18 November 2022

Different countries share the same dream of a better school. Holistic Think Tank research summary

Author: maria-mazurek

Research

1. What did we want to find out?

Changing the world begins with changing schools – as the Holistic Think Tank, we are confident of this. To change schools, however, it is first necessary to diagnose what is missing and what the expectations are of them – as expressed by students, teachers, and parents alike. So we have conducted a large-scale research project in schools in 10 countries – geographically and culturally distant from each other. We looked at what school education looks like there, what schools teach, and what the communities around them think they should.

2. What did we find out?

On the one hand, the conclusions of our research are alarming – it turns out that in almost none of the countries we surveyed, students and teachers are completely satisfied with their schooling model and curricula. On the other hand, there is an encouraging thought from our research that students and teachers around the world are dreaming of the same thing: schools that teach soft skills such as efficient communication, critical thinking, group functioning, responsibility for self, others, and the environment while emphasizing practical knowledge that will be useful in students’ adult lives. And since the needs are shared, a global project to improve school education is possible.

3. How did we find out?

The research was conducted in 19 schools in ten countries worldwide, on five continents. HTT associates visited schools in the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the US, and Poland. They adopted the same research methodology everywhere: a multiple case study without replication. Also, the order and scope of the research procedure in each school studied were identical. The study included three stages:

  1. Analysis of diaries kept by students and teachers;
  2. Observation: of the school environment (understood as both the school building and itsequipment, but also the cultural or economic context), the people who make it up (teachers, students, parents), and the relationships between them;
  3. Interviews conducted with members of the school community – principals, teachers, parents, and students. Researchers conducted at least ten individual in-depth interviews (IDI) in each school.

Each tool used in the process was tested and reviewed twice by experts to ensure the survey results were as reliable as to the maximum extent possible.

The observations from the surveyed schools understandably differ markedly. Therefore, we describe each country where our project was conducted separately. However, the research has shown that what matters most – the expectations of students and teachers, the mistakes in the education system, and how to fix them – is universal worldwide.

The Philippines

Cultural and historical background: Like the country’s turbulent history, education in the Philippines has gone through various stages, with subsequent colonizers and occupiers making their imprint on it. The modern education system resulted from the reform between 2011 and 2016, which was considered successful. Still, it is only possible to analyze education in the Philippines by considering the country’s poverty and the divide between Manila’s relatively affluent metropolitan area and the poorer remaining part of the country. Low-income families frequently cannot afford to educate their children in schools. According to UNESCO, the Philippines has 1.4 million out-of-school children, while official schooling is compulsory in the Philippines for children up to the age of 17.

Schooling system: The country’s school system has three levels of education, with a total of 12 grades: 1-6 grades are ranged in elementary schools, 7-10 in junior high schools, and the last two in senior high schools, in which students choose the specialties they are interested in from three tracks: academic studies, technical-vocational-livelihood (e.g., home economics or fishery), plus sports, art, and design. Since 2012, kindergarten education has also been mandatory for five-year-olds to attend.

Elementary students usually have classes in Language Arts (Filipino / English / local dialect), Math, Health, and Science, while in junior high schools, they learn subjects such as Mathematics, Science and Technology, English, and Filipino. Also noteworthy is Makabayan (which means love of the homeland), a learning area that integrates several subjects to help students develop a healthy personal and national identity, as well as unfold social awareness and empathy. Makabayan’s concept is broadly consistent with an interdisciplinary subject (IDS), the formation and implementation of which in schools around the world is HTT’s mission.

The economic divisions of the country are also reflected in the division between private and public education. Around 50% of secondary schools are private, with 21% Filipino students attending them.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: It was established in 1939. During the Japanese occupation, the school and its surroundings were used by the Japanese Imperial Army. The surveyed school is located in one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the Philippines, in a residential area with shops, bars, and a hospital within walking distance. The city labor force population is estimated at 1,348,546, of which 775,149 persons are jobless. It is predominantly a Roman Catholic city.

In April 2022, when the survey was conducted, the school had 58 educators teaching 2385 students.
The management had been actively searching for new employees.

Findings from the survey: Students did not verbalize critical comments about the school, likely due to the participants’ cultural backgrounds and/or inability to think critically. Frequent comments included such: Nothing can be improved here; This school is great etc.

The teachers’ statements were sometimes far more critical. They complained about a large amount of paperwork and poor pay (even though the respondents were reluctant to discuss it openly). They ate lunches comprised of meat and vegetables from the school livestock and garden to save money on food. The school provided wi-fi access only for 30 min per day, which meant that the teacher had to pay for the connection needed to conduct online classes. Sometimes parents were involved in buying school equipment. The respondents wished they had more training opportunities.

Surveyed parents often refer to the distinction between public and private schools: You might get a job after graduating from a public school, too; Why should I spend a lot of money for private classes if my school provides them for free? The financial aspect must be of high importance to the respondents, sometimes even constituting the main criterion for the choice of the school. 

Both students, parents, and teachers stressed the importance of relationships at school. However, the interviews with students did not show that their teachers support them outside the classrooms.

Students’ responses suggest that what they learn at school includes many practical skills they can take advantage of in their everyday life outside the school, e.g., cooking and how to care about the environment, which seems to be an important part of the curriculum. Sadly, during the research, the interviewer noticed that students lack certain cognitive skills, such as creativity and critical thinking. The researcher noticed that children learn primarily by rote memorization and repetition, not by experiment. One lesson observation showed that the teacher did not provide feedback on incorrect answers but waited for the correct one and praised it.

