21 November 2023
“If there are more of us, we will succeed in creating a better school.” From the HTT Roundtable Discussion on IDS
Holistic Think Tank heads: Michal Dziuda (originator and founder) and Justyna Pokojska (executive director) held a roundtable meeting with HTT ambassadors, associate teachers, and educational activists. The result was a vivid, engaging discussion about holistic teaching, student needs, IDS Educational Program, and the school we want to build together.
Justyna Pokojska, Ph.D., executive director of the Holistic Think Tank: How to change education to ensure school transmits not only subject knowledge but also – the most important values for the youth’s development? How to teach children mutual respect and cooperation to prevent violence and misunderstandings?
Piotr Walda, a history teacher from a public school in Warsaw: Start with ourselves. I consider myself a tutor first, and only then an educator. We should look at the child as a partner – not someone we can yell at or force to do something.
Michał Dziuda, originator and founder of the Holistic Think Tank: I agree, we need to demand, above all, from ourelves. Regardless of whether one is a teacher or an entrepreneur. The ultimate aim of the company I represent is social contribution. Not business. Not profits. Profits are only a means to achieve social goals. If we are talking about social and business activities, the change should start with the entrepreneurs themselves, and if we are talking about education – analogously, with teachers.
Aleksandra Kujawska from the Kosciuszko Foundation, a teacher at Saska School (“Saska Szkoła Realna”) in Warsaw: In school where I work, we carry a social-business specialization. Sometimes, people are surprised: What does social activity have to do with business? I answer then: If someone wants to go into business, he must know what the world lives by, he must be socially sensitive. A good businessman is one who knows social needs. I completely agree: we should demand, above all, from ourselves.
Joanna Górecka, Ph.D. from the No Bell school in Konstancin-Jeziorna, a polonist, educational activist, creator of educational programs: I visit different schools. Sometimes I hear: It’s easy for you because you work in a private school, in ours it’s impossible. Yes, I represent a private school, but before that I worked in a public school for 12 years. I know the limitations of such schools. But I also know that the most critical change – is the one that takes place in the attitude of the teacher. If there are more of us, we will succeed in creating a better school.
Justyna Pokojska: The traditional one is built on a hierarchical teacher-student relationship. For years, the authority of a teacher was based on knowledge, access to which is no longer unique. Now every student is able to search for any term on the Internet in seconds. That’s why the Holistic Think Tank draws attention to the need to shape the competence of critical thinking, analyzing sources, responsible search for information.
Michał Dziuda: A teacher should be a master, but not one who designates himself as such, not one building his authority on claimed infallibility and omniscience. The authority of a master comes from something else: charisma, the ability to communicate and conduct lessons in a way that students enjoy them and satisfy from them. Unfortunately, teachers with charisma are in short supply.
Aleksandra Kujawska: I would emphasize that the school is also made up of parents. For me, a school is a triangle: students, teachers, parents. The relationship between them is extremely important. It would be optimal if everyone – parents, students, teachers – met sometimes to talk. Not only when there is a problem. Unfortunately, the Polish school is not used to dialogue, especially tripartite dialogue. I have participated in such three-way conversations – for example, about the choice of university, before high school graduation – and there have been times when a parent has heard for the first time that his child doesn’t really want to attend medical school, that he has other ideas about life, that he would most like to take a year off, and is afraid to say so at home, because everyone has expectations. School should be a place of dialogue, a place of relationships.
Justyna Pokojska: And how does it work at the school where you work? Does this three-way dialogue take place?
Aleksandra Kujawska: Yes. In our school, we hold breakfast meetings with students and parents every month. We have a rule that during these informal encounters we talk about everything, but not about grades. We talk about who likes to eat what, who baked delicious bread, what recipes we know for a perfect cinnamon rolls. Is this a school? In my opinion, yes. These are small steps to build a bond and to make people feel responsible for what they create together.
Justyna Pokojska: And yet these are exactly the values that school ought to teach. In the list developed by the Holistic Think Tank – but also in the IDS scenarios, which are already being implemented on a pilot basis – the need for schools to build community, social responsibility, mutual respect and trust resonates strongly.
Michał Dziuda: In our belief, the aim of school is for children to learn as much as possible about themselves. Not about differential equations, not about a cell’s structure. These are things that can be easily checked. It is much more difficult to learn about oneself. We want to change the school in this direction. Next year, we will work very hard to promote and spread our idea. We want to attract many charismatic, committed teachers who think in a similar way. We need to unite, set a common goal, and then bring it to life.
Małgorzata Nowakowska from the Life Skills Foundation, a physics teacher: My attention was caught by the phrase: common goal. Every teacher has slightly different aims, other priorities, for each of us various things are important. But all of us, as we sit here, dream of a school that puts the student at the center. Not grades, not rankings, not tests, but a human being. About a school that teaches cooperation, curiosity, communication skills. I believe it will be possible to formulate a common goal that is in harmony with the values and aims of individual teachers.
