14 May 2024

Brains’ prisoners. Why school doesn’t teach what it ought to teach?

An interview with Dr. Joanna Górecka, a teacher, educator, trainer of other teachers, and curriculum developer. Dr. Górecka works at No Bell School in Konstancin-Jeziorna. She is also an ambassador of the Holistic Think Tank.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Does school even benefit children?

A school that only teaches knowledge? Not really. And most modern schools, to be honest, only teach that.

What kind of school do children need, then?

They need a school that fulfills their needs: belonging, achievement, safety, movement, play. One that teaches them how to live well and consciously. That nurtures happy, fulfilled, and empathetic members of society. Shows them how to communicate with each other. How to collaborate. How to take care of themselves and others. It might sound trivial, perhaps lofty. However, I think if schools don’t teach all of these things, then maybe this banality needs to be reiterated? We really all need to realize: we’re constantly making a mistake in the art of education. The ongoing armed conflicts around the world are the best evidence of this. Because if schools worked as they should, there should basically be no wars.

The Prussian school model, which is practically ubiquitous worldwide, indeed emerged during times of war, not peace.

Good point. Prussian school was meant to educate future officials and soldiers — disciplined, obedient, unquestioning individuals loyal to executing orders. Does today’s school really have to fulfill the same function? No? Then why do most schools still have rows of desks? Recently, I visited one high school to conduct emotion-related classes for students. I arranged the desks into a conference table. When the students entered the classroom, I noticed they felt uncomfortable. I asked why. And they replied, “Well, do these desks have to be arranged like this?”. So, I continued asking: “Why does it bother you? Is it because you have to look at each other?”

What did they reply?

They said yes. It deeply moved me. A small change in the classroom space made them feel threatened. It knocked them out of their safe spot in the last or second-to-last row, where they could remain unnoticed. Where is the sense of belonging here? Where is the dialogue? Yet, we know that the need for belonging, peer communication, and group activities is crucial for children’s development. Meanwhile, instead of strengthening these traits in them, we raise them in a way that they cannot even confront someone else’s gaze. Yet, in adult life – if they want to realize themselves, fulfill, and live with others – they will have to.

Our generation at least had meetings in the courtyards or on the playgrounds. And much more free time. Today’s students have more obligations. It’s not an empty phrase that the curriculum today is overloaded. When I look at contemporary students, they not only spend seven, eight hours in school, but after returning home, they spend another four, five, six hours doing homework and preparing for tests. On top of that, karate, piano, and a seventh foreign language. When do they rest? When do they learn about life? When do they have time to look at life? These children are truly exhausted, overstimulated, socially isolated. If they talk to each other, it’s usually through messengers. I don’t condemn technology – I just point out that it cannot replace contact with a live person, which is essential for the emotional development of children and adolescents

The results of the latest PISA tests showed that while Polish students are good at reading and mathematics, they achieve alarmingly low levels in assessments measuring stress resilience, empathy, assertiveness, and emotion regulation.

We can also mention another equally alarming statistic: we have one of the highest rates of suicides among children and adolescents in Europe. Both studies stirred up concern among scientists and educators. Social media are flooded with content: what is happening to our children? However, such discussions, unfortunately, typically remain within the realm of academic discourse. Of course, I simplify, as we have foundations doing a great job and schools that are slowly changing for the better. But it’s still not enough. It should be systemic and come from the ministry.

Polish students struggle to confront their emotions. We castrate them from the Epicurean joy but also cut them off from sadness, despair, grief, death, from the ugly world. We don’t teach them to observe, name, understand, and regulate emotions – neither the pleasant ones, nor, especially, the difficult ones. And unnamed, unshown, unprocessed childhood emotions don’t just disappear – they accumulate and increasingly burden students’ psyche. And on top of that, we provide these children with a dose of knowledge they are unable to absorb. Children often signal that they can’t, that they’re unable, yet we insist: Learn, this is the key to achieving something, to growing up. We don’t give children space for reflective introspection. To pause for a moment. In my school, we have a subject called emotional intelligence. Children ponder on it, for example, why they sometimes feel anger and whether feeling anger is something bad. They learn to name and understand what they feel. But I teach in a very exceptional school; not every parent has the opportunity to send their child to such a place. Meanwhile, such classes should be in every school.

