Lessons from Poland: why international comparisons are sometimes odious

Dzien dobry.

I recently spent some time in Poland. I promise not to make this a 'what I did in my holidays blog' because there's enough of them and one day the internet will be full and then we'll all be sorry and I'll point to the kitten Tumblrs and Facebook inventories of people's childrens' stools, and I'll say 'You did this.'

So, Poland. I've been many times, seen Polish schools, spoken to Polish teachers, and worked with Polish teachers who have also worked in the UK state system. If you read the latest reports, you would think (correctly) that Poland is some kind of Eastern European educational tiger. Its school system has been collecting laurels like Michael Phelps attracts gold discs on ribbon.

'The most recent test results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) show that Poland is ranked 14th for reading, ahead of the USA, Sweden, France and Germany - and well ahead of the UK in 25th'
'The OECD points out that Poland's reforms have raised performance to the same or higher levels as those of the USA and Norway, "despite spending less than half of what those countries spend on education".'

Good for Poland. But why should we care? Because in the big economy of international politics, countries no longer simply compare pupils with pupils and schools with schools; they now suffer comparisons with other nations' education systems. 

And running research into how and why children learn better is time consuming, expensive and difficult. The possibility of simply looking to other systems and learning from them is very tempting. Witness the safari-park tours of any country that appears to be doing  well: Finland, Singapore.

And now, Poland is, like Hansel from Zoolander, SO hot right now. People are wondering why. But they're coming up with the wrong answers. Kids in Poland read real good better and at half the cost. You bet people want to know how that happens, so they can strip mine/ frack it back in skips to the UK. So what do they think is the reason for this Warsaw symphony?

21st century learners in the Polish flipped classroom
Some of the proposed reasons are sound: schools, freed from the Soviet yoke, deloused their curriculum of state sanctioned propaganda (Russian Lessons were compulsory, as was Citizenship, which makes me like it even less than before). Others have, completely sensibly, pointed out the enormous appetite for improvement that followed the liberation of Poland from the communists after the fall of the USSR.

It cannot be emphasised enough to people in the West the difference your position to the Iron Curtain made. For us, World War II ended in 1945, after a period where most people knew Fascism only remotely through privation, isolation and shelling. The Poles lived through a savage occupation, followed by an even more savage second occupation by the Russians. The desire to seize and enjoy the fruits of the tree of liberty were understandably strong, and education has always been seen as a way to achieve this.

Polish children attend Primary School, from about 5 to 12 years old. Then, they sit a compulsory entrance exam which determines which secondary (or gymnasium) school they attend for 3 years; then another compulsory, competitive exam which determines which type of upper secondary school they attend- either a technik (more vocational) one up until 18/ 19, or a liceum, a sort of sixth form that prepares pupils for university entrance.

So what many propagandists in the West conveniently ignore is that the Polish system is quite close in many ways to the tripartite system of grammar/ comprehensive/ technical schools. But most people who admire and laud the Poles conveniently forget this, or don't mention it. When some form of quantifiable success is spotted in any emergent system, it becomes a magic mirror, reflecting and confirming what people already believed to have been the reasons for its success.

Rows and columns. GET. IN.
But I don't see any of this as of primary importance. The answer is much simpler: extremely well-behaved children, on a nation wide level. Adult authority is still deferred to in Poland, and teacher authority more so. Children misbehave to only a fraction of the extent that teachers in Western European Democracies frequently report. The extremes and excesses of the UK classroom would be viewed with horror by most Polish children, who also know that if they receive a certain number of demerits from a teacher, they can be held back a year for behaviour alone, not just for academic underachievement. (Click here for more.)

I struggle to understand why some people don't see good behaviour as one of the most fundamental influences on children's education. It isn't just one issue amongst many, it's foundational. If you have well behaved classes where kids tacitly assume the deal is to work at least reasonably hard, then you can take kids to the Moon in your lessons. If you spend most of your time dealing with so much poor behaviour that you don't even see it as poor any more, then that's an issue.

To say 'elephant in the room' is a tired metaphor, but it's absolutely applicable here. In Poland, kids behave really, really well. Families value education. Families also reflect a much more pre-war (for the UK) model of organisation: stable married families providing long term structure and routine, and support for children as they progress.

True Blue Steel: he's SO hot right now.
From my own experiences and interviews with teachers, I would also add that people in Poland really, really value education: they see it as an absolute asset, and they treat it with care. To have your child waste their time at school would be seen as a disgrace. And children and families have to provide all their own pens, pencils, exercise and text books. That's why it costs so little. Because families assume that you would provide your own equipment, and make space for it in the family budgets, no matter how poor. It's telling that, at a Polish wedding, many of the gifts that guests present to the bride and groom will take the form of pencils and other equipment, which is then traditionally donated to a local school. That's how embedded in the culture it is.

And if you needed more proof, consider that Poland has a Teacher Day, October the 14th, when teachers are brought gifts by children, and sometimes get time off; children prepare stories and speeches to say how much they appreciate their teachers.

