Jiří Votava Jiří Votava
Wednesday, 11 March 2020
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Global education in universities - interview with Jiří Votava

In the project of Get up And Goals!, ADRA Czech republic is taking the global education into universities, talking about global topics with future teachers – students of pedagogy. This has to come through university professors, who are key actors for us. One of them is Jiří Votava, whom we have interviewed not only about how it is to do global education with university students, but also a short personal history of how he got to teaching and what are his motivations and difficulties as a university teacher. We hope this will give some insights for those who wish to see how it is to promote new approaches in teaching and learning in Czech schools.

Jiří, how did you get into pedagogy?

It’s a long story. I don’t know where to start. First of all, I was a member of the Boy Scouts and that’s where I gained my first experience of activities with children. Then in secondary school, when I was wondering where to go to university, there was the revolution, and so many people suddenly realized that they could study something other than maths, physics or computer science. So I decided to study the humanities. My original intention was definitely not to go to the Faculty of Education and follow traditional teacher training, so I applied for single-major pedagogy at the Faculty of Arts. At the same time, I focused on areas that were not purely connected to teaching – I got to teaching later. Although in the end, I studied at the Faculty of Arts and at the Faculty of Education at the same time, I didn’t finish the latter studies because there was a military atmosphere that prevailed there. I also had a feeling that I wanted to work with people and do things creatively, a little differently from the traditional pedagogic way. Another major thing was that in the first half of the ’nineties I was approached by people who were really interesting and inspiring in that period – for example, Professor Karel Rýdl, who brought a lot of ideas from the field of alternative pedagogical approaches from abroad and supported the establishment of alternative schools.

If you look back, do you think you managed to do things differently, as you wanted to?

To some extent yes, and to some extent no. What a person does at university is one thing and what can be done in reality is another. I have no ambition to make reforms at the level of the whole education system, and, of course, what I do comes up against certain established stereotypes, and always will do. Even when I teach, I see that if I talk about innovative pedagogical approaches, for 95% of teachers it’s something that they consider to be too bold or experimental. This doesn’t mean that I don’t try and that I’m not aware of changes and progress at the level of the Czech education system. I mostly work with secondary vocational schools, which are relatively rigid and have their own established ideas about how to teach, and so far this hasn’t changed much. It’s hard to say how much of what I teach will be reflected in the teaching practice of students. But there are certainly teachers who try to do things differently, not necessarily at the school level, but at the level of their subject – whether it is activating methods or collaborating in schools. In the second case, communication and creativity have developed incredibly, for example, when languages and vocational subjects are interconnected. The foreign language teacher could be progressive and have some ideas, and a colleague who went to evaluate how the teacher is teaching saw how the person teaches and how it all works and things which we tried somewhere else began to develop there. I’m not saying that it’s 100% sustainable but the changes happen mostly through a particular teacher who is trying to improve something. I don’t see progress from the side of the administration at the level of secondary vocational schools, as the head teachers are usually oriented towards existential questions such as how to obtain money, how to fix the roof, and what field to offer, so that the children apply. On the other hand, in primary schools the situation is different; the administration is more innovative.

What is your career orientation?

I teach didactics, pedagogy and social pedagogy. Recently, I’ve been interested in two main areas: didactics – methods, ideas about how to teach – and the second area is social pedagogy, where I deal with topics within the area of searching and communication in the area of problematic topics such as social integration, how to fight against prejudice, how to teach narrative methods for solving problems... it is on the border between philosophy and pedagogy and the social sphere. I work with teachers, regarding didactic skills, so I try to develop their know-how on how to work with a class, and I also give them information regarding the social area, how to work in class with certain sensitive social topics. Or how to solve social conflicts in the classroom. Or how to talk about topics at school that are socially sensitive or problematic.

What do you like most about your job and what motivates you?

Generally, I like teaching. Sometimes something goes wrong and half the lesson is great and half of it is horrible, but no matter how tired one is, it keeps me going and I think I experience some things in a different way, but it’s not rationalised. I like the fact that it’s flexible. If I taught at a school, maybe I wouldn’t have as much freedom. Working as a teacher at a university gives me more freedom, at least as I understand it. Even primary school teachers are free with regard to how they teach. They have curricula but how they should teach is not written in them – that’s the freedom. This means that practically every topic can be done differently every time; I can look for other things that could be used. That’s the creativity that one either has or hasn’t got. I’m trying it, maybe I’m doing it completely wrong, but that’s the process of trying to figure it out. Thinking about it and finding new ways.

What is the hardest part of it?

My work is very hectic. I enjoy teaching, but I teach more than I should and I have a lot of other responsibilities which I don’t have time to focus on, so it means overwork. But I don’t think I can complain about that. Some people work more or do things that are unnecessary, such as some administrative activity, which I don’t need to do as much, but, on the other hand, I don’t publish at all because I don’t have the time. So these are the things that one could theoretically do more but one doesn’t do them because there’s simply no time for that. I had a vision that I would work more in a team, maybe partly because the people around me aren’t really team players, partly because there’s no capacity, so we can’t really make it happen.

