Katalin Miklóssy: “Good teachers evoke emotions”

Students who question their teachers are not a threat, but help everyone learn, believes Katalin Miklóssy, a specialist of pedagogy in the social sciences.

Some people hate groupwork, others despise examinations. Others still are already familiar with half of the content of a course and thus unable to get excited about anything.

“If you use the same approach for all students, courses will inevitably become chores for some,” says University Lecturer Katalin Miklóssy.

Miklóssy is a scholar of the political history of Eastern Europe who teaches students of East Central European, Balkan and Baltic Studies, as well as in the Helsinki Summer School and the Master’s Programme in Society and Change (in Finnish). Typically, her topics involve questions related to the rule of law, political history and political systemic change.

Miklóssy has taught at the University of Helsinki since 1998, and she has completed all available courses in university pedagogy over the years.

Thanks to these studies she is proficient in various methods, and able to apply and combine them.

“To me, university pedagogy was a religious awakening and first love all in one. From the very first course, I’ve without hesitation trialled what I’ve learnt in my courses to see what works in teaching political history.”

Debate is an excellent teaching tool

In the social sciences, topics are often complex and sensitive, requiring flexible teaching methods to enable the examination of political developments from different perspectives.

This is why many of the methods used in the educational sciences are not suitable as such, for example, for classes on political history. With the right kind of application, however, they may work.

Debate is one of the methods Miklóssy has adopted to her pedagogical needs, making use of it when her courses discuss conflicts.

Traditional debates usually have two opposing views, but in Miklóssy’s class there are several in play at the same time. She divides her students into small groups which familiarise themselves with the different aspects of the conflict in question over a few weeks.

The students acquire their information sources independently according to the assigned perspective to prepare arguments for debate in class.

“I don’t give ready-made sources to students, as that would influence their opinions. Instead, they have to look for reliable information by themselves.”

This way, debating teaches students not only about events and related parties but also about using sources of information.

“The groups help to represent many more perspectives on a conflict than I would be able to offer on my own.”

There is also another reason for debate being such an effective learning method.

“The teaching methods that work in one way or another speak to people’s sensibilities and evoke intense responses. Debating is emotional, which is why students will remember the things they learn for a long time.”

Different students, different ways of learning

In addition to different topics, the choice of method is influenced by the students, who all come from different cultural backgrounds.

“Even the citizens of the same country are not a homogenous group; rather, they have a range of experiences, worldviews and ways of learning.”

At the beginning of a course, the teacher cannot know how new students will respond to the methods chosen.

It may well be that the teaching method suits most students, but then there is that one student who, for example, gets so anxious about performing that they start to consider dropping the course.

For these students, Miklóssy develops an alternative method of completion. In debates, she may offer the student the role of a referee or observer.

“I feel that it’s my duty to very quickly notice when there are breaks in communication between teacher and student."

Miklóssy believes that studying will only be motivating when it is fun, although that is not to say it should not be demanding.

“If you’re there only for the credits, you get nothing new from the course. Nothing taught on the course will stick.”

Miklóssy also keeps herself up to date with the teaching methods and content used in comprehensive schools and upper secondary schools to be familiar with the kind of education young Finnish adults are used to.

“If the methods change altogether when they start university, adapting to studying will be difficult.”

Students are constantly becoming smarter

What fascinates Miklóssy in teaching is the challenge.

“Teaching is the constant containment of terror. Students are becoming increasingly brilliant, and their general knowledge is extensive. That puts you on the spot as a teacher, which I enjoy.”

A while ago Miklóssy mentioned on her course as an aside a detail which was seized on by one of the students. “That’s not how it is,” said a voice in the audience.

“The student had written an essay on the topic, focusing on this small detail that I didn’t remember to check, since it really wasn’t relevant to the actual topic of the lecture.”

Another teacher might have felt humiliated in that situation, but Miklóssy was pleased. She admitted to being wrong and let the student explain how it really was.

“I was all like ‘wow’. I love that students are knowledgeable and that they can act as sources of information and promoters of the public good.”

According to Miklóssy, students’ expertise dispels some of the teacher's authority, something she considers positive, as that helps everyone learn and develop their knowledge. 

“Some people specialise in certain things, and that’s a good thing. Having students challenge my views also keeps me current and competent as a researcher.”