Monthly Archives: October 2013

What is important for success: building vs enthusiasm

building-vs-enthusiasm Last time we quoted a report from BBC. This time we shall give our personal perspective on a report by Sky News: Wales School To Help World’s Poorest Children.

Students can learn under a highway

The Sky News report shows a class in India of about 80 primary school pupils who are sitting on the ground under a highway bridge and without walls. Other pupils from a very different primary school in Wales were so impressed that they started a campaign to collect donations across entire Wales for the Indian school.

Some students may struggle without a building

About 2-3 years ago there were a lot of stories about cancelled building projects for schools because of austerity measures. Namely, the BSF programme (Building Schools for the Future) was cut. We are actually wondering if future schools will need any buildings at all.

Other students may learn without sunlight

We know one Physical-Mathematical school in a 1-million city somewhere near the geographic border between Europe and Asia that didn’t have any building in their first year of existence.

This school was set up like the so-called “free schools” in the UK. However, there was the essential difference: new students were accepted only through proper written exams in mathematics and physics, while the free UK schools are “free from” (can not use) any academic barriers.

As it often happens, the building wasn’t ready for a new academic year and the teachers rented a few rooms in a nearby ordinary school so that a half of students had to start their lessons in the afternoon in the so-called second shift. The most advanced class of only 10 students was lucky due to the small size and always occupied a room of about 2.5 by 5 metres with a window. Only 6 double tables were crammed into this “classroom”, which was also a through-passage to another room regularly used by the host school teachers right in the middle of lessons.

Developing resilience is a key to success

Four of these 10 students gained prizes in the regional olympiads in mathematics and physics (population size about 3 million as in Wales). Later 2 students received 3rd diplomas in the final stages of the national Maths Olympiad and the Soros Maths Olympiad (sponsored by George Soros) in the country whose population is twice the UK size. From this class of 10, one former student is now a mathematician in the UK, another one is a physicist in the US, one more is a software engineer in Microsoft headquarters and at least 3 more are computer programmers.

Other larger classes were less lucky and were put in a basement without windows. If you think that teaching in a basement contradicts health and safety regulations, we could say that the words like “regulations” and “policy” may mean corruption and bribes in many countries outside Europe and North America. Namely, if bureaucrats come to check health and safety, they come simply for money, not even for ticking boxes let alone health and safety.

Once after school lessons, the oldest students (yes boys, not girls) were asked to help lift bricks to the upper floor of their new school under construction, simply because there were too few available builders who couldn’t cope. So nobody cared about health and safety when future PhDs worked for free with bare hands. This experience was actually very positive, the boys really enjoyed “building” their school, though the building was finished only after their graduation.

Enthusiastic teachers can make a difference!

The Sky News report about the Indian school without walls correctly highlighted the enthusiastic teacher who manages to teach the class of 80 students. The Physical-Mathematical school we mentioned above also had enthusiastic teachers who simply moved from another “Physical-Mathematical” school where the head teacher used all extra money (given to specialised schools) for teaching economics, not maths.

You might think that these extra money could have been spent for science visits or for inviting maths experts or for running olympiads and outreach activities? No! The money were used simply for feeding the class of 10 students who won all possible maths olympiads up to the regional level and sometimes higher.

The current so-called “austerity times” in the UK have nothing common with a real collapse of a failed state. Here is a quote from a famous mathematician who escaped to Paris at that time: “French mathematicians work to eat well, Russian mathematicians eat to work well”. It was a really happy time when the class was fed twice during the day and went home ready for doing more maths without thinking about food at least until late evening.

Only 15 years later the same school teachers and their new students had more time and money for proper teaching and learning, not only for feeding students. Indeed, the students from this “far away school in the middle of nowhere” excelled at a much higher level having won

  • two gold medals at the International Physics Olympiads
  • two silver medals at the all-Chinese Maths Olympiad
  • a silver medal at the International Biology Olympiad
  • a gold medal at the International Junior Science Olympiad.

As a final remark about real-life challenges, here is the announcement at the school website from December 2012: “the olympiad training of the city team on Saturday is cancelled because of a water cut in the school”. Health and safety? However, the enthusiasm always wins!

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