Adapting to Change While Holding up One's Principles: Lessons learnt from 20 Years of Experience
Over the past 20 years, the Polish History Competitions organised by the KARTA Center have encouraged over 14,400 students to participate. They sent in a total of 7,948 papers. After the last of three consecutive competitions entitled “Hidden History - Undiscovered, Untold, Unheard..” had come to an end in November 2017, it was a good moment to look back on past successful competitions and lessons learnt during these sometimes turbulent years.
With the first competition in 1996/97, the KARTA Center introduced its founding beliefs for the following history competitions, such as to encourage students to conduct independent research in local communities, to advocate a critical approach on sources and to provoke curiosity and openness towards the interests of others. Whilst staying true to these principles throughout the past 20 years, KARTA’s competitions have regularly adapted to new opportunities and changes in society. Alicja Wancerz-Gluza, initiator and organiser of the Polish EUSTORY Competition, evaluates this mix of stable principles and constant adaptions as a crucial point for success. She elaborates: "Continuous adjustment of the competition to changes in the role and importance of history in the school curriculum, changes in teaching methods, as well as vigilant response to the interests and needs of young people and the challenges of modern communication tools are all crucial points for maintaining the success of a historical competition."
After the successful initiation phase of the competition, the KARTA team, for example, decided to broaden the competition topics and cut down on specific thematic guidelines: In the competition round of 2001/2002 with the topic of "Stranger Among Familiars - Experiences of the 20th Century" , students were given the freedom of both, defining what a »stranger« meant for them and choosing the specific time period which they wanted to research on. Although this shift to a more challenging approach led to a decrease of total papers submitted, the KARTA team simultaneously noticed a significant rise in quality. The papers showed that the students engaged in in-depth research based on a variety of source material and furthermore depicted a clear visible learning process when it came to their initial definitions of terms such as »strangeness« and how they perceived them in the end.
With their last competition topic "Hidden History - Undiscovered, Untold, Unheard..” that was announced three times in the years 2015-17, the KARTA team decided to adjust the format in accordance with the rising trend of digitalisation. KARTA emphasised the importance of using modern communication tools and implemented multimedia tools at all organisational levels of the competition as well as the preparation phase of the competition. This change did not only respond to modern students’ interests, but also attracted new partners: The State’s »National Audiovisual Institute« funded the editions 18 to 20, and the Bank »Gospodarstwa Krajowego« co-financed the editions 19 to 20. Those are only two examples of a total of 12 new partners which KARTA was able to win throughout the past years, one reason surely being their innovative approaches.
One of the core challenges that presented itself to the Polish competition team were the changes in the national school curricula which increased the workload of the students and further introduced an alternative history competition as an official part of the school curricula. Looking back on the past 20 years, Alicja Wancerz-Gluza summarizes: "The big challenge was not giving up on our high expectations regarding the quality of the students' work. Our competition does not give any official profits in the students’ school career, so during the past 20 years the readiness of students to engage in the extracurricular effort has definitely changed and became a big challenge." The recent change of the Polish national school system towards a liquidation of junior high schools further added to the challenge of encouraging students to participate, considering that the majority of the competition participants came from those schools.
But the competition organisers prepare for another round. In 2018, the year when Poland is focusing on 100 years of independence, the design of the upcoming history competition will add a grass-root perspective to this occasion. Starting from the online portal "Endless Independence - People", KARTA will connect its next competition project to this portal holding 30,000 pages of the "Declaration of Gratitude and Admiration of the United States" which was an acknowledgement by Poland of the help of the United States in the Polish struggle for independence during and after the First World War. The declaration was delivered in 1926 and signed by 5.5 million Polish citizens from the highest state authorities and local authorities to teachers and students from all levels of the educational system. The students participating in the next competition round will be asked to dive into this exceptional source material, search for people who signed the declaration from their village, family or school, reconstruct their further fate through additional source material and present their biographies in attractive films, multimedia presentations or radio programmes etc.