16 January 2023

Anna Szulc: Yesterday’s teachers are using the day before yesterday’s methods. How is it supposed to work well?

An interview with Anna Szulc, a mathematics teacher from Kazimierz Wielki High School in Zdunska Wola, Poland, who does not give grades, does not assign homework, does not quiz at the blackboard, and does not conduct tests. Anna Szulc is also a mediator, tutor, teacher trainer, the initiator and organizer of the conference "Empathic Education => Empathic Poland" and the author of the book "New School. Changing education is worth starting at the blackboard".

Author: Maria Mazurek,


What ails the school? 

I could list for hours, and we would not exhaust the topic. Simply put: there is literally everything to change. 

Is it that bad? 

For too long, no constructive changes were made to adapt schools to the possibilities and needs of a developing civilization, along with its increasingly common access to knowledge. Changes in education concerned fine-tuning tools for measuring digital results, worse still, comparing average grades in all subjects and treating it as the key to human success.

Figuratively speaking: yesterday’s teachers, using the day before yesterday’s methods, teach today’s youth, who will have to face tomorrow’s challenges. How is it supposed to work well?

I understand that by “the day before yesterday’s methods,” you mean the Prussian school system, invented two centuries ago? 

Even a little more than two centuries ago. In 1806, at Jena, Napoleon’s army defeated Prussia, which consequently lost its independence. King Frederick William III wanted his country to regain its freedom, and since he was a reasonable man surrounded by a group of enlightened advisers, he began by diagnosing how this failure came about. The cause of the defeat was seen in an undisciplined society, which contributed to the military’s ineffectiveness. 

More specifically?

Prussia, like other European countries in those days, was inhabited by simple people, farmers, mostly illiterate, who lived close to nature. Their rhythm was determined by the seasons; they woke up as the sun rose and went to bed when it set. Educating a child for a family meant costs, plus the loss of farm hands. This was the way of life in Europe at the time, and there was nothing strange about it. However, if Prussia wanted to regain its independence, the population had to be stimulated, motivated, and guided. The need for discipline was noted. First, the “Prussian drill” was introduced in the army. This was an action for the “here and now.” However, with the next generations in mind, education was thought of. Universal and free schools were introduced. And because the Prussian system was a certain “ready-made” – along with a program, textbooks, and all the guidelines – other countries began to use it, especially since it met the expected goals. 

Yet Prussian schools were supposed to raise loyal, disciplined citizens, not creative, happy people. 

I would like to be understood properly: I think Prussia did a great thing. Universal education was a great step in the history of the world, as we saw in the following decades, which brought rapid development of industry, science, and medicine. In short: the unprecedented development of humanity. I do not question the merits of the Prussian school system. I question the fact that after 200 years, when the reality around us is completely different, it is still the default, the most common system around the world. Along with all its obsolete tools, which are not in line with what we know today about the development and needs of a young person or the progress of society. 

What are these obsolete tools? 

Assessments and tests that reinforce a competitive attitude. Back in XIX-century Prussia, the focus was on individual success – today, we know that the key to taking responsibility for the world is cooperation. One-size-fits-all textbooks and programs that leave no room – for either teachers or students – for creativity and individuality. Bells, invented as a system of dropping what we do on a chord – yes, an ideal skill for the military, but not necessarily for committed people doing creative work. And there are also supervisory institutions that control teachers – and since teachers have someone examining them, they also examine their students. There is no room for what the modern world needs so much: empathy and trust. For cooperation and shared responsibility, and finally: for human treatment of the man by a man at school. 

Anna Szulc

Whatever one may say about the Prussian system, one thing must be admitted: it was born out of the conviction that education is the path to a better future.  

A beautiful thought behind it, wasn’t it? It’s just a shame that it didn’t become the norm in thinking about education with the knowledge we gained over the following decades. 

It was Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator and author, who said: There are no children, there are people. 

Indeed. When we leave the stage, it will be today’s students who will create the future of the world. They are the ones who will have to face the problems to which previous generations have led. And yet, we seem to forget that raising children is a social matter, not just a matter of the home. Even if we don’t have children – let’s not regret any dollar spent on education. Maybe if this sector was better funded – and, above all, better arranged – we would spend less money on the police, the military, and many other issues that are the result of education under pressure, competition, lack of opportunity to develop without comparison with others, which breeds frustration, arouses aggression and the need to seek prostheses of sense and self-esteem. 

Do you have children? 

Three. This experience was also one of the impulses that made me move away from the Prussian system – because before I decided 18 years ago to work differently, that is, to accompany the student in his development, instead of examining and instructing – I was a “Prussian” pedagogue. At the time, I didn’t know that it was possible to do things differently. It was the school interviews I attended as a mother that got me thinking. I heard educators complaining: Your children are not learning, they are naughty, could you do something about it? This seemed more and more absurd to me. Does a parent who has problems with his work ask a teacher for help? Would you agree that this is probably incompetence? Then it occurred to me that the role of a teacher is to be able to handle situations that are not easy but are a signal that a solution should be sought. The problem is that we study, most often in preparation for being a subject teacher. In university, we are unlikely to gain knowledge in positive psychology or learn how to deal with a crisis. There are no classes teaching interpersonal communication skills and building relationships. Therefore, I believe that if we are serious about our work, we need to further educate ourselves afterward. It is not an argument that “this is what I wasn’t taught in college.” 

