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“It is a priority to make education available for all young people across the world”: interview with the professor Rafał Piwowarski

Anna Godek-Biniasz

When we were trying to convince you to give this interview, you mentioned that before we start talking about what the school should be like, we should ask ourselves another key question. We fully agree with you, so I’d like to start with a question:

Is there anything like “good or proven educational model” we should target? Is education about modelling at all?

Professor R. Piwowarski: Definitely we should monitor educational systems and schools to improve them; the school should develop, because the world around keeps changing and so is our knowledge about it. There have also evolved many “non-school” forms of information and knowledge transfer. These new forms sometimes come in handy, but at other times they are competitive or even harmful for education. With some subjects, the school does not manage to keep up with the development of scientific disciplines and to compete against the internet; we need to face the fact that probably it will always be like that. The sense of school itself is sometimes undermined by educational “revolutionaries”. There is also another concept: other forms of education outside the school, for instance, homeschooling, which may exist in a symbiosis with the school, but it concerns only a negligible part of the school population.

And now it’s time to ask the key question: what should a good school be like? Good for the student, for the teacher, for an efficient educational system and, last but not least, good for the country? And how to measure “the good”? Additionally, we have cultural, political, financial and staff conditions that influence countries and regions to a different extent. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in Europe the best results are achieved by students from Finland which predominantly applies the traditional school model (a single teacher is responsible for teaching all subjects to grades 1-6). Across the world, the leaders are students from the South-East Asia. In many US schools, the rankings are led by Asian students as well, so it seems that the nationality and culture (and not only the system and educational model) are also among the decisive factors here.

Why do you think it is necessary to conduct research within education? Do we know how to use the results of research to make some real improvements in educational systems and the school itself?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I think I have partly already answered this question. However, it is necessary to add that real changes and reforms are more related to the educational systems than the school itself. In the latter, teaching aids, equipment, methods, programmes and others do change indeed, but the school itself resembles the one from at least several dozen years ago. The compulsory education period has got longer and all the school reforms are underpinned by the objective of a better adjustment of the school to the changing world around us, upskilling students, thus letting them function better in the society, on the labour market, etc. Research related to psycho-physical characteristics of students are difficult and thus hardly popular; and such research would probably best complement the research on the results of education or the work of the teacher (i.e. teacher’s feedback, predominantly). Some rare and difficult type of research can also be found among the “teacher’s” research: this is the one regarding knowledge and skills of the teacher (i.e. subjecting the teacher to testing). International research on the results of teaching students (PISA, PIRLS, etc.) receive different feedback (mainly positive, though). In many countries (including Poland) the results of these extensive projects have entailed some changes in the teaching methods, although there have also been some opponents of the revolution (who said that teachers only prepare students to score high on exams, and this is about automatic responses, lack of creativity and killing individual nature of students). However, some countries (in Central Asia) have undergone deep educational reforms which were aimed at improving students’ positions in rankings.

Sometimes educational reforms are a reflection of the political environment and the education itself is a field for political games. To give an example: in Poland, in the seventies and in the eighties, there was a concept of community schools that was implemented without the necessary resources and preparation. Before that, there was the idea of establishing 1000 schools within a political goal to overshadow the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Poland organised by the Church. The 21st century saw a temporary decrease in the requirements of the maths matura exam, whose aim was to win young voters; the students’ results in international tests were used by the governing bodies for political purposes; at the same time, the authorities came in for criticism first for the introduction, and later for the closing of gimnazjum.

It needs to be added that frequently the initial objectives of the reforms are not fully implemented (e.g. in Poland, the gimnazjum was supposed to be a separate school unit, without the need to combine them with another type of school in a single building). The analysis of school reforms developed a long time ago under the auspices of UNESCO has revealed that out of one hundred reforms carried out around the world, only several of them have been fully implemented. If the reform concerned the entire educational cycle, on many occasions it turned out that the conditions, needs and effects of the changes dffered from the objectives set initially so much that the reform was put to a halt in order to change its assumptions.

And how to assess and measure the effectiveness of teaching? Is it possible to objectively assess the educational methods and programmes?

Professor R. Piwowarski: The most common method to assess the work of the school and the teacher is a system of different tests for students, used at subsequent learning stages. These tests are usually exams whose form is determined top-down and they are obligatory across the entire country. This may not be a perfect way to measure the educational success, but so far nothing better and comparable (as well as applicable on a mass scale) has been developed.

In the first years, when the exams after graduating from gimnazjum were introduced, there were inconsistencies between the grades given to students by their teachers and the ones students received on the nationwide exam. It seems that the exam grades are more objective. Sometimes, in small circles (e.g. in small towns) students were given grades higher or lower than they actually should get due to the tighter social connections and the fact that people know each other.

It is also said that a good school is not the one that gives you proper education, but the one which is liked by students and doesn’t make them stressed. However, it is not always easy to combine the two. In terms of the assessment of school programmes: in the past, schools/ classes that were to try out new school programmes, coursebooks and teaching methods were popular. These experiments were usually made in selected “good” schools, with the participation of good teachers. And this is why they were criticized: as these tests were conducted in conditions better than the usual ones, the results could not always be reflected on a mass scale (in the western literature, such schools were called “greenhouses” due to the special conditions they ensured). Currently, we have a wide (sometimes a too wide) array of coursebooks to choose from; it is the school (the headmaster, council pedagogical council and teachers) to assess them and select the best ones.

