Poland: Witold Wozniak

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Witold Wozniak Deputy Director, National Centre for the Support of Vocational and Continuing Education (KOWEZiU)

The National Centre for the Support of Vocational and Continuing Education works under the Ministry of Education and deals with improvement of vocational education of teachers and compiling examples of vocational curricula, including module curricula and educational packages. The organisation also runs vocational guidance programmes to help students choose the right educational career path to support their future plans. In his role as Deputy Director, Witold Wozniak oversees the implementation of KOWEZiU programmes.

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Challenges for Vocational Training in 2010

Witold Wozniak begins our interview by giving his view of the main challenges facing vocational education and training in Poland in 2010.

He laments the low prestige associated with vocational education in Poland, explaining that for many, vocational education is seen as a poor substitute for a more traditional route; an option students choose when they think they are unable to successfully complete a more academic education: "We have to deal with something called negative choice - this is when students believe they cannot apply for academic education."

This pervasive negative perception, however, stands in stark contrast to the demand for highly skilled Polish workers in foreign countries; workers who have earned a reputation for being highly trained, competent and motivated.

The main challenge he identifies relates to what Mr Wozniak believes is an excessive formality with regard to the way in which vocational education is delivered. He explains: "The system is based in schools and colleges... there is no mobility and flexibility within the system which means it's very difficult to educate employability skills and behaviours in students."

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Employability: Skills & Behaviours

When discussing the skills, knowledge and behaviours contemporary students need to survive and thrive in the modern workplace, Mr Wozniak is very clear about the most important skill or attribute the 21st century learner needs: "The ability to learn coupled with a behavioural readiness to learn is most important."

Moving onto a discussion of the attributes that employers rate as critical, Mr Wozniak states that his dialogue with employers has enabled him to isolate a set of key attitudes and behaviours that are expected of employees in Poland: "These are: honesty, accountability - which is very difficult to measure - creativity and inventiveness... which I consider to be a national characteristic in Poland! You can see this in the success of our workers when they go abroad..."

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Education for Entrepreneurship

Similarly, Mr Wozniak believes that the economic and employment hardships the Polish have endured have led to a general entrepreneurial mindset: "We had to be innovative and creative to make a living... entrepreneurship is in our genes."

He notes that the development of these type of skills is also woven into many educational disciplines in Poland, both at a theoretical level and through practical learning experiences.

He describes school projects where, as part of an economics or business studies courses, students create and run virtual companies through online simulations, even occasionally setting up commercial partnerships with real businesses: "We even have students who have created companies that go onto become successful... In Polish (the language) entrepreneurship is not a skill but an attitude - a sensibility."

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Measuring Attitudes & Behaviours

Moving onto the challenges around measurement of attributes and soft skills, Mr Wozniak argues that formally assessing attitudes and behaviours is problematic.

He also points out that developing specific attitudes and behaviours in students is difficult, but explains that this has not deterred people from attempting to do so in Poland. Citing a study carried out by the Polish Institute for Education Research, Mr Wozniak details how expert researchers investigating the labour market have tried to develop tools to measure attitudes and behaviours but were ultimately unsuccessful.

In spite of these challenges, he believes that an educator can influence attitudes and behaviours but that in so doing will always come up against the effects of internal factors associated with the individual, such as their personal ethics or morality, as well as external factors such as the wider environment in which that individual lives.

Furthermore, Mr Wozniak points out that while a school may be able to successfully influence attitudes and behaviours in students whilst they are in the education system, this does not necessarily mean that these qualities will be retained when a student subsequently enters the workplace: "What a person does is always going to be influences by what's going on around them - external factors play a significant role. Schools describe values - honesty, accountability and so on - as required, but this doesn't guarantee that a student will live by these once they leave school."

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Bringing Business Skills into the Classroom

When discussing the value of integrating real-world experience into the education experience, Mr Wozniak goes on to explain how he believes those with business or industry backgrounds can be brought into the classroom.

