25 May 2023
Reputable pedagogue: If we are serious about the future, there is no sector more worth investing in than education
Interview with Bogusław Śliwerski, pedagogue, professor at the University of Łódź, chairman of the Committee on Pedagogical Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
In Europe, it was Polish students who, along with Finnish ones, performed best in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) reading comprehension test. Does this mean that Polish schooling is not bad after all?
No. It means that we have excellent teachers and that politicians of each ruling option have failed to spoil early education in Poland: preschool and integrated teaching in grades 1-3. The PIRLS study is conducted on a specific age group – in Poland, it’s fourth-graders. In international tests examining students of other age groups, such as PISA, Poland no longer performs so well.
PISA also tests a broader set of skills. PIRLS – only reading comprehension skills.
Reading with comprehension is a key skill at this stage of education. Without it, a child will later learn neither math, chemistry, nor foreign languages effectively. So I would not belittle the importance of this research or the undoubted success of Polish early childhood teachers. They are well-educated, active educators doing an excellent job, despite being perpetually ignored and underestimated. We mentioned Finland. There, the teaching profession is widely respected. It is more difficult to get into pedagogy than into medical school. To be a teacher in Finland – is to be someone. In Poland, the profession is associated with failure in life; the young are discouraged from choosing this path. It is said about pedagogues: maybe he did not get into other studies, or maybe he did not get another job. This, of course, is not true. My students, choosing this faculty, usually know what they are doing very well. And what this work involves.
Nevertheless, they choose it. Why?
For two reasons. First: out of passion. It is a great pleasure to see the students develop week by week. Children at this age are like a sponge. They absorb everything that is given to them: knowledge but also care, tenderness, and attention. And they can repay it beautifully. An integrated education teacher – and at this stage, almost all lessons are taught by the same educator – often spends more time with a child than his parents do. The teacher becomes a second, cultural and social, mom. She is able to shape the child. This is a great satisfaction and, at the same time, a great responsibility.
What is the second reason for choosing this profession?
Pedagogy is usually studied by women (of course, there are exceptions; I was one myself). For women who want to be mothers, this is a prospective decision. Because on the one hand, these are interesting, horizon-expanding academic studies that allow you to understand both the child’s psychology and socio-cultural conditions and, thus: prepare for the role of an aware mother. On the other hand, from the perspective of motherhood, the organization of teachers’ work, including extended vacations, is also tempting.
Is it good that this is such a female-dominated profession?
I would prefer to see more males in it. In countries with different cultural patterns and where teachers are better paid, there are many more males among educators. I remember my shock when in the 1990s, we went with colleagues to visit Swiss schools, confronting our experiences. Men made up the majority of educators.
You pointed out that the level of early school education is higher than in later grades. What is it due to?
In short: from teacher autonomy. This is a group of educators with the highest possible degree of independence from other teachers and a programmatic space for innovation.
What does this result from?
Early school education students are given a single teacher. The same educator implements all types of classes: those related to learning about the world, reading, writing, math, or science literacy, and those related to social or art education. And if one teacher conducts all classes, he has sovereignty unparalleled at any other educational stage. He doesn’t have to stick to the classroom system. He doesn’t have to conduct 45-minute classes. In fact, those classes don’t have to be regulated in a disciplined way at all. Instead, there is space to work with students individually, diversifying the forms of work.
What happens next?
Then the drama happens. Of course, not immediately. The fourth grade is a time of transition, of getting children accustomed to the fact that they will no longer have classes with one lady but that there will be more of these ladies or gentlemen. The PIRLS survey – which, after all, was conducted in Poland precisely on fourth-graders – confirms that the poor condition of the Polish education system at this stage has yet to be apparent. Then, standardization begins, the need for precise implementation of the outdated and criticized by specialists core curriculum, the constant control and accounting teachers for implementing the requirements and standards set by politicians. This obviously takes its toll on teachers, but also on students.
Prof. Edyta Gruszczyk-Kolczyńska – an educator specializing in the strict education of young children – conducted research that confirmed that 82 percent of preschoolers are mathematically gifted. Most children at this educational stage excel at logical tasks and games – adapted to their age. At subsequent educational stages, this developmental potential is increasingly rare among students, and in the group of adolescents graduating from primary school, it drops to a dozen or so percent. The longer children go to school, the more they lose the potential with which they came to school.
Very. The word school is derived from the ancient Greek “σχολή, skholē.” Do you know what it means?
A space for learning?
Yes, but also: a space for freedom, peace, joy. Meanwhile, it turns out that school not only fails to be a supportive and empowering environment in which students develop. It often even obstructs this development. Prof. Zbigniew Kwieciński, another Polish pedagogue, surveyed the effectiveness of lessons conducted in Polish schools, asking students to fill out a questionnaire in which they assessed whether a particular lesson – it was about subjective feelings – was a time for their development, an indifferent time, or even an absolutely lost and destructive time, in which they felt disregarded, ignored or very stressed.
According to the students, out of every 45 minutes of a statistical lesson, developmental time is only five and a half minutes of a statistical lesson. Destructive – more than 20. Students go to school daily for five, six, and sometimes seven lessons. They spend whole days in it, of which the developmental one is half an hour on average. So we can say that going to school is a waste of time for the young. Especially since they are fluent on the web and have access to the world’s knowledge.
So here arises a question about the sense of the school.
As it functions now (I’m talking, of course, about the later educational stages, not about early schooling) – indeed, school is making less and less sense. We are in a period of rapid cultural, social, economic, and technological change. In this situation, the school has lost the exclusivity of education and upbringing but does not want to admit it. It spells reality. The biggest mistake that can be made during the current revolution – and most schools are making it – is to take away smartphones from children. The more aggressively we do this – the more young people will escape into the virtual world. The school loses. Teachers are losing. We are losing. I do not doubt that in this situation, a profound change in education is not only advisable. It is necessary.
What would this change be about?
First: to move to a completely different, hybrid educational methodology. The school needs to combine digital technology with action in real space. With this synergy, it can still regain its attractiveness. Since students are online, the school cannot stay offline. But to save education, one must first acknowledge that the world is changing rapidly and profoundly – and have the will to keep up with it.
Second: in such a rapidly changing world, we should focus not so much on imparting knowledge to students but awakening their curiosity about the world and their joy of learning. The school should stimulate creativity, enhance engagement and motivation – both of students and teachers. For this to be possible, it must have greater autonomy. The school cannot be a centrally controlled tool in the hands of politicians who only care about current goals. After all, if we are serious about the future of society, the country, and the world – there is no sector more worth investing in than education.