Polish school is sick not with test-osis, but with grade-osis – an interview with Dr. Maciej Jakubowski

IBE Director Maciej Jakubowski, PhD commented on the recent changes in Polish schools. We encourage you to read the interview published by “Rzeczpospolita” on April 17, 2024.

Reporter Joanna Ćwiek-Świdecka's conversation with Dr. Maciej Jakubowski:

J.C.-S. – The Educational Research Institute has prepared a guide for teachers on how to teach without homework.

M.J. – This is a guide not only for teachers, but also for parents, we also want to show them how to work with a child. As for teachers, I want to remind them that after all, they can assign homework, but in such a way that the student will want to do the work and thus achieve the best possible results.

Many teachers believe that if they do not assign homework, the students will do absolutely nothing.

This isn’t true. If a teacher thinks that a student is motivated to learn only by assigning homework, then our handbooks may be particularly useful to them. Such a strategy does not yield good results. The assumption today that students do homework all by themselves is no longer valid. Although there are certainly students who still do so.

Let's remember that we live in the era of artificial intelligence, which, as American studies show, several dozen percent of students use to solve homework assignments. We don’t have such data for Poland, but I have the impression that teachers do not fully realize how popular this tool is.

How do you assign homework so that students want to do it and so that it helps them later on tests?

The teacher can continue to use grades to motivate a student. In elementary school, however, work at home cannot be graded. Home learning should be a repetition of what the student has mastered in class.

The problem is that, unfortunately, homework is often used to catch up on material. Students at home are expected to catch up on what the teacher did not explain in class.

We will encourage teachers to give repetition assignments, ones that will consolidate what was covered in class and help prepare for tests. Students will be convinced that this is useful. The teacher's role is to emphasize that the end result depends on how much effort students put into their own learning.

Teachers stress that through homework, young people learn to work systematically.

It’s true that homework teaches independence, perseverance and focus. However, you don’t need a grade for this, and homework alone is not enough. We should remember that we need to teach children to work systematically, and not hope that they will learn this on their own by doing homework.

Recently, homework done in a group or using the project method has become popular.

In my opinion, this is not the best solution. First of all, the school should not interfere so strongly with students’ free time. Second, these methods are very difficult, and if we don't teach children to work this way in class, they won't do it themselves at home either. Such homework will often be ineffective. By giving a group assignment at home, students will not learn to work effectively in a group.

Is the school prepared for such a change in the teaching system? Won't it end up with even more grade-osis than now?

The problem with homework is when it is forced and graded. The main motivation tool in school cannot be a grade. I am not against grades as such, but if I see that children get some kind of grade practically every day, that there is no work without a grade, then I am convinced that this is not what school is about.

We need to build the belief in young people that they are learning for themselves, not for grades. And when we give them an assignment to do, and say it's going to be for a grade, the student doesn't focus on the assignment, but on the grade.

But there is a contradiction here. On the one hand, you are in favour of leaving grades in school, on the other hand, you are against using grades as a motivation.

My point is that grades should be in school, but there should be fewer of them. Here you have to find the golden mean, because what we are talking about is developing a young person’s ability to learn over an entire lifetime. For this, children need the ability to plan and monitor their own learning, but it’s also important that they look at their work as feedback. The student needs to know what they did correctly and what they did incorrectly. Research makes it clear that when you have assessment, that’s all the student is interested in.

I have experience in working with students. I noticed that after years of attending school where everything was grade-oriented, they keep asking me if something is going to be graded or not. They don’t understand that they are learning for themselves.

And how do you motivate them to learn?

I say it will be on the exam. In the same way, a teacher can say that homework is worth doing, because these things will be on the test. And if someone wants to prepare well for the test, then they have to do the assigned work. And it doesn't matter if this work is for a grade. This builds responsibility for one's own decisions.

What else will change in the school now?

We want to focus on formative assessment. The idea is that the student should always get good feedback about what he or she should still work on. That's the purpose of grading. But when a number appears, this information loses its importance. Numbers alone do not push young people to develop.

Teachers say they don't have time to write feedback.

There is a misconception that every student has to be evaluated very thoroughly and everyone is supposed to receive very accurate feedback. And this is done every time we give students assignments. This is not feasible for a teacher. On the other hand, it is possible to give feedback in a different way – through very brief instructions given even in groups. An experienced teacher can easily handle this. Of course, individual feedback is best, but it is not necessary on a daily basis.

There are schools that have percentage assessments. They seem to be more reflective of the state of [a student’s] knowledge.

This too is a ranking and can also have a demotivating effect on students. In any method where there is grading, the child's focus is not on what they will learn, but how they will be assessed.

It is said that we do too many tests in Poland. However, studies show that this number is not much more than, for example, in Finland. They have even more tests there than in Poland. The difference, however, is that these tests are not aimed at giving a grade, but at repeating information, monitoring progress and providing feedback to the student and the teacher. Tests are a great and very effective teaching tool, but not when they are mainly used for grading.

But again, this is a lot of work for teachers.

You can do online tests, which are automatically checked, and the teacher doesn't have to put in any effort. Based on their results, the teacher just draws conclusions and catches the types of mistakes made by students. New tools based on artificial intelligence are appearing exponentially, making it very easy to create and check tests or written work. We don't get sick from test-osis, we get sick from grade-osis.

Are teachers able to cope with these current changes?

When I conducted training for teachers and spoke about the positive effects of testing, many of them were surprised. Because this is not taught in pedagogical studies. But surely teachers can handle it, as long as we equip them with the right tools.

How can parents support their children in learning?

It depends on the age of the child. An example can be quizzing the child. We learn mainly by answering questions. It's a good idea to ask your child questions that are different from those in the textbook, in order to make them think. It's also worth repeating material from a week or two ago, because people naturally forget even the most important things. Research shows us simple methods that are very effective and easy to apply at home.

It also puts a lot of strain on parents in the afternoons.

Yes and no, because by relying on research-backed teaching methods, we make the learning itself more effective, it goes much faster and ultimately takes much less time.

The second issue is to plan learning – and this is where parents can help their child. Research shows that it’s better to study three times for forty minutes each than, for example, for three hours without a break. It's also a good idea to interweave subjects or types of tasks. It’s easy to apply, more effective, so you can spend less time at it, but it requires planning.

What else should change at school?

Relationships should change. A teacher doesn't have to be a friend, but should be a master who guides through knowledge and learning, shows the value of those things that students find useless. A teacher inspires respect because he or she knows how to teach and succeed, and can support students. But attitudes must change, so that the teacher more often reaches not for the stick, but for the carrot.

Polish schools, especially in the older grades, focus on learning for exams.

Learning for an exam is not a bad thing in itself. When we assume that the exam focuses on the most important things, then studying for it is useful. Worse if that exam is an end in itself. It's just one stage in life that shows you what you need to work on to succeed. The grade itself is a secondary matter.

The original article from “Rzeczpospolita”: W jaki sposób uczyć bez zadawania prac domowych? - rp.pl