Global Excellence – interview with the Belgrade Mathematical Grammar School’s principal Mirjana Katić

interview by Biagio Carrano

The Belgrade Mathematical Grammar School is the flagship of the Serbian education system. Officially founded in 1967 to offer higher education to particularly gifted adolescents in the fields of mathematics, physics and, later, computer science, this educational institution has gone through the years of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, wars, NATO bombing of the capital and cuts in public education in a severely impoverished country, always managing to maintain very high standards, so much so that today it ranks first in the world in the number of medals (over 400) won by its students at the Science Olympic Games. We spoke with its head teacher, Mirjana Katić, about the role that education should play in society and the challenges that a small and ambitious country like Serbia faces in not dispersing its main resource, its top brain power, to the world.

Professor Katić, the Mathematical Grammar School was established in the 1960s, in contrast to the accusations of people who saw it as a project that promoted elitism in the educational system, which conflicted with socialist equality back then. How did the attitude towards the Mathematical Grammar School develop in Serbian society?

Social changes in Serbia have also led to a change in attitudes towards education.

Our school’s successes exceeded all the expectations of even the biggest enthusiasts and our founders, but also critics of the idea of forming such a school. Being recognized for its uniqueness on the educational map of the world is a real feat. After 57 years of existence, we have been recognized as a beacon of true values, exceptional students and employees, brave and innovative. To put it bluntly, we now even have fans and people who follow our successes even though they have no direct links with the school, and this is what makes everything meaningful.

They know who Teodor, Jelena, Dobrica, Luka or Mateja are, what global awards they have won, whether they play folklore or play the piano. They cheer for them and recognize their characters.

We strive to be an “open school”, to help every talented child in Serbia who is not our student who comes to us for additional classes, to prepare them for competitions or to listen to lectures by top experts. We aim to help every exceptional student in Serbia.

In 1946, a group of university professors and scientists from Belgrade initiated the idea to form the Mathematical Grammar School. Several eminent institutions and societies have had a particularly important role in this initiative, including The Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Belgrade, The Society of Serbian Mathematicians, Physicists and Astronomers and The Belgrade Centre for Education and Pedagogy.

The main founder was Professor Dr Vojin Dajović, a member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and a professor at the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Belgrade. The underlying model for the Mathematical Grammar School was a school founded a year earlier in Moscow, by one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century – Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov.

Since its foundation, the Mathematical Grammar School has received an impressive number of awards and prizes. A number of them were rewarded to the school as an institution, but many more were won by the students and teachers. We have established international cooperation with several schools of a similar orientation across Europe, including the Kolmogorov School from Moscow in Russia, Malmo Borgarskola Grammar School from Malmo in Sweden and the Fazekas Grammar School from Budapest in Hungary, Serbian Gymnasium LOGA High School in Timisoara, Romania Bezigrad Grammar School in Ljubljana, Agros Apeitio Gymnasium, Cyprus Ministry of Education of the Republic of Angola, Beijing Municipal Education Commission, and many others.  

You are in daily contact with gifted students who possess various talents and who are sometimes considered privileged, either because of their natural gift or because of the socio-cultural context to which they belong. What types of dissatisfaction or frustrations do your students face?

From left: best student of the 2023/2024 generation (now at MIT), Mladen Puzić former student and mathematics Olympian (now works at Microsoft), Vladimir Milenković, former student, computer science Olympian (sada in Microsoft), Danica Zečević, former Učenica student, gold medalist at EGMO competition (works at the Faculty of Mathematics in Belgrade and Mathematical Grammar School).

The main frustration is that it seems to them that their talent and success are not recognized by everyone and that education and science are not the focus of our society. They think that they deserve a widespread welcome and awards just like the top athletes in our country. To win gold at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is very difficult. Only a few of our students have been able to do that in the past 57 years. Having Teodor fon Burg, the second-best competitor in the world of all time, is something extraordinary for our country, our city and our school.

The human brain is a miracle. There are also prejudices that if you are a great mathematician, physicist, computer programmer or chemist, you are a geek and by default, not a good athlete, not capable of solving practical everyday challenges, that your orientation skills are bad, that you don’t like to read, that you’re not interested in art, etc.

What aspirations do your students have? What could be done to keep talented children in the country and engage in technical and scientific research?

They aspire to live in a society where their abilities are recognized and adequately rewarded.

They want to make the world a much better place to live for all of us, but in the last decade, they have been choosing professions pragmatically. There are fewer of them in science and more and more of them in industry. First and foremost, they want to provide for themselves and their family and live a normal life. 

