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Anna Grąbczewska, President of the Children’s University Foundation in Poland, talks about the curiosity ...
2020-03-30 09:00:00

When Will I Learn to Fly, Mum?
An Interview with Anna Grąbczewska

Photo from the Children’s University Foundation archives
When Will I Learn to Fly, Mum?
When Will I Learn to Fly, Mum?

The dream school exists! And in it, the children ask: Where do stars come from? Why can’t we see the air? How come it rains? Who gave birth to God? Who decides what is just? Then they get an answer, or reach it on their own. Anna Grąbczewska gives advice on how to tap into children’s curiosity.

Read in 9 minutes

Aleksandra Pezda: Young children ask a great deal of questions about the world around them. Once they go to school, they stop asking. Often they are no longer curious about anything. Why is that?

Anna Grąbczewska: It’s because school carries out the curriculum instead of educating, or rather, instead of allowing children to learn independently. Children and their questions aren’t the focus of attention there – the emphasis is put instead on a portion of adult-assigned knowledge to acquire. Questions on the part of pupils are brushed off at school, because they upset the established order and interfere with carrying out the material assigned for a given day. And so the kids, stifled, adapt to the situation and stop trying. At the same time, they lose their curiosity about the world, and often also their insight as to what truly interests them, and then – as to who they are.

So children know better than adults what to do at school?

They certainly know better what interests them – and, after all, curiosity is the best motivation for learning. Thanks to neurobiology, we also know that what the brain remembers best are new and interesting things. At the Children’s University we apply this knowledge with great success – we engage our several-year-old students to discover serious laws governing the world, while the lecturers encourage them to experiment and solve problems on their own, accompanying them in their discoveries. 

Do you know how the idea for the Children’s University came about? Three of us founded it – all mothers who at that time were being asked by their toddlers some fundamental, extremely inspiring questions that none of us could answer. My son was barely two when at breakfast, without much pre-amble, he asked me: “Mum, when will I learn to fly?” He was being quite earnest – it was clear that he was seriously considering the possibility of flying. He didn’t ask ‘whether’ – he asked ‘when.’ And me – a humanist with a patchy grasp of sciences – struggled to give a clear answer.

Who can answer these sort of questions, if not school?

Science. A well-posed question and the right path leading to answers is, after all, the domain of science. We decided to confront scientists with children’s questions, and children, in turn, with a scientific approach and style of thought. It turned out that children pose problems in a similar manner to educated, mature scientists – that it’s one and the same world. This ‘discovery’ became our recipe for effective teaching and triggering children’s creativity. In order not to suppress their natural curiosity, we base each class on the questions posed by our young students.

And are there enough questions posed by children to run classes for 12 years?

We have amassed thousands of them – and the list hasn’t been closed, we’re constantly adding new ones. We collect questions in schools, we ask our several-year-old students for ideas in a simple way: “What questions would you ask a scientist?” or: “Tell me a question you don’t yet know the answer to.” The first question we received was: “Where do stars come from?” To this day, the questions children ask most eagerly concern the cosmos and matters relating to physics, for instance: “Why can’t we see the air?” or: “How come it rains?” We get many questions about dinosaurs, too. Next in line is philosophy, with questions about good and evil, life and death, or: “Can we live forever?”, “Who gave birth to God?”, “Who decides what is just?”

These questions form our ‘core curriculum’. This is why children aren’t bored with us and they can understand very serious phenomena – because we tackle the problems prompted by their natural curiosity.

What about children who are not inquisitive and don’t pose interesting questions?

There are no such children. Our experience shows that curiosity about the world is not the domain of some selected group of children, for instance those whose development is consciously fostered by educated parents. The Children’s University doesn’t limit its operations to a Saturday programme of non-formal education. We’ve also got the Children’s Classroom University programme in which we offer classroom scenarios for state schools. As many as 4000 teachers and 80,000 children participate in the programme, in both large and small cities as well as in rural areas. They write to us later: “I’ve started believing in myself” or: “Finally my classes are going great.” It’s really enough to give children a chance and inspire them, and they will grow interested and enjoy their scientific work. Even if academic learning has never been or will never be their life goal.

