The Magic of Modernization

TV cameras, reporters, nicely dressed children and their teachers. All of them standing around a few plastic boxes. Everyone is happy. The school has just received several computers. It is now a modern school which conforms to European standards. (Can you feel the magic and power of these words!?)

When I started work as an English teacher a friend told me: "Don’t let your pupils be bored in your lessons". I was sure they wouldn’t be.

Many schools received computers since it was a part of a great plan for the modernization of Poland. During last year’s presidential election, almost every candidate was underlining the role of education and the necessity of teaching children how to work with computers. In the 1960’s, there was a big project building schools in Poland: "1000 schools for 1000 years"."Computer rooms in every school" is an up-to-date version of the same action. Politicians started to give computers to the rural schools, the press was praising the idea, everyone was in favor of it and grateful.

After a few weeks of teaching, I discovered that in spite of my goodwill my lessons were boring. That had to be changed. The problem was that I wasn’t actually a teacher — it was only a temporary, part-time job for me and I had never been taught how to teach. The goodwill alone was not enough.
Two years ago, there was a reform of the Polish educational system.

Teachers’ wages now depend on their abilities and these are measured by (among other things) the examinations taken by the teachers and the number of courses they attended. Teachers must pay for these courses and schools are only interested in those courses which let you teach another subject. You can take a course in motivating or using computers in teaching, but you will not get an extra penny from it. Teachers in Poland don’t earn much. Therefore, they are not interested in attending such courses. Due to this, computer courses are not offered anywhere except in the big cities.

Once, I had the idea to divide the students into groups and ask them to write a story during the lesson. They wrote about "sucking dick" and "smoking herb".You can get used to it, but the worst thing was that, as usual, English was being spoken by only one person in each group — the others were just giving ideas to be translated. That lesson wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t good either. Thinking of my failure, I remembered the big project. Computers as a cure for all my troubles? Why not?

According to the new regulations, there are different grades of teacher. In order to be promoted, a teacher has to use computers and even the Internet in his/her job. The idea seems to be clever: by using computers in biology or geography lessons, we show children that they can be used in many different ways. At the same time we are somehow closer to their world: many students have computers, they spend more time in front of the screen than reading books. So it should be easier to reach them via the newest technology. At the same time, you make them familiar with the technology without which they would be illiterate in our brave new world.

USE COMPUTERS! — the headline of a popular magazine tells me. OK, I agree. It might be more attractive for the students and it is good for their future. But I still don’t know what exactly I should do.

Illustration by Ryszard Kajzer

I thought that it could be interesting for my pupils to prepare a speech about their interests based on the information found in the "English" Internet. I asked the boss if I could use the computers and he said "No problem".Naively I thought that was enough. I was wrong, of course. When I arrived for my first Internet lesson the key to the classroom was missing. Later on, I was told that there was only one key to the classroom and that it was kept by the computer science teacher. When I wanted to try again, I had to talk to her. She couldn’t believe that the boss had agreed to my proposal.

But finally she gave me the passwords and instructions and promised to leave the keys at the office.
I was very surprised when I saw her waiting for me before the lesson. She told me that she was under pressure not to leave me the keys. The secretary (the importance of this person in almost every (Polish?) institution is also worthy of a separate, closer look) reminded her that she, personally and financially, is responsible for the computers.

"Do you know him? Do you trust him enough?" If you earn some 1200 PLN and the computer is worth three times as much, you don’t underestimate the chance that someone might kick the screen. In practice, it meant that she had to come to school two hours earlier than usual just to open the room and then sit around with nothing to do. It was obvious for both of us that it was the end of our co-operation. Why? Neither she nor I have enough money to cover any accident. Besides, neither of us wanted her to sit with me at school without any payment.

Since there is only one classroom with computers connected to the Internet, it discourages teachers from taking responsibility for the equipment and this is a reason why computers are not used at school.

But is this really the point? Or is it just one factor? Buying computers doesn’t solve the problem. It is only a media event. The problem is how to teach pupils that computers may be used for something more than playing games. In order to do that, we need to have the equipment, the will and knowledge among teachers, students interested in educating themselves (which is somehow dependent on the quality of the teachers), and a feeling that using a computer during lessons shouldn’t be anything special. I tell you: you won’t find it in a Polish school. Only young teachers are naive and lively enough to try to attract students’ attention. After a few years they find out that to have interesting lessons is not the students’ dearest wish. What they really want is not to have school at all.

Actually, after four hours at school, it is also my dearest wish to go home. I’m really glad when the class is playing truant. I didn’t want my lessons to be boring and I believed that it is good to use computers. Let’s say I was right. But I failed.

The parliamentary elections are coming soon. Once more politicians will be talking of the priority of education and joining the modern world. Maybe one of them will remark: "We’ve bought a lot of computers. There’s no school without them". Then I’ll say: "So what?"

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