In my opinion, if the state could provide housing under favourable conditions for top students studying in the country and abroad and help them to continue studying science at faculties and institutes in our country, that would be an important motivation for them to listen to their hearts and do what they really like. 

The bottom line is that our students, like me, are patriots. We love our country and want to make it an even better place for all of us, as well as live happily and be satisfied with our status.

La professoressa Katic con il docente e i partecipanti al Concorso di Robotica a Parigi, giugno 2022

What kind of cooperation, here and abroad, does your school have today? What initiatives does it promote related to financing projects in education and procurement of required equipment?

We can proudly point out that we cooperate with all renowned educational and scientific institutions in the country, such as the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Belgrade, the MISANU Mathematical Institute, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Institute of Physics, the Faculty of Physics, the Vinča Institute, plus we collaborate with the world’s most prestigious faculties worldwide – MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Trinity College in Cambridge and University of Oxford.

We have good cooperation with the CERN Institute, UNHCR, the United States Embassy, the AFA Foundation and the Alek Kavčić Foundation.

Top lecturers from the aforementioned institutions in our country work as lecturers at the school. Top scientists also give guest lectures at the school in various fields. We have guests from schools all over the world who are eager to find out more about our work.

We are currently implementing dozens of joint projects with various institutions and successful companies, including Telekom Srbija, NIS, the Alek Kavčić Foundation, the United States Embassy and UNHCR. We promote the versatility of our students and the idea that a lot of batches of small assistance amasses to big help for us, in addition to the state’s financial assistance. We want to have state-of-the-art computers, physics and chemistry laboratories, for students to engage in robotics, to have a choir and an orchestra, to travel to about 30 worldwide competitions in a space of just one school year and for our students to visit CERN, for instance.

But also we want our students to be able to solve real problems, use their knowledge, connect knowledge from different subjects and design great applications such as the Serbian language one for refugees in Serbia and to engage in environmental protection, sustainable energy sources and mathematical modelling.

Currently, ten of our students and their teacher Jelena Novović are in Calabria, Italy, as part of the Youth Exchange Erasmus project.

Pictured with Mateja Vukelić, best student of the 2023/2024 generation at the award ceremony. Mateja won 10 medals in various international competitions and the silver medal at the 2023 Mathematics Olympiad held in Japan.

What is the procedure for enrolling in the Mathematical Grammar School? Can foreign students residing in Serbia also enrol? How much does a school year cost? Who makes up the teaching staff?

Interested students take a special entrance exam in mathematics, which is held every year in mid-May. Traditionally, we have three times more applicants than the number of students we take every year, that is 100 of them. The test has 12 very demanding test assignments adapted to students who are mathematically gifted. In order to pass, they need to do at least 6 assignments correctly. Traditionally, we have students from all over Serbia and the region, and as of a few years ago, Serbian students who have returned from abroad. 

For students who were educated in Serbia, the entrance exam result is added to their elementary school grades, as are the results they achieved on the final exam and award points for winning one of the first three places at state competitions.

For students who were not educated in Serbia, it is sufficient to pass the entrance exam and nostrify their elementary school diploma. They are enrolled despite the number of students (100) that we can take. Education in our school is free for everyone, that is, it is financed by our state.

This year, a student from Egypt tried to enrol in our school, we also have a student who attended an international school in Belgrade and students from Russia too.

We have great and very enthusiastic teachers, who are dedicated to their work and do it with love. Most of the teachers of professional subjects are former students of our school, like myself.

Your students are known for accomplishing exceptional results in many international competitions, including the Mathematical Olympiad. How to achieve a balance in the promotion of individual competitiveness and the promotion of cooperation (especially in the field of scientific research)?

 To be honest, individual people are not ready to share their knowledge and experiences and are only interested in personal success. Thankfully, they make up a minority. 

We nurture the tradition that as soon as our students graduate, i.e. our former Olympian students, begin to give extra classes and prepare new generations of students for new successes. We always say that we are all one family and that the success achieved by those you teach can sometimes make you happier than your personal success. You grow up knowing that it is quite normal for you to be helped and then you help them when they become students. For instance, since this spring, our second-grade students who participated in the Science Olympiad in Columbia in December 2022 have been helping our students who are getting ready to represent Serbia at the same prestigious competition, at a personal request. That’s the best thing I can say this September. Also, our student, who is now in her second year at Cambridge, has created a blog containing practical tips and instructions for future generations and our students have been working with elementary school students every day. At the official reception of new students, which was also attended by their parents, on August 31, 2023, our current 4th-grade students came to see and encourage the new generation. There are many more examples I can cite.

This is what inspires me on a daily basis. That’s how my teachers at our school brought me up and that’s how I teach new generations.

