An interview with Robert Firmhofer, director of the Copernicus Science Centre (CSC).
JUSTYNA SUCHECKA: There have been several “Copernican revolutions”. Are you planning on staging yet another one?
ROBERT FIRMHOFER: The world never stands still, and the name of our Centre’s patron, Nicolaus Copernicus, does entail a certain obligation.
Can you be more concrete about what that means?
We want to expand, but this means more than just a new building for the planned “Copernican Revolution Workshop”. We are planning on creating research labs – these will be incubators for social innovation in the field of education, where new ideas can be tested and validated.
We are open to the world. We work with various institutions on a daily basis. For example, we recently signed an understanding on research collaboration with the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS) in Warsaw and we are in the midst of forging a collaboration agreement with Stanford University. We are orienting ourselves to research, as a significant generator of the desired competence.
Does this mean you intend to change not only Polish schools but also the system of education in general?
Why shouldn’t we? The term “glocal,” which has recently become a popular buzzword, plays a prominent role in this field. Amazing local initiatives emerge, which are then quickly modified and imitated all over the world. It is very important to be a part of such change, instead of remaining an isolated island. We are working with others without feeling inferior. We are giving something to others and we are aware of our own value, while simultaneously learning humbly from them. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
Is this why you need the new workshop project?
Yes, because this means acting on many levels. We would like to create a local incubator here in Warsaw, in the Powiśle District, that can bring benefits to Warsaw and to the Mazowsze region, while simultaneously working nationally and internationally. We have what it takes successfully achieve that.
People who truly care. Many of our staff members at the Copernicus Science Centre were the kind of kids who used to destroy our toys. Instead of simply following the instructions, we wanted to find out what was inside, what made them tick. Our parents got irritated, because “the toys were so nice,” but we were happy explorers. We’ve never grown out of that.
How does that relate to the teaching revolution you want to stage?
Destroying toys is a good metaphor for the education system. The question is: should students be like children who obediently follow instructions when playing with their toys and merely reconstruct what others have invented, or can they sometimes break the toys, of course not as a thoughtless act of vandalism but in order to understand how they work and to make something new out of them? In this sense, we are rebels – we would like the education system to be for those who “break things.”
Is that where the future of the education system lies?
I don’t know exactly what the future will bring, but I’m convinced that it belongs to those who are creative, not to those who can merely carry out instructions and commands. Poland is not alone in being faced with this change. European education systems are rooted in the Prussian model, which chiefly served the purpose of universality. Back then, it was important that people should understand what the authorities expected of them and have the qualifications to carry out their instructions.
But the world of the 21st century is different. We are deeply dissatisfied with the fact that governmental leaders only listen to us and vie for our support once every four years. We want to have influence over their decisions at all times. In order for this system to work properly, we must educate active students in schools and active citizens.
What can be done to make sure that “active students” is not merely a slogan?
We should not just say that people need to be active, but actually create the necessary room for such activity. We definitely need to redefine the roles of teachers and students. The former will have a more difficult task. They should not so much talk about things as support students in their development, give them cues, and provide support in difficult moments.
And to learn from them?
Naturally! Such teachers are not afraid to say “I don’t know, I’m surprised. I’m wondering what I should do.” Today, we are all too eager to treat what we are taught as a dogma, as something sacred.
We don’t challenge it enough?
That’s not even the biggest problem. We simply don’t discover anything for ourselves, although discoveries are the essence of science. In order to learn what has already been discovered, we need to explore it ourselves. Meanwhile, even if teachers do conduct experiments in class, they often do so only to illustrate the topic of the class. Discovery and hands-on exploration are the best method of gaining an understanding the world. Small children explore the world by observing it and experimenting. Sometimes just by constantly throwing a spoon on the floor, to the irritation of us adults. When we say “stop it!” we upset this process. It is not school that kills curiosity. We, as parents, do so even earlier.
Why is that?
Our culture is largely based on imitation and authority. We have created an environment in which we constantly drive our children somewhere, constantly limit them, we take them to playgrounds and give them carefully selected toys. We have tamed the world to such an extent that it is suited more for machines than for people. Then, we complain that our society “lacks initiative and creative individuals.”
