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The Warsaw Voice » Other » July 9, 2008
Education & Society
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Cram, Pass, Forget
July 9, 2008   
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Education in Poland often amounts to little more than rote learning-knuckling down to absorb a mass of information that helps a student pass exams but ultimately proves of little further value, critics of the system say. For many high school and university students, it all boils down to a simple formula: cram, pass, forget.

Have Polish schools and colleges really decided that real knowledge is of no use today-because the brave new world only needs consumers who are easy to manipulate and blindly believe in slogans someone throws at them? Many schools clamp down on individualism, original views and creativity, according to those who are critical of the system. They say students who refuse to submit to rigid formulas are often publicly castigated by teachers, and that it seems that many teachers in Poland today are not there to teach. The aim is not to produce a thinking individual capable of analyzing and questioning but a mass-produced, conformist commodity.

We don't need no education ministry?
During this year's high-school leaving exams, known as the matura, well-known writer Antoni Libera and eminent intellectual and historian Marcin Król were asked to take the Polish language test. Neither did well. In fact, Król flunked the exam. Was his essay no good? Did he make lots of grammatical mistakes? Not at all. His essay had one defect that disqualified it: it was 16 words too short, and that's why it couldn't be evaluated at all. Libera's essay, on the other hand, did not fit the key according to which the evaluation was carried out. This key is a set of ready-made formulas that students should know by heart and use like automatons.

This year's matura exams did serve a useful purpose, though: they proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the school curriculum set by the education ministry is harmful to young people and that those in charge of the ministry should be sent packing. Perhaps disbanding the entire ministry altogether-and preferably quickly-would be the best solution.

Teacher associations
There are various associations in Poland that control certain professional communities and hinder free competition. This means that their protégés will almost always win against talented and honest people-typical negative selection.

Associations of lawyers or physicians carefully guard their particular interests. The same happens at universities, as proved by a recent row over postdoctoral degrees (habilitacja in Polish). A proposal to abolish them caused protests among part of the academic community. Meanwhile, doing away with such degrees would introduce an effective model of an academic career, similar to that in English-speaking countries. A precedent is already in place, at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, a center created with support from UNESCO and the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). The body that decides on appointments to the post of professor is an International Advisory Board that includes a Nobel Prize winner. A young professor is chosen in a competition from among 40 or so nominated candidates, and the lack of a postdoctoral degree is not a problem. Unfortunately, everywhere else in Poland, the old promotion system, based on the master's-Ph.D.-habilitacja-professorship hierarchy, is still in force. Even outstanding professors from other countries have problems with getting a job at a Polish university. In this situation, how is one not to think that the protests against abolishing the postdoctoral degree boil down to academics' fear of competition?

Quality, not quantity
There are about two million college students in Poland. That's a lot, more than the entire population of Estonia. But does quantity mean quality? Perhaps Poland simply has too many private and state-run colleges of doubtful quality that produce too many graduates? Too many BAs in marketing and management instead of more engineers? The Scandinavians noticed the problem a long time ago and today they have Nokia and Ericsson. India noticed it too and now has hundreds of thousands of people working for U.S. hi-tech companies. What about Poland? The main problem lies in Polish students' negligible ability to put their knowledge into practice. It's not their fault, but the fault of poor curricula and the fact that many teachers are only able to fill them up with encyclopedic knowledge. Of course, financial issues also have a serious impact on quality. It's a cliché to say that the development of science, education and advanced technology should be the country's strategic priority. This is confirmed by Finland, a country that was once poor but thanks to its determined investment in science and education is now among the European leaders in terms of GDP per capita. Ireland and many other countries have traveled a similar road to success.

So why is it taking so long in Poland to introduce solutions well tested elsewhere? Why is a country of 40 million in the heart of Europe lagging far behind most other EU countries in terms of spending on research and science, with only Bulgaria spending less per capita? Even Belarus spends more on science than Poland in per capita terms.

Almost 400 scientists are sounding the alarm that things are bad and getting worse, according to The Self-Diagnosis of the Polish Scientific Community, a recent report by the Committee for the Development of Science in Poland. The committee asked scientists from all over the country to fill out an online questionnaire assessing the state of Polish science and higher education. The most often mentioned problems included deteriorating teaching standards, inefficient organizational structures and bureaucratic mechanisms blocking young people's professional growth. Red tape at universities hampers the work of teachers and students alike. Gerontocracy is becoming a serious problem, together with the resulting opposition to change, according to the respondents, who attacked what they described as the academic community's conservatism. Those polled also criticized non-transparent and unfair mechanisms for distributing funds for research and the ways in which the science sector is financed in general. Respondents slammed the lack of support for scientific research from Polish industry and private companies as well as the low qualitative and quantitative standards of international cooperation. The factors listed the most often as hampering international ties included, apart from financial problems, language barriers and the lack of willingness or initiative to work together and exchange ideas with foreign scientists.

Are things really that bad?
Optimists argue that things in Polish education and science are not that bad. There are many high-standard full-time and postgraduate university courses. Some MBA courses in Poland are on a par with those offered elsewhere in Europe and have prestigious accreditations such as EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System), AACSB (International Association for Management Education), and AMBA (Association of MBAs). There are colleges that belong to elite international associations. For example, the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) is a member of CEMS (Community of European Management Schools), an organization that brings together the best schools of economics and management in Europe.

Polish researchers have been successful in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS), organized by the European Commission since 1989 and attracting a total of 30,000 young scientists every year. Polish scientists began taking part in these contests in 1995, but have won the largest number of prizes, alongside the Germans and Britons, in a diverse range of disciplines, including paleontology, astronomy, mathematics, economics, physics, and chemistry. Polish high-school and university students have won top places in international IT competitions. For some time the University of Warsaw has topped the world's most prestigious league table of schools that train IT specialists, known as TopCoder. The University of Wrocław is among the top 10 schools as well. It's also worth mentioning that the parenthesis-free notation of formal expressions-which is of major importance for computer programming and is taught to IT students all over the world-is called Polish Notation. It is used in some programming languages (FORTH, Postscript) and in Hewlett-Packard scientific calculators. It was invented by Jan Łukasiewicz, a professor at the University of Lviv, around 1920. At the time, the city of Lviv was in Poland.

There are many more positive examples, but they all don't change the fact that the overall picture of Polish education and science is far from bright. Suffice to say that the best Polish colleges are not even ranked among the top 300 universities worldwide in terms of overall performance. Unless the problems in the Polish education system are eliminated, these statistics won't improve anytime soon.

Krzysztof Jendrzejczak
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