Three years ago, my colleague and I went to Norway, where we have a good partner organisation. There are also people like the two of us who also do teacher education for secondary vocational schools. These people have a symbiotic relationship and work as a mini-team. They teach together, even though it means that they teach more. They collect materials and don’t feel as if they have to hide something from other people; they are very open-minded. That was the vision I thought I would try to fulfil. I couldn’t manage that with my colleagues, although there are people who are very professional and friendly, but individual work is lot more common there. They won’t share their know-how with anyone, and inviting someone to evaluate the teacher and see how they teach is a problem. Everyone has their own space and there is no creative cooperation.

I can see a little bit of Czech thinking in that – one is afraid that when someone is in one’s class, it automatically means getting an evaluation and the teacher could be unsuccessful. This is absurd, because it’s during the time when we lecture together, when we know each other and we can get feedback, that we can tell one another what we could do and what we shouldn’t have done.

We do courses of university pedagogy for people from the university... I understand the worst kind of teaching is the sort you have to do in front of people who are your colleagues. It’s a different feeling from teaching children in primary school. When somebody has to teach someone who’s on the same level, it’s much more demanding – unless one builds up one’s confidence and loses the sense of threat. But it’s actually cooperation.

Do you think that global education is important?

The philosophy is important in the sense that neither the individual nor the school is completely isolated. We have a tendency to perceive things subjectively and ethnocentrically. So it’s not bad to put things into a wider context. It’s also great because it makes it possible to integrate teaching into a context. What I would like is the interconnection of social and environmental-technical topics. To show schools that are primarily focused on technical or biological subjects how to use global education in technical subjects. People who do something in the area of management should also bear in mind that it has an impact on specific people.

I think that nowadays, global teaching takes place at different levels, but it’s still not enough. So within the scope of teacher training, it makes sense for teachers to be able to integrate it. Not only to focus on your own things, don’t just do your technical thing, how to drive a combine in a field or how to make various plans as an agronomist, but to see the context.  So they have some kind of social conscience and are able to see the impact of all of those things. When we were finishing one project in Bulgaria, the Austrian team did an amazing presentation of a topic regarding the feed for farm animals with reference to the cultivation and import of soy, including the risks involved. The whole thing was interconnected, that it’s not just an economic problem or purely a problem of how to provide proteins for production and nutrition, but that these things also have a social component, such as the attitudes and opinions of the public, communication with the public or agricultural policy. Politics is always a social matter, so if someone wants to promote changes in agriculture, they must promote them politically. These are things that are all related.

How do students react to it? Are you observing any changes?

The style of each teacher fits a certain type of student. There are different groups even among teachers; some are very sceptical about innovative approaches, so it cannot be said across the board. A sceptical teacher who has had 15 years of experience comes to us to complete his education; he’s sarcastic and looks ironically at how things can be done in an innovative way. He says: “You know, I would like to send you to our school. You tell us the theory here and it would not work in practice.” Others are uncritically enthusiastic. When I have a lecture on innovative approaches, within a week, students bury their heads in books about alternative pedagogy and slowly move their children to alternative schools. It differs. But being in the middle of it is the best. In lectures on alternative approaches I say that I’m not a supporter of alternatives, nor that I reject traditional education. I’m not an advocate or visionary. I’m not an explicit innovator, but students hear a lot of things from me that they could look at differently. And it’s hard to say how the students take it. I say to teachers who go on teaching practice without previous experience – try to do group work or cooperative activities in the classroom. But be prepared for the school to push you to teach in the traditional way in front of the class and not give you any cooperation. Which happens. When I see a student doing teaching practice, they usually stand in front of the class the whole time and in a better scenario they have a PowerPoint presentation. And that’s it.

Some are able to put what I teach them into practice. The problem is when someone does their practice in a strange school for a short period of time and they are not allowed to do anything. Another thing is when someone who teaches has children of their own. If they are motivated and able to think creatively about pedagogy, they are able to develop. 

How do you integrate global topics into your teaching?

In pedagogy, I talk about how to use inter-subject and interdisciplinary relationships or those overlaps towards global topics. I use different activities; some are my own, some are taken from different sources that are commonly available. They address issues such as the situation in other countries, human rights or the opportunities for people who depend on other people in a different social position. I explicitly refer to those overlaps, that education is not an isolated matter. Generally, when one learns something, one should learn it in context, including the social aspect. When I have specific activities in social pedagogy which are related to, for example, prejudice, or some topical issues, such as poverty, it becomes clear that one doesn’t have to deal just with poverty in the Czech Republic, but that there are important connections and basic information about the topic from a global perspective.

The ability to think critically or a general interest in cognition is extremely important. Teaching is often based on findings that have already been made and these are used. I try to do it in such a way that things have to be examined and often they aren’t just black and white or what the teacher says. So that even teachers could question things, which is what good teachers do. They don’t only present information but they can also ask questions. I want them to ask more questions when teaching. But that will take a while. To be able to ask comprehensibly and meaningfully. So that things develop.

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 June 2020 13:42