As it was mentioned above, it was difficult for student respondents to find areas that needed to be changed. Regarding what schools should teach, they only elaborated on a few ideas: literacy, cooking, skills related to future professions, mental health, finance, and rules in the society/law. Teachers pointed – among others – to discipline, entrepreneurship, communication, and time management, while parents – sports, critical thinking, knowledge, and languages. It is difficult to find a common denominator in all interviews, but all respondents, in one way or the other, mentioned preparing students for their future jobs and everyday life.

United States

Cultural and historical background: Intense discussion about how American schools should function
and what they should teach began in the late 19th century. American authorities adopted an ambitious goal – to create the best schooling in the world. They partly succeeded, with one caveat: until the mid-20th century, representatives of racial minorities, as well as children with disabilities or from low-income families, could not count on equal access to education, significantly higher education. Thanks to the authorities’ actions, particularly the federal government, the situation has improved considerably for several decades. The goal for public education in the 21st century has shifted from providing access to ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education.

The biggest challenge for U.S. education – heavily decentralized and financed by local units – remains to eliminate the disparity between wealthy and poor school districts. In recent years, under pressure from state courts and public advocacy groups, many states have taken steps to ensure more equitable funding of school districts regardless of income levels.

Schooling system: The formal education system in the United States consists of five main categories: preschool, primary (also called elementary schools), middle school (junior high schools), high school or secondary education, and university. Depending on the state, school attendance is compulsory for students aged 16 or 18. The average enrolment age of preschoolers in the United States is four years, while U.S. children begin primary school at the age of six. American students attend school for a combined total of 12 years. These years are often collectively referred to as K-12 education (the “K” stands for kindergarten, typically housed in the elementary school system). Most students in the K-12 system study at public schools – only about 10% of students are enrolled in private schools. School district councils determine the program taught in elementary schools. It includes arithmetic, language proficiency, social studies, and science in elementary schools. The program taught in high school revolved around “core subjects,” which vary by state, with most states having English, math, social studies, and science as the core subjects. Many secondary schools also teach elective courses, including performing arts such as theatre, painting, foreign languages, and vocational education.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: It is situated just outside of the metropolitan areas in Texas, with a location chosen for its connection to ample outdoor activities the school is close to numerous parks. The researched school is a small K-12 alternative school of 19 students. It is a non-coercive, psychologically safe, inclusive, interdependent learning community founded in 2016. The school is philosophically based on the self-directed education movement, which focuses on anti-oppression and justice-oriented schooling. Unlike a traditional school, this learning community mirrors a family environment, featuring a small number of learners. The school does not feature any tests, grades, or subjects. Learners are free to do whatever they like during the school day, outside of a mandated community meeting in the morning and at the end of the day, plus clean-up time at closing. Under the framework of its financing, there is sliding scale tuition, with low-income families paying much less than high-income families.

Findings from the survey: The main goal for teachers in that school is not to cause harm. Maybe because of that, all the respondents indicated that relationships among different groups are based on taking care of each other, collaboration and attention. Some parents are concerned that placing their students in a self-directed environment means that they will never learn anything, will goof off the entire time, or will spend their whole time just “having fun”. As the headmaster said, it is difficult to convince parents that this method of education works, given that almost everyone has gone through traditional schooling. A lot of effort is given by a headmaster, who spends a lot of time helping learners meet their individual needs, and students are entirely in charge of organizing their schoolwork. The school team focuses heavily on community building.

When asked what the school should teach, students pointed to math, science, psychology, art, traditional Chinese medicine, tattooing, and adulting. Teachers pointed out that the school interviewed is based on different rules and values than the average system school. The most important thing is supporting young people in living in the community. That’s why students essentially are tasked with learning whatever interests them. Then, they apply these ideas to whatever other ideas they’re interested in. The school focuses explicitly on consent to ensure that learners are safe. The fact that a school is a safe place, full of freedom of choosing what will be taught, is also crucial for parents who appreciate the school culture.

The school surveyed in the US. Photo by Ivo Krankowski

United Arab Emirates

Cultural and historical background: The modern education system in UAE, as a country itself, is relatively young. It started in 1971 when the seven sheikhdoms were united under a federal agreement, with Abu Dhabi as the capital city. All emirates have a high degree of political independence in various areas, including education, which affords many challenges to standardizing schooling between the distinctive sheikhdoms. Another of UAE’s unique characteristics (also affecting education) is the extremely high number of expats. Another of UAE’s unique characteristics (also affecting education) is the extremely high number of expats. In 2014, the UAE was home to more than 9 million people, of whom less than 1,5 million were Emirati citizens. Up until 2001, foreigners were not allowed to attend public schools. As a result, even today, three-quarters of students attend private schools, most of which are international schools that do not formally report to the Ministry of Education.

Schooling system: Currently, the shape of the education system intently resembles that of the United States. It features a K-12 school system. Education in the UAE starts at age six, and it`s free of charge for Emiratis (foreigners are obliged to pay fees).

