Thursday, 5 December 2019

Poland's education paradox

Every three years, the OECD - the rich countries' club - issues the result of its PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment). It compares education attainment, measuring 15-year-old pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The 2018 edition, comparing 72 countries, was published on Tuesday.

Once again, Poland does well. It's in the Top Ten for reading and maths and at number 11 for science. Given that China, in the broadest sense, takes up four separate places in the Top Ten (four cities in mainland China -  Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang - and Hong Kong, Macau and Taipei), Poland actually does very well.

Among European countries, Poland is beaten in reading by Finland, Estonia and Ireland; in maths by Estonia and Netherlands, and in science by Estonia and Finland. Although for some (methodological?) reason, Poland didn't do so well in the 2015 survey, the one conducted in 2012 also had Poland in two of the three Top Tens (for reading and science). In 2012, 2015 and 2018, Poland was well above the OECD average in all three areas.

Set in a global perspective, Poland's performance as a country in its ability to educate its teenagers is notable. Compared with the teaching methods used in Finland, widely praised by educationalists, Poland's high schools are somewhat pedestrian. They still emphasising rote learning rather than the acquisition of knowledge through analysis or testing of hypotheses, tutorial-style discussion or teamwork.

My own theory is that the fancy stuff comes later. When a brain is young, it absorbs facts; you learn to make sense of them later. The Polish system doesn't let down the less gifted, less academically inclined children - they bang in the facts along with the bright ones and regurgitate those facts in exams. Zakuć - zdać - zapomnieć - 'cram, pass, forget' is an old watchword from Polish schools. Yet somehow, they end up doing much better than British schools; in the latest PISA report, Poland stands four places above the UK in reading, eight places above the UK in maths and  three places above the UK in science. Despite far lower budgets and resources (and don't even mention teachers' pay), Poland's schools perform*. Parents' attitudes are important. From whatever social class one is from in Poland, there is an appreciation for learning. The term 'girly swot' for a pupil (of whatever gender), doesn't function in Poland - kujon is nowhere near as insulting, carrying with it a hidden undertone of admiration. Parents rich and poor, urban and rural, all appreciate the importance of education for getting on in life.

Educationally, things work comparatively well in Poland - until the pupil passes their matura (high-school final exam, A-Level equivalent) and goes to university. Here, the system is little different to school. Cram and regurgitate. Run around with a little book (indeks) collecting signatures to prove you've been to lectures. Do not - under any circumstance - undermine the professors' authority by asking them difficult questions.

So while Poland's in the Top Ten when it comes to 15 year-olds' educational attainment, there is not one single Polish university in the Times Higher Education's 2019 global Top 600 ranking. Whereas Italy has 38. Universities. In the global Top 600. Italy. A country ranked 22 places below Poland in high-school reading, 21 places below Poland in high-school maths and 29 places below Poland in high-school science.

Five years ago, Poland had two universities in the Top 400 (Jagiellonian and University of Warsaw); today they languish between 601 and 700. [More about this here.]

It is therefore unsurprising that the brightest Polish school leavers go abroad to study, repelled from Polish universities by the unreformability of its elderly professors. And once those young Poles have gone, it's few of them that come back to Poland to put their talents to use back home. Only 3% of Poles who've made it Oxford or Cambridge return. Brains gone for good.

So we get to the paradox. Polish schools' output is highly prized by foreign investors, who keep on coming, setting up successive shared-service centres and business outsourcing operations of ever-higher levels of complexity and sophistication ("we're looking for a couple of hundred PhDs in maths to do quantitative analysis for us"). Poles are thirsty for knowledge, life-long learners, ambitious and demanding new challenges. This is what foreign investors like. If only Poland's professors were to take a view more suited to the realities of the modern world. It will still be a decade or two so before the last of the professors who started teaching at Poland's universities in communist days finally shuffle off to the Great Lecture Hall in the Sky. Until then, they will block Poland's progress.

* Fieldwork for the survey was conducted before the radical - and I'd say entirely pointless - reform to the Polish school system, that puts middle-school pupils aged 12-15 with primary school children rather than with the 16-19 years-olds in high schools.

This time last year:
What I was going to say at COP 24 (but didn't)

This time two years ago:
Milton Keynes

This time three years ago:
Warsaw by night, early winter

This time six years ago:
Burn less gas and do Ukraine a favour

This time nine years ago:
Early evening atmosphere

This time 11 years ago:
Toponyms - how many names has Jeziorki?

This time 12 years ago:
On the road to Białystok


DK said...

Great article. One point is that Polish kids are so anxious to impress their grade-hungry parents and pass through the exam-centred system that cheating has become socially acceptable, in fact a duty to rebel against the daft system. Kids who cheat often don't get found out and high marks make it easier for everyone, especially for the teacher. Those who don't cheat feel like mugs.
I am not saying UK is a paradigm of virtue in this area, but taking that shortcut is viewed differently.
For most undergraduate courses a lot of rote learning is also needed, certainly in the first 2-3 years. The Polish courses leave UK far behind on language learning and probably many sciences.
As far as the grading system for academia, perhaps more Polish academics concentrate on teaching than on research?
When you are an undergraduate you don't really give a toss about the number of papers your lecturer has published. In my time as a student it used to be a rule of thumb: the better the lecturer's research was going, the worse the lectures...

Michael Dembinski said...


Cheating - ściągawki play a role in all Polish exams and at all levels, but the PISA tests are done on line (try some here: so they are difficult to cheat. They are standardised globally (I'm sure that the competitive nature of East Asian education also breeds a cheating culture).

Universities - the Times Higher Education ranking universities according to five performance indicators:

Teaching (the learning environment)
Research (volume, income and reputation)
Citations (research influence);
International outlook (staff, students and research)
Industry income (knowledge transfer)

The Times Higher Education Supplement also does a specific ranking of just teaching looking only at European universities. Here, Poland gets just three (UAM Poznań, Gdańsk Technical University and University of Bielsko Biała) into the Top 250! That's atrocious!