Can experimentation reverse that?
Experiments are just the beginning! Experiments can be useless, too, for example if a teacher says “do it exactly in this way” and then sums up by saying “you’ve succeeded” or “you’ve failed.”
So what should be done to stage this “Copernican revolution”?
We should shift the focus to students. The problem is that the process of education is completely standardized, suited to the so-called average student, even though no one knows what “average” means, because there are no such students. Everyone is different.
Schools take no account of this fact. The focus is on following textbooks, not on students. We can observe differences between individual students on many levels – their pace and style of learning, their background, their social capital, what they talk about at home.
Things could look different. For example, let us take an interesting education project from Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. Sending a child to school in Bangladesh involves numerous problems and there are many people who don’t even complete primary school. In order to create conditions for them to learn, villages with no schools started to conduct informal education. The NGO that is behind this process encourages parents to renovate a building for education purposes. It also trains one of the parents to look after the kids, but this person is not a teacher. Children learn all by themselves. They get textbooks for free, too. They form groups to learn different subjects at different levels of difficulty. A leader will automatically emerge in each group. Students evaluate their work themselves and decide when they want to move to a different group or a different level of advancement.
Although this is not a school, they can take school leaving exams, similar to our tests for sixth graders. Children without teachers, whose lives are an uphill struggle, score better in these exams than children from normal schools.
What can we learn from that?
Clearly, I do not want to encourage us to establish schools without teachers. But this example shows us the power of self-education, positive motivation and solutions that individualize the process of learning. We can also see favourable social results. These kids learn to work in groups, solve problems, and take on different roles. And that is what is missing in Poland. In Poland, we not only ask our children “What grade did you get?” but also enquire further “And what did your classmates get?” That’s how the rat race begins. Such extremely individualistic development is a social ill.
Even so, I wouldn’t like to blame schools. The system reflects widespread social beliefs, which attach importance to individual work and what you can achieve by yourself. In addition, there are the Polish notions of “trust no one” and “everybody cheats.” Life becomes extremely complicated, which is a serious obstacle to Poland’s development.
This is why our Copernican revolution is based on the assumption that active students should be the centre of attention, not alone, but as part of a group. That means thinking of one’s community as a value.
Are you sure it is precisely this kind of competence that the 21st century demands?
Digital, technological and scientific competence is very important. It enables us to understand the world and to better situate ourselves among other people. To think critically, to analyse the reality that surrounds us, to put the achievements of science, medicine, and technology to good use, to avoid risky behaviour. Even so, such 21st-century competence needs to go hand-in-hand with social competence.
What can we do to link them together?
There needs to be cooperation on many levels – there is no other way. Fortunately, it is not true that the Copernicus Science Centre is a lone island. We meet with parents, teachers, students, social organizations, scientific institutions and businesses, and we find many like-minded people.
Of course, we need not only good ideas but also real manifestations of change. For me, one of them is the establishment of the Copernicus Science Centre, which has been visited by over 5 million people over less than five years. There are no guides, no fixed routes to follow. Initially, people are sometimes confused, but then they start to discover their own paths. This awakens their creativity. Awakening the creativity of five million people really means something – that is something powerful!
And on a smaller scale?
Other such manifestations can be found, for example, in natural sciences labs in schools. We are promoting and actively supporting their establishment.
There is money for such projects in this EU financial perspective and we want to make sure these funds are spent wisely. Money is needed not only for equipment but also for boosting the qualifications of teachers to make sure they feel at home in such labs. The equipment itself is at the end of this process. The beginning involves learning through exploring. If several thousand such labs with thousands of qualified teachers can be set up in Poland…
…we will witness a revolution?
That will be an excellent start. That will give us skills not only in natural sciences but also the kind of competence we will need throughout our lives, teaching us to think critically and helping to protect us citizens from various types of shamans, including political ones. Today, we are not very well prepared to critically analyse what others are telling us, so we trust no one.
Maybe the dream will come true in which individual citizens will tell those in leadership roles, “Show us your cards! Not because we don’t trust you, but because that’s what we always demand. If we like what you are about, we’ll throw our weight behind you.”
Interview by Justyna Suchecka
Publication date: 21 August 2015