Can all children do science?

They can and they should. Scientific procedures trigger logical thinking, the ability to analyse, correlate facts and understand processes. What’s more – science requires critical thinking. Everyone needs these skills, regardless of whether they go to a university and become an engineer, lawyer or scientist, or choose not to study and become a blue collar worker. 

At the Children’s University in Olsztyn, I once saw a presentation on physics in which some 12-year-olds wrote the following comment on the first slide: “Attention, interesting!” And that was enough. Children themselves gave us a solution to our dilemmas about what school should be and how it should teach. The answer is: learning must be made interesting. The second condition is that children understand why they are learning. 

And why are they learning?

To satisfy cognitive curiosity. So that they can find their place in the world, life, society. So that they can understand what is happening around them and to them. Also so that they can find employment in the future – but not in the rigid sense with which we have traditionally associated school, back when it was used to shape obedient citizens (like in 19th-century Prussia) or to uniformly educate officials (like during the British Empire). We could also think of one more reason: “Because it might prove useful one day.”

That can prove misleading! Students can name lists of examples of school knowledge they could easily survive without. For instance, mediaeval battles or the cross-section of a paramecium caudatum.

Well yes, in the Google era, when access to information and knowledge is common, school should teach flexibility, good communication skills, self-presentation, carving one’s own path and understanding processes rather than providing students with information – that much is certain.

I would defend the paramecium, though – if we can understand how simple organisms function, it’ll become easier to understand the functioning of ours, and this will surely ‘prove useful one day’. Context is also paramount. Our paramecium is crucial because research on this organism has taught us a great deal about evolution – let’s tell children why. Let’s begin the lesson with what’s interesting: show a specimen under the microscope, make it interesting as it deserves to be.

How should pupils know what will interest them in fields they’re not familiar with?

This is a task for teachers. They should show pupils the context, a wider background, they should inspire them, while all the time building on what the children know, what they find interesting and what they care about. A simple example: “When were you last in a forest and what did you see there?” asks the teacher. The children talk about their excursions or walks and immediately ask questions: “Why are leaves green?”, “Why do trees grow upwards?”, “Why does the woodpecker knock on wood?” These questions must be followed up, from which we’ve got an entry point not only to biology with botany and zoology but also to physics, chemistry and, perhaps, ethics. In brief: by capturing a child’s curiosity, we enhance their inquisitiveness.

Drawing by Daniel Mróz
Drawing by Daniel Mróz

That’s easy enough with toddlers. How does one work with older children?

Exactly the same way! Questions about hobbies, holidays, social media or mobile phones will easily lead us to the topic of localization and classes on issues ranging from geographical coordinate systems to coordinate axes in maths. Another method is to work on projects. We have various modules for teenagers: they sign up to seminar groups, choose one issue and examine it from the point of view of various scientific disciplines. The pupil doesn’t have to have a grasp of all branches of physics, but they’ll touch upon it while they seek the answer to a particular question. Such an approach helps pupils encounter scientific discipline not on the basis of rote learning and exercises, or learning definitions, but by touching its very essence.

For instance, the ‘garbage’ project: children can study a landfill, see what recycling is all about. They can examine chemically which items or products break down faster, they can also study how it affects plants and animals. Children could also prepare a presentation for the UN climate summit and show how plastic pollutes the world – our students have carried out such a project.

Why don’t schools tap into all this?

There is an increasing number of teachers who are trying to break with the schematism of school education and do more; do things differently. Let me remind you here that in state schools the core curriculum in force does not prescribe what classes should look like. It only indicates what content and skills the pupil is to learn and possess. However, teachers find it difficult to distance themselves from their own school experience, from how they themselves were taught, so they often teach in a similar imitative, schematic manner based solely on providing information.