Every school has a psychologist. Perhaps they could get involved in such education?

This is a very good idea, provided that such a person would conduct regular classes in classrooms, lead workshops. However, in practice, the institution of a school psychologist or counselor is typically office-based. If a student misbehaves, they are sent to the counselor as a punishment. But what about those who excel academically, sit quietly, don’t draw attention to themselves, yet internally experience some kind of drama, struggle with emotions, with themselves, with maturing? We focus on those who are loud and problematic, and along the way, we lose sight of the invisible, non-problematic students.

Furthermore, we kill in students their curiosity about the world, their enthusiasm, their joy. We seat children in desks and make them listen to teachers’ monologues. But what if we were to seat parents, ministers, supervisors, and teachers themselves in those desks for seven, eight hours? Would it be easy for us? Certainly easier than for children, who have a natural, very physiological need for movement. And we punish them with grades. Children have a natural curiosity about the world and an eagerness to learn. But then they receive “bad” grades. Once, twice, three times, ten times. And they lose interest. The joy is gone.

Why do we still teach children using methods that we remember from our own schools?

Exactly because we remember them.

But since we remember them, we also know that they are not constructive.

We know, but it’s easier for us. We prefer what we know. It’s biologically conditioned. Simply put: that’s how our brains work. While a child’s brain is plastic, creative, children enjoy experiencing new things – adults tend to fall back on patterns. We are afraid of changes. We are prisoners of our own brains. On the other hand, it’s precisely because of them that we can detach ourselves from our instincts, habits, and routines, and look at the world more reflectively. And if we look at school reflectively, we understand that it’s not really about telling students to open their textbooks to page 55 and do exercise 45. It’s not about passively absorbing knowledge and then regurgitating it during exams. Because in such a scheme, there’s no room for motivation, engagement, freedom, autonomy, or fostering independent thinking in students. There’s no room for initiative or entrepreneurship. Nor is there a desire for learning.

How to start?

By looking at school differently. Fo example, we can imagine that every human being is a creator of a grand symphony of life, and learning is the most beautiful sound in this composition. We can accompany children in discovering their melodies. Reveal the sounds to them. Inspire. Lead. Provide the opportunity for free exploration of this musical staff.

If we, as teachers, rediscover the beauty of our profession, we will be able to do very valuable things. Yes, it’s not easy. To make education attractive and effective for students, it takes some brainstorming, thorough preparation for classes, and careful planning. And to think about how to ignite motivation, for example, if a student comes to us for the seventh lesson. How to still extract commitment and curiosity from them, that spark of madness?


Perhaps, for example, we could go out of school with the students? Here, I’ll return to children’s natural need for movement and exploration. Instead of suppressing these qualities, let’s use them. Maybe let’s go with the children to the market and buy vegetables, and then make a salad with them in school. Perhaps even sell it at a fair, and use the money for a noble cause or contribute it to the class budget. Look at how much children can learn during such activities: what money is for, how to count it, how much is half a kilogram, and how much is a liter? And in the meantime, there’s fun because we’re out of school, there’s strengthening of bonds between peers, there’s cooperation, entrepreneurship, and there’s building all those values that should be taught in school.

All it takes is to want to break out of the beaten path. Although maybe “want” isn’t the most appropriate word. I meet many teachers who might want to, but they’re afraid. So perhaps it’s better to say: stop being afraid. If we turn this fear and acting according to educational patterns into grassroots work towards building a good school, we will succeed. Our change will be like a snowball, rolling freely and growing bigger and bigger.