27 September 2022

What Should Schools Teach? A Phenomenography of School Environments

Author: Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska,


What kind of skills and knowledge should be taught in schools for the world’s better future – this was the question we asked 19 schools in 10 different countries all around the world. Our survey, entitled “What Should Schools Teach?  A Phenomenography of School Environments”, has just been concluded. The research cycle lasted from the initial concept in the spring of 2021 all the way to the last summer of 2022, when the final report was published.  It’s time to sum up and analyze its results.

Curiosity based on a strong academic background

The main idea behind the HTT’s field research concerning what schools teach vs. what schools ought to teach was to assess if schools in different environments around the world teach the skills and knowledge necessary for their students to be able to successfully face the challenges lying ahead of them. The research involved exploration of school environments in different countries. The phenomenographic method was then used  to develop a summary of the multiple case study. The objective of the research was to discover the essence of the school environment and describe the skills and knowledge that schools ought to teach from the perspective of students, parents, teachers and other important actors having direct impact on the functioning of schools. The school environment was described as a general set of physical attributes (buildings and their direct environment, equipment etc.), people that are directly related to the school (students, parents/ guardians, teachers, non-academic staff) and the relations between all of them.

Fig. 1.: A holistic view of the school environment.

Source: Own elaboration

Methods ensuring quality

The research was conducted using the method of multiple case study, without replication, which means that extremely different cases were selected in order to present a wide array of available school experiences seen through the eyes of diverse groups of respondents. The survey began with a pilot phase in a Polish school, then moved to the United States, Brazil, Lebanon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the Philippines, finally to conclude in another Polish school. In each school, researchers conducted at least ten individual in-depth interviews (IDI), amounting to over two hundred individual interviews altogether.

The research procedure in each school consisted of three steps: a study of diaries kept by pupils and teachers, an observation of the school environment and – finally – interviews conducted with the representatives of the school community, i.e. teachers, parents, and headmasters. Each tool used in the process was tested and double reviewed by experts.

Fig. 2.: Elements of the research process.

Source: Own elaboration

When I think about school I think about relationships

In our survey, each school was analyzed from the perspective of three various groups of actors: students, their parents, and teachers, who co-create the school community. Such a selection of respondents allowed for a more accurate description of the school environment, and thus a better presentation of the functioning of the school.

Each group pointed out what they saw as lacking in the skills or knowledge taught by schools. For students, everyday skills were the most important. In their view, schools should teach communication and cooperation with others as well as things that are exciting, such as how to create a robot and how to practice aeroyoga. Parents and teachers indicated other areas they saw as needed,  e.g. foreign languages, math or life skills such as farming. 

The need most often pinpointed as crucial all around the world, however, was for school to be a community with special social connections. In the words of one of the surveyed Headmasters: “When I think about school I think about relationships”.  These words are the essence of the findings of the survey. In schools the world over, we should teach young people how to live harmoniously in society and prepare them to deal with the demands of the future. Why schools don’t teach these universal, primal skills is beyond our comprehension –  especially since their importance was mentioned by almost all participants of the study.

The way schools teach is a far cry from what is expected of them by all the different groups of stakeholders involved in the school system. How could it be different, though, if the curriculum is based upon an image of schooling rooted in outdated, nineteenth century assumptions. We have to remember that the world has since changed and, thus, so should schools. Our findings show that people all over the world yearn for new ways of learning useful, relevant things. The most important of which are those that help us relate to each other, enable us to peacefully communicate with strangers, together with what can be broadly described as critical thinking skills. Hence, these are the very things that form the core of our Interdisciplinary Subject – which, first and foremost, is a methodology of teaching. There is clear and abundant evidence that working in groups, cooperating in projects and thinking holistically are all possible within the school environment and, when employed, yield results far better than those of  traditional teaching methods. Combined with a new curriculum, reshaped and modernized in the spirit of the Interdisciplinary Subject, they can bring about the educational (r)evolution we are all in desperate need of.