No grades or oral exams, mixed age groups, combining several subjects together and tandem teaching, during which two teachers take part in the lesson. The number of Czech schools interested in changing traditional methods of education is increasing. One of them is the Be Open Elementary School in Prague, located in the castle in Dolní Počernice.
It’s half past eight on Monday morning and classes are starting at school. Instead of sitting in rows of desks, however, twenty students first sit in a circle. The classes here are not very similar to those in regular elementary schools. They are smaller in size and the tables where the children sit are turned towards each other so that they can constantly work together during the lesson. The room also includes a rest zone where children spend their breaks. On the walls hang pictures, artistic works of pupils and teaching materials.
After the weekend, the children talk about their experiences, especially from the past two days. A student from the second grade describes to her classmates how she celebrated her birthday. Others are listening. However, if they want, they can contribute to the discussion in any way. Children pass the word to each other without jumping into each other’s speech. Subsequently, they discuss with the teacher what awaits them and set goals for the coming days.
Children pass the word to each other without jumping into each other’s speech. | Photo: Jakub Plíhal
A ninety-minute block follows. They don’t have regular Czech or science classes here. Instead, so-called integrated teaching takes place, during which one topic is discussed, but from several sides. In the subject world in context, which includes natural and technical sciences, they practice, for example, biology and chemistry at the same time. At the second level, teaching is then divided into humanities and natural science seminars.
In the first class, which is attended by nine pupils, today they are studying reptiles. Their teaching takes place at several stations spread throughout the classroom. It starts in a circle on the ground, where the children complete a crossword puzzle with a secret that tells them what topic they will be dealing with today. Subsequently, they move to the benches, arranged in a U shape, so that everyone can see each other. In the middle stands the teacher, who first asks the children what they know about reptiles so that they have the opportunity to contribute their knowledge. “I know he’s crawling,” one of the boys shouts.
When the school first opened in 2017, it had 60 pupils. After five years, there are 87 of them. Due to the individual approach and the relatively small building, school director Marek Adler knows all the children by name. “I’m able to match parents with students. Sometimes we know too much about children. We know their stories and problems, and sometimes it’s hard to find the line to separate emotions from authority,” says Adler.
Teaching with older classmates
There are approximately ten students in one class. Except for first-graders, who have their own class, the two age categories are always combined. Children from the second grade learn with their classmates from the third grade. The older ones help the younger ones, thereby practicing the subject matter themselves, while the younger ones motivate what their older classmates already know.
According to Miroslav Hřebecký, program director of the public benefit organization EDUin, age-mixed groups work. “Elders learn to take responsibility and are role models. Of course, the younger ones can also pick up something inappropriate from them, such as swearing, but this would probably happen outside of school as well. Younger people may be more willing to learn from their role models than from the teacher,” says Hřebecký.
Another rarity is tickling, which is widely used at school. “Hello Mark,” the students greet the principal with a smile as they pass him in the hallway. Cantors are then called guides. “It reminds us that, as educators, we guide children through learning and are not just a walking encyclopedia that transmits knowledge. We try to help students find their own path,” comments the school’s founder Iva Quittnerová.
“Sometimes we know too much about children. We know their stories and problems, and sometimes it’s hard to find the line to separate emotions from authority,” says director Marek Adler. | Photo: Jakub Plíhal
At half past eleven, the first learning block ends and the daily mile begins, which is a mandatory thirty-minute break in the fresh air. A noise begins to reverberate around the school grounds. You can also hear the piano being played, which the students can only play during the allotted time, so there is a lot of interest in it during the break. The locker room area fills up with children rushing out to enjoy the break as much as possible. Today is sunny, but people go out even in bad weather.
The school itself is located in the Hostavice castle, around which there is a park. It is in it that children walk, play ball games or sit on benches during the break. Groups of students gather around the fenced field where football is played. Some cheer, others actively participate. Anyone can join, regardless of age. After thirty minutes, the pupils automatically withdraw back to school. According to the director, there is no need to call them. “Most people are already able to tell when it’s time to get back to learning,” says Adler.
They teach in pairs and without tests and grades
In order to make education as intensive as possible, tandem teaching is practiced at the school. Each class thus has two class teachers. Both participate in the lessons and in the planning of the lessons, although each time to a different extent. Andrea Orgovánová, who teaches mathematics, explains that she alternates with a colleague in who is currently leading the lesson. According to her, the children benefit from alternating the voices and approaches of both teachers.
But it is said to be beneficial for them as well. “We always try to give the other person a word, at least for a little while, to ask for their point of view. Often a colleague notices something that I myself overlooked or didn’t think was important,” says Orgovánová.
Pair teaching appeared in the Czech Republic for the first time in 2010, at Kunratice Primary School and Mendelova Primary School in Karviná. According to Hřebecký from EDUin, the tandem leads to greater individualization and, above all, offers two different positions on the same thing. “This method of teaching is more expensive and more demanding in terms of organization, but with the right concept, it teaches students that there can be different perspectives on the matter, which is natural,” comments Hřebecký.
The school at the castle in Dolní Počernice is also different in that no tests are written here. Instead, they present so-called evidence of learning. These are presentations, seminar papers or personal portfolios. The student receives feedback on them, thanks to which he finds out where he still has reserves.
Tests are not written at the school at the castle in Dolní Počernice. | Photo: Jakub Plíhal
“Tests are not a dirty word here, in any case, we call it verification so as not to stress anyone unnecessarily. Each student focuses on progress. He sets a goal and then maps how he succeeds in achieving it. The fact that he makes mistakes while doing so is absolutely okay and human,” says Quittner, adding that children are interested in testing themselves because they want to know how they are doing.
The children do not even get grades, but the teachers evaluate them verbally. This is something that could soon be common in all schools. From September 2025, the Ministry plans to introduce a test verbal assessment for all pupils in the first to third grades. However, according to the February STEM/MARK survey, the majority of Czechs do not agree with the proposal. 53 percent do not want to cancel grades.
Pupils empathize with the role of drug addict Katka
Lunch starts a little before twelve. The school cafeteria is small, so everyone has to take turns in it. Even teachers who do not have offices or meeting rooms spend time outside of classes here. The cantors are not separated from the children in any way, so there is no room in the school that the pupils do not have access to. This also carries with it the name of the school Be Open, i.e. to be open.
In the afternoon block, there is a humanities seminar in the eighth and ninth grades. The children watch the documentary Katka by Helena Třeštíková, which depicts the protagonist’s struggle with drug addiction. Subsequently, he tries to look at Katča’s story through the eyes of various characters, such as a social worker, her friend or a doctor. The students have the task of empathizing with Katka and writing a letter to one of the listed characters.
Classes in the first grade end at two o’clock, the second grade is an hour longer today. Children rarely take their homework home. The management philosophy is to motivate the pupils so that they do all the work at school and do not have to spend time at home. “We try as much as possible to set aside time for the children to complete extra work during lessons, but it happens that, for example, as part of practicing a subject, they have to spend the afternoon studying,” says the founder.
However, Be Open private school is not for everyone, tuition is 145 thousand crowns per year. The management is considering the possibility of receiving a scholarship, but no student has received it so far. The vision is to open a secondary school as well, where the children could follow up smoothly. Now, only a Montessori kindergarten with a capacity of around twenty children is part of the institution. There are 163 schools and nurseries with Montessori teaching in the Czech Republic, which use special methods aimed at supporting the child in developing his knowledge and skills.
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