In Grades 1-8, students are taught the following subjects: Islamic Education, Arabic Language, Social Studies, Moral Education, English, Mathematics, Science, Arts, Physical Education, Design, and Technology. At the secondary level, students complete Grades 9 to 12. In this cycle, students are prepared for the starting point in their career and place in society. Once completing this level, the student will be granted a high school certificate, which indicates passing 12 years of compulsory education.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: It is located in the region of Abu Dhabi, around 30 minutes from the central city, in a sandy area with few palm trees and many schools (there are 440 of them all over Abu Dhabi). Recently, many new immigrants came to Abu Dhabi – mostly wealthy Russians, which not only changed the demographic structure of the society but also affected the process of school admissions and student population structure. The analyzed school was first opened in August 2019, after having been a government school for six years. Since then, it has been a charter school, which means that it receives government funding but operates based on the American education program. Charter schools are a kind of link between the public and private sections of education.

Findings from the survey: Students who took part in the research liked their school. They associated it with both learning and making friends. They did not seem overwhelmed by the requirements imposed on them or the rules they had to obey. Teachers valued their job highly and had a strong sense of purpose: I became a teacher to impact people’s lives. Teaching is a foundation of everything, said one of them. They observed their children happily talking about their school and teachers at home. In some cases, the choice of school was accidental, but none of the respondents had a negative experience with the institution.

All respondents stressed that school is also about relationships, which is entirely in line with the What School Ought to Teach (WSOT) list created by HTT. Students spend time together during and after classes; they share secrets and play together. The teachers remind them of the importance of their peers: Islamic teacher told me my classmates are like my brothers and sisters. So this is my family, said one student. Still, the surveyed school faces some problems. The respondents referred to two potential areas of conflict between teachers and students. The first one concerned discipline in the classroom. In their diaries, teachers often complained about the students’ lack of concentration and making noise, which resulted in a lot of lesson time lost. The second problem was related to the fact that some students come from wealthy families with help from nannies and tutors, so they might have unrealistic expectations about how they will be treated in the classroom. Regarding parents’ relationship with teachers is concerned, some respondents voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of proper communication with the school. In the case of one mother, this resulted in her feeling lost in the school system and the requirements her child had to face. She felt she had no control over her child’s educational process. She claimed that the school did not answer her e-mails, and teachers were reluctant to help her understand how grades are calculated.

Students evaluated their learning experience concerning the content of particular subjects, not
acquired skills. Teachers also noticed that core subjects are favored more than practical skills: We don’t educate them enough in “worldly” aspects. We focus on core subjects, they admitted. One of the practical aspects not developed enough in the opinion of the teachers, are problem-solving skills. Fortunately, according to teachers, students are curious about the world and science. Fortunately, according to teachers, students are curious, which allows them to go beyond the curriculum. I teach my students acceptance of other people’s differences; I teach my students a sense of humor, I teach my students to take ownership of your responsibility, they mentioned.

When asked what they miss about the school, the students mentioned such things as the opportunity to rest, learning outside the school (e.g. going out to camps, trips to European cities), non-standard subjects (e.g. Islamabic – combination of Islam and Arabic lessons) and teachers giving them further support. Teachers would like to prepare students for challenges that await them in the future, but they are aware that they cannot equip students with all the necessary knowledge because of the restrictions in an Islamic society. One respondent believed schools should not focus much on memorizing facts but on teaching students how to reflect on a given information. Another teacher mentioned the usefulness of classes focusing on empowering students and teaching them how to manage their emotions and establish healthy relationships. Parents, when asked about the need for changes in education, cited such areas as Arabic subjects, manners, independence and holistic education.

South Africa

Cultural and historical background: The history of education in South Africa has been as tragic as the country’s fate, and it is impossible to consider it outside this context. Although universal education was introduced in the 1950s, it was applied only to Caucasians. Other children attended mainly mission schools. From the 1950s up to the early 1990s, the education system in South Africa mirrored its apartheid policy. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 prohibited pupils of different races from attending the same schools. The post-apartheid policy started in 1994 with a new government in place with its mandate to transform the education system in alignment with the values guarding human dignity, equality, human rights and freedom, non-racism, and non-sexism. Massive educational reforms were launched. The authorities saw universal, accessible to all, and life-preparing education as an opportunity for the country’s future development. This approach was followed by generous funding for schooling. Education is the highest item of budgetary expenditure in South Africa. The country spends more than 20 % of its resources on primary and higher education.

Schooling system: The education system is divided into three strata, namely general education and
training, further education and training, and higher education and training. With economic growth in mind and allied with the vision of establishing South Africa as a prosperous and competitive country, the National Curriculum Statement 2002 (NCS) was introduced. The NCS curriculum expects students to learn at least two South African languages. In addition, students should make a mandatory choice between mathematics and mathematical literacy and be expected to study life orientation.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: The school where the survey was conducted is private and established in 2000. It is situated in a suburb of Pretoria. The area around consists of residential, commercial, and industrial properties with main roads passing through. The local community includes mainly Black Africans (73%) and White (17%). The primary language spoken in the area is Afrikaans followed by English, which is the country’s primary language. Religion is varied across the region, with the site of most Christian churches, then synagogues and mosques. The survey school currently has 80 learners and six teachers. The driving principle is learning through play, as the examined school provides quality teaching with a warm, caring, supportive, encouraging, and stimulating environment.

Findings from the survey: Students declared a great love for their teachers, speaking very fondly of them. Teachers described their relations with students as respectful and professional but also open and trustworthy. Children look up to the older people in school; students know they are there to learn, so automatically, they will see and incorporate the behavior of seniors into their own lives, noted one of the respondents. Another one believed that young learners absorb all the information they receive, which is why teachers play the most crucial role. The relationship between the teachers and parents was called “good” and “professional.” Each homeroom teacher has their own Whatsapp group for their class; thanks to it, the teacher sends all the daily planning to parents. The parents are also allowed to contact the teacher or director directly in case of a problem.

