20 July 2023

Justyna Pokojska: Education determines conscious living. That’s why we created IDS

An interview with Justyna Pokojska, Ph.D., HTT's executive director. The interview was conducted by Rafał Cieniek, a journalist working for the Holistic.news portal, where the article first appeared.


Photo: Holistic.news

Rafał Cieniek: I guess most students, parents, and teachers agree that there is a need for education reform.

Justyna Pokojska: Holistic Think Tank conducted research in geographically and culturally distant countries. We have interviewed students and teachers from Poland, the United States, India, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, South Korea, and South Africa, among others. The conclusions turned out to be similar everywhere. Almost everyone agrees that schools pay too little attention to shaping children’s attitudes and the values they hold.

What do students expect?

They certainly don’t want to only sit at desks and listen to boring “lectures.” In a film explaining the idea behind our activities, one student says that all that is required in schools is “sitting and writing, sitting and reading.” This convinces me that children want to be an important and heard force in influencing how lessons look and what is in the curricula. Adults often forget that education should first and foremost support the holistic development of students, strengthen their social and communication skills, and, most importantly, develop positive attitudes toward others. There is also the question of whether the knowledge gained in schools will be useful in adult life.

Do teachers agree with such requests?

Teachers want to feel that their work is meaningful, that it gives them satisfaction and realistically shapes young people’s attitudes. They don’t want to spend their time on “paperwork” and filling out unnecessary documents but to work with children, accompany them in developing their curiosity about the world and discovering answers to increasingly difficult questions. This is a universal need expressed all over the world. Everyone wants change, which gives us great motivation to act.

Why does HTT consider changes in education to be key?

The beginning of education is the beginning of socialization, the entrance into the conscious life of every person. We believe that this is the most significant stage of personality formation. We want modern education to enhance the multifaceted, holistic development of students. The need for change is also recognized by parents, who are often unsure whether the school is providing proper support for their children. At HTT, we agree with the words of Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

So, how does HTT want to affect real change in schools?

We are already developing tools to enable change in education. Without tangible solutions for teachers, there will be no change and no reevaluation in teaching. Our flagship project is the Interdisciplinary School Subject (IDS). Ultimately, there will be a textbook that will include lesson scenarios, worksheets, and methodologies for working with students toward developing their social skills and attitudes based on mature humanism. It will make lessons look completely different while essential subject content will still be conveyed.

It’s not about breaking down the existing system?

We know that we are entering a school structure that has been operating for years. We don’t want to break it down because such systemic reforms often make the essence of education go into the background. Our goal is to put a set of tools in the hands of teachers to implement changes in schools. And to support them on their way to better education.

Photo by Aaron Burden, unsplas
Photo by Aaron Burden, unsplash

Priorities in teaching to be changed

What, above all, should change?

Priorities in teaching. The real purpose of education is not just to pass on knowledge in math, chemistry, and other subjects but to form attitudes that will help children find their way in the modern world and put their knowledge into action. The purpose of all lessons, anywhere in the world, should be to pass on values, a list of which was compiled by our researchers. We want teachers to show their students how to be responsible, agential actors in social life, how to communicate and cooperate in a group, and speak respectfully about others.

You mentioned the list of values that the school is supposed to teach. What is on it?

The list consists of ten items, covering various attitudes and values anchored in mature humanism. These include a sense of community, the ability to communicate with others, but also respect for oneself and the environment, concern for civilization and cultural heritage, and hope. Because without hope no change will be possible. Most important to us, however, are the values of a sense of belonging to a group, respect for others and humanity in the broadest sense. These are the elements most strongly anchored in humanism. We also want to teach the youngest children critical thinking, which is so necessary in the era of the rise of AI.

How to teach concern and attentiveness?

IDS is intended to be just such a tool. Redefining the purpose of the lesson and the organization of classroom work will allow for greater openness, inclusiveness, dialogue, and flattening of the current teaching structure. We encourage teachers to identify collaborative spaces in lesson plans. This also includes the positioning of desks and chairs because any such change affects how children think. At the relationship level, we want to teach how to ask difficult questions, seek collaborative answers, discuss and exchange views on important topics.

What are the proposed changes intended to lead to?

We want to introduce IDS into schools to change the meaning of education and, by doing so, influence society in the future. People with a solid foundation based on humanism will be more attentive, responsible, and open to others, including in forming relationships. Therefore, the change we propose will benefit us all.

But “regular” subjects will not disappear from schools?

IDS is supposed to be injected into school subjects and be their primary focus. The skills learned in lessons are important; after all, we want experts in various fields. However, we believe that passing on knowledge only serves as a means, and the ultimate goal should be the formation of positive attitudes and personalities. Through IDS, students will be able to develop the skills of teamwork and questioning and thus relate respectfully to others while seeking the truth.

Doesn’t today’s school value diversity?

The great value of working in the classroom is to draw from diversity, from the meeting of very different people. Not everyone will be a champion in math, physics or history, but showing that each student is an essential part of the lesson will strengthen their sense of subjectivity and their self-worth. The synergy that comes from diversity is a gigantic value for the group. In this relationship, the teacher does not act as the only legitimate authority passing on knowledge, but becomes its “midwife” and can also learn a lot from the students.

Doesn’t today’s school value diversity?