These examples are what make this job meaningful for me and turn a drab day into a colourful one. This is what inspires me to move forward and work hard for our students and our school.

No one can take away the personal X factor in this business. In order to get it, you have to give. The same goes for science. Every top result in science is a result of the combined work and talent of a group of people from decades ago. Just look at the Nobel Prize laureates in science in the last decade. There is a team of people whose joint work created a brilliant result.

How important for a mathematician or physicist to study social sciences? Which writers and philosophers have inspired you the most and which would you recommend to your students?

It is very important. A great scientist asks questions like “what, how, why, who?”, understands the world and society and intently observes and listens.

When it comes to mathematics and philosophy, I have to cite Plato, Fermat and Euler as my recommendations.

As for writers who are also philosophers and who helped me to look at our past that has been spilling over into our present, I have to mention Njegoš, Ivo Andrić and Dobrica Ćosić. I always come back to them over and over and there is always something new that I discover when I do that. 

If I didn’t do mathematics, I would write and be a journalist. I’ve been in love with it since childhood.

Due to the complexity of my work and the time spent with my family, I use that one extra hour that I constantly need in my working day by reading.

For a long time, women and mathematics were considered an odd pairing, primarily due to the later admission of women to technical and scientific universities. In this sense, the Fields medal that Maryam Mirzakhani got was a turning point. What dreams do you hope your students will achieve?

That’s a dream that I have for our student Jelena Ivančić, who won the gold medal at the 2019 IMO in Bath and received a special award as the best competitor in the world that year. I dream that, in the future, one of our students will win the Fields Medal and Nobel Prize.

I dream and believe in our female students and of course, in students in general. Talent for mathematics has nothing to do with gender.

What reforms does our school system need the most?

We need to strongly enforce interdisciplinarity and give children the reason why we are teaching them certain things, why that is important and where it can be applied. This is what modern students want. Teachers also need to be willing and ready to change, listen intently to the needs of the students and use modern technologies to our benefit.

Last but not least, a more general reflection. In an increasingly polarized society such as Serbia, divided between new urban wealth and historic rural backwardness, between ambitions for a knowledge-driven economy and the widespread use of minimum wages and undocumented workers, between multipolar addresses and the defence of national identity, the May 3 massacre at the Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School in Belgrade, where a 13-year-old boy killed nine pupils and the guardian, has further exacerbated divisions. While being a reason for impressive demonstrations in Belgrade, the topic of the education of the younger generation, violence in society and political discourse have been reduced to a political critique rather than a debate on the future of Serbian society. Public schools are factories of any country’s future, which even in Serbia suffer from insufficient funding and new pressures due to social transformations that change young people’s expectations and families’ attitudes toward the educational institution. What considerations would you like to propose regarding the role of schools in society?

Schools should be a pillar of our society, along with the family. A place where, in addition to acquiring new knowledge, children will learn to socialize, form work habits, accept diversity, tolerance and mutual respect, learn that there are more talented people but also those who try less than them and learn not only from teachers but also from their friends. They should also learn that mobile phones and computers are not their “best friends” and that walking to school with their best friend or anticipating meeting their crush is a priceless experience. Having your own corner, your place where you buy a snack or a neighbour who lives in the building next to the school and whom you call every morning gives you security and a sense of belonging.

School, along with family and friends, should be the most important thing for children. Parents and teachers should be on the same team and they should understand, value and respect each other. We lost that in Serbia. We need to go back to re-learn that, to teach children again that the path on which they will invest long-term effort, which has its own challenges and ups and downs and on which they will acquire diverse knowledge and learn how to apply it and thus change the world is the right path. Instant results, getting good grades without possessing permanent knowledge and success without merit shouldn’t be their goals.

Mirjana Katić graduated from the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Mathematics in 1999 and was declared valedictorian in the school year 1998/99. She is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions including:

  • In 2021, the most prestigious faculty of technical sciences in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, acknowledged Ms Katic’s exceptional work with a student of the said faculty, Dobrica Jovanović
  • In 2021, Ms Katić received a certificate of merit for her outstanding contribution to the development of the May Month of Mathematics event.
  • In 2021, she received the Businesswoman of the Year Award
  • In 2021, she was the recipient of the Belgrade Winner Award, in the education category
  • In 2021, she received the Serbian Ministry of Education’s Award for outstanding results in education, science and technological development.

On October 7, 2019, Mirjana Katić, a mathematics professor at the Mathematical Grammar School, was appointed the school’s head teacher, following the decision of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development.

Mirjana Katić speaks fluent English and has one child.


This post is also available in: Italiano

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