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What Schools Teach Vs What Schools Ought to Teach: A phenomenography of the school environment

Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
Jan Bazyli Klakla

The aim of the research

The research aim of the project is an investigation into the essence of experiencing school environment along with the role played by each of its determining groups and factors: students, family, teachers, the world of culture, the “backyard”, social networking sites, and also into the relationships between all of the foregoing. What will be especially emphasized is the interactions at the level of relations and communication between particular actors.  

The project shall allow us to determine the context within which the Interdisciplinary Subject (hereafter: IDS) is going to function; in other words, the universal as well as local aspects of the IDS functioning. Such a determination will be instrumental at the level of derivative, specific descriptions contained in our inquiries into questions already defined by us as being fundamental, that is, identifying what and how do – or: do not – schools teach in the context of functioning in the school (and the outside) environment and communication. By presenting the models of relations and communication in the school environment, on the one hand, we will identify the gap that may be filled by IDS, while on the other, we shall provide the framework for devising and the subsequent introduction of IDS.

Theoretical framework

The multifaceted character of research problematics and the interdisciplinary nature of sources under analysis necessitate a research approach that will include both the quantity and variety of the gathered research material. On the onset of our research, we assume the phenomenological stance and the socio-cultural tradition. First of all, we are going to use analytical tools for qualitative description of individual experience. In this context, our approach attempts to uphold a paradigm predicated upon dialogue as a basis for intersubjective understanding. We shall nevertheless not shy away from utilizing tools that facilitate the systemic and functional understanding of the school’s day-to-day existence as an environment which is determined by actions of a broad spectrum of actors.     

From among wide-ranging catalogue of cognitive approaches we have chosen grounded theory as the best way to attain the previously defined research goal. The main assumption of grounded theory is basing the research process on iterative: data collection, periodically ordering them with a view for further detailed analysis which, in turn, constitutes the basis for the research theory to be arrived at. Simply put, in our endeavour to understand reality we draw upon data and true human stories, and not impose any preconceived theoretical constructs on data.    

The research area outlined above is encapsulated by ecological thinking about the school environment. In this approach particular actors, their cognitive abilities, but also their ability to co-define the system in question, all create underpinnings of understanding the said self-generated construct. Based on our analyses, we shall arrive upon a multi-dimensional picture of particular environments along with rules organizing them and networks of relationships and meanings which are revealed in the course of continuous recreation of the institution in question and its elements.

Research methods

The research will be carried out as a multiple case study in schools located across the world. Each of the particular school environments shall be investigated in depth utilizing varied methods and techniques that allow to delve into experiences of all the valid actors appearing in the said space. We defined the school environment quite broadly in the present project as a space composed of not only teachers, students, and parents, but also such phenomena as social networking sites, school architecture, or even so-called backyard, which is spatially separate from school yet strongly connected thereto.

The research will have been already ongoing before our arrival at any school, namely, when we will ask selected students and teachers to write diaries recording their everyday school life. Analysing those personal documents will allow us to acquaint ourselves with a given case.

Subsequently, research teams will check in at respective locales and commence both passive and participant observation of a given school environment, in additional to discovery interviews, that is, brief, unstructured research interviews. They will analyse meanings and hints communicated by those environments. They will implement social network analysis (SNA) to outline relationships – based on friendship, violence, or other – sustained between different actors of those environments and to learn about the specifics of communication between them.

We shall obtain knowledge on teacher perspective by means of in-depth interviews (IDIs), in addition to work shadowing, which will involve accompanying them to their everyday workplaces. As for students’ experiences, we will reach them through focus group interviews (FGI), individual interviews (IDI) with selected children aided by projection methods, and also research walks during which they shall guide us around school providing their unique perspective. Finally, the parent viewpoints will be revealed during focus group interviews with them.

In accordance with assumption of phenomenography our eventual aim will be, by starting with individual ways of perception, understanding and experience of a given reality fragment, to reach content existing beyond individual understanding, namely, a social construction of reality.


The research will deliver case studies providing profound, compelling stories, which we will publish on the HTT website; stories of students, teachers, schools, and remaining valid actors. They are going to be amenable to being described from both scientific-research, science popularization, and journalism perspective. What is more, the collection of unprocessed data will later serve as a source for papers and presentations delivered at the planned HTT International Educational Conference and, later on, for a peer-reviewed publication containing the description of research results.

About the authors
Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
holds a doctorate in health science along with a degree in philosophy. Over the years, while remaining an enthusiastic educator, she has been researching and tracking education system changes with a particular focus on alternative education. As a researcher she worked for the Educational Research Institute, the Association for Open Education, and the “House of Peace” Foundation.
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Jan Bazyli Klakla
Having obtained a Master’s degree in both law and sociology, along with a Bachelor’s at the Centre for Comparative Studies of Civilisations (all three degrees at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków), he then received a postgraduate degree in international migration from the University of Warsaw. Currently, he is pursuing double Ph.D. in law and sociology at the Jagiellonian University. Simultaneously, he manages a research project on the impact of institutional and legal factors on the choice of acculturation strategies among foreigners in Poland.
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