22 March 2024

IDS reminded me what school is really about

An interview with Magdalena Jasińska, a teacher of biology, physics, chemistry, and geography in primary schools near Bielsko-Biała, an evaluator of IDS lessons' scenarios.

Author: Maria Mazurek,



Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Oh, what did you bring with you?

A three-dimensional model of an amoeba. I borrowed it from the school. I suspected this motif would come up in our conversation.

I planned it that way because when we first met, you said: The WSOT list (What Schools Ought to Teach) reminded me that school is not about teaching about a cell of amoeba.

It’s not. It’s primarily about all the things that can be learned while discussing the construction of amoeba, while counting solution concentrations and telling stories about river tributaries.

So what is it about?

It is about cooperation, initiative, communication, critical thinking. In short, it’s about preparing kids for life. But that doesn’t mean the amoeba gets in the way of that. On the contrary. If we present it properly to the kids, they’re intrigued. For several years now, there’s been a discussion in Poland about trimming the curriculum. Most teachers – at least those I know – have seen this step as necessary. But when the discussion starts getting into specifics – what exactly could be removed from the curriculum – then everyone has a different opinion. And I think what is in the curriculum (or what isn’t) isn’t really the most important thing. What’s most important is how we teach it. And what values ​​we convey in the process.

The amoeba is funny in that it has become a kind of rhetorical figure; a symbol of the useless things schools teach. Because does knowledge of amoeba anatomy really help students in life?

For the most part, not. But here we can ask ourselves a broader question: if any knowledge, in an era of such widespread and rapid access to information, is necessary? After all, we can check everything on the internet. That’s why schools should teach how to acquire and verify knowledge. Teachers should focus on competencies such as critical thinking, analyzing sources, and assessing the credibility of information.

Magdalena Jasińska with the model of an amoeba

However, learning about the structure of an amoeba can be a great adventure for students, during which they learn cooperation, communication, and initiative. For example, kids can play the roles of cell organelles, which can be very developmental for them. In this sense, the amoeba, like any area of ​​school material, can be a good starting point, a basis for teaching more useful and “life” skills. Moreover, primary school is the last moment when students are not yet “specialized”; they have broad interests and flexible minds. Therefore, one of the functions of school education is to show young people the whole range of topics and areas so that they can choose something for themselves. When students ask me, “Please, why do we learn this?”

And do they ask?
They ask, and it makes me very happy because it means they can critically observe reality, contest it, ask questions. So when they ask why we’re learning this, I tell them: In primary school, we show various subjects and topics. It’s like the Science Prince came to you and offered you a variuos things. Some of them arent`t for you, it’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re worse – biology just isn’t your thing. We’re different, our interests and competencies differ. Keep trying, and you’ll surely find something for yourself. Your interests and your path.

Students truly are different. Some will be interested in the amoeba, others in space, yet others in history. And each will later go their own way, developing in what they liked in school. Teachers don’t have to get every student interested in their subject. But they should get every student interested in the values ​​that the Holistic Think Tank talks about: respect for others, the art of dialogue, cooperation, a sense of initiative. That’s what captivates me in this program because it’s really doable. School really can and should be a place for building values. And primary school, which in Poland has as many as eight grades, is a great time to start. And one more thing: in shaping values, the subject teacher shouldn’t be alone. After all, in every school, there are also other staff members: the caretaker, the cleaner, the library teacher. And these are people who can also have a significant influence on the development of children. It would be great if we were consistent in this work on values. If we were one team.

Is it difficult to convey values ​​to children? To teach them what really matters?

It’s difficult because sometimes our everyday life as teachers – including grading, preparing for external exams, or implementing the curriculum – limits us so much that we forget why we got into this profession. That we were here to teach these young people how to live meaningfully and happily – with themselves and with others. To convey to them what really matters. That’s why initiatives like the Holistic Think Tank are so necessary. They act as a wake-up call, breaking us out of routine. Because we, as teachers, sometimes need that push. To pause and ask ourselves: is this what school is really about?

I have to admit that removing my subjects from external exams had a very positive effect on me. Before, I taught in a junior high school that ended with exams in natural sciences. And on the exam, there were questions like calculating the sun’s altitude. So, with my students, to the point of exhaustion, we calculated this altitude – because, like every teacher, I wanted my students to do well on the exam. I know that some natural science teachers regret that knowledge from our subjects is no longer tested in exams, but personally, I’m glad that responsibility was taken off my shoulders. Thanks to that, I have more freedom to propose something creative to the students, to implement a cool group project instead of going through some equation for the fortieth time, or to focus on a topic that interests the students for longer.

For instance?

