Poland: Sylwia Waśniewska

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Sylwia Waśniewska - Deputy Director of Economic Development Department, Ministry of Economy

In her role as Deputy Director, Sylwia Waśniewska is charged with the preparation and monitoring of medium-term strategies and programs of economic development in the fields of competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Her remit also includes duties involving the driving of cooperation between labour markets and the education and training sector. She is passionate about promoting education for innovation and creativity, and believes that greater openness and self-reliance in young people can be developed by integrating more practical exercises, simulations and real-life projects into the education system.

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Core Qualities in Employees

Ms Waśniewska begins our conversation by providing a personal perspective on what she sees as the key qualities employees need to succeed in the modern workplace; a subject area she has spent much of her professional career considering. Her conclusions are based on her own extensive experience of senior management roles in both the private and public sector: "I can tell you what I value (in an employee)... The basic thing is intelligence, but what is really important is readiness and an enthusiasm to learn. I prefer a person who doesn't know but wants to learn, than a person who knows but doesn't want to learn."

She stresses the importance of identifying this in potential employees, arguing that if the right attitude is in place, good management can develop the requisite skills: "If an individual is enthusiastic, willing to learn, I can form an excellent worker from this type of person."

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Independent Thinking – The Path to New Ideas

Additionally, Ms Waśniewska states that the ability to think independently is crucial and interestingly, she argues that this can capacity can be taught. In the work setting, Ms Waśniewska explicitly tries to develop independent thinking in her teams and employees, arguing that the ability to think laterally and exercise a degree of autonomy is invaluable in a dynamic and complex workplace: "I want them (my staff) to see the big picture, be able to operate on their own and not simply want to be directed. They need to think one, two, three steps ahead - then they can come up with new ideas. I love people who come to me and say 'I can see a way that we can do things differently'."

Ms Waśniewska actively promotes this type of behaviour in her staff at the Ministry, explaining that she has plans to develop a system whereby all staff are encouraged to submit an idea for a change or improvement: "This is my way of motivating them, fighting a working culture of acceptance or boredom...However, there is still room for discussion around how we incentivise this process, whether to connect it with benefits or not."

Furthermore, Ms Waśniewska is quick to stress that developing new ideas is beneficial both for the employer and for the employees; she is convinced that supporting these qualities increases job satisfaction among employees as much as it increases the productivity of her Department: "I want them to be happy... if someone comes up with an idea that creates something between us, generates enthusiasm. This is not theoretical - it is a practical way of improving the quality of life at
work."

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Teaching Creativity

Ms Waśniewska goes on to argue that innovation and creativity, far from being innate, can and should be taught in schools. Whilst acknowledging the complexities around assessment in this area, she is convinced that with the right teaching methods in place, these critical competencies can be developed: "This is something you can and should learn - absolutely... Can you assess (creativity)? Maybe not with percentages, but I think you can teach teachers to teach creativity, innovation, and the capacity to think."

When explaining how this could work in practice, Ms Waśniewska states that in order to encourage creativity in the classroom, teachers must adopt and promote curiosity and independent thinking: "Teachers should reward children who are showing a capacity to think for themselves; there is no such thing as a stupid question."

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Competition and the Need for Innovation

When exploring the socio political context of nurturing creativity and innovation in Poland, Ms Waśniewska explains that there is an important historical context to consider: "During the Communist era, nobody was expected to think innovatively - independent thinking was considered ideologically dangerous. This explains why some people from older generations are missing the wider, global perspective. Older people who grew up in the communist system probably have much bigger problems
with innovative thinking."

In spite of her evident capacities in terms of generating new ideas, Ms Waśniewska was forced to learn quickly in terms of thinking innovatively in her professional career: "Things came easy to me at school - I was a good student - but nobody expected me to think innovatively. But as soon as I started work, I was expected and incentivised to be innovative -
there were clear career benefits for being so."

This state of affairs, she points out, is even more the case with young people entering the job market and increasingly fierce competition for positions and promotion.

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The Disjoint Between Education and Employment

We then move on to discuss one of the key themes of the Effective Education for Employment research study - the mismatch between what students are taught and the demands of modern economies.

Ms Waśniewska's first observation is that school curriculums should avoid being overly theoretical and have as practical a focus as possible: "If you are just taught to remember facts, with no link to the real world, you don't learn - you forget. This is lost knowledge."

She believes this excessively abstract emphasis continues throughout the education system, and states that her own experience of higher education mirrors this significant problem: "I studied under a number of well known Professors at the Warsaw School of Economics and I forgot most of the knowledge I gained the minute I finished my exams... I feel that too much of the time I spent at University was spent learning abstract knowledge, for example learning statistics without any link to
real application of that knowledge."

Ms Waśniewska goes on to explain that anecdotal evidence collected from friends and colleagues suggests that competition in the classroom and a strong emphasis on examinations and testing has led to a reduction in the experience for many children in Poland.

