07 June 2023
Małgorzata Nowakowska: As a teacher and as a mother, I dream of schools that teach how to live wisely
An interview with Małgorzata Nowakowska, physicist, school teacher, founder of the blog "Fake news busters," and Copernicus Science Center employee. Małgorzata Nowakowska is also one of the IDS Ambassadors, working with the Holistic Think Tank.
What is the problem?
The reality of schooling has simply collapsed.
School should teach skills important and necessary for life in the modern world. Let’s face it: the distribution of forces on an even keel, like thousands of other things in the core curriculum, does not belong to them.
What do belong?
For example, what my blog “Fake news busters” deals with: the ability to critically analyze information and its sources. The school does not teach – or far inadequately teaches – either what online safety is, what manipulation techniques are, how to check sources, what those sources even are, or awareness of how different information affects us. We see a clickbait title – let’s say, “A must-see! Five ways to be beautiful and young,” and we often click without thinking. There’s nothing wrong with the click itself, but we need to be aware of why we’re doing it, how certain words work on us, and what tricks are used. Unfortunately, many of us also fail to recognize fake news or the language of propaganda, becoming easy victims of the fast-moving changes.
The school doesn’t teach this; it just reflects the state of the world decades ago. In the 1970s or 1980s, knowledge alone was already a value. Now, in the age of universal access to the Internet, we are on a completely different level. Information is readily available – and if it’s not correct, it can be a barrier or even a danger. To find our way in the modern world, we need to be able to connect information, much like connecting the dots. More important than knowledge is what we do with it. From memorization – the ability to think critically and analytically. And this is what my…
Mission is a big word. Probably more appropriate is responsibility.
What does it involve?
I try to show students how to connect those dots, how to manage knowledge, and eliminate useless information – with which we are, after all, littered. Of course, like any teacher, I have to follow the core curriculum, let’s face it: outdated. However, if the discussion in a classroom descends on a topic related to real life, modern times, and the ability to think critically and analyze sources of knowledge – I do not cut it off.
You said that the core curriculum is outdated. How does this relate to the subject you teach – which is physics?
If we are already talking about the core curriculum, it ends with early Einstein. “The youngest” topics are nuclear physics – and let me remind you that the first nuclear power plants were built in the 1950s. Some small slice is about the physics discoveries of the 1970s. After that, a huge gap.
It’s as if nothing has happened in physics for several decades.
And then people think so, and I don’t surprise them at all. Young people don’t even learn how a touchscreen works. They don’t ask themselves questions about the benefits and harms of pollution in the cosmos around us. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to live without this knowledge – but I see inconsistency in the fact that we require students to do calculations based on Newton’s dynamics principles while we don’t tell them what GPS or lasers are.
Did you like school as a student?
I liked primary school very much. It was an ordinary, systemic school, but I was very lucky with the teachers. I met educators who did not degrade students but developed them, bringing out the best in them. In contrast, I hated high school.
I wanted to develop myself, but I didn’t have the opportunity.
Is the system not promoting the development of gifted children?
I don’t know what it promotes at all. Maybe it teaches them to be sneaky.
I remember that the ability to cheat was even a source of pride.
Children sit at desks for several hours a day for 12 years. No wonder they wonder how to “cheat the system.” What is a student held accountable for? On what grade he writes a test. And already how he will do it – is of secondary importance. And yet the school, for the sake of the future of the next generations, should teach the opposite: responsibility, honesty, and cooperation.
Why did you become a teacher?
I’ll be honest: by coincidence. I don’t and never have taught full-time. I wouldn’t be able to. Part-time work, however, gives me a lot.
What, for example?
By developing others, I develop myself. I have learned how to explain complex issues in a simple way. Besides, young people, of course not all, want to change the world. Thanks to being with them, I haven’t grown out of it either.
You also work for the Copernicus Science Center. Does that help you maintain balance?
Yes, but these activities are elements of the same path I have set for myself. At Copernicus, I’m working on a project related to the exhibition “The Future is Today,” which touches on issues such as algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, climate change, and soon there will also be a part related to modern medicine. So, the exhibition shows some phenomena that are already happening (and their scale is going to get bigger and bigger) and is supposed to make us think about what direction we are going in and what direction we want to go. This, in turn, is supposed to teach us to take responsibility. We don’t have to be just passive observers of a changing world. We can take the future into our own hands. This strongly fits with my view of the world and what I want.
And what do you want?
I want a better world. And the key to a better world is to take responsibility for it. I am a teacher, and above all, I am a mother. I want to raise my children to be honest and solid people who make conscious decisions. And I want them to live in a world that is not about to fall apart.
Doesn’t school prepare you for a responsible, conscious life?
School is now serfdom for most students. They just want to survive it. Imagine going to a new job where you are constantly evaluated, controlled, and humiliated, in which you simply see no point – and you have no way to change that job for another eight years. This simple exercise of imagination shows what students face under the previous system, which is still in place.
You used opposite expressions.
Intentionally. I say “previous system,” although it is, after all, still in place, to emphasize its outdatedness, but also my strong conviction – not only mine – that it is high time to change it. If we want schools that teach how to live well and wisely, then education needs not so much to be rebuilt as to be built anew. From the foundations. And I dream of participating in that process.