What else was the impulse for you to abandon grading, giving homework, and quizzing at the blackboard? 

I was (and I still am) visited quite often by my ex- students, and we talked a lot. They, years later, never talked about how important it was to them that they got an A in quadratic equations. Instead, they talked a lot about how important it was to them that we went on trips. Or that they helped each other. How important it was for them to have those moments when I supported them, even if their parents didn’t. I started asking myself a lot of questions about what school is for. What is the role of the teacher? What is really important in education? At that time, I took a training course to become a community mediator. I realized that the condition for effective education is relationships. I decided to teach mathematics based on trust, shared responsibility, cooperation, and empathy. Today I know that when we give students space, when we support them and trust them – they won’t feel like cheating or tricking us. Do you know why? 

Because we don’t want to cheat someone who supports us, respects us, and trusts us? 

Exactly. If someone – be it a boss or a teacher – refers to us with superiority, doesn’t feel like listening to us or getting to know us, controls us, and doesn’t show us respect, we naturally start to behave that way ourselves. And in the modern world, where everyone has a phone with Internet access at hand – and in it, among others, solutions to all possible homeworks, including mathematical ones – it is not difficult to outwit a teacher. So I give students the maximum amount of freedom and trust, and the more they get of this trust – the more they try not to let it down. I don’t give homework, but this doesn’t mean that my students don’t learn at home. They learn although I don’t require it of them; I don’t hold them accountable, I don’t measure, weigh or compare. They learn because they simply like math and are curious about it. And they learn because they have a good relationship with me and we mutually care about it. 

How do you start building such a relationship?

I can answer how I don’t start: with mathematics. For the first few classes, math is not at my place at all. There are no desks, no chairs. We stand in a circle and get to know each other. We talk. I carry out a number of integration exercises and games to facilitate the development of cooperative conditions so that learning and work is effective and rewarding. 

Is this done without harming subject knowledge? You broke out of the system, but nevertheless, students still partially function in it: they have to pass the high school final exams, get to university….  

Do they have to? I know people who have not even finished elementary school and are very happy. And yet students start high school and are shaking from the very beginning. I ask them: what are you afraid of? They answer: high school final exams. High school final exams, in the first days of school! Is this normal? Is this what we want? Does a school based on pressure, fear, and anxiety serve a person? Is a happy human being the one who prepares to pass exams that meet the conditions of the answer key? Is he the one who works creatively, and has room to develop at his own pace? 

I purposely answer your question provocatively because I believe that the pressure around education, the competitiveness aroused from an early age, the constant exposure to evaluation, and comparison with others – serve no good purpose. However, when it comes to whether my students – in addition to responsibility, cooperation, empathy, and curiosity about the world – acquire subject knowledge from my classes, I assure you: they achieve excellent results in mathematics. They pass the extended final high school exams, even for a complete set of points, get into the chosen university courses, and successfully continue their studies. Once a month I conduct open lessons, and I invite teachers from other schools. They ask: You passed in 45 minutes the material for which I need five lessons, how is it possible? 

Well, exactly: how is it possible?

Prof. Stanislaw Dylak of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, an authority on didactics, presented research results showing that in a Prussian school, out of 45-minutes lessons, an average of eight minutes is left for the introduction of new lesson material, and these eight minutes are usually filled by the teacher’s monologue. If only 20 percent of the lesson is left for the introduction of new material, then school is moved to home and tutoring. And this overloads the young person and leaves him without time to develop his passions, relax, spend time with his family and peers.  

And if I don’t spend those 37 minutes quizzing at the blackboard, checking assignments, and admonishing students for doing something wrong – that time is left for learning. And this is the time when my students, usually joining in groups, deepen the given issues on their own. I just arrange it, guide them, support and appreciate them. My students know that I am there for them, but also: that the tool for developing their curiosity about the world is their own brain. 

You teach in a non-Prussian way in a public school built on the Prussian system. How is this possible? Do the regulations even provide such a possibility? 

Yes. Some teachers hide behind regulations, statutes, curricula, and top-down programs. They claim: we would like to teach differently, but it’s not possible. It is possible. Polish regulations – I don’t know how it is in other countries, but I think it’s similar – are really good; they give teachers the opportunity to teach differently. An opportunity to pass on subject knowledge based on social competence, sensitivity, and the natural curiosity about the world in children. Only, first of all, many teachers don’t know about this possibility. Secondly, they are not even very interested in it… 

… They don’t bother to? 

They don’t because it requires putting an extra effort. And taking responsibility for it. When I run classes with smaller or larger groups of teachers or parents, I conduct a survey. 98 percent of those questioned agree that the school needs to change. Unfortunately, those who want to make these changes are few and far between. Educators would like schools where there are no grades, no bells, no forcing students to memorize without thinking. But instead of starting with themselves, they are waiting for something “ready-made.” For someone “from above” to come and tell them what to do, equipping them with a set of tools and taking responsibility for the results. 

But it isn’t the right path?

It is not. I think change should start with teachers, from the bottom up. When we look at the condition of a world beset by various crises, it’s hard not to have the reflection that there is less and less time for this change. 

How much? 

If we want a better world, we need to take education seriously starting tomorrow. Maybe it’s not too late yet. This is the responsibility of all of us because the consequences of omissions in education will be borne by all of us.