The classes observed by the researchers included life orientation, maths, science, and English. In the first one, students were learning about HIV/AIDS, and the teacher engaged in a conversation about the topic with students. A few learners remained silent, but the teacher tried to engage them. In math, the class was doing sums on the chalkboard. The learners greatly enjoyed the science class, as they were all conducting an experiment with the use of milk, food coloring, and dishwashing liquid. Lastly, the English lesson was also interactive and enjoyable for learners. In the lessons mentioned above, the researchers noticed the presence of teaching students cultural awareness, respect for the environment, tolerance, communication, and autonomy (e.g., in choosing one’s essay topic). The teachers’ attitude was supportive and encouraging.

Students suggested adding three additional aspects to the current curriculum: physical activities (e. g. swimming, karate, ballet), practical skills (e. g., baking), and learning in an unusual way (more classes conducted outside, singing while counting in math, etc.). Teachers also provided ideas for new subjects that could be added to the curriculum. They included the following: bible studies (Christian religious education), social media and digital marketing studies, personal finance, survival skills, mental health, sustainable living, human rights, sociology and anthropology, and nutrition. They also mentioned the importance of such skills as self-worth, communication, openness, entrepreneurship, independence, the world, and body awareness. The parents surveyed indicated the following: manners, practical subjects, time management, and independence.

The school surveyed in South Africa. Photo by Marcin Modzelewski

South Korea

Cultural and historical background: One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Korean people is their passion for education. This enthusiasm for learning is the driving force behind South Korean’s economic growth and is often labeled as the education syndrome, which has deep roots in Korea’s traditional respect for knowledge. The modern education system in Korea started in 1945 when the country was liberated from Japanese rule. The public desire for education was more intense than anywhere else’s, and the side effect of overheating education began to occur. In the 1980s, the government started to come up with various policies to calm this overheating phenomenon, including bans on private tutoring. However, the policy failed due to the prevalence of secret tutoring and did not bring about any fundamental change. Despite the government’s continuous efforts to revitalize public education, the private education market is growing. Such expansion of the private education market lowers the function of public education, widens the educational gap, and further increases social costs double. Another negative side of excessive competition is psychological problems among adolescents. Suicide is the number one cause of death among Korean teenagers.

Schooling system: Adopted in 1951, Korea’s basic school system of 6-3-3-4 has seen no significant change over the decades. It can be divided into early childhood education, elementary/secondary education, and higher education. Institutions that educate the youngest children are divided into kindergartens and daycare centers. Daycare is an institution that provides care and education for children aged 0 to 5, while kindergarten educates children aged 3 to 5. The elementary and secondary school system in South Korea consists of six years of elementary education (ages 6-12, elementary school), three years of secondary education in the first half (ages 12-15, middle school), and three years of secondary education (ages 15-18, high school). A total of nine years of education from elementary school to middle school are compulsory.

The current curriculum aims to raise a well-rounded, creative man, who enjoys human culture, respects pluralism, and has a sense of community. Now, the government is preparing new curricula centering around the transformation for the future of education. New curricula aim to provide education to boost capacity for responding to future changes, including ecological transformation, democratic citizenship, Artificial Intelligence, and digital knowledge.

In elementary school, students learn ethics, the Korean language, mathematics, social studies, sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), physical education, music education, fine arts, and technology. The teaching of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences prevails in high schools.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: It is a Christian-based alternative educational institution. It is a new school set up in the 21st century and obtained approval for running the whole range of elementary and secondary education in 2014. The school building has various areas, like the library, auditorium, and sports field. Interestingly, students also have access to places which usually have restricted access for students, e. g. the principal’s office, where two parrots are kept.

Findings from the survey: The interviews suggest that students like the school and it is for two main reasons. The first is related to relationships with friends and staff members. The second concerns the fact that it is a Catholic and private institution with high admission requirements: “I prayed so hard because I wanted to come to this school. Now that I am here, I understand why there has been a strict standard to get in. I love it so much”. Other advantages of the school that students mentioned included diversity in teaching and enabling self-directed learning.

The school principal’s choice of profession was motivated by his own educational experiences during the military dictatorship after the Korean War; strict discipline and punishments left a mark on him. He thought that teaching was the best way to achieve social reform. Three interviewed teachers said that teaching was their goal since they were young. According to the respondents, the advantage of the profession is teaching a subject one loves and observing students having fun while learning. The disadvantages include managing one’s working hours to take care of numerous duties, especially in combination with family life. The school seems to be an environment conducive to building good relationships. Parents, students, and teachers respect and value each other, and gestures such as welcoming students in the principal’s office or greeting children on arrival to school suggest a familial bond between them.

According to one of the teachers, math is the most important subject, and it is taught in this school consistently without anyone falling behind. Other respondents stressed the school’s Christian values and emphasis on spiritual development. During daily morning contemplation, students share their thoughts. Moreover, according to one of the teachers, Korea’s curriculum emphasizes aesthetic awareness. Surveyed students like classes with physical or interactive activities, as well as non- curricular subjects like after-school clubs.

Student’s ideas on what school should teach can be summed up in three groups: non-standard subjects (calligraphy, French lessons, and “free play” mentioned), flexibility (e. g., students would like to conduct classes instead of the teacher), and real-life experiences (namely keeping animals, or gardening). Teachers listed communication, spirituality, connection to nature, holistic education, reasoning, knowledge of real life, democracy, tolerance, and social rules, while parents, when asked about their expectations of school education, pointed to two aspects: communication and self-realization.

