This description of Marian Chwastniewski's work was prepared when Marian Chwastniewski was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Marian Chwastniewski is introducing a new educational approach in Poland that fosters creativity, open-mindedness and student engagement. He works with teachers in predominantly rural and suburban schools to develop creative teaching methods currently lacking in public school curriculum.
The New Idea
Marian believes students learn best when they are having fun. Education should be an exciting endeavor for children—a never-ending process of exploration of their surroundings, their past, and themselves that will equip them for life. However, the current public education is too bureaucratic and rules-bound to foster children’s inborn creativity and natural curiosity. Marian is working to redefine the role of teacher from disciplinarian to supportive guide in discovering a pupil’s interests and potential. His new educational approach encourages creativity and open-mindedness as well as a focus on the student’s interests rather than those of state public education. This kind of engaging learning experience is most likely to capture students’ minds and educate in a lasting way.Marian’s strategy is simple and successful because it relies on a network of local and regional educational centers operating within school walls but as an independent organization. Teachers join this network to become trained how to educate in imaginative ways that transform the classroom environment and make learning engaging and long-term. His goal is to shed new light on how students learn best and introduce permanent changes in public schooling that will once again make school fun.
Public schooling in Poland, much like elsewhere around the world, places little emphasis on nurturing the individual interests and potential of students. Education systems are built in a bureaucratic and formulaic way with far too much focus on repetitive material, discipline, and testing, and far too little on the cultivation of the natural curiosity of young children. Classrooms and lessons are structured in a “read and repeat” format with a teacher explaining definitions and phenomena rather than allowing children to discover answers by themselves. And because this method of instruction has become so engrained over the centuries, even those teachers who would like to find innovative ways to teach have nowhere to turn, and receive little support from administrators and school authorities. Yet until teachers themselves begin to ask creative questions and organize their lessons in new ways, progress in education will not happen. Today more than ever, schools and teachers are competing with television, computer games, and the internet that offer more exciting and interactive engagement for youth. School is no longer seen as an exploration of the world with peers but rather a boring, predictable environment. But school can be fun. And the more it is perceived this way, the more children will learn. New and innovative education materials in subjects such as physics, biology, and geography are rare, and typically only find their way into a classroom because of an individual teacher’s charisma. The problem is even more dramatic in rural areas and small towns, where teachers feel isolated and may have limited funds. These limitations make it difficult in inspire young students. There is a need for identifying cost-effective accessible educational techniques and methods that would bring into play children’s natural curiosity and energy. These techniques would provide crucial learning opportunities in particular for the disadvantaged pupils from rural areas and small towns whose educational resources are thin.
In 2000, Marian gathered a group of 24 pupils aged 13 and 14 and launched an experimental education program called “The Class of Discoverers.” Twice a week, pupils would gather together and Marian would introduce interdisciplinary activities that combined educational material with creative and interactive exercises. His program was based on the assumption that contemporary school teaches “ready made” facts neither stimulate pupils nor become part of their long-term memory. Marian introduces a method that encourages pupils to do their own experimentation and research, and therefore discover basic principles by doing, rather than by reading or listening. This immediately transforms the learning environment into an engaging, fun, creative atmosphere where students become a source of knowledge rather and a reproducer of knowledge. Students also learn how to cooperate and work as a team. In the 2 years of running the program, Marian discovered that a stimulating environment was just as important as a new teaching methodology. This environment sometimes involved having the teacher sitting and working among the students, rather than always at the front of the class. Or it might involve the teacher asking students to explain a principle or definition to the rest of the class. This less organized or “chaotic” atmosphere was more likely to draw out students’ creative energies.While this program was well received by the pupils, teachers were not so pleased. Some claimed students became more “troublesome” in part because they began asking more questions rather than accepting lessons as fact. They were weary of setting a new precedent and losing control in the classroom. But without teacher support, Marian would be unable to continue drawing new pupils to his