Education: What does the civic education of the future look like? | PFI at Villa Poranek, 16.06.2023

Education: What does the civic education of the future look like? | PFI at Villa Poranek, 16.06.2023 2048 1365 Philanthropy for Impact

On June 16 we hosted our first community gathering “PFI at Villa Poranek” during which more than 70  philanthropists, investors, foundations and civil society experts gathered in five parallel Salons to discuss some of the most pressing issues for Central Europe’s democracy. 

The Salon conducted under the title: Education: What does the civic education of the future look like? was introduced by Jędrzej Witkowski and moderated by Marcin Szala. The discussion zoomed in on the relationships that provide people with the opportunity for a good life, with a focus on mentorship at school and beyond. The starting point for the discussion was the state of the Polish education system, which requires reform and a fundamental shift, and the idea that young people need mentors throughout their education. Teachers can — and should — serve as mentors, but many currently do their work “because they have to”; low wages exacerbate this mindset. 

The whole summary of the discussion is presented below.

Education is a relationship that provides people with the opportunity for a good life. This relationship encompasses the bond between students and teachers, as well as mentors such as parents, teachers and friends. Mentors play a vital role in providing opportunities for individuals to succeed.

What does civic education offer? Why is it crucial from an early age?

Overcoming helplessness:
Two boys see an ad about a children’s home that needs help. They ask their parents what they can do. One set of parents dismisses the question, saying that is not their concern and that their child cannot make a difference. The other parents encourage their son to come up with a plan, saying that they will support him.

In this scenario, the first child disregards the issue, feeling helpless due to the lack of civic education from his parents. Conversely, the second child’s parents empower him, instilling the belief that he can make a difference. As a result, the boy organises a fundraising fair for the children’s home. This simple example illustrates how early civic education has a significant impact on individuals.

Fostering a sense of agency:
When individuals are educated and aware of their rights and opportunities, they understand their right to address problems. Participating in school council elections can show pupils the significance of having a voice. Often, these councils do not function effectively, leading young people to become disenchanted with politics; they believe that their opinions do not matter. In the 2019 parliamentary elections in Poland, the lowest voter turnout was recorded among the 18-29 age group: just 46.4%, according to an IPSOS poll, significantly lower than in other age groups.

If civic education before the age of 18 were more comprehensive, more people would feel empowered to change their surroundings. “Civic education should be universal, not an optional add-on.”

When education fails, intervention becomes necessary…

Individual — private individuals offering help.
Collective — support from associations or foundations.
a) Direct — financial aid for those in need, mentoring and improving individual situations.
b) Indirect — creating a new system or addressing gaps in the existing one.

Which intervention is more important and beneficial?

Changing the system or addressing its shortcomings through intervention benefits most of or all society. The Polish education system requires reform and a fundamental shift, as the current system fails to prepare individuals for life in society and “good practices run counter to the system”. A young person needs a mentor throughout their education and teachers should serve as mentors.

With half a million teachers and five million students, how many mentors are there? Currently, many teachers do their work “because they have to”; the low wages exacerbate this mindset. The system should remind teachers that they are shaping the future of society, including attitudes towards public institutions.

Pupils’ learned attitude towards school influences their perception of other public institutions, such as the police and the military. A good teacher encourages them to question a particular topic. Sometimes, a small mistake in delivering information and redirecting a student’s attention can lead to intriguing discussions and conclusions. This way, students realise that their voices matter (civic education fosters a sense of agency).

Even if there were just ten mathematicians in the world producing excellent educational videos on YouTube, most students would still require someone to inspire them to learn — a mentor. A good teacher should be like those mathematicians, but that is not enough. They must also serve as mentors.

While some teachers naturally possess these qualities, how can we teach every teacher this approach? How can we support them and hold them accountable?

Transforming teachers at the chalkboard into mentor teachers would fill the gap in the current system. After all, they provide the greatest opportunities when serving as mentors, but can also pose a threat when discouraging their students and undermining their enthusiasm for learning. While this might seem like an intervention at the individual level, systemic change is the only meaningful solution — such mentors should make up the majority.

What if adults also require education? We should embrace lifelong learning.

Neglecting the education of adults is a significant problem. It becomes increasingly challenging to listen to others and consider them authorities. It is easier for young people to engage in the pupil-teacher relationship since, by nature, they possess less knowledge and require mentors. If the head of a successful company needs help, he or she should seek the guidance of someone more knowledgeable. As citizens, we should acknowledge that, at every stage of life, someone can offer guidance.

How can we enter the system? Where can we find the key?

Numerous foundations and associations are dedicated to finding these keys. A good system addresses flaws and supports best practice — something lacking in Poland. As mentioned earlier, best practice often runs counter to the system. Systemic change or improvement should be widespread. If one school in a district adopts best practice, it should inspire other schools. Competition between schools should ultimately benefit citizens. For example, secondary schools in a given area should collaborate, rather than compete in rankings.

Change should begin at the source: the school administration. If the headmaster is affected by the system’s flaws, it has a domino effect that affects teachers and then students. Without headmasters’ awareness, the problem will persist. They hold the key to the system and its transformation.

Civic education overcomes helplessness, fosters a sense of agency and should be taught at school from an early age. Teachers must understand the gravity of their role and their impact on human lives. The Polish education system requires change; something fresh that awakens civic awareness in young people. Everyone needs a mentor and their presence is particularly crucial in the early stages of life.