A gymnasium in Rumšiškės village has the same goal as many rural schools faced with depopulation in Lithuania – to survive. It made a bold decision to implement unorthodox measures, and so far the results have been encouraging.
In one of the sweeping moves, a ‘rainbow’ primary school curriculum at the Antanas Baranauskas Gymnasium breaks from the traditional subject structure and instead explores a single topic from various different angles. For instance, students learn maths by studying and calculating how to build a house.
“We have one textbook and one exercise book per month,” says primary school teacher Daiva Vaičiulionienė. “All exercises are built around one topic. We study the math part, but also solve verbal exercises [and] read essays about the same topic.”
Unlike many rural schools, the gymnasium in Kaišiadorys District performs on a par with those in the big cities and was ranked 58th best school in the country’s education ratings magazine, Reitingai.
Artūras Čepulis, the headmaster, says the success is down to the entire community’s effort and focus on every individual student.
The gymnasium is near Lithuania’s second largest city Kaunas and has to compete for students who are tempted to transfer to a school in the city. “We have strong competition and had to consider what we could offer [to motivated students] here so they didn't have to go to Kaunas,” Čepulis says.
Dividing students by ability
And the school did find things it could do. One was external differentiation: starting with year nine, the students were divided into two categories, those performing better academically and the rest. In most other schools, students get to pick which subjects to study at a higher level, depending on the graduation exams they want to take, only in year eleven.
Gymnasium students say the new system allowed them to achieve better results and interact more with kids from other classes, make new friends.
“There's much less distraction in the classroom, since you have students who are more focused. There are also opportunities to meet kids from another class,” says Vita Marija Jucevičiūtė, a year ten student.
It can be challenging, too, says another student, Povilas Degys, who is currently in year eleven. “Studying is a little more difficult, so the results get slightly worse, but still good,” he says, noting that students in the stronger group may get lower marks, but will still learn more.
Criticism from experts
Dividing students by ability seems to have worked at the Antanas Baranauskas Gymnasium, but education experts note that the method may not be suitable for all schools.
“In view of the current focus on inclusive education, external differentiation is an odd approach,” says Vaiva Juškienė, the dean of Education Faculty at Vilnius College. “On the other hand, if every kid is considered and the method works for the school, then it's fine.”
Lithuania's northern neighbour Estonia exceeded many European countries in last year's international student assessment (PISA) test, precisely because it focused on underperforming students, says Nerijus Mačiulis, a chief economist at Swedbank.
“In Estonia, they give more attention to weaker students who study in the same classroom with the ones who perform better,” he says. “This environment, being together with motivated students who can lend a hand to their more struggling peers, is what pulls them up.”
“Estonia has the lowest share of students who fail to achieve the minimum aptitude requirements, only 3 percent, while in Lithuania the figure is 12 percent,” according to Mačiulis.
Having tea with a teacher
The Antanas Baranauskas Gymnasium also works on developing a network of personal tutors who may be assigned to students from year five to year ten.
“[The tutor] is not their direct teacher, but simply a friend with whom they can have tea, discuss problems, talk about relations with school mates, with teachers, personal difficulties,” explains Laimutė Juškienė, a primary school teacher.
At the moment, 42 pupils, or about one tenth of the student body, have such tutors.
Moreover, teachers regularly hold round-table discussions, sharing insights about students' behaviour in classes, monitoring their motivation. This helps to build a group profile and work out recommendations for further action.
“It doesn't work with everyone, of course. Sometimes, we need to seek out those kids. There are teenage anxieties, the kids can be reclusive and it's very difficult to make them open up,” Laimutė Juškienė adds.
Experts say that each school may find different methods that work, but the important thing is to monitor students' progress and achievements. At the Antanas Baranauskas Gymnasium, the performance of students in year six has improved consistently from year four.
Meanwhile, the year eight students have had mixed results, with only the reading skills having improved consistently over the last two years. Graduation exam results from the last four years have been quite similar.
“I think that the strength of this school is achieving results by considering and getting to know their students,” says Vaiva Juškienė, the education expert at Vilnius College. “And this is the essential first step towards any change at school: hearing every child, knowing them.”