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Knotek’s Fulbright experience in Croatia sparks learning moments

Steve Knotek
Steve Knotek​

During his three months working as a Fulbright Specialist, Steve Knotek learned a few things about Croatia’s elementary school system.

The quality of Croatian preschool is very high, with all preschool instructors having college degrees. Preschool instruction focuses on social learnings, with play and group activities making up most of the day, with academic work waiting until kindergarten.

Elementary school teachers “loop” with their children, meaning that starting in first grade teachers stay with the same group of students all the way through fourth grade.

It adds up to a very effective elementary school system, Knotek said, one that contributes to Croatia having a high literacy rate and a population well-prepared for ongoing learning.

“They have these really strong learning communities in first through fourth grade where the teachers really get to know the kids,” Knotek said. “It’s the art as much as it is the science. And they try to form these really supportive communities so the kids really get support.”

But the teachers also learned some things from Knotek.

Assessing the need for assessments

Knotek is an associate professor of school psychology and learning sciences at the School of Education. He is an experienced psychologist and has performed extensive research in prevention and early intervention practices.

Knotek’s project in Croatia was intended to examine whether more structured assessments of student progress could help teachers identify students who may need additional help.

As many educators know, “summative” assessments, such as tests given at the end of instruction on a body of knowledge, measures only what has happened in the past. For teachers to gauge how their students are learning now, ongoing “formative” assessments provide better information – data that can be used by teachers to adjust their teaching to help students who may be struggling.

“About 90 percent of kids will do fine most of the time if they have high-quality instruction and high-quality curriculum and you follow up with things that we know work with kids,” Knotek said.

But, typically, Knotek said, about 10 percent of students struggle.

“And you don’t know who those kids are until they are actually failing,” he said.

That’s where formative assessments – such as the “Response to Instruction” model – come in, Knotek said.

Response to Instruction – also referred to as RtI – provides a set of screening tools that can help teachers identify students who are struggling with material.

“The idea is to do some quick, simple screens several times a year to find out which kids are doing well and which kids aren’t,” Knotek said. “Then you can dig a little deeper with the kids who aren’t doing well before they actually fail, and you can adjust your curriculum accordingly.”

An ‘a-ha!’ moment

Did the Croatian teachers feel they needed such a system?

Knotek said at first they did not. Because teachers loop with their children for four years, they get to know their students very well. How do they know who needs extra help?

“I asked what kind of assessments they use and they said ‘We don’t use assessments. We just know.’”

Knotek said he realized in talking with the teachers in focus groups that the schools have established effective protective and supportive factors for students.

“They don’t have the kind of dropout and disengagement issues that we have. The kids do struggle and they may or may not be about to deal with them in ways that are as effective as they would like,” he said. “But they do identify these kids through this art of instruction and through this really supportive environment that they’ve set up.”

After a series of conversations, the light bulbs started flickering on.

“What they don’t have are the formative assessments to do day-to-day decision-making to target the 10 percent or so of kids who actually need more support,” he said. “There was an “A-ha!” moment were we all realized that we really can use this.

“Then they got really excited about this. They said, ‘We can use this. We do have kids who fail.’”

Going from here

During his term as a Fulbright Specialist, Knotek worked with 40 teachers and 40 pre-service teachers at the University of Rijeka in Rijeka, Croatia. He also presented at a conference and met with other educators, including medical school faculty, discussing educational concepts such as implementation science and how they might be implemented in Croatian educators’ practices.

There’s more to be done.

“This isn’t just a one-and-done kind of thing,” he said. “We know from our professional development and adult learning research that you don’t come in, just do your magic show and impart your knowledge and leave. People just don’t retain that.”

Knotek said he and his colleagues at the University of Rijeka are seeking to develop some RtI assessments that can be used in the Croatian context.

“We are going to devise those from the Croatian perspective this year and try some screeners and use that data to do some interventions with just a few kids in a few classes in preschool,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have good outcomes with that and we’ll take those results and apply for funding to do an intervention development grant.”

Knotek said he is hopeful that the work can lead to a set of formative assessments that can be implemented across Croatia and eventually through other Central European countries.

“Like here, there are some folks who are really excited and are early adopters of new things,” Knotek said. “But, you don’t just come in and drop something at the front door and say you’re all done. This is a thing that we are jointly creating together.”

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By Michael Hobbs