skills that force them to consider multiple perspectives. A crucial underlying guiding principle is that students, once they leave school, ought to practice effective citizenship and critical thinking so that democracy might be strengthened.
In Hungary, I was reminded of the importance of some basic information facts, some old-timers might call them as an intellectual scaffold upon which inquiry and deeper thinking might be effectively constructed. I remember lecturing my ninth graders about ancient Chinese dynasties. As I began to discuss Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Qin dynasty, one of my students, Szabolcs, raised his hand to inform the class that he knew a bit about him. Szabolcs rattled off some impressive information that I found shocking. Not only was his recall impressive, but the fact that other students were nodding affirmatively as he spoke suggested there were many others who knew much of this.
When did you learn this? I asked. He thought a minute, and then said, Fifth grade.
The great majority of my U.S. students would never have been able to do what he did. Most of my students often admit that they have a difficult time remembering information from a few units ago, much less from previous academic years. One particular experience in the U.S. illustrates the hesitancy or discomfort in forcing students to know basic recall. After having given a test on world geography to my ninth grade world history students a test that they essentially constructed based on class consensus regarding which countries of the world they ought to know about a parent confronted me when her child did poorly. The parent told me that education had changed, and that pure recall was no longer important because of the internet. Online, she asserted, anyone could find whatever information they wanted, and she said if she wanted to know where, for instance, Paris was, she could call her travel agent. Admittedly the womans view might be considered extreme, but her central premise does not seem so: that recall or regurgitation or the first level of Blooms taxonomy or whatever one might call it isnt needed because facts are at our fingertips. In my experiences in the U.S., the focus has been on what students do with information beyond acquiring and remembering it.
World History students.
Ultimately I came to the conclusion that both of my experiences in the U.S. and Hungary had many strengths and weaknesses. In the U.S., my students habitually debate, explore, ask questions, and balance their comments in discussions with others. But the reality is that often, they dont know what they are talking about very firmly. They can be frighteningly uninformed or misinformed. Sometimes their disregard of facts can be breathtaking. And, students often express the idea that because they have a right to their opinion, there cant be a right or a wrong opinion. So often I am left with students who have much to speak about, but unfortunately not much to say.
On the other hand, my students in Hungary were amazing at recalling information. In addition, numerous times they and their parents communicated to me that students were primarily responsible for their academic success. My Hungarian students often demonstrated far more responsibility and successful independent work habits than my U.S. students. However, the students at Deak did not seem to be in the practice of articulating their own thoughts, or considering multiple perspectives. They seemed profoundly uncomfortable. If I tried to spur a debate or a class conversation, it went nowhere. Was it because they didnt know how? Probably not, but it seemed that they were more interested in getting the answer.
Also, in the U.S., many activities and projects include components which evaluate students social skills. I do it as a way to encourage habits that promote democracy and community building. Sometimes the evaluations include positive group interaction. In debates, students are graded by other students on the ability of their peers to not dominate conversation and to pose questions to others.
When I informed my twelfth graders in Hungary that a part of the academic assignments in the U.S. often includes a participation evaluation, or an assessment of the ways in which students interact with one another, some students said, Are those things for school? Dont we learn that at home?
Perhaps. And sadly, perhaps not.
But when my family and I arrived home after our amazing year in Szeged, it did allow me to take a step back and fully grasp the two different educational experiences. As I re-acclimated myself to my old high school and the expectations of teachers, students, and parents, I found myself appreciating a broader perspective of education that incorporates a new admiration of the traditional and the contemporary.
A class lip-sync competition performance.