weekend programs. This is when he established the “Creative and Educational Association Island” as an independent organization working to implement his creative approaches more broadly in the public school curriculum. Marian soon launched the first regional competition “The Riddles Island” where children learn how to creatively use their minds in problem solving and analysis of natural phenomena. In the first edition of the program 95 children participated. Over the next few years, while still working as a teacher, Marian conducted the next editions of the competition on the national scale—with 1,600 participants in 2006 from all over Poland, mainly from small towns and rural areas. These competitions highlighted how dedicated and consumed children can become in an education project if they find it engaging and fun. They also had powerful marketing potential, and enhanced teachers’ participation in the program (for one, teachers whose pupils are awarded receive bonuses). As the competitions grew, so did the number of teachers paying attention to new teaching methods and their successes. Marian also mobilized university professors to introduce teachers to additional creative learning methods, and then organized workshops for training. Soon, the distance between parent, pupil, and newly trained teacher began to shrink. Teachers began meeting with others to share strategies and reinforce their abilities. In the last 5 years, more then 2,000 teachers have taken part in these educational workshops and conferences. To market the explorers’ approach towards education and to invite bigger number of participants Marian partners with regional public education counsels, promoting the program in teachers’ bulletins and internet. In 2005 Marian founded the Creative Educational Laboratory—Island of Discoveries. This education center is meant to be a gathering point for a national network of teachers working with the Discoverers’ Classes program, dedicated to gaining knowledge and methods for creative classes and educational activities that stimulate student potential. The Laboratory develops training materials for teachers but also helps connect those in a movement that Marian calls the Archipelago. Marian is negotiating with the municipality in his hometown to develop a model educational trail located at the seaside that will combine natural environment elements with creative teaching.In 2007 Marian will develop a new pilot program dedicated to pupils aged 7 to10. He will also refine the methodology for training others. The activities of the regional centers will be accompanied by educational and scientific camps for pupils as well as international visits to educational centers throughout the world. In 2 years, 300 teachers will participate in his training program. Marian predicts that in the next 5 years there will be six new centers created. He is convinced that in 10 years, 20 centers will be created and teaching in public schools will begin incorporating these methods. With a broad coalition of teacher support, and with centers around the country, the stage should be set to “tip” the thinking in public education. Marian believes that his approach is universal and could serve all public schools—especially those that are poorly funded and with poorly paid, under-motivated teachers. He plans to expand into Western Europe in the next 2 to 3 years and share his experiences in working with young people.
Marian had a creative mind from early childhood. Together with his friends he would watch Polish sailors come back from long journeys around the world, and dreamt of doing the same in an old boat. He thought if such impossible travels around the world really took place then other dreams must come true also. His positive childhood thinking was devastated by the brutal struggles between the shipyard’s workers and communists in early 70s Poland. The bloody streets were a brutal reality of the adult world, filled with cruelty, pessimism, and revolutionary politics that bring destruction and pain. Even his father, who Marian had always known as a positive, optimistic soul, began losing his own dreams and passions as the manager of a state-owned business. Luckily, Marian still held onto hope that dreams do come true if only they are encouraged and nurtured. He realized that the theory could be put in practice despite the political situation, and moved to a rural area where together with his partner, he founded a unique school driven by innovative teaching methods. Success came quickly, and in the next years Marian developed various educational programs in the rural areas based on their culture and traditions. Throughout his adult life as a teacher, Marian observed how rule-bound public schooling was blocking young people’s creativity and their natural instincts for learning and fun. Working within the public school system he did his best to make school fun and entertaining. He continued to research and gained even more experience while teaching in city schools, where he would gather children on Saturdays and introduce them to various creative teachings. His approach was met with strong opposition by school administrators. Despite the opposition, Marian’s success had been recognized, yet not allowed to continue within the boundaries of the school system. That prompted him to founding the Young Discoverers Club in 1997 where he would gather students and experiment with them on new educational methods. Marian collaborates with Ashoka Fellow Ryszard Michalski.