Informatics education in Poland

(1) What is your name? What do you do? Where are you from?

My name is Maciej M. Sysło and I am a Professor at two Universities in Poland, in Wrocław (my alma mater) and in Toruń (UMK). I graduated in mathematics but I share my professional life (teaching, doing research) between mathematics (maths) and informatics (computer science, CS), between theory and applications. I am teaching maths and CS at all levels of education, including adults (teachers). I have been involved in designing and writing: (1) national core curricula for informatics and information technology since 1985; (2) educational software, (3) school textbooks, and (4) guidebooks for teachers. I am a member of the Council for Informatization of Education at the Ministry of National Education and the Polish representative to IFIP TC3. For more details see my website. Write to me or if you have any question or need more details.

(2) Is there an informatics teaching at K-12 level in Poland?

If so at which level and it is mandatory or optional? How many students take this courses? What does the curriculum look like? Who teaches it? Do you have informatics teachers in Poland or is it taught by teachers of other disciplines?

Here, only short description of informatics education in Poland is presented. For full details, see our ISSEP papers, available here.

Since 1999 the school system in Poland at the primary and secondary levels has consisted of three stages:

  1. primary school – 0-6 grades (age 6 to 13);
  2. middle school – 7-9 grades (age 13 to 16);
  3. high school – 10-12 grades (to 13 in vocational schools) – (age 16 to 19).

We describe here shortly the present curriculum of stand-alone informatics subjects approved at the end of 2008. Except the advanced informatics in some high schools, informatics subjects are mandatory on all levels. The new curriculum proposed this year (see below, item (5)) is in some parts extension and modication of the present curriculum statements towards replacing activities within information technology by learning rigorous computer science, including programming.

Primary Schools
In primary schools a stand-alone informatics subject is now called computer activities and runs through grades 1 to 6. In grades 1-3, computer activities are supposed to be fully integrated with other activities like reading, writing, calculating, drawing, playing etc. At the next stages of education students are expected to use computers as tools supporting learning of various subjects and disciplines, formal, non-formal, and incidental in school and at home. Computer activities in grades 4-6 lay down solid knowledge and skills within information and communication technology to be used at the next levels.

Middle Schools
Informatics in middle schools is taught for at least 2 hours per week for one year or one hour per week for two years. The curriculum contains a section on algorithmics, algorithmic thinking and solving problems with computers. Although programming is not included in the curriculum, an introduction to Logo or to another programming language is a popular practice in some schools. Within algorithmics, students are expected to be able to: explain what an algorithm is, provide a formal description (specification) of a simple problem situation and propose an algorithm for its solution; use spreadsheets to solve simple algorithmic problems (e.g. the change making problem); describe, how to find an element in an ordered or an unordered sequence of elements; use a simple sorting algorithm (e.g. by counting); run some algorithms on a computer – either writing a program, using a spreadsheets or running an educational software. Informatics in middle schools is supposed to introduce basic elements of informatics, as computer science, important for at least two reasons: as a starting point for informatics education of all students in high schools and as a preorientation for those students who might be interested in choosing a high school which offers a specialization in computer science. The implementation of the curriculum of informatics in middle schools has some undesirable features – most of the teachers admit that they have no time to cover algorithmic topics. However the truth is that the teachers are afraid of these topics since they are not enough condent in their algorithmic knowledge and skills to touch algorithmics with students who quite often have some experience in programming and running their own programs.

High Schools
In the present curriculum for high schools information technology disappeared as a stand-alone subject and informatics has been introduced in its place, for at least 1 hour per week for one year. In this way, informatics for all students in middle schools has been extended to high schools. This new subject is a continuation of informatics from middle school in the area of problem solving and decision making with a computer by applying algorithmic approach and also may serve as a pre-orientation, intended to prepare students for their choice of future study (e.g. informatics as an elective subject), career and jobs in computing related disciplines and areas. Informatics (understood as a rigorous computer science) remains in high schools as an elective subject and is taught only in some schools 3 hours per week for two years. Students may also take an external final examination (matura in Polish) in informatics.

(3) Is there any computer literacy teaching at K-12 level in Poland?  If so at which level and it is mandatory or optional? How many students take this courses? What does the curriculum look like?

The answer to this question can be found in the answer to question (2).

(4) Is there an informatics teacher society in Poland?

Unfortunately, No, but there was a Society of IT/ICT Teachers, very active for 10 years (2000-2010), a few years ago it has slowed down its activity and finally disappeared.

(5) How has the situation evolved in recent years?