Zimbabwe

Cultural and historical background: The colonial system that ran on the territory of today’s Zimbabwe divided education along racial lines. After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the government started massive reforms of the education system. Schooling became the priority for the government and received the biggest share of the national budget. The emphasis was not so much on the quality of the education system but on accessibility to education. Fees for all primary schools were abolished. By the 1990s, primary schooling was nearly universal, and over half the population had completed secondary education. This quantitative achievement has often been referred to as Zimbabwe’s “Education Miracle.” In the following years, the reforms focused more on the relevance and quality of education. While the first two decades after independence for enhancing education were very successful, the third one turned out to be a lost decade. Expenditure on education decreased by more than half. Due to the political and economic crisis, thousands of teachers decided to leave the profession, and consequently, many schools had to be shut down. In recent years, Zimbabwe has been trying to recover from this crisis, hiring qualified teachers and reviving neglected languages and cultural values.

Schooling system: Under Zimbabwean law, every child has the right to free education. Schooling is the responsibility of the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. Additionally, in each of the ten provinces into which Zimbabwe is divided, an education officer oversees education in his region. The 9-4-2-4 model is in effect, meaning primary education encompasses nine years of schooling. Then there are four years in lower secondary school, another two in upper and possibly, four years in university.

The curriculum is nationalized with textbooks in English. Students learn English and Shona or Ndebele language, Bible knowledge, mathematics, science, history, geography, and a Practical Subject (e. g., nutrition, woodwork, metalwork).

A significant problem in the field of education is school dropouts. They are caused, among other
things, by diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, or cholera, but also, especially for girls, by early
marriages and pregnancies.

Schools surveyed by HTT researchers: The research was conducted in two schools. School A – a high-density government school enrolling students near its surroundings – is located in the heart of Midlands Province. 3004 students attend it.

School B is located in the rural district council of Mashonaland West Province. The local community structures are mostly represented by peasant farmers, of whom many are nomads, which is why – as the school`s register shows – students usually do not attend it for more than three years. The school has an enrolment of 90 students, with only four classes and two toilets for children. The school has not yet participated in or organized any events because of material obstacles.

Findings from the surveys: For the interviewees from school A, it is a gateway from poverty and a chance to have a bright future. School will make me have a good life; I can get a better job in the future; My father always tells me that school is my only inheritance. Students said they liked their particular school; however, they were bothered by walking long distances to school – on average, they walked five kilometers. They also wished to have more services provided by the school, such as trips, sports competitions with other schools, a variety of food in the tuck shop, and school lunches. Teachers from school A commented on the challenges they face in their workplace, with the lack of resources being the most difficult and demotivating. They have to try hard to deliver meaningful and interesting lessons. Another person thought that supplying the school with a computer lab and internet connection would improve the way of teaching.

While the research was being conducted in school A, students noted in their diaries that they were learning about fractions in maths, comparing nouns and writing letters in English, and playing volleyball in PE. The lessons observed by the researcher were well-planned and engaging for all learners, with creative methods involved. Some exercises induced students’ creativity – they had to write poems about a bird, which they were enthusiastic about.

Students from school A, asked about what school should teach, mentioned two areas: new subjects (e. g. French, traditional dance) and practical skills; for instance, they dream about learning computers not only from theory. Teachers, in turn, dream of a school that develops students’ passion, practical skills, and entrepreneurship, but also teaches them discipline, moral values, and facing challenges.

Students from school B liked it for many reasons. They included its location (My school is near my home, so there isn’t much walking), relationships (It’s like we are one big family) and future prospects (I like school because it teaches us to be successful in life). They were also enthusiastic that the school is a big community, allowing them to meet many people and have new experiences. A distinctive feature of the respondents’ views on relationships at school is their belief in an inextricable link between student-teacher and student-student relationships and their educational achievements.

Students from school B mentioned English, science and technology, fashion and fabrics, and computer science as their favorite subjects. When asked about disliked lessons, their opinions included maths, agriculture and family, religion and moral education. The research shows variability in how the curricular content is delivered. There are lessons focused on practical skills. Students were learning how to prepare beds for growing vegetables or write a class list on the computer, while some lessons are more theoretical. When asked what they would like to experience at school, students from School B mentioned learning outside the classroom and non-standard subjects. Teachers suggested other changes, including computer skills, foreign languages, practical skills, problem solving, and individualization. As one teacher said, schools should move away from molding pupils to be exactly like one another.


Photo by Marcin Modzelewski

Lebanon

Cultural and historical background: The curriculum, which is still in use in Lebanon today, was introduced in 1997, and work on it began just after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. It was designed to build a post-war national identity in society and provide content that would help students respond to the needs of the labor market. The problem is that since 1997, the labor market and economic conditions have changed, but this was not followed by changes in the core curriculum. At the level of education policy implementation, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) plays a principal role.

Schooling system: The structure of the education system consists of nine years of primary education and three years of secondary education. Lebanese schools can be split into three categories: public schools (29 % of Lebanese students attend them), tuition-free private schools (14 %), and fee-based private schools (57 %). The Lebanese Ministry of Education for Youth and Sport exercises control over schools by licensing requirements for private schools and unified examinations at the end of the secondary cycle. The national curriculum is used both in public and private schools.

