04 May 2023

Dr. Joanna Górecka: It’s time for schools to be a place of humanity

Interview with Joanna Górecka, a doctor of humanities, a Polish language teacher at the "No Bell" school in Konstancin-Jeziorna, and director of the Institute of Educational Innovation there. Dr. Górecka co-creates innovative curricula and conducts training in non-oppressive and engaging pedagogy. She is also one of the "IDS Agents of Educational Change" that work on developing lesson scenarios and implementing them in schools.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Source: Pixabay

A teacher should, above all…
Realize that he can change people’s lives. He can break a young person, but he can also help him a lot: open him to the world, knowledge, and people.

Did someone try to break you?
Yes. In primary school, I had a problem with math. When my teacher found out I was planning to attend high school, she said, “To high school? You?! No way.” To this day, I remember the disregard in her voice. It was as if she was trying to strip me of my dignity. I was very persistent and got into my dream school. But how many students won’t get such persistence? How many young people is such an educator able to break the psyche? How many can believe that since the teacher says so – then I’m not skilled enough?

Did you become a teacher because of this experience?
To a large extent, yes. I thought that if this resulted in at least one more teacher in the world who treats students like human beings – that would be a step in the right direction. My contribution to making school a place that doesn’t strip away students’ dignity. I wish these kinds of stories that happened to me – would happen less often.

Joanna Górecka, Ph.D.

Today, in addition to teaching at the school, you also provide training on innovative education. Innovative – meaning what kind?
Innovative education is non-oppressive education. It gives students a sense of empowerment and active participation in the educational process. A sense of subjectivity. Innovative education is also about building relationships.

The traditional school is not based on relationships, according to you?
I don’t know if teacher-student contact in a traditional school can be called a relationship. It’s a feudal model, which is based on dependence and hierarchy, not relationships. And – just as in the Middle Ages, when someone was born a peasant and died a peasant, or someone was born in a magnate family and died a magnate – so in schools, a student once classified as the “good” one, graduates as the “good” one. And the one classified as “weak” – graduates as “weak.”

Is it hard to change this classification?
Yes, because our brains like repetitive patterns and orders. And sometimes, as a result, they set traps for us. It is worth looking at Rosenthal’s experiment. The researcher’s purpose was to show how much influence teachers’ expectations have on students. He assigned a group of students to educators, telling them that their alumni were extraordinarily talented. In fact, he chose completely random students: both those with high and average or even low educational outcomes….

Let me guess: the students began to achieve great academic results?
That’s exactly what happened. Yet most teachers don’t know how to bring out the potential in students. Schools can’t handle low-achieving students and can’t handle gifted ones. Many brilliant minds, like Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, did not graduate from college. Albert Einstein was so tired of school – as he later wrote about in his memoirs – that he no longer had the strength to continue his education, although he eventually succumbed to his family’s urging. Traditional schools are not made for gifted children, nor for those who need to be helped. They are for the average, humble ones, who politely transcribe the material from the blackboard and then memorize it, only to forget it after the test. Please pay attention to the fact that education is the only area that has not changed for many years. Yes, there have been reforms, but they touched the administrative and programmatic layers, but in their essence – schools are still almost the same as they were centuries ago. Just type the following phrase into the Internet: schools in the Middle Ages. You can see images of teachers mechanically reading books to children and students humbly gazing at them. And yet all the knowledge that mankind had back in the 10th century would fit into the Christmas edition of a present-day, widely-read magazine. Today there is so much knowledge that memorizing it misses the point. Instead, young people need to be taught how to use this knowledge space effectively and wisely.

So if the world has changed, why are we still stuck in this old-fashioned thinking about education?
This is something I don’t understand. Why the modern school – and it’s a global problem – does not understand that education is a work with resources and that assessment should not be a tool (certainly not the most important one) in the hands of the teacher? I don’t want to complain about educators because it’s a very hard profession, which, unfortunately, is not associated with much prestige or money. Instead, we can consider how to convince them that it’s time for a change.

So: how to convince them?
A drop drills the rock. I place hope in initiatives like the Holistic Think Tank or No Bell, the school where I teach. The change we are talking about would be difficult to achieve in a systemic way. Rather, to convince “traditional” teachers, you have to show them from the bottom up how we work, what results we have, and where to start. It can be difficult at the beginning. I have a befriended school in the Bieszczady Mountains; I sometimes go there and try to convince educators to innovative education. One teacher told me: “I wanted to teach this way, I started, but it didn’t work out for me.” I replied: “The first time has the right not to work out. The point is not to give up.”

Let’s imagine that I am a teacher whom you want to convince. What specific actions do you recommend to me?
Not using summative assessment, or, to put it simply: not giving grades. Building relationships with students and taking the time to talk to each of them individually. Getting rid of textbooks. “Material” can be implemented through games, plays, discussions, and projects. Children have a curiosity about the world, and “ticking off” lessons with textbooks simply kills this curiosity. Students should be surprised at every lesson and have a sense that another adventure awaits them today – and they don’t quite know what kind. If they have a textbook, everything is predetermined. The headmistress of my school, Iza Gorczyca, always asks: Do any of us read the same book all year? No. Then why do we force kids (and ourselves, by the way) to read the same textbook all year long, almost every day?

However, not only teachers but also parents need to be convinced.
Yes, and it can be very difficult. Parents often expect grades. Good ones, of course. No wonder – in the media space, we are constantly fed with the message that the most important thing in education is grades and tests. A well-known chain of stores selling consumer electronics gives out discounts for five on an annual school certificate. Everyone talks about the famous ranking, which positions schools based on results from high school exams or subject competitions. Sometimes the competitiveness among schools for a place in this ranking bears the hallmarks of absurdity. I have heard of a case where high school students are discouraged from taking extended exams because the school will lose points in the ranking. Where is the dignity of these young people here? Where is their humanity?

There are islands – like your school – where teaching is based on these values, not focusing on grades or competition. But then these kids end up in a system with graduates of traditional schools. How are they doing?

Very well. It’s not that in our school – or in general in schools that rely on modern education – students don’t experience failure. The difference is that we also show them how to deal with these failures. It’s also not that we don’t require anything from students. We do require a lot. Only we can achieve the same goal by different means: either by the method of punishment, humiliation, pressure, and dehumanization, like in a Russian ballet school, or by motivating students, encouraging them, and making them curious. Without taking away their humanity.

I dream that such schools would stop being islands. That in every school, no matter whether public or private, in a big city or in the countryside, humanity is more important than grades.