He points to the recently amended Education System Act, which allows expert practitioners to teach in vocational schools and colleges even if they have not trained as teachers. As well as giving students valuable insights into the practical (as opposed to just theoretical) elements of various jobs, this arrangement also provides an opportunity for education to be more closely aligned with the needs of the workplace and the wider labour market.

However, whilst believing this to be an extremely positive development, Mr Wozniak does have a number of reservations about the implementation of this new approach: "This change has only been brought in over the last year, and many industry specialists are reluctant to accept a teacher's rate of pay... I am also aware that many of these highly skilled experts many not have the pedagogical skills required to get their message across and become effective teachers."

He then outlines another solution to bridge the gap between education and work - the introduction of internship programmes for teachers to allow them to reconnect with industry and keep up to date with any changes and advances.

A pilot programme which allows teachers in vocational fields to spend some time "in the field" as he puts it has already been run in Poland, but the number of applicants was unfortunately low, which he believes was the result of the way in which it was promoted.

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Building Consensus

Mr Wozniak then touches on a common cause of concern in the Polish education community: the lack of a shared vision for education in Poland: "We don't yet have one shared vision for education in Poland. A group of experts from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and other ministries have been working for some time on the joint vision: "The Lifelong Learning Strategy", but the document is not yet ready."

He describes the problem as not only in joining several Ministries in a shared vision, but also designing ways to implement "The Lifelong Learning Strategy", and introducing mechanisms to support cooperation and then define a common baseline for formal, non-formal and informal education.

Furthermore, he believes that a new paradigm for education should be conceived; one that is not designed around formal institutions, but based on learning outcomes: "We need to base education on results, on assessment of an individual's skills and competencies not just on process or formation... whether they are learning in or outside the classroom."

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A Vision for Vocational Education in Poland

This brings us to the question of how Mr Wozniak himself would tackle the challenges of vocational education in Poland. I ask him to elaborate a personal vision.

The first facet of his vision is the development of what he describes as a learning outcomes approach, with an emphasis on personal life-long learning rather than individuals acquiring knowledge only through traditional formal education.

To illustrate this, he highlights the large number of experts working in the constantly changing IT sector who often don't have any formal education but have acquired - and continue to acquire - hugely valuable skills.

Following on from this example, Mr Wozniak is adamant that a way has to be found to evaluate and assess competencies that professionals develop through their working life. A life-long learning approach to education, he stresses should include: "... Ongoing validation of results of non-formal and informal learning, which does not exclude those who don't have the formal education associated with specific competences."

He explains that at present, education regulations only allow people who have gone through formal education to take professional examinations: "This is a real barrier to people who cannot get a certificate for the skills they have acquired. As an example, we have an employee here at the centre who has been with us for 8 years, and his skills - which have
developed and evolved in that time - are exceptional. We wouldn't swap him for anyone."

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Learning without Barriers

Mr Wozniak concludes our discussion by explaining his passion for the concept of 'open source learning', where individuals have open access to learning materials online in learning communities and can further develop their skills through sharing information and collaboration.

He stresses that a key part of this vision is about ensuring autonomy and independence of educational processes and the examination system, concurrently providing a reliable external evaluation system to guarantee benefits for all stakeholders.

As an example, he points to cases in the past of political interference in education where pass thresholds for exams were lowered in order to obtain a favourable set of figures.

To illustrate the importance of this independence, Mr Wozniak uses the analogy of taking a driving test in Poland, explaining that after completing driving lessons with one school, individuals have to take a test in front of an independent body, ensuring a fair and properly benchmarked assessment of the learner's capabilities.

We end the interview with Mr Wozniak summarizing his simple vision for the Poland's education system: "There are a growing number of validation projects, often funded by the European Social Fund, to evaluate and confirm learning outcomes derived from informal and non-formal education. My vision is of independent, autonomous systems of learning with an independent examination system... This is what we need."

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