The Lebanese schools’ instruction languages are Arabic and French or English. The subjects taught in Arabic are usually limited to Arabic language and literature, geography, civics, and history. Depending on the school orientation, other lessons are usually taught in either French or English.

Schools surveyed by HTT researchers: The research was conducted in two schools. School A is located in a town in the agglomeration of Greater Beirut. The town is one of the most densely populated districts in Lebanon. A mixed residential, industrial, and commercial area, once a dynamic and industrious region, today faces many challenges. Residents struggle against poverty, limited access to water and electricity, run-down buildings, exposed unsafe electrical wiring, and lack of safe, accessible public spaces. The school – including kindergarten, pre-school, middle school, high school, and technical school – is run by the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate and operates in its buildings, endowed with well-equipped classrooms. The school has two libraries, a laboratory, and two auditoriums. In the 2021-2022 academic year, the total number of students was 1068, while that of the staff was 137.

The school B – also private – is located in town known for its historical and religious landmarks, with a population of 8 thousand (25 thousand in a whole municipality). Maronite Catholics make up the majority of the area’s population and could be subsumed between the middle and rich classes. 2,5 thousand students attend the school. It has a large infrastructure base with sports courts and a swimming pool. All classrooms and learning centers, including computer and sciences laboratories, are fully equipped with interactive whiteboards and computers with Internet access. Music rooms are available in every building and equipped with instruments. The school also has its choir and band. Chapels, catechism rooms as well as libraries are in every building. It’s worth noticing that the school has two theatres.

Findings from the surveys: Every surveyed group from school A – students, teachers, and parents – have positive views about it. Learners spend their free time with their friends playing or studying together. They also visit each other at birthday parties. Teachers feel that together with their colleagues, they form a family. They are also emphatic and supportive in their relationship with students and parents. Respondents stressed that school is not only a place where they learn but also a space for establishing relationships and spending time pleasantly.

School A prides itself on the students’ excellence in math and science subjects. However, the interviewees admit that there is more focus on knowledge than skills. According to the school principal, the system is old but enables students to acquire a “solid base.” The respondents don’t like computer classes, which sometimes are about editing text or do not involve using computers at all. They also dislike lessons taught by sad teachers or moments when the teacher raises their voice. When asked about subjects they like, they pointed to Arabic studies (because the teacher makes jokes), science subjects, and all the lessons with a relaxing atmosphere.

When our researchers asked students from school A what the school of their dreams should teach, they mentioned non-standard subjects (e. g., swimming, dancing, chess), life skills (how to run a business or how to rescue someone in the case of an accident), analytical skills. They also would like to be taught more interestingly and receive more support from some teachers. Teachers, when asked about the same thing, listed manners, reasoning, self-reflection, cultural knowledge, and technology.

School B emphasizes that its mission is the holistic development of its students. According to the principal, the schooling system in Lebanon is obsolete and focused on exam results. Private schools have the advantage of providing a more comprehensive education .Besides the academic program, students from school B are offered a life enrichment program, including skills of building self-esteem, listening, managing time and finances, and working in a team. Students may also take part in programs prepared by different universities and organizations. Teachers perceived school as “the main actor in building personalities,” influencing how students think, see the world, and act in society.

Students from school B like the subjects taught in a fun and engaging way (Arabic, maths), which are easy (French), creative (theatre and art), and involving them in a discussion (English). They appreciate unusual events in the classroom, such as bringing animals to class and preparing healthy milk in the science lesson. They do not like subjects based on memorization (geography) or confusing information (informatics). They are also overwhelmed by the number of exercises and long assignments.

B-school students believe that education should place more emphasis on foreign languages and developing creativity. They would be happy to see non-standard subjects such as meditation or gardening. They would also like to receive more support from teachers and feel they have more influence on the school. Teachers mentioned discipline, values and ethics, cultural awareness, social and 21s century skills, while parents noted life-skills and savoir-vivre.

Photo by Marcin Modzelwski

Kenya

Cultural and historical background: African-Kenyan indigenous education emphasized social responsibility, job orientation, political participation, spirituality, and moral values. Regarding formal education, missionaries laid the foundation for that in the 19th century, mainly in areas along the coast, where they introduced reading as an essential mechanism for spreading Christianity. Contrary to indigenous education, formal schooling under the missionaries and then colonial administration was definitely not holistic. The colonial administration wanted Africans to be trained in practical skills of carpentry or agriculture. The curriculum in the mission schools was disconnected from village life and often aimed to alienate children from their African culture and value system.

The history of modern education in Kenya began in 1963 when the country gained independence. Changes initiated by the independence government included building more secondary schools and abolishing racial schools. The government introduced compulsory primary education in 2003.

Schooling system: National education is divided into eight years of compulsory primary education (beginning at six), four years at the secondary level, and four years of higher education (8-4-4). The government provides free primary and secondary education. Students participate in classes in maths, integrated science, English, Kiswahili, health education, and social studies, among others. At the time being, education in Kenya is undergoing a reform to introduce a new Competency Based Curriculum and the changes that go as part of it. Under the new system (2-6-3-3), learners will spend two years in pre-primary level (for ages 4-5), proceed to primary school from grade one to six, and then transition to secondary school for six years. Secondary education will be split into junior secondary school (three years) and senior secondary school (three years). The final level is three years of university studies. The Government hopes to phase out the 8-4-4 curriculum by 2026.

