A Presentation Given to the Polish National Academy of Sciences in April, 1998

About the Author: Wiktor Kulerski was a leading member of the Polish Solidarity Movement in the 1980’s and spent five years underground. He participated in the Roundtable Discussions between Solidarity and the Polish Communist Government, at which time he proposed the current Purpose Statement for Education in Poland. From 1990 to 1991 he was a Member of the Polish Parliament and Vice-Minister of Education.

There are two basic problems facing education in Poland, and for any reforms to be successful they would have to deal with these two structural issues. The first is a profound systemic problem facing education systems around the world. The second problem is unique to education systems within post-communist countries.

In every education system around the world one can see that they lag behind the revolutionary changes taking place across the other major sectors of society. In the past societies (their economic, political and social structures) changed slowly and there were really very few differences between generations. Economic or social problems faced by parents were usually very similar to the problems their children encountered. Today, however, the younger generations face changes in their social environment that are completely foreign to those their parents had faced. This reality of fast-paced change requires the development of young people who can constantly adapt and find their way in a “new world.”

This requires a different system of education. In the recent past education could be seen as a process of equipping students with a particular knowledge base, skill base or set of attitudes which could carry them throughout life. In effect, they could survive by simply knowing what their parent’s generation knew. Now, we can see that much of what we knew in the past is not sufficient to the needs of today, and in some instances is actually useless or even dangerous. The necessity to continually adapt to a changing environment, and the importance of actually participating in and directing the changes around us, demands the ability and habit of life-long learning. It also requires creativity and partnership among many different people.

If information, skills and attitudes become quickly outdated then we cannot continue to allow students to live in the past by participating in an increasingly archaic system of education. The traditional Western model of education is not able to face the new challenges. It is oriented towards “teaching” and “external enlightenment,” and in effect causes more problems than it solves. If the purpose of education is to equip people with the skills and habits necessary to successfully participate in a rapidly changing world, and actually co-create these changes, then new systems of education are desperately needed. The equipment and skills of the blacksmith are useless in a world dominated by the microprocessor.

Additionally, we need a new form of educator. People who are actually partners in seeking together with students new knowledge and new futures. We don’t yet know how to change the system of teacher training to achieve the development of such people. We are facing problems in developing such people because of how we treat our children in the nursery school. We are all deeply ingrained into the systems and have serious problems seeing how to go beyond them. This means that we need a new partnership between the institutions of education and the home. They now need to have equal roles in the learning of all our children.

Probably the first organization in the world acknowledging this problem, and seeking a way forward, is the 21st Century Learning Initiative in the United States that was started by the well-known British pedagogue John Abbott. This Initiative has been met with significant interest by scientific experts, policy makers and educators in many countries around the world. Unfortunately, this Initiative has been met with very little interest in Poland despite the fact publications are available and they have a substantial web site. They have accumulated a lot of evidence to show that either we begin revolutionizing education systems by bringing them in-line with other fields (like medicine, business, etc.), or we let the crisis fester and wait to see the tragic consequences it will have on many young people around the world.

Now I turn to the specific problem facing post-communist countries. It is the issue of how we prepare our teachers for the classroom. Currently, teacher education is a relic of the past which is a danger to the future of democracy in the post-communist countries. I base my argument on the following points.

  1. The primary role in the process of formal education is played by the teacher. Books, programs, manuals, extra-curricular activities are all secondary to the role of the teacher. The aims of education in a democratic society and those of a totalitarian society are diametrically opposite.
  2. They need diametrically different forms and this requires a different type of teacher.
  3. In Poland, for half of this century, the authoritarian centers of teacher education were under the political pressure of the Communist Party. They were in isolation from the influences of democratic countries and they were specifically designed for the needs of the communist system. Teachers developed a practice and methodology to fit the system. Since they were not exposed to other models of education teachers, many of whom were not politically motivated, did not even know they were helping to propagate the policies of the communist party.
  4. In the 1990’s the changes of our (Poland’s) political and economic structures have required radical reforms in almost every quarter of society except teacher education, which has survived and continues to function almost unchanged.

My conclusion is obvious. The publication entitled The Review of the National Policy of Education in Poland, which was published in 1996 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), argues my point well. There was a chapter devoted to the issue of teachers and teacher education. The publication has not been translated into Polish but they wrote:

“The many plans and aspirations for educational reform in Poland will depend, to a large degree, for their success on the quality and morale of the teachers.” (p.85)

“Every effort should be made to ensure that the long-term perspective is borne in mind when laying down the foundations for a reformed teacher education system and a restructured teaching profession.” (p.85)

“Established patterns and procedures will require fundamental re-appraisal and difficult decisions may be required.” (p.85)

“The process of reform will require…difficult decisions and the goodwill to see them through.” (p.85)

“The success of education reform will be dependent on the change of teacher’s attitudes, on their qualifications.” (p. 86)

“The great majority of the existing teaching force has been habituated to the older approach for most of their teaching careers.” (P.86)