For instance, now I’m teaching about agriculture, including animal husbandry, in seventh grade. At first glance: not the most interesting topic. But with the help of a math teacher, I proposed a strategic game to the students where they design a farm. They’re given a virtual budget – five thousand PLN – to buy livestock. They can choose what kind of animals they want. Then, we calculate profits and losses and relate our results to the agricultural situation. And the kids got really into it. I listened to their – very lively – debates on what animals to buy and noticed that they think very logically. For example, they want to buy two of each animal – male and female – so they can breed them later. They ask interesting, reasonable questions about issues that aren’t explained in the game rules: if they buy pigs, will they be able to sell manure? Or if they buy alpacas, will they be able to sell their wool? I tell them: Listen, you decide, this is your project, don’t limit yourselves. And it turns out to be a great piece of work: students learn strategic thinking, economic calculations, initiative, community, and cooperation. But I emphasize: this is possible because I no longer have to teach them for external tests. If my subjects were concluded with an exam, I could only dedicate one lesson to the topic of livestock farming. But now I spend three, because I see how engaging it is for the students.

What does the cooperation with Holistic Think Tank give you?

A sense that I’m not alone in my thinking about education. There are more of us. A movement is born that unites such teachers, networks them, and spreads this thought. And which, I hope, will grow bigger and bigger. It’s also feedback for me: you think about school well. Because I’ve always been a teacher who willingly engages in various projects, takes students outside the school, sometimes creates conditions for them to be educators themselves, which wonderfully teaches children initiative. Sometimes, when a lot is happening in school, critical voices arise: Another project, another field trip, another competition? But when do these children actually learn?

It’s as if they didn’t learn anything during projects or trips…

Exactly. And they do learn, often even more. Just slightly different things. And that’s also a great opportunity for students who aren’t necessarily top school’s performers. Like I said: children have different competencies. The traditional approach to school only “tests” some of them: the ability to absorb knowledge, a scientific approach to various issues, the ability to cram for exams, solve tasks under the pressure of stress and time. There are children who won’t excel in these areas, but thanks to less “conventional” initiatives, they can shine in other fields. And it often turns out that average or weak students do a great job as a tree-planting campaign’s leaders. Or that they’re great at editing videos. Or during a forest trip, they realize they’re drawn to nature and maybe that will make them consider becoming a forester? It’s good for schools to offer various projects, to show as many different areas as possible so that every student finds something for themselves, discovers their talents. Because everyone has a talent, right?

And this also reinforces students’ sense of self-worth.

Definietely. And this can then impact the quality of life for those individuals. Because if during the youngest years of life a person constantly receives – in the form of poor grades – the message that they are mediocre or even worthless, they enter adulthood with a negative self-image. And it really takes a lot for them to change that self-perception. People then seek help from psychologists or coaches – if they can even seek help and ask for it. But they should come out of school with a sense of agency, with faith in their abilities. Because everyone has talents. It’s the school’s job to show students what they’re good at. And above all: that they are good at something.

You’re not a fan of grades, rught?

The longer I teach in school, the less I am. I used to couldn’t imagine school without grades. Because how else, I thought, could we motivate students to learn? But kids come out of preschool with skills they didn’t get grades for, yet they acquired them. And later on, they also pick up various interests – they learn about dinosaurs or get into programming – even though it’s not rewarded with any grades. They do it for themselves. Out of curiosity. For self-development. Out of passion. We should be reinforcing that in students.

I see it in geography because a lot of kids love national flags. And they take the initiative themselves, make quizzes on their phones, have fun with it. Not because I tell them to. Because they like it. I also have one student who is a talented young cartographer. He can draw a political map of Africa from memory, mark all the countries on it. This isn’t required at the primary school level at all. But it excites him. He recently prepared impressive materials for the lesson, so I asked him if he preferred me to give him a grade for it or points for behavior. And he replied: I did it for fun, I don’t want anything for it.

It would be wonderful if all children learned for satisfaction, not for grades.

Yes. However, we need to consider that education is a triangle. There’s the student, there’s the teacher, but there are also parents. And it’s often the parents who have different expectations and thinking patterns. So it’s important for parents to understand that school isn’t really about grades. It’s not about whether their daughter will be better than her classmate. Or if she’ll draw a prettier picture. In Polish schools, there are plenty of competitions for artwork that children are supposed to do at home. In my opinion, they don’t make much sense. Unless we were to call them: competitions for the most involved families. Because parents often make competition pieces with their child. I don’t quite understand it. What joy is there in winning – the joy of that parent and the joy of the child? Or what joy does the student have in a good grade if they cheated on the test? Cheating, circumventing the system, scheming – seems to be ingrained in Polish mentality. It would be good if we finally broke that transgenerational cycle. If the school broke it.


Through nurturing trust, a sense of security, and a positive atmosphere in the classroom. School is about relationships. These are what we should care for. It’s the responsibility of the teacher, especially in primary school. I believe they should play the role of a wise adult in the child’s life. Showing them support. If a teacher builds relationships with students based on trust, safety, and dialogue, the child understands that they don’t need to outsmart them. Because we’re a team. The child then knows that this adult is for me and wants what’s best for me.

What to do to build such a relationship?

Be there for those children. Be present, notice them, listen to them.