Schools surveyed by HTT researchers: The research was conducted in two schools. School A is a public one, located in the affluent neighborhood of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. It is attended by 1,320 students. It has a huge playground, a football field, a swimming pool, and a soundproof sensory integration room for children with disabilities. However, given the needs and size of the school, its physical facilities are not impressive. For example, in a computer lab, to accommodate a whole class (on average, 40 students), at least two students must share one screen.

School B has 368 learners and is located in the same region as school A. School B, however, is private, which is followed by its better facilities. The students participate in extracurricular activities like musical instruments, chess, and skating.

Findings from the surveys: Our survey indicates that students like the A school. They told us they feel safe there and enjoy learning new things daily. Children like many of their teachers, even sometimes calling them parents. They say it’s a place where everyone is equal. Teachers and parents also portrayed the school as an inclusive and relationship-based place. When asked about their favorite subjects, students from school A pointed to English, math, and science. They found Kiswahili lessons most difficult, especially for those students who do not use the language at home.

When asked what subjects they would like to see in school, school A students pointed to agriculture, languages (especially English, French and Chinese), non-standard subjects (e. g., culinary arts), and biology (to understand their bodies). They would also like to receive more support from teachers – to feel understood and listened to. Teachers pointed to discipline, culture, relationship to the state, adaptation, and holistic education. Parents, on the other hand, mentioned technology, sex education, and communication skills, among others.

The school experience of most respondents from school B was good. Parents described the school as a place to acquire knowledge and develop talents, and just like teachers, they connected it with the preparation of young people for their future lives. When asked about their favorite subjects, students pointed to Christian Religious Education, science, and math (although classes in the latter, according to some students, are too demanding).

When asked what an ideal school should look like, students from School B spoke of more support from teachers, learning non-standard subjects (engineering and electronics, yoga classes), and gaining practical skills, including agriculture and self-defense. Teachers pointed to entrepreneurship, communication, and tolerance, among other things, while parents focused on practical skills and talent development.

Brazil

Cultural and historical background: The beginning of education policy in Brazil began with the country’s independence in 1822. However, the attempt to change the colonial reality gained momentum in the 1920s. Educator Anísio Teixeira is considered the inventor of public schools in Brazil. However, it is Brazil’s 1988 federal constitution that provides free access to education at all levels, from early childhood to higher education.

Schooling system: Compulsory education starts at the age of four in preschool (lasting three years), then students go to elementary school (lasting nine years), and finally, to high school (lasting three years). Learners study Portuguese (including Brazilian literature), foreign languages (English, Spanish, rarely French), history, geography, maths, physics, chemistry, biology, arts, and physical education. A New High School program is currently being introduced in Brazil, which involves learning by areas of knowledge that will allow young people to choose technical and professional training. It will be fully implemented by 2024.

Schools surveyed by HTT researchers: The research was conducted in two schools. School A is a private one, located in one of the major cities in Bahia region, n the north part of the country. The neighborhood of the school in question stands out as one of the most recent and prosperous in the city. It is situated in the privileged part, mainly for residential and educational purposes. The school’s surroundings consist of large residences, gyms, a tennis academy, convention and event centers, and supermarkets. The school has 42 teachers and 389 students in early childhood and elementary education, in addition to 92 other employees.

School B is also located in the Bahia region but in its poor part. The institution is private; however, its students come from low-income families, and the school’s tuition is much lower than at other private schools. The school has around 200 students from early education to high school. They used to have a contract with the government program “Educa mais Brasil,” which provided students with scholarships. After the government canceled the agreement, the school offered discounts for some students whose parents come from low-income families.

Findings from the surveys: Students from school A, according to our survey, like their place of learning. One of the learners interviewed regretted not being able to go to school on Saturdays to meet his friends. All groups of respondents are uniformly positive about the school. They think highly of the school as a community and physical environment. They also have a very emotional attitude toward schooling: students are happy to be in the school environment, teachers are motivated by their ideals of making a change in students’ lives, and parents associate school with joy, discovery, and friendship.

In addition to standard subjects, the A school also offers ballet, capoeira, karate, or other unconventional activities. Students from school A learn to share and cooperate naturally. According to one respondent, they also learn respect, deal with others, set limits, and non-violent communication.

However, when asked what they missed about the school, the students from school A pointed out a few things. First, they would like to learn more through play. Second, they would like to gain relevant knowledge, such as cooking, psychology, or first aid. They also dream of more foreign language classes, the school imparting knowledge on diversity or sexuality, and interesting subjects like theatre or pottery. When asked about gaps in education, teachers pointed to areas such as science (but taught through experiments), financial education, social skills, and others. Parents also mentioned financial education, but also critical thinking, altruism, and moral values.

Statements by students from School B sometimes included negative comments toward the school, understood both as the building itself (dirty bathrooms, crowded hallways, lack of a library or sports court) and the community (mixed feelings toward some teachers, feeling ignored). Our researchers who participated in the lessons also noted that while some teachers were caring and empathetic, one of them had a threatening tone, and the group was visibly afraid of her).

Interestingly, in the responses of B-school students, math and geography appeared as both favorite and hated subjects. In some of the lessons observed by our researchers, the students were so numerous that teachers, despite their best intentions, could not pay attention to each person’s performance and difficulties.

Students from School B would like to learn in ITC lessons not only how to use a computer but also robotics. One of the children interviewed also pointed out that physical education classes should be free according to the law. Still, students at this school only have the option of attending paid karate and ballet classes, which not everyone can afford. In addition, students would like to participate in sexual education classes and learn languages other than just English. The need for sexual education was also pointed out in the survey by teachers and parents.