The great value of working in the classroom is to draw from diversity, from the meeting of very different people. Not everyone will be a champion in math, physics, or history, but showing that each student is an essential part of the lesson will strengthen their sense of subjectivity and their self-worth. The synergy that comes from diversity is a gigantic value for the group. In this relationship, the teacher does not act as the only legitimate authority passing on knowledge but becomes its “midwife” and can also learn a lot from the students.

What, then, should be the role of the teacher?

Equalizing relationships in school is one of the main goals of IDS. We even had such ideas that lessons should be conducted in a reverse scheme – that it should be the children who teach the adults. With access to achievements in science, technology, and information, no one has a monopoly on passing on knowledge anymore. Reasoning this way, the teacher becomes a guide, a mentor, not the sole authority, who “ex-cathedra” delivers unquestionable theses. IDS is supposed to foster diversity (which is a value), a non-hierarchical teaching structure, and community in the exploration of truth and the good.

What phase is IDS in?

We are already past the first phase, which was diagnosing the problem through research and cooperation with partners from the United Kingdom and the United States. Now, we have entered phase two, which is the most important. We have been preparing the tools needed to introduce IDS into schools for the past six months. We have invited and continue to invite experts, educators, and teachers from all over the world. Anyone willing to help us develop lesson scenarios and teaching methods in line with IDS, that is, support the holistic, multi-level development of students and their unique talents and interests, is invited to join us.

Justyna Pokojska, Ph.D., during the ET Market 2023 Conference

Teachers see the need for changes

Are teachers willing to cooperate?

We have managed to find many people who want to cooperate with us and create a good school together. However, we know that implementing IDS is not an easy task because it is hard for teachers to get out of their comfort zone. After all, they have to implement the core curriculum, and the current extraordinarily hierarchical and centralized system does not make it easy to change the way they teach individual subjects. That’s why we provide training and have developed a guide on how to write lesson plans in the spirit of IDS. We don’t want to urge anyone by force. We are looking for people who are ready for change and, like us, see the need for it.

What is HTT currently focusing on?

Teachers from all over Poland are already developing tools in the spirit of IDS for their subjects. They include English, Polish, history, and science teachers. We are now working on translating our ideas and values into tangible solutions that can become ready-made tools and teaching aids for educators who want to teach differently. Or are they already doing it that way? After all, there are many excellent pedagogues, with whom we ourselves have met in our schools, who teach differently, who – in their lessons – go beyond transferring knowledge from a textbook. And it is on them that we count the most. In this way, we show that it is possible to introduce IDS into schools. In my opinion, we will succeed by working consistently with teachers, students, and parents, who also speak openly about the need for change in education.

How do you want to reach a wide range of teachers with the idea of IDS?

We want online portals like Holistic.news to help us promote IDS. We run channels on social media, participate in scientific conferences on education, and perform in front of various teacher groups. We have ambassadors who talk about our mission. Using the snowball method, we are reaching a wider and wider audience. We also want other major media to write about us and talk about the need for change in schools. But above all, we need to have the ready tools to facilitate the implementation of IDS.

Is there also a need to change the evaluation system in schools?

Grades and exams are part of the current education system. But there are already many teachers who do not give partial grades because, according to the Educational Law, a grade must be given only at the end of the year. In our opinion, the most important thing is that school children receive feedback on their progress and work. However, individualized assessment requires more commitment and effort from teachers. On the other hand, IDS is supposed to teach values, and these, if we don’t want to stigmatize students, cannot be measured by grades.

On what can we build a new validation system with no grades?

We are looking for an answer to this question, and together with teachers, we are already working on a good solution. We will also invite students to this discussion. In the fall, we are organizing a meeting with children from schools near Krakow. We want to know what is important to them in education. The student’s voice must be heard.

What is the role of parents in the planned reform?

Parents are an extremely important, though often overlooked, part of the education system. A school is composed of students, teachers, parents, principals, and other educational staff. Home and school are not two independent and separate systems of upbringing. Parents shape the values and influence children’s attitudes, and teachers are supposed to assist them in this process. We approach the problem holistically.

The basis of humanistic values

What holds the Holistic Think Tank together?

Humanistic values. In this rushing and changing world, we will face degeneration and pathologies only if we have a common foundation based on humanism. If the world is to be a better place in the future, we must respect ourselves and others and be able to talk and cooperate with them. This foundation will hold us together, and education is supposed to shape this foundation.

Are you taking any actions concerning the development of Artificial Intelligence development?

IDS is meant to shape the foundation of values, and adaptation to modern challenges comes out of that. AI is a very important issue for us, but first, we need to build the essential tools to change the way we think about education. In this sense, IDS and teaching critical thinking will help us use AI wisely and allow us to reap its benefits in the course of schooling.

*Justyna Pokojska Ph.D. – Executive Director of Holistic Think Tank, sociologist, promoter of education, publicist, and popularizer of science. She has worked for many years with Warsaw University and Jagiellonian University, among others.

**Rafał Cieniek – journalist who has been reporting on social, philosophical, scientific and technology development topics, among others, for more than a dozen years. He has worked as an author, editor and publisher.

***The article originally appeared on Holistic.news under the title “Szkoła powinna uczyć wartości. Holistic Think Tank ma plan, jak to robić” (eng. The school should teach values. Holistic Think Tank has a plan on how to do it.) Link to the original text: https://holistic.news/szkola-powinna-uczyc-wartosci-holistic-think-tank-ma-plan-jak-to-robic/