Michał Dziuda: Yes, this is the key. If we go under one banner – of course, in very different ways and under different circumstances – we can achieve what we are aiming for.
Justyna Pokojska: It sounds like utopia, but this change is already taking place. Joanna, we’ve seen your IDS scenarios, we’ve taken part in the lessons you’ve taught. You are a Polish language teacher, but you transmit all the values from the WSOT list during your classes. How do you do it? How we should teach holistically?
Joanna Górecka: Forget everything we’ve been taught so far. First of all: give up textbooks. Burn them. Throw them away. Trample them. A textbook is a prosthesis that both teachers and students get. Then everyone sits down, opens it to page 34, looks at task number three. We know from neuroscience – which, after all, is strongly developing – that every person loses concentration after 10-15 minutes of doing a monotonous, repetitive activity. Child or adult, it doesn’t matter. Our brain simply “turns off”. Another point: drop the partial grades. Grades have a stigmatizing effect. I know from myself: since I had math problems, my teachers thought I was stupid. When I got my PhD, I went back to my school to ask: That’s me, remember how stupid I was?
Piotr Walda: I, for years, have been fighting in my school not to put up grades. I’ve been fighting and losing. When I suggested to other teachers at my school to move away from partial grades, they replied that I don’t want to work because I don’t want to put up grades. I lose, by the way, not only with my colleagues. I am also losing with students’ parents. Sometimes, I spend a long time explaining to parents what the child has learned, what he knows, what he should work on. In the end, the question is asked anyway: Well, but what grade will he get?
Aleksandra Kujawska: And yet more precise, non-stigmatizing, and motivating is feedback. We at our school work with it.
Justyna Pokojska: How does it look like?
Aleksandra Kujawska: Feedback indicates what is needed to go further. The teacher writes: here I can see the effects, this is mastered, but on this topic it would be helpful to work more. If a child masters a range of material, the teacher then indicates that he sees results. Feedback, unlike a grade, is a dialogue. My child worked this way for four years. At the end, we printed out all the feedback he got during that time. It was literally a book about his development. A beautiful story about a young person developing in school and the teachers who observe and support him. Feedback is something that includes educators, not just students. We, as a teaching staff, have trained heavily on how to work with it. Also how to work with parents – precisely to avoid misunderstanding or doubts on their part.
Justyna Pokojska: Joanna, is there any other area in holistic education that you would like to draw attention to?
Joanna Górecka: Giving power and responsibility to the student. The teacher creates the space but, at the same time, is a partner. We try to make the child independent of the teacher – so that he can test themselves or be helped by older kids. The teacher should be the last authority a student turns to when having difficulties with a task, for example.
Teachers from a public school in Elbląg came to us to take a look at how we work. They were surprised: After all, it’s easy. You just need to change habits, to liberate yourself from them. Even small changes have very beneficial effects. Take the arrangement of benches in the classroom. If a young person sat in a bench for a dozen years, watching the backs of his colleagues, how is he supposed to think independently? What kind of cooperation are we talking about? And yet this is very easy to change. Everything can be changed.
Edyta Kłeczek, historian and English teacher from the primary public school in Brzeźnica: But in public schools – especially in schools like the one I teach in, rural schools – it can be hard. So my struggle shifts to the field of projects and extra-curricular activities, creative classes. On the other hand, when it comes to regular classes, unfortunately I have to teach having test in mind. If I were to find a way to make a change on a larger scale, I would remove rankings. Rankings, tests, grades – for me, they are the very evil. I also believe that change has to happen from the bottom up or at least be strengthened by grassroots initiatives like ours.
Justyna Pokojska: But you, as we saw, teach very interdisciplinary.
Edyta Kłeczek: I try very hard. Last week was very interdisciplinary. We had a partner school from Slovenia at our place. I taught a class in English about the Warsaw Uprising, we learned from a Sabaton song, I prepared a Polish-Slovenian-English glossary, there was a lot of interdisciplinary stuff. Yesterday we had an outdoor learning; our students prepared the Royal Way for students from Slovenia, we organized a joint cooking. The students involved in such projects do their own learning at home, even though I don’t ask them to do it. Their parents are shocked. During another class, on the basics of starting a business, my students worked with GPT chat to create a menu for a salad restaurant they were “starting.” Then, on their own initiative, they wanted to prepare these salads. It was their idea.
Aleksandra Kujawska: This is a great approach. You beautifully give the students back their agency. And when they see that they are responsible for something – they care more, and development becomes a pleasure.
Edyta Kłeczek: I see how this approach works, what beautiful results it brings. Only I do all this as part of creative activities. These are stopgaps, not the standard. I would like this to be the way of everyday school life so that every day we could focus precisely on these competencies, creatively learning curiosity, cooperation, and responsibility.
Justyna Pokojska: Where do you get your inspiration for these classes?