The school surveyed in Brazil. Photo by Marcin Modzelewski

Poland

Cultural and historical background: After Poland’s political transformation in 1989, the country’s education system changed several times, which always became the subject of national debate. The lack of consistency of action due to the frequently changing governing authorities and their outlook on education is undoubtedly the biggest problem in Polish education, causing confusion among teachers, parents, and children. However, it must be admitted that thanks to support from the European Union, which Poland joined in 2003, most schools, including those in rural areas, are very well equipped. On the other hand, not much has changed in teachers’ training and conditions, and the teaching profession is seen as poorly paid and undervalued.

Schooling system: At the moment – after recent, another change – Polish children attend an eight- year elementary school. After it, they choose a secondary school: either a five-year technical school, a three-year vocational school, or a four-year high school, which is designed to prepare them for higher education. The curriculum, like the education system itself, is frequently modified. Students are generally under early childhood education for the first three years of school, and specific subjects such as math, science, history, and geography are implemented later.

School surveyed by HTT researchers: It is located in a quiet, picturesque village, but within the metropolitan area, with accessible communication to the city. There is also an international airport a few kilometers away. The region is appreciated by tourists for its numerous rocks, caves, and attractive valleys. As for the school’s closest surroundings, there is a kindergarten, an outdoor gym, and a small store nearby. The surveyed school is public.

Findings from the surveys: The survey found that students view the school through the lens of the obligations and requirements they face. When asked about what they did on a given day, students brought up either what they did during breaks (talking to friends, playing) or the tests they had. Rarely did they reflect on the content of the lessons. They also seemed overwhelmed by the amount of homework and tests. Also, parents asked about their associations with school, referred to the workload that children have to cope with.

Students indicated the importance of teambuilding, yet both surveyed groups mentioned conflicts with classmates. In one group, a problem with verbal aggression against one boy occurred. Teachers did not react to it unless students explicitly asked for an intervention. Students spoke highly of fair and supportive teachers, especially the history teacher. However, during the interviews, there were also stories of unfair teachers (for example, punishing the entire class for one person’s behavior). Furthermore, the respondents had a visibly emotional attitude towards teachers’ raising their voices. This issue was brought up repeatedly in the course of the interviews. Questions about the relationship between teachers and students aroused mixed emotions, shown by representatives of both groups.

The students complained especially about math ( more specifically, about a teacher who does not adequately explain the content and interrupts learners during tests) and the specific task they have to complete in various lessons: writing. One student said his dream is at least one week without a word about a test. However, when our researchers asked teachers about the curriculum, only one (a history teacher) raised objections.

While they described in detail what they disliked about the school, the students had trouble pointing out specific improvements that would help them like school. They only mentioned more support from teachers, non-standard subjects (among them sports history, ceramics, zoology), self-defense, and life skills. Teachers and parents mentioned more areas. These are some of them: etiquette and good habits, teamwork, critical thinking, cultural heritage, responsibility, and economy.

The school surveyed in Poland. Photo by Ivo Krankowski

Summary and final conclusions

Our researchers conducted the study in schools that were very distant culturally and geographically. Among them were private and public schools, located in urban and rural areas.

In some of them – one might guess that there is a result of cultural background – the children did not show openness in finding weaknesses in the school and were unable to think critically about it. An obvious example is the Philippines.

At the same time, there were very similar conclusions from all the schools surveyed.

First, the essence of schooling is building healthy and trusting relationships, both between peers, students and teachers, or teachers and parents. The key role of relationships was emphasized by all members of the school communities in all countries surveyed.

Second, while the disparity in school equipment across countries and – in some cases – the gap between public and private schools is striking, the statements of the students, as well as the observations of the researchers, indicate that even more crucial that schools equipment (which, of course, cannot be underestimated either) is how knowledge is imparted by the teacher. Even students who disliked schools stressed that they felt comfortable in lessons run by passionate teachers who ensure students understand the material and are engaged, helpful and supportive. In short: a good teacher can make students curious about the subject, even if the official curriculum is outdated and the school is underfunded. This, in turn, brings us to the conclusion that the best investment in education – is an investment in teachers.

Third, students from all countries answered the question of what a school should teach in a surprisingly similar way. A few responses were rolled out almost in every school: non-standard subjects, practical skills (the details, naturally, varied from country to country), and outdoor activities. Students worldwide also dream of (even) more support from teachers. Foreign languages, self-defense, yoga or meditation, and first aid were often mentioned as well. Teachers and parents tended to point to more areas, including moral values, discipline, and self-reliance, among others. However, observations from our research indicate that students – while sometimes having trouble elaborating on their needs – intuitively know what and how they would like to be taught. They want the school not only to give them hard knowledge but also practical skills that would be useful in their future lives. They dream that it teaches empathy, teamwork, awareness of others, the world, and their own bodies, and respect for nature. They do not want memorization and excess knowledge, which they can look up on the Internet at any time. They are tired and frustrated by the overabundance of tests, a grading system, and an atmosphere of perpetual competition and fear. They want to feel that a school is a friendly place where they find what they need.

Their needs, the study proved, are entirely in line with the assumptions of the Interdisciplinary School Subject (IDS) that HTT is working on. Its introduction to schools is a very ambitious plan, but we believe it is achievable. It would have to be done with the great support of teachers, who, as our survey found, play the most important role in schooling. For this reason, a system of training on IDS, widely disseminated among teachers, will be essential.