We report here on a recent (announced in July, 2015) initiative of the Council for Informatization of Education at the Ministry of National Education to revise the curricula of informatics subjects so that computer science education will cover all school levels in K-12. Fortunately our job was only to redifine the structure and content of the subject curricula since informatics subjects already cover all school levels in the present curriculum.

The new computer science curriculum benefits very much from our experience in teaching informatics in schools for more than 30 years. In particular, it takes from the present curriculum the hours assigned to informatics subjects and unifies the names of all stand-alone informatics subjects as informatics. Therefore, according to the new curriculum, informatics will be a mandatory subject in primary schools (1-6 grades, 1 hour a week for 6 years), middle schools (7-9 grades, 1 hour a week for two years), and high schools (10 grade, 1 hour a week). Moreover, informatics is also an elective subject in high schools (11-12 grades, 3 hours a week for two years) and high school students may graduate in informatics taking the final examination (pl. matura) in informatics. We have been very lucky that the present curriculum already includes informatics subjects on each education level and we have only had to modify and extend their curricula. The same applies to the hours of instruction. Needless to say that otherwise it would be very dificult to impossible to convince the education authorities that the national curriculum needs such changes in the area which is not of the highest priority on the oficial agenda, unfortunately.

The new computer science curriculum begins with an introduction explaining the importance of computer science for our society in general and for our school students in particular. Then follow the curricula for each level of education. Each curricula consists of three parts:

  • Second part is the same in all curricula. It includes Unified aims which denfie five knowledge areas in the form of general requirements – see below.
  • First part is a description of Purpose of study, formulated adequately to the school level.
  • The third part consists of detailed Attainment targets. The targets grouped according to their aims define the content of each aim adequately to the school level. Thus learning objectives are defined that identify the specic computer science concepts and skills students should learn and achieve in a spiral fashion through the four levels of their school education.

The Unified aims are as follows:

  1. Understanding and analysis of problems – logical and abstract thinking; algorithmic thinking, algorithms and representation of information;
  2. Programing and problem solving by using computers and other digital devices – designing and programming algorithms; organizing, searching and sharing information; utilizing computer applications;
  3. Using computers, digital devices, and computer networks – principles of functioning of computers, digital devices, and computer networks; performing calculations and executing programs;
  4. Developing social competences – communication and cooperation, in particular in virtual environments; project based learning; taking various roles in group projects.
  5. Observing law and security principles and regulations – respecting privacy of personal information, intellectual property, data security, netiquette, and social norms; positive and negative impact of technology on culture, social life and security.

Two very important comments regarding the new computer science curriculum are in order. Although any curriculum defines the aims and targets to be included in any school syllabus, the curricula for particular school levels in the new curriculum contain some optional attainment targets which can be freely added to a subject syllabus or assigned only to a group of students. This is a novelty in our national curriculum and leaves some room for personalized learning of gifted students as well as students who have particular interests in specic areas of computer science and its applications (such as mathematics, science, arts). Personalization in the new curriculum is a means to encourage and motivate students to make personal choices of a range of computer science topics and areas in middle and high schools what may lead them towards computer science specialization in the next steps of education and in professional career.

Personalization is aimed at increasing students’ interests in learning then in studying computer science as a discipline, or at least in better understanding how computers and their tools work and can be used in solving problems which may occur in various areas. Another facet of personalization is a curriculum of mandatory informatics in vocational high schools for computer, electronic, and electric technicians which is fully devoted to learning computer programming. It should be noted, that our curriculum recognises the value of computer science as the underlying academic discipline and expects students to understand and use the basic concepts and principles of computer science, analyse and solve problems computationally, programming their solution, on one side (see Unied aims No 1 and 2), and on the other side, students are still expected to apply information technology and to be competent, creative, and responsible users of technology in other school subjects, disciplines, and areas of computer applications (see Unied aims No 2 and 5).

We refer to our paper presented at the ISSEP 2015 conference in Ljubljana where we discuss some implementation details and supporting activities: the role of programming and computational thinking and computer science unplugged methodology, integration of computer science with other school subjects, teacher preparation (standards, training, and evaluation), the role of outreach activities and competitions in ICT and computer science.

(6) What are the main successes and failures of K-12 informatics teaching in Poland?

As pointed out above, with our new proposal of addressing computer science and programming to all school students in K-12 in Poland, we have been very lucky that the present curriculum already includes informatics subjects on each education level – it is the success of our strategy and works included in the previous curricula – and we only modified and extend their curricula. The same applies to the hours of instruction. Needless to say that otherwise it would be very dificult to impossible to convince the education authorities that the national curriculum needs such changes in the area which is not of the highest priority on the oficial agenda, unfortunately.