Dr. Jacek Strzemieczny “Education is about empowering students as learners”

Access and Inclusion November 10, 2013

In this opinion piece, Dr. Jacek Strzemieczny highlights the role of non-governmental organizations in developing citizenship values. Dr. Strzemieczny also discusses the importance of developing an education system that gives young people the possibility to develop and prepare for their professional life and to be engaged citizens.

National education systems need non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be active in creating educational policy and practice. The Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej (CEO) is a prime example of this kind of cooperation happening in Poland.

Every country needs an education system that will give young people the possibility to develop and prepare for their professional life and to be engaged citizens. Only government administrations can introduce the institutional and legal framework of such a system and organize the financing and constant improvements of it.

Administration and political authorities should not, autonomously plan and implement educational policy. If that does happened, the interests of students, teachers and schools tend to be ignored and educational policy tends to be dominated by the interests of central and local bureaucracy or the short term needs of political leaders from a ruling party.

Schooling, like any other area, needs independent research and development for improvement. In wealthy, developed countries, academic institutions provide most of the R&D activities for education. In developing and transforming countries, higher education is not strong enough to become a positive player in preparing, initiating and testing educational reforms. That is when this R&D role should be fulfilled largely by non-governmental organizations.

The Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej (Center for Citizenship Education) was created in Poland after the transformation of 1989 to promote a vision of schools preparing students to become competent and active citizens at a local, national and global level. To achieve this, young people in school should experience the power of their thinking and action more richly than schools have traditionally been able to provide.

With this  goal in mind, CEO has been working to achieve it in two ways. Firstly, through work with schools and teachers, offering them a variety of programs, educational materials and trainings. Secondly, by building relationships with local and central educational authorities and working with them to change their public policy and practice.

CEO’s experience shows that bottom-up and top-down approaches complement each other. Acceptance of CEO’s programs and educational materials by schools and their teachers has become an argument for introducing changes in local and national policy. Involvement of authorities in the proposed changes have made the cooperation between schools and NGOs much easier.

The basis of CEO’s cooperation with schools and teachers is partnership in which the propositions of the NGO are accepted out of the schools’ free will. It is a good premise that allows schools, teachers and students to test the values of a given proposition. This lack of vertical dependence between schools and NGO makes it easier to reject proposals that don’t work, but also allow for a free flow of information between parties to better a program.

At the beginning of the 1990s, CEO developed a new civic curricula for Polish schools, proposing teaching content requiring schools to better engage students in their learning and instruction based on the constructivist approach.  CEO directly approached schools, offering them lesson plans, teaching materials and teacher training. A crucial point was that CEO was able to gain support (including financial) from local governments by convincing them that it would be effective to educate their future citizens by engaging students in local civic projects.

When new civic teaching was introduced in this bottom-up manner into several hundred schools in Poland, the National Ministry of Education – in creating it’s new national core curricula – incorporated new requirements for schools around citizenship education. TheMinistry sought CEO expertise in creating this new policy.

CEO, building upon already-proven relationships with schools, began to propose supplementing  traditional methods of teaching of all school subjects through inquiry and project based learning. A whole array of projects was presented in the area of social entrepreneurship, local history, sustainable development, global education, math and science education and students teaching other students. After fifteen years of cooperation with over 1,000 schools and many attempts to engage the Ministry to implement new learning and teaching methods, the central authorities – working together with experts from CEO – implemented a law requiring middle schools to engage every single student in educational projects.

Since the year 2000, CEO, together with the Polish-American Freedom Foundation, has been implementing the Learning School Program helping several hundred schools to use self-evaluation as a school improvement tool. Simultaneously, CEO has consistently been lobbying the Ministry to limit school supervision based on bureaucratic assessment and replace it with school quality assurance system. Within the framework of this same program, CEO has been promoting improvements in school instruction through formative assessment. CEO also publishes educational materials and providestrainings for principals and teachers. In recent years, more and more of these trainings are being carried out in cooperation with the educational authorities, who are also providing financial assistance.

Lessons from CEO’s experience:

Be focused. Education is about empowering students as learners. In school system, all improvements are simply a means for it.

Learn from the best but adapt. Seek key ideas that have been successfully implemented in other countries. Adapting those for local conditions is essential.

Perseverance and consistency. NGO can plan and act in a more long-term perspective than central administrations effected every few years with political changes in government.

Partnership with the client. Partnership with schools and taking advantage of feedback from them is a priceless way to develop expertise and plan furtherdevelopment.