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Pupils do better when they take responsibility

Last year I attended one of the Worlds Apart Conferences in London to consider the Office for Standards in Education report of the same name. The evidence seemed to show that there were many nations in the world such as Taiwan, Japan and Hungary, which seemed to have more effective education, especially in mathematics and science.

I felt that from what I knew about the culture of Hungary it was likely to be close to our own, and yet the pupils in Hungary consistently outperformed our pupils. So I decided to find out more. With the help of the Central Bureau I was able to finance a trip to Arpad Vezer Gimnazium in Saraspatak in the east of the country.

It is a 500-pupil non-selective grammar school (in practice almost all the pupils who choose to go there are accepted). My school is an 11 to 16 mixed comprehensive with about 1,000 pupils. During my week in the Hungarian school I watched lessons in eight subjects.

It was fascinating to see the difference in approach compared with this country. Mathematics and science lessons involved a high degree of interactive teaching, beginning either with pupils reporting back on what they had learned in their last lesson or with pupils going over homework questions on the board.

In both cases their classmates aided the pupils if they got stuck. The teachers quite deliberately involved all pupils in the class. I spoke to pupils about these activities and they found them useful because they had to demonstrate what they knew.

Teachers in Hungary set a large amount of homework but, interestingly, mark very little of it. The homework is an intrinsic part of learning and so teachers almost always go over it in the following lesson and the pupils make corrections. This means that although teachers have no way of knowing who did the homework, at least all pupils are shown how to do it.

Often as part of the homework pupils are given responsibility for learning quite large chunks of work for themselves. Homework is rarely used for assessment. Instead pupils have frequent tests set by the teacher.The frequent use of testing seemed very effective as an aid to learning.

Observing pupils work in Hungary compared with Britain, you cannot fail to notice how much less they write down. They are rarely given notes by the teacher and are expected to make their own if they need them. They have textbooks but these are very dry.

Seeing how effectively these methods work made me wonder whether in the UK we do so much for our pupils that we can sometimes de-skill them. In Hungary pupils are given far more responsibility for their own learning. By contrast in English schools we seem to be doing more and more for pupils in order to try to ensure they succeed. My fear is that we may not produce independent learners, which should surely be our real aim.

John Samuels is headteacher at Noadswood School, Southampton If you have a strong opinion on a curriculum subject, write to Brendan O'Malley, Secondary Editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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