Additionally, she believes that the stringent demands of the national curriculum prohibit opportunities for learning outside of the classroom, limiting the value of formal education for many learners - a sentiment echoed by many teachers and experts in the UK.

On a positive note, Ms Waśniewska notices a new attitude to educational research emerging - one that is attempting to address the gap between education and the world of work: "Structural links between what we teach (at higher level) and what the economy needs are not effective enough. We are working on changing this, but it may take 10 years or more to achieve."

She explains that reform of the education system is now underway, in part as a response to the Lisbon Agenda (the blueprint for economic development in the EU), in particular the imperative to move towards a knowledge economy. An example of this can be seen in the way academic research in universities is funded, with those projects that can evidence market needs and projects that lead directly to commercial opportunities being most likely to receive funding: "There are many more educational research programs supported at national level that are based around the changing needs of the marketplace... This new approach is brought about by a process of reform - 5 or 6 new Parliamentary Acts on Higher Education, trying to establish links
between areas such as scientific research and the market."

Ms Waśniewska believes that such initiatives are to be applauded and may herald a more productive approach to Ministries working together to address strategic economic issues.

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The Big Challenge – Learning to Learn

Ms Waśniewska is adamant that the main challenge faced by Poland's policy makers is designing a system that can: "...develop open, brave people who are motivated and interested in learning."

She is convinced that this process begins in the first years of a child's life, and argues that parents have a responsibility in terms of teaching these qualities to their children: "The great percentage of responsibility lies with parents. You cannot assume that teachers or schools will do this...We have many good teachers in Poland but effective education requires parents taking a bigger role in their children's education, so I should assume that I need to nurture and protect the innovative potential of my
children."

She is concerned that for many parents, their desire to give their children the best possible education translates into a belief that schools should maximise classroom time. She believes that what children really need is more education outside of the school environment, a chance to play and access to different types of stimulus to learn.

To this end, she feels that parents need to become more aware of their responsibilities in terms of developing curiosity, independent thinking and creativity, and believes firmly that it is the role of Government to launch initiatives to advise and support parents in this respect.

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Imagining the Ideal Experience of Education

At this point I ask Ms Waśniewska to provide her personal vision of the ideal educational experience. She lays out a clear set of points for change:

  1. Shorter lessons in the first two years of children's academic life: "All the research shows that young children can only focus for a short period of time... perhaps 15 or a maximum of 30 minutes..."
  2. Relate knowledge to the real world and avoid too much detail - help learners make connections between what they learn and life: "There's too much deep detail... I'm not sure little children need to learn the structure of DNA... They may need to start early if they want to go to medical school, but early specialisation can be difficult."
  3. Teach children to be open-minded and never punish independent
    thinking.
  4. Ensure that children are taught in a way that supports their physical needs - smaller groups of children in classes and more chances for sports and other physical activity.
  5. Improve the status and quality of teaching: "We need to choose the best people to become teachers, but how can you do that with the low salaries teachers are paid?"
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Education – A Personal Perspective

Ms Waśniewska concludes our interview by reflecting on her own experience of education, stating the importance of creating a stimulating and supportive environment, and - ideally - one tailored to the individual needs of children and young people.

An obviously talented and hugely dynamic woman, I ask how Ms Waśniewska's own education has contributed to her success. She outlines how at primary level, her education was not as good as it could have been. She feels that as an intelligent child for whom learning came easily she needed more encouragement to develop her learning independently and develop her interests. She does acknowledge however, that education has improved with the introduction of the new political system in Poland.

In stark contrast, her move to an excellent secondary school, where she felt among geniuses, spurred her on to focus on learning, and she successfully graduated from one of the best universities for the study of Economics in Poland.

Importantly, however, this academic achievement came with a cost, as she believes the demands of the school system and a lack of personalised education restricted her from developing the critical and creative thinking processes that were to prove so useful in later life.

Echoing her previous points about the overly theoretical emphasis of formal education, Ms Waśniewska states that these restrictions also continued at university: "I spent five years at university and I think I wasted much of that time. There were some very interesting classes, some brilliant teachers and Professors such as Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz, Prof. Karol Lutkowski and Prof. Mieczysław Puławski, but most of what I learnt was abstract. I blame the system, but also some teachers, who did
not care about making their subject interesting for me."

So in many ways Ms Waśniewska puts her achievements in school and beyond down to a her ambition and curiosity - attributes that may have been nurtured by her parents as much if not more than her experience at school.

In conclusion, Ms Waśniewska suggests that delivering a more personalised experience will unlock the potential of more children; a challenge that education systems around the world are grappling with every day: "I wouldn't say the education system got the best of me. We need small classes, individual treatment... and a lot of sports! This would be pretty close to ideal for me."

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