It’s time for chaos and emotions

Although we are already in the 21st century and the world keeps changing at an incredible pace, the education system in Poland is still characterised by peace, predictability and discipline. It is not the nature of the school itself but rather a need expressed by the Polish society.

„Excuse me, when will this break finally end?” – I was asked by a confused teacher who was visiting the Copernicus Science Centre right after the opening. He did not associate hundreds of children running around and laughing among the exhibits with visiting a museum or learning. What kind of science centre is it where people look as if they were just having fun? What kind of learning is it? Well, that’s the point.

In Polish culture learning is, above all, about being at school. And school is defined by lessons led by a competent teacher and students who learn whatever they are told. They get grades for it and score, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in tests. Our education system is all about order and discipline, which – if everything goes according to the plan – give teachers, students and their parents a peace of mind.

Peace of mind above all

Peace is really important for us. Research conducted by Tomasz Piątek from the Copernicus Science Centre shows that teachers attach great importance to discipline in the classroom. They consider ensuring discipline as their duty and proof of competence. In consequence, a threat to students’ safety is the most frequently mentioned issue on the list of concerns that discourage them from making experiments during lessons. It is so because allowing children to take the initiative is connected with the risk of unpredictability. This applies to maintaining order in the classroom (limiting walking, talking and performing various activities by the students) and the results of the work. Experiment is never sure – it can always fail. That is why during their science classes teachers will rather follow the books and curriculum than make experiments. As the research shows, they are also happy to play movies or various kinds of shows. This way they have everything that happens in the classroom under control. They have time to present a given topic and dictate all the necessary definitions. They definitely prefer such form of conducting lessons than chaos and mess, which are an inevitable part of making experiments and discussing them with students. And although it all sounds like a story about “an ordinary class”, such attachment to peace, predictability and discipline does not reflect the nature of the school itself but rather our needs as a society.

Uncertainty and power

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and author of a bestseller – „Cultures and Organizations” – conducted a research on cultural differences. In his research, which covered 74 countries, he focused on analysing these differences by observing people’s attitude towards four issues: how a given society perceives individualism, how social roles are influenced by gender, how people perceive access to power and how they react to uncertainty, understood as new situations whose outcome is yet unknown. These last two aspects – uncertainty and power – are what can help understand why some people are surprised by how learning looks like in the CSC. Hofstede wanted to know how different people act in situations that are new and uncertain for them. If, of course, they see them as uncomfortable situations at all. It turned out that human needs are considerably diversified. Citizens of Sweden, Denmark, UK and USA all share a low rate of the will to avoid uncertainty. The Greeks, Belgians, Portuguese and Russians were united by being highly stressed in the moments of uncertainty. Whereas Poland was among top ten countries whose citizens want to avoid uncertain situations! So what does this mean for the education system?

According to Hofstede, students living in countries where uncertainty is strongly avoided, expect their teachers to be experts able to answer any questions asked. They don’t accept that a teacher would provide an ambiguous answer or simply say “I don’t know”. Students from such countries tend to undermine their own achievements – they often claim it was just “luck”. In such cultures avoiding uncertainty, parents, even though they do participate in the educational process of their children, are never asked about their opinions. Sounds familiar?

These observations apply to other countries as well. Having compared groups of German and British students, the Dutch researcher noticed that the former demanded a precise schedule of classes, detailed instructions and clear answers to posed questions. The latter group cared more for freedom when planning their courses, a relaxed programme and voluntary home works. The situations in which only one answer was correct was unacceptable for them – they demanded additional points for originality of their answers. Which group are we more similar to?

Approval for autocratic methods

In the research conducted by Hofstede, Poland ranks 27 on the list showing people’s attitude to unequal distribution of power. In short, this means that we quite explicitly approve autocratic methods of decision taking. According to the researcher, in such cultures teachers remain the subject of the learning/teaching process. They are the most important, the ones who decide about the path of intellectual development of their students. All forms of communication in the classroom are initiated by the teacher and the room itself is very often in perfect order. Students can speak only after they are asked to do so. The whole educational process is regarded as a very personal matter. In the case of more complex topics, the presented knowledge is not limited to universal truths but also contains elements of personal wisdom of the teacher. Hofstede noticed that in countries with such distance between power and the people, more emphasis is placed on higher education. This way the society remains divided into the elite and those poorly educated. In countries with low level of consent for inequality, such as Austria, Sweden or New Zealand, a bigger part of the budget is allocated to high school education, which leads to a development of the middle class.

Between a habit and inspiration

How does this all link with learning at the Copernicus Science Centre? Although as a society we value predictability, we begin to appreciate the benefits of being open to new situations. We are attached to the school order, but on the other hand we increasingly start appreciating the proactivity and involvement. In the aforementioned study conducted by Tomasz Piątek from the CSC, the teachers who supported discipline during lessons were also very enthusiastic about new teaching methods. They noticed that when making experiments, students learn self-reliance, responsibility and critical thinking. There is no contradiction between that. We are simply changing as a society and re-considering what matters more for us in education. We value safety and order, but at the same time we are inspired by stories of rebels who created the Silicon Valley. We long for experts and authorities, but increasingly appreciate critical thinking skills. We believe that students should be obedient, but we hope that our children will be entrepreneurial and take matters into their own hands. We expect students to score high in tests, but we hope their school lessons will be as interesting as the experiments in a science centre. We are proud how well Polish 15-year-olds do in the PISA study and yet we are worried because in other OECD research regarding creative problem-solving skills the same teenagers perform poorly. It is really hard to find a common denominator for all the above, so right now we are just learning to choose.

No barriers or limits

The Copernicus Science Centre is a two-storey open space. It consists of certain galleries in the building – Roots of civilization, On the move, Humans and the environment, Re:generation – but borders between them are almost invisible. Exhibits are presented in groups in what, at the first glace, may seem to be a lack of any order – neither in line, nor in a row. There are no guides, and no arrows pointing the visiting direction. What we do have are our explainers, happy to answer questions and help with using the exhibits. There are also plenty of people around – all visitors are surrounded by others, who observe, give hints and act. Core assumptions of the Copernicus Science Centre, i.e. liberty of visiting, freedom of experimenting, consent for expressing emotions and making chaos, are in contradiction to everything that we praise in education. And yet, this July the CSC celebrated its 5 million visitors. This means that since the opening, the CSC has had around 1 million visitors each year. This is something that the designers and creators of our Centre have not expected. Mr Hofstede, I think soon you may have to repeat your study of Poland.

The original article was published in Newsweek Psychologia 10/2015

Ilona Iłowiecka-Tańska, Ph.D.  – cultural anthropologist, Manager at the Evaluation and Analysis Department at the Copernicus Science Centre. Her field of expertise are social modernisation concepts. She is the author of “Leaders and activists – the third sector in Poland („Liderzy i działacze: o idei trzeciego sektora w Polsce”).