Poland: Marlena Falkowska

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Marlena Falkowska Head of International Cooperation and Promotion Unit, Centre for Education Development (ORE- Ośrodek Rozwoju Edukacji)

Marlena Falkowska graduated in natural sciences (biology) at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and, among others, has a post diploma qualification in education management. Her experience of education is international, having also studied at the Institut Superieur de la Langue Francaise in Brussels. She has experience at the coal face of education as both a primary school teacher and headmistress. Mrs Falkowska has been dealing with teachers' in-service training since 2003 when she started to work in the National In-Service Training Centre as a consultant teacher and manager of the International Cooperation Team. She worked as the Deputy Director between 2004-2007 and as the Director from 2008 to December 2009. Mrs Falkowska is currently Head of International Cooperation and Promotion Unit, Centre for Education Development, created as a merger of various institutions involved in teacher training and development.

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The National In-Service Training Centre

Mrs Falkowska begins by describing the role of the National In-Service Training Centre, where she worked from 2003 until the creation of the Centre for Education Development; the product of a merger of two educational bodies, the National In-Service Training Centre and the Centre for Pedagogy and Psychology. The National In-Service Training Centre was created with the statutory aim of providing support to education policy in Poland through teacher training with Mrs Falkowska describing its primary role as: "offering 'competency' in respect of developing civic education, citizenship, management. The Centre did not
deal with developing teachers' competencies in the area of individual subjects such as mathematics or biology."

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Creative Teaching Techniques

Mrs Falkowska is committed to supporting teachers in their attempts to adopt new teaching methods, and explains that the former National In-Service Training Centre ran and initiated a number of projects with external partners with the aim of promoting more interactive pedagogical approaches.

As an example of the scope of these activities, she describes the European School Clubs', a project financed through the Ministry of Education, which she was involved whilst working as a head teacher.

The project involved teachers, students and parents and aimed to increase awareness of EU issues as part of a wider effort aiming at supporting Poland's integration into European structures: "Classes of children were given a different country within the EU to research and become familiar with, research which extended to encouraging students and their parents to experiment with the culture and cooking the cuisine of their adopted nation. Specific materials were created for these European School Clubs."

Grant funded, this was a successful project which reached many schools in Poland and was launched to coincide with Polish accession to the EU. Mrs Falkowska tells me: "This project was aimed at empowering teachers with new tools/ways to work with students and was incorporated into the school syllabus for the whole year. We found that involvement in the project brought out creativity in teachers. At the end of the year's activities, as a part of the "European Day," each class presented,
in various artistic forms, the most important information about their adopted country. Furthermore, with the considerable support of their parents, students arranged stands offering meals they prepared and handed out promotional materials."

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Challenges around Teacher Training

While such projects demonstrate the considerable effort underway to change educational delivery in Poland, Mrs Falkowska is quick to acknowledge that there are several unresolved issues around teacher training, in particular pre-service training.

Her first concern is that current teacher training does not focus enough on developing teachers' practical skills and techniques: "The process of change has begun in part as a reaction to the Bologna process, but we have don't have enough focus on skills, there is not enough balance between theory and practice."

She sees a new role for teachers, with greater emphasis on the teacher as a coach and mentor as opposed to the person who merely imparts information and knowledge: "A modern teacher should act as a moderator in the process of education. We need to move away from the image of teachers with chalk at a blackboard. Students have many resources at hand in modern day classrooms and it is the teacher's job to show students the different ways to acquire knowledge, how to cope with different sources, find what is relevant from the large amount of information available."

Mrs Falkowska sees creating this same competency in teachers as just as vital: "How can you talk about competencies for students if teachers don't have them?"

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Competencies

Mrs Falkowska sees the issues around developing core competencies as, in part, addressing European integration in Education. She explains that the Polish education system is working towards incorporating the eight core competencies needed by students as laid out in the Lisbon Strategy. Mrs Falkowska highlights two key issues addressed in the context of
Polish education, where both teachers and students need instruction in these competencies: "One area we are particularly keen to develop social and civic competencies, as today there is a lack of emphasis in the area of teacher training. Another key competence is communication skills. Skills for negotiation and reaching consensus... these are what we will all need in our adult life. How can we create or teach theses competencies in students, if teachers do not have them themselves?"

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Competencies

Mrs Falkowska sees the issues around developing core competencies as, in part, addressing European integration in Education. She explains that the Polish education system is working towards incorporating the eight core competencies needed by students as laid out in the Lisbon Strategy. Mrs Falkowska highlights two key issues addressed in the context of
Polish education, where both teachers and students need instruction in these competencies: "One area we are particularly keen to develop social and civic competencies, as today there is a lack of emphasis in the area of teacher training. Another key competence is communication skills. Skills for negotiation and reaching consensus... these are what we will all need in our adult life. How can we create or teach theses competencies in students, if teachers do not have them themselves?"

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Attitudes & Behaviours

Mrs Falkowska is also clear on the main attitudes and behaviours that all school leavers need to develop if they are to compete and thrive in the 21st century workplace. She argues that the acquisition of these attributes is particularly important in the context of Poland's efforts to shift to a knowledge-based economy: "Creativity and flexibility, and the ability to adapt to new situations - these things are so important. We need to help people develop skills in their learning as part of a life long
learning perspective. This is tied to initiative, activity (entrepreneurship) - a quality which is vital for people who have to upskill themselves and adapt their current skills to market needs to find or retain a job."

Mrs Falkowska is concerned that historically there has been no explicit requirement for these attitudes and behaviours to be taught in schools, even though many teachers recognise their value.