What we are trying to do at the Children’s University – and what our school system could easily adopt – is this simple principle: stay close to the world. The idea is that pupils should study problems that concern them and acquire a theoretical basis, almost incidentally. In state schools, the reverse is often the case – while teaching theoretical fundamentals, only occasionally do teachers attempt to adapt them to the reality that surrounds the pupils. Maths problems are the best example. Do pupils truly care which train will reach its destination first – the one from point A or the one from point B? Not really, unless for some reason they find themselves going somewhere by train and then this theoretical task becomes their real-life problem. That’s why a school must occasionally leave its walls if it is to be effective.

Should children only study what they want to study?

We certainly ignore children’s opinions on the subject and this is a big mistake on the part of our education system. I would, however, leave some common areas of knowledge that everyone should become familiar with. Such a base from various fields becomes a kind of inspiration for a child, so that they have a chance of catching the bug, finding what interests them, choosing the direction in which they will develop. We teach in a far too narrow way these days. Should the children of today be forced to change their profession several times in life, it’d be good if they had touched upon various areas. We must cultivate an open mind within them. So that they can investigate things independently, and so that this becomes a habit. 

How can we foster this openness?

Question by question, working with the following method: I ask, I examine, I discover. Management of emotions is key as well. This is an important aspect for us. A few years back, parents enrolling children for classes at the University would most often choose workshops with a physicist, mathematician and a biologist. They wanted their child to encounter ‘hard’ science – it was the centre of their attention. Other classes – for instance, on how to learn, on ‘mind maps’, or those focused on cooperation training – were not very popular. Parents approached those with diffidence, the turnout was low. We even called them ‘support’ classes and considered them our niche project. Over the years, those classes have evolved and today they are called, for example: ‘My strengths and weaknesses’, ‘How to deal with anger’ and ‘Why do we need emotions?’. And suddenly they became very popular. It used to be hard to fill the classroom, and now we are overbooked.

We can’t deal with emotions?

This is an area that we, as adults and parents, cannot cope with. It’s hard, therefore, to expect children to figure it out.  So much is being said about the soft competences necessary to navigate the job market – such as a flexible approach to life, good tolerance for change, or the ability to adapt and communicate. It’s worth bearing in mind that at the foundation of these skills lies the competence to govern one’s own emotions.

Ken Robinson, the contemporary education guru, often says that school kills creativity. Would you agree?

Yes, if instead of taking the children to the forest we show them leaves in an album, and instead of watching frogs on a meadow we only view them on a tablet. School also sanctions dependence on the part of students and over-protectiveness on the part of adults. What can children remember from school, apart from peer relationships? Surely independent projects they’ve carried out on their own, from beginning to end. Just like they wanted, the way they came up with. Meanwhile, school routine looks like this: teachers positively assesses the solution of a mathematical equation with a specific method, and if a pupil reaches the correct result some other way, no points are rewarded for completion of the task.

Are we condemned at school to 19th-century teaching methods and brainwashing, or is there any chance of change?

Our schools are exactly as we have organized them and allow them to be as a society. However, there are a number of fantastic teachers and headteachers who try to teach in a more modern way. Also, many academic teachers and rectors see the need for change in how we train future teachers.

Every teacher who helps develop the talent of at least one pupil plays a huge role in the pursuit of change. Change occurs each time a teacher allows a child to make mistakes and draw conclusions from them on their own. Once the teacher dares to transfer the responsibility of learning to a pupil, they finally stop playing the central role in the classroom and instead become a guide, a moderator of the situation, a mentor for their pupils. At a systemic level, this change will only take place once the universities train teachers better, and the standards and teaching practices currently in force allow a multitude of ways in striving to educate a young person to live in the modern world.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Anna Grąbczewska:

President of the Children’s University Foundation [Fundacja Uniwersytet Dzieci] – an entity which in the 12 years of its operation has educated over 30,000 children between the ages of 6 and 16, and developed learning scenarios used by 80,000  pupils and at least 20,000 state school teachers. The idea is to tap into children’s natural curiosity about the world in teaching – scientists and university lecturers along with children look together for answers to children’s questions. The method of answering questions and making experiments employed by the Children’s University draws on the constructivist trend in pedagogy.


Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak

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