What is educational inequality? How to view it?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I am deeply convinced that educational inequality consists of many interconnected elements; they have always been there and they are there to stay for good, naturally. The role of the educational policy, the school and partners that form part of the educational process is to level them off. On most occasions, educational inequalities are analysed in terms of access to education: it is measured what percentage of students in given age groups has access to general, free education. Between the most developed and the poorest countries, there is an abyss (the difference between the so-called rich North and the poor South). In this case, we will talk about inequality of educational opportunity.

Another most frequently analysed field of inequality is about the results of teaching which are conditioned by numerous factors. For some people, these factors will comprise preparation and the work of the teacher or resources available at school; for others, they will be about social conditions, including family ones in the first place.

When looking at Poland and other countries, how would you compare the school in small towns or in poorer regions to the one in large citites?

Professor R. Piwowarski: In Poland, we still can see some differences between the performance of students in small towns and big cities. Weaker results achieved in towns are caused, in particular, by social conditions, and not by the fact that education provided in small towns is of poorer quality (although this is sometimes the case). Moreover, schools in towns are often smaller than in big cities, which gives the staff less opportunity to provide extra classes, to offer different levels of language studies, to access other institutions that would prove supportive for schools. However, schools in small towns have advantages; the bond with the society is stronger and the approach may get more individual. It must be noted that such small schools have fallen victim to cost-cutting and they have often been closed down, as the education cost per one student is much higher there than in schools with many students.

Will the pandemic and the general – though, by definition, temporary – switch from presential education to the remote model influence education in Poland and across the globe?

Professor R. Piwowarski: There is a growing number of articles and research reports devoted to this issue. However, most of them tackle the problem only locally. It is worth mentioning the 2021 OECD report published in October, “Schooling During Pandemic. . .” The basis for the report (see the source) was a research conducted in 11 countries (from the group of the most developed ones) across the world. Poland did not participate in it, although it is considered one of 30 countries for which the period of school closedown was provided (in weeks); it shows that we are among the countries where schools remained closed for the longest period.

I can only comment on that as an academic and a “consumer” of the generally available information from the media (the internet, TV, radio, press). I think that the pandemic contributed to an increase in the health awareness in the society (apart from triggering health, economic and mental effects). From the educational perspective, thanks to the pandemic, the extent of familiarity with the commonly used communication methods (TEAMS, ZOOM and others) and the equipment as such (computers, notebooks, smartphones etc.) has improved. This refers to students of all ages, teachers and parents as well. On the other hand, I tend to notice that some people have got used to these non-personal forms of contact and they want to continue in the remote learning model which, to a great extent, is caused by convenience.

Do you think it is jusified to talk about the need to conduct reforms not only within what the school teaches, but also the methodology and the organisation of educational systems? Shouldn’t it be our living in a global society with universal access to knowledge that makes us think about universal educational models?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I think that a universal educational model is an idea hard to implement for the reasons that I have already mentioned. However, it is a priority to ensure universality of education for all young people across the world, if possible, and continuing education for adults (available in different systems and education models). Sometimes we tend to forget that we live in a country which, according to the OECD, is among the most developed ones and primary school education is universal; high schools are available for most people; universities are available for a big percentage as well.

However, this doesn’t mean that there is no need for reforms and it is not always the lawmaker that decides about their delivery. I want to draw your attention to one thing. For some time already, it has become obvious that the schooling system should be adjusted to the needs of the economy and the labour market. It is not only Poland where we see a discrepancy between the supply of graduates and selected needs of the economy. It is not only about the structure of the schooling system, but also the mental side of students, their parents and potential students. This issue well reflects stances towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and has been called educational capital. Shaping correct attitudes in children, students, teachers and parents contribute to the evolution in educational and professional aspirations of all participants of the education process. In many countries, and in Poland very visibly, high-school graduates prefer to choose social studies and the humanities (these tend to appear as easier and more “fashionable” ones); on the other extreme, there are studies related to maths, technologies and engineering. Here it is of great significance how mathematics is taught at preliminary school (this is confirmed by research conducted in Poland and other countries).

Revolution or modelling: how do you think changes in the educational system should be implemented?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I would use another word: evolution. This is a process that is slower than revolution and in many cases it is less effective, but it is safer when it comes to the effects. It is easier to amend the effects of an evolution than the ones of a revolution. And because of that several dozen years ago, we coined a term “rolling reforms.”

Does the currently used model of division of contents is the only possible one and is it optimal?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I’m not an expert in this field, but I think that a lot depends on the profile of the school, teachers and expectations (mostly of parents) towards the school. As a non-specialist, I think that the split into integrated education for the grades 1-3 and subjects introduced for the grades 4- 8 proves rather successful. However, teachers working with the 1-3 grades should be far better prepared.

A holistic Think Tank had a goal of introducing interdisciplinary studies (IDS), which, according to its assumptions, is to answer the educational needs and refer to a number of key competencies. Do you think that there is potential to introduce a systemic change of education with the support of a new school subject?

Professor R. Piwowarski: I don’t know that, but I’m convinced that the results of your research will provide an answer to this question.

Thank you for your time and for providing your invaluable perspective.

Interviewer: Anna Godek – Biniasz

Professor Rafał Piwowarski is a full Professor of humanities (pedagogics), Warsaw University 2008 (Poland); currently a Professor at The Maria Grzegorzewska University; author of over 180 publications; extensive research experience in international educational projects. His scientific interests include in particular politics in education; organisation of education, educational demographics and educational research methodology. Reviewer of scientific tools used in the Holistic Think Tank Project “What Schools Teach Vs What Schools Ought to Teach: A phenomenography of the school environment”

About the author
Anna Godek-Biniasz
Communication and External Relations Expert with broad experience in media. Professional interests in communication and cultural studies. (M.A. in Russian Studies as well as in European Studies). A mother-of-three, interested in their education matters.
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