International comparisons help us explore the assumptions made about U.S. schools, students, and pedagogy. That is why I decided to spend five months in the Czech Republic teaching science education courses at Palacky and Ostrava Universities and learning about the Czech education system. The new context challenged some of my notions about science education in the United States. The intent of this article is to raise questions to encourage discussion and analysis, not to advocate the superiority of any nation's education system or methods.
Why the Czech Republic?
The Czech science education system attracted my professional attention as a university science educator when the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were announced in 1995. (Editor's note: Later TIMMS assessments were renamed "Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.") Despite the political changes after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic outperformed the United States and most other European countries on the TIMSS tests. In addition to TIMSS, the Czechs also performed well on the 1999 TIMSS-Repeat (TIMSS-R) and the 2000 and 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessments administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Figure 1 (p. 66) summarizes some of the results from these studies. The Czechs have a history of performing well on various international science tests at several grade levels.
When I first entered a Czech science classroom, I immediately noticed the strict discipline and orientation of the entire class toward the teacher. Students faced the teacher, quietly paid attention, and answered questions when called upon. Every classroom I visited in a variety of Czech schools was uniform in orientation and tone.
Czechs describe their pedagogy as predominately teacher-centered and lacking in variety, but there are efforts to change this approach as evidenced by the following excerpt from Czech education researchers Jana Svecova and Jana Strakova:
Currently there is a greater focus on the integration of
topics from different science subjects. Independent and
creative work is stressed more. The laboratories in science
are more investigative in nature, moving away from a
'follow the cookbook' style. More emphasis is placed on
written and oral communication. Reasoning, as opposed
to mechanical memorization of facts, is stressed. There is
an effort to balance deductive and inductive approaches
in the curriculum (Svecova and Strakova 1997, p. 107).
Despite such efforts to change, my personal conversations with Czech educators and visits to schools indicate that the country's schools are still dominated by teacher-centered pedagogies with modest progress toward student-centered approaches. All lessons are 45 minutes in length and are very structured with a clear introduction at the beginning of the lesson. Czech teachers do a consistent job of summarizing the content at the end of the lesson, which marks a clear end to one lesson and transition to the next lesson. I have struggled with convincing U.S. preservice teachers of the value of strong lesson introductions and summaries.
Czech teachers incorporate a variety of memorization strategies in their lectures and devote a lot of class time to review. I observed one example of fourth-grade Czech students working together to complete matching puzzles that reviewed types of plants and animals while another group completed a worksheet identifying different types of trees using their textbook. An upper-secondary physics class spent approximately 10 minutes reviewing one type of problem for a future test. Students worked independently for several minutes before one student shared her solution on the blackboard. The teacher then summarized the solution using the student's work. …