Edyta Kłeczek: I take inspirations from others. I observe and think about what is worth implementing in my work. I am interested in how other schools work, including abroad. A big inspiration for me is our partner school from Slovenia. A tiny, rural school that completely changed its approach to education a few years ago. They gave the responsibility back to the students. Initially, it was difficult; parents and children didn’t want to accept it. Everyone is afraid of change, of leaving their comfort zones – it’s deep within us, it’s a human nature. But after all, education is about change. Trying new things, broadening perspectives. After initial difficulties, this Slovenian school has started to work great. Each lesson is prepared in such a way that the teacher does not “overeat” on speaking more than 20 percent of the time. If students have a problem with something, the teacher is not the first resort, they ask their peers first. At first, parents thought that if a teacher doesn’t speak during a lesson, it means that he doesn’t do anything, doesn’t work. Now, they see it’s completely different. The teacher carefully prepares lessons’ scenarios, but also brings the students back to agency – because this is how they develop.
Michał Dziuda: If the teacher gives the children the floor, they are active, curious. And they decide what they will get out of the lesson.
Piotr Walda: This is a brilliant attitude. The teacher, perhaps contrary to popular perception, needs to prepare even more thoroughly for such a lesson. Preparation for the lesson is key. I always ask myself: will I be bored in my lesson? Because if I will be bored, even more so will the students. And that’s what we want to avoid. We want to eliminate schools that bore. Another thing: it works great to have the lessons summarized by the children themselves.
Justyna Pokojska: I will now turn to the representatives of the Kampus school from Pszczyna, which is a rather unusual place. How did it come into being and do you manage to transmit in it the values we are talking about today?
Anna Ochman-Pasternak, one of the principals of the Kampus school from Pszczyna: Yes. Maybe I’ll start at the beginning: I’m not a teacher. I’m a parent in whom, at some point, there was a buildup of agitation and disagreement with what was going on in the school. I watched as curiosity died in my children. How they stop liking school, even though they started it full of enthusiasm and joy. So I took my children into homeschooling, but I also began to build a community of people educating children at home, wanting something different from education. During the lockdown, we created a cooperative, a kind of studio where we took care of the children and educated them together. Since I wanted the conduct of classes to be very interdisciplinary and value-based, I started looking for people from the Pszczyna area who are educational nuts, but also: they can teach children. That’s how I came across crazy Ania, a Polish language and philosophy teacher. Ania helped a lot in the studio, created theater with children, taught Polish language in a creative way. That’s how our path began. We created the Campus together: we have a Montessori kindergarten, a primary school where the children are in mixed-age classes, and we also started running a high school. We don’t teach on a textbook basis. We don’t have partial grades.
Anna Masny, one of the principals and a teacher from Kampus School in Pszczyna: We are based on the holistic view of education – on values we are talking about here today. The child must be at the center. The people who work with the children have to like it, they have to draw from the children, not just pass something on to them. I am an idealist hence the word ” fight” caught my attention. I don’t fight. I do my own thing: what I feel is good and what I see working. What allows both the children and us to grow. We, with Anna, thought for a long time how to combine emotional support with the intellectual development of children so that they find their strengths, see in which direction to develop – but also so that they develop as people, learn sensitivity, to be faithful, to know how to recognize themselves. Our children are often confronted with each other and with us. We teach them the dialogue, we work on the values of “Agreement without Violence”. When looking for people to work in our school, we assumed they must have a similar value system to ours. And above all, that we have to educate them, give them the tools – because these people often had a similar value system but hadn’t taught that way before or did so intuitively. We invest, we educate ourselves as an society, as a team. We demand a lot from ourselves. We work in a culture of supervision to teach children self-insight and to assess their competence: where I am, where I want to aim, what works for me, what doesn’t work for me, what obstacles I face. A big support for us is school tutoring.
Dr. Justyna Pokojska: How does it work?
Anna Ochman-Pasternak: Each child has a tutor in our school. The tutor has under his care four, maximum five students, with whom he works throughout the year. The students choose the tutor themselves, but they can change it after a year, which we encourage them to do.
Anna Masny: The wonderful thing is that the teachers are also part of the process; they get insights, learn a different role and the difficult skill of listening as well as giving space to the student. The child must have the space to go in his own direction, to work on his strengths, not to learn everything. A lesson is a space where the student finds his path.
Anna Ochman-Pasternak: We do project-based learning to show children how to work as a team. In these projects, someone else is always the leader, the teams change, so the children learn to work with different people. The plan is arranged so that some classes are longer, others shorter, there are projects, we combine subjects. E.g. grades 4-5 (two classes combined) have a history project for two weeks, and, for example, grades 6-7 have a biology project. Students, after two weeks of immersion in a particular field, remember more, but also can develop and discover if the subject interests them.
Michał Dziuda: I envy you. I attended a different school.
Aleksandra Kujawska: I guess we all think about the school we would like to be attending ourselves.