She sees evidence of change, however, and points out that these attitudes and behaviours are now being enshrined within a new core curriculum. Additionally, Mrs Falkowska has seen the growth of a movement towards tackling these challenges in recent years, in part due to wider European influence: "Last year was the European year of innovation and creativity, and we ran a lot of projects in these fields across Poland. Since the reforms in 1989, Polish schools have changed a lot and many new and innovative forms of teaching have come into Poland. Many teachers are deploying these new methods, not only because they are forced by the new curriculum to do so. The latest change has introduced the obligation to complete certain elements of
the curriculum using the project method."

Mrs Falkowska believes that although these developments are positive, a strong commitment to appropriate teacher training and increased support in schools is needed to ensure these new approaches deliver much needed change.

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The Status of Teachers

We now move onto the tricky subject of attracting the right candidates to go on to become the new breed of teachers Poland's classrooms evidently need. As with other interviewees in our research in Poland, the problems of status and low salary in the teaching profession are highlighted: "In Poland, salary levels come nowhere near matching the expectations of the brightest and best - our teachers, as compared to their peers in other EU states, have low salaries. The situation is now a little better than it was, but when both partners in a family are teachers, it is difficult to survive financially. My husband always used to say to me,
you can be a teacher because I'm not, so we can afford it."

She illustrates the contrast of teachers' status in Poland with other European countries by pointing to an educational policy in Finland where teachers get both good salaries and a comprehensive package of other benefits that support their professional development e.g. annual scientific leaves, well-organised in-service training system; an ideal scenario according to Mrs Falkowska: "In Finland teaching jobs attract top candidates because the authorities are aware that only the right policy in this respect makes the teacher's profession competitive as compared to other jobs. Therefore, to make it attractive and ensure the best achievements, they have to have something to offer."

Despite the barriers to finding good teacher trainees, Mrs Falkowska acknowledges that thousands of existing teachers are proactive in seeking out ways of improving their own teaching, and often willing to develop new skills and tools - something that bodes extremely well for the future of the Polish education system.

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Developing a Long-term Vision for Education

When discussing the gaps between the needs of employers and the skills and capacities of those leaving the education system, Mrs Falkowska explains that the concept of inviting employers to participate in education design is a new one in Poland. However, she sees business and industry as key partners in developing future educational policy if the needs of the economy are to be met: "We should prepare students for labour market requirements. It is easier to encourage students to
learn skills that will be used rather than those that won't. Poland needs a long-term vision for what we in Poland want to achieve in education, in educating children."

She continues, explaining that a single, coherent vision for education is imperative if the needs of learners, employers and the country as a whole are to be adequately addressed: "Development of such a vision is hampered by the fact there are presently two Ministries of Education in Poland (The Ministry of Education and the separate Ministry of Higher Education). Now there are two Ministries of Education and decisions, launching of projects affecting both take longer. Different visions do not work together in education; you need one consistent, universal vision."

While Mrs Falkowska is convinced of the need for a shared, long-term vision for education in Poland, she is careful to point out that this vision should be divorced, as much as possible, from politics. Echoing the sentiments of Witold Wozniak, another interviewee in this series, she would like this vision formulated and monitored by an independent group. For her, "education should be a-political".

She is concerned that without this autonomy, political allegiances could influence policy decisions, citing the case of an Education Minister who wanted to change the core values taught at schools to those championed by his party.

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Describing the Ideal Experience of Education

Having outlined how this vision should be developed, I ask Mrs Falkowska to describe what, for her, constitutes the ideal experience of education. She begins by arguing that a child's pre-school experience is fundamental - a position adopted by child development experts the world over: "Education should start from when a child is born. The first two or three years are crucial to a child's education. That time spent at home is the first stage of education."

She then moves to a concept of what she calls the socialization of children: "We need to provide opportunities for children to socialize by sending them to kindergarten... It is important they get this contact with other children in a group setting."

Mrs Falkowska explains that many children have not had the chance to attend pre-school in Poland, a situation that is apparently starting to change. She sees providing this opportunity to all children as part of a drive for more equal opportunities in education - one of her main objectives - regardless of age, geography or other factors that divide such opportunity within the country.

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A Call for Personalised, Life-Long Learning

Mrs Falkowska is convinced of the value of developing a culture of personalised learning, and believes that everybody should be
encouraged to take responsibility for his or her own programme of life-long learning, both in and outside of formal or informal education.

She states that curriculums should be flexible enough to allow for adaptation to individual learners' interests, capabilities and learning styles, including the time span or speed of the didactic process.

To reinforce this point, she uses an intriguing analogy drawn from her background as a biologist: "Children are like flowers, they don't all blossom on the same day."

Returning to her professional interest in the development of appropriately skilled teachers, she reiterates how important the changing role of the teacher is in delivering her vision for the future: "A teacher should be a mentor and a school is only as good as its teachers. Even if you equip a classroom with all the technology in the world it must still be moderated by the teacher. In the teaching process, teachers need to apply modern methods, have the ability to motivate students to create new ideas, form their willingness to research something, and kindle the real passion for learning. If you look back on your own life I'm sure you
can find a teacher who inspired you. A teacher with a capital T!"

Drawing our interview to a close, Mrs Falkowska describes the final part of her vision for education in Poland, underlining the absolute importance of linking learning to the real world and calling for employers and educators to work together to achieve this goal: "Students must feel that what they are learning is practical. We need schools where students learn things they can use in real life; what future employers will expect from them. Why do people take driving courses? Because they want to learn how to drive a car, develop a practical skill they will be able to actually use. Education should not be something you do to gain a degree or diploma. This is the moment where employers and educators must meet and work together."

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