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What School Should Teach Research: Case Study of Poland (Summary)

Sandra Užule - Fons
Katarzyna Pająk-Załęska
Marcin Sakowicz
Karolina Czopek

The school studied in the research of the Holistic Think Tank is located in a rural municipality in one of the metropolitan regions in southern Poland. The participants of the study included 12 students, 4 teachers, 4 parents, and other people from the school’s environment. The research took place in April and May 2022.

The research aim of the project is an investigation into a particular school environment along with the roles played by each of its constitutive groups and elements: students, families, teachers, culture, the “backyard”, social networking sites, as well as into the relationships between all of the foregoing.

The school was considered on two different levels: school as a place and school as a relationship. Regarding the issue of school as a place, students seemed to perceive the school experience as an obligation and they evaluated it in terms of the requirements they have to meet. They most often referred to the system of assessment and were overburdened by the amount of tests and homework. When asked about what they did on a given day, students brought up either what they did during breaks (talking to friends, playing) or the tests they had. Rarely did they reflect on the content of the lessons. In order to better understand the whole context, the story about the school begins by describing its external conditions, starting from the determinants of the education system in Poland, including its history, legal system and social conditions, as may be read here:  Conditions of the educational system in Poland

The picture drawn by the interviewed student as a research task (Poland, May 2022)

The school is well anchored in local community life. There are many different meetings and events in which pupils meet with representatives of businesses, local authorities, and public functionaries such as firefighters, which are then highlighted on social media.

Students pointed out that the small size of the school building means that they have little privacy. The most striking example of this is the fact that consultations with the school psychologist take place in the library, where others can hear it. The fact that the school is small and classes are not numerous seemed to bother some children. They wished they had more friends in a larger school, which they often called their “dream”. This might indicate that small class sizes can indeed affect students’ well-being negatively when some students cannot find a friend in such a small group.

The interviews with teachers painted a different picture of what school is. Two teachers perceived it first and foremost as a “meeting place”. They understood it as a place that would not exist without interpersonal relationships. The head teacher focused not on relationships, but on safety: “I would even say that safety is a priority for both parents and us. Because even if we don’t teach them something, the child is safe, nothing happens to them”. They noticed the necessity of building a canteen and a bigger sports hall.

The teachers who participated in the study were all satisfied with their job. They did not refer to pragmatic factors, such as their salaries, but elaborated on their perception of the mission that their profession entails. They liked it for the opportunity to develop in an environment that is inspirational and challenging.

The most striking conclusion from the analysis of the perception of the school environment among three groups of respondents is the fact that students and parents see the school through the workload students are burdened with. In contrast, teachers exhibit a more enthusiastic attitude towards the institution.

Regarding the issue of school as a relationship, in the words of the students, the relationships with their peers are crucial for their school experience: “I like school because there are my friends and so on. If there were no friends, I wouldn’t like it”. Most students lived in the proximity of the school, so after classes, they spent time together, usually in small groups or pairs.

As for the relationship of teachers with students, the respondents stressed the importance of team building right from their first encounter in the classroom.

The relationships provoked more emotional reactions from the interviewees’ concerned parents and teachers. Teachers appreciated parents’ support and help and, in case of problems with certain students, they valued input from parents which could shed light on the situation. Good relationships were also the outcome of living in a small community, where teachers and parents are sometimes friends. Parents were said to be active organizers of school festivals and other events, some of them also gave 1% of their taxes to the school (in Poland, 1% of income tax can be donated to an organization chosen by the taxpayer). The headteacher also shared her dream of creating a little café at school for the parents who usually talk to one another in front of the school.

“The dreamed school” in a drawing of the student during the research (Poland, May 2022)

All things considered, the interviews show that particular groups attach different importance to different relationships in the school environment. Students focused greatly on peer relationships and reported a lack of appropriate action on the part of the teachers, whereas teachers did not seem to be bothered by conflicts between students. Parents also did not see the scale of students’ conflicts as problematic. On the other hand, parent-teacher contacts were a greater source of distress for both parents and teachers. Finally, two groups of respondents, parents and teachers, thought that the small size of the school and local community is a great advantage, but students’ stories indicate that they do not always perceive it in the same way.

The research paid attention to what schools teach. The most pervasive problem was definitely the amount of studying, which one student put in the following way: “It’s horrible here. There are so many tasks. Even two tests per week… even every day. I can’t keep up with studying. It’s hard (…).” Another child had similar feelings: “I feel so-so in this school, because of how much studying there is, I don’t have time to rest (…) My dream is to have at least one week without a word about a test”. At the same time, students immensely enjoyed subjects that matched their interests or were taught well. In this case, students praised history lessons, which were perceived as difficult, but the attitude of the teacher turned it into an enjoyable experience. Students also appreciated teachers who were well-prepared and whose lessons were versatile and interesting.

The students enjoyed “non-standard” activities, such as lessons conducted outdoors or special events: “No Backpack Day” or “Water Day”. It seems that the content of unusual lessons was more memorable for children than in the case of subjects taught in a traditional way.

When it comes to the teachers’ opinion about the content of “standard” subjects, only one teacher expressed his view on the curriculum of his subject. The history teacher was dissatisfied with the history programme, which largely focuses on conflicts and the European context. When it comes to social studies, which this respondent also teaches, he said the unit about the “contemporary world” seems to be one of the most interesting for students, which shows that they know very little about current global events. Other respondents focused on the fact that school teaches soft skills, such as teamwork, tolerance, empathy and communication.

Among the skills that school should teach students mentioned that they would like to feel safe and self-sufficient in any situation. They would also like to receive support and focus on developing their interests.  For teachers, a well-educated society would consist of critically thinking, independent, and well-behaved people, who are aware of their cultural legacy but can adapt to the changes of the modern world. Parents have a similar view, but they also think about tolerance, religious pluralism, and support for people of different abilities.

The full report from the research “What Schools Teach Vs. What Schools Should Teach: A phenomenography of the school environment” will be published in Q4 2022.

Stay tuned by following Holistic Think Tank on Twitter and LinkedIn.

“My School” – another picture drawn by during the research interview (Poland, May 2022)

About the authors
Sandra Užule - Fons
Holds Ph.D. in history, journalist, documentary filmmaker. Researcher and author of scientific and other publications about the Baltic States and media. Her professional career started in Warsaw in Polish Public Radio working for more than 10 years as an editor in Polish Radio External Service. She cooperates with media outlets in the implementation of media projects in Central Europe and Post-soviet countries. Currently, she is working on an alternative school project.
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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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Marcin Sakowicz
Academic and mentor, holds PhD degree in economics, Visiting Fellow at the Oslo University, Department of Political Science, International Policy Fellow - OSI Budapest, at Warsaw School of Economics he was involved in research and expertise on local self-governance, state institutions and democracy, he has more than 20 years of experience in learning and development of youth and adults, works as trainer and mentor, cooperated with Bullerbyn Foundation for Community of Children and Adults, within the National School of Public Administration he stimulates innovative and interactive approaches to training and education in the public sector. He is enthusiast of life-long learning which happens anywhere.
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Karolina Czopek
A linguist, qualitative researcher and language teacher who has been working with learners of all ages. She co-authored numerous scientific publications in the field of applied linguistics and anthropology. As a PhD student at the University of Warsaw and a firm believer in the power of education, she currently investigates how the experience of learning in late adulthood affects one’s self-beliefs.
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