Some might find some of this authoritarian and restrictive. Frankly, I am so down with it I can barely get up again. What amazes me is how people can come away from an analysis of the Polish miracle and forget to mention such intrinsically essential cultural axioms as these. Actually, I shouldn't be amazed. People often see what they want to, and like the abbots of Glastonbury claiming King Arthur's bones for their Abbey, will turn any success into a justification of their own position. We mythologise success easily, especially when the reasons for that success are so easy to obfuscate.

Which is, of course, a tragedy, when the truth is much simpler, but much, much harder to export.

Do widzenia.


  1. Have you heard of this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD6irBoMkek&feature=share&fb_source=message It's been a while since I listened to him, can't remember EVERYTHING he says. 'Appreciate Your Teacher Day', yes, of course, why not. :o)

  2. Sorry. Realised I posted that link wrong. Here's the right one! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD6irBoMkek

  3. I have taught quite a few Polish children attending UK schools and almost all of them, even recent arrivals with little English, stand out in terms of their behaviour, concentration, and apparent intelligence compared to the homegrown pupils. The same for the smaller number of Latvian children I've taught.

    Of course, there is probably a skew in terms of the types of adults who chose to move here from Poland, but it's a really noticeable difference.

  4. At last - the shining chalice of truth. Somebody has got out there and said it. Good behaviour lets children progress in class. Good behaviour lets the teacher work with groups, one to one, support those who don't understand the lesson objective, work with the G & T to stretch them, circulate round the room during independent work. Good behaviour means the teacher does not have to spend 80% of the time popping back to the board at the front to record names under a sad face on the board. It lets the teacher avoid issuing a constant stream of visual signals like a demented traffic cop - watch my hand point at you (yes,you) without me saying anything - and the 'hand on the desk strategy' (good old assertive discipline) so that they can actually teach. Sigh. Thank you Tom for saying it. Now we just have to dig up and reinstate the saint's relics of boundaries, consquences and meaningful rewards and we will be skipping up the aisle of the Holy Sepulchre of The Progession of Learning in One Lesson. While the Bishop of Ofsted blesses the congregation.

  5. Hi Tom,
    decided to reply here, as I don't want to litter you twitter with my 140 characters summaries. So, I was educated in PL, in the old system (yes, I had obligatory Russian), up to my MSc in molecular biology in 2002. I then run an outreach lab where we run hands-on workshops for teachers and pupils (from 7-8 year old to 18) to show them the modern science of biology and do some inquiry-based teaching/learning. This is my 'teaching experience', I haven't formally taught since then.

    Schools in Poland do very, very little, if anything, of experimental science. There are very few school labs (in any subjects) and if they are, they are very poorly equipped and rarely used anyway. Classes are large (I've never had a class smaller then 30) and there is one teacher per class only (we don't have TA nor we have lab technicians in schools). Kids are mostly rote-learning and critical thinking skills are not taught or encouraged. Kids may well be well behaved, but I think you mistake good behaviour for the lack of engagement. I agree that with such large classes better behaviour of kids makes life and teaching easier for kids, but I would take my kids to think for themselves and question the teacher any time over just being nice and polite. \

    The evidence I have for the lack of independent thinking and pathetic state of experimental skills is the lack of success of Polish pupils in the international olympiad (biology and chemistry in particular) and the disastrous results of the first PISA tests. The PISA-type of questions were an absolute novelty for Polish pupils and teachers - the kids are simply not taught to be able to assnwer this type of questions. And I really believe (no evidence except random comments from my MSc supervisor who is a member of Polish PISA team) that our improvement is due to teaching-to-the-test. I wish our kids were so good as PISA paints them to be.

    I also think you're right about the very high value of education in Poland. I think this is mainly for historical reasons. Unfortunately, this does not translate into respect for teachers (teachers are perceived as being lazy, incompetent and demanding and being teacher is NOT an job ambition, it's a choice when every other job ambition fails) or their salaries (they do earn very little).

    Remember as well that a lot of work and learning is supposed to happen at home in Poland (to a much larger extent than here). And to me the fact that parents have to buy everything their kids needs for school (including textbooks) is a disadvantage, because poor families do not get any support for these expenses.

    It would be really nice to talk to you about your Polish experiences some time. :-)

  6. The equipment example really hit home. I work in a deprived area and students arriving without pens is a perennial problem. A few apologists argue that they're poor, they may not be able to afford pens. But I look at how the students treat the pens and other equipment I offer them. They dismantle it, throw it around, break it. That's the mark of straightforward disrespect, not poverty.

  7. PISA-type of questions were an absolute novelty for Polish pupils and teachers - the kids are simply not taught to be able to assnwer this type of questions. And I really believe (no evidence except

  8. Our experience of PISA at a school in Cyprus suggests that if you do not "teach to the test" the students are totally disorientated by the style of questions and the randomness of the topics. Our students are prepared for UK IGCSE examinations and the topics do not fit the NC/IGCSE route that we follow. I cannot believe that students in other countries can be so successful without a very time-consuming preparation programme.


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