SPOTLIGHT — Meet Przemek Stolarski

SPOTLIGHT — Meet Przemek Stolarski
Our latest SPOTLIGHT is with Przemek Stolarski, the co-founder of Think and Speak Academy, an organisation that encourages competitive debating covering a variety of topics.

Take a look at our interview with Przemek below and learn the motivation behind the beginning of the Academy.

What’s your name & how old are you?

Przemek Stolarski, 22.

What birthed the idea for the Think and Speak Academy?

I remember very well the very moment I first head about the idea. It was the autumn of 2018. I was a fresher at SOAS. My dear friend and the other co-founder of Think and Speak Academy — Radosław Czekan — visited me in London because we were speaking together in one of the most prestigious competitions of the world — Oxford IV. We actually did very well, becoming the first Polish team to ever make it into the final rounds. It was around this time that both of us became really inspired by this company, LearningLeaders in China, that we really looked up to because they coached Chinese debaters into winning World Schools Debating Championship. This was a major breakthrough in the world traditionally dominated by institutions based in the West. At that point, we both knew they were onto something. Radek suggested we do something like this in our context and shared with me the idea of creating an academy. Many things happened along the way and we finally came back to the idea in the summer of 2020.

At that point, I suppose there were two broad reasons we had for starting this.

Firstly, we both knew that having access to good debate training immensely maximises chances of competitive success. It is not a coincidence that the last few years all major competitions were frequently won by debaters from Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard. The students from these institutions come to university debating already having two, three, sometimes even more years of experience in debating at a secondary school level. In places like the UK and the US or Israel, it is very common to have a school debate club run by a professional debate coach or, at the very least, somebody with a good grasp of the activity. This has not been our experience. At all. Radek has not heard about competitive debating up until his second or third year of university. I had to start my own city-wide debate society because there was not a single school in my city with any coaching and the only way of getting a coach was organising it on our own. Given all of these, it just seemed that there is a need for the academy that would break the barriers of geography, access, and cost.

Secondly, it is obviously not only about competitive success. I have never became a European or World Champion. I had a fair deal of successes that meant a lot to me but I was never in the best 5 or 10 debaters of the world Yet, debating literally turned my life upside down. It gave me all of these wonderful debate-related skills — critical thinking, quick reasoning, and public speaking — that allowed me to get confidence, write good essays, navigate university experience, think of applying to best schools and so on. I learnt all of these surrounded by fantastic intelligent and smart people. Most crucially, this experience gave me the power to articulate my thinking in a structured and compelling manner — something that is so often the only obstacle from being recognised and achieving success. I wanted to share this experience and I knew that the best way to do this is having a professional coach. I never had a regular one and I somehow got by because of the fantastic support from the overall community and my intrinsic motivation. But in many cases introducing the idea of debating and giving them some, poor training would not be enough for them to access all of these benefits. Both me and Radek really believed (and had a great deal evidence for that!) that having an innovative debate training grounded in education research is what can make a lot of difference. We made it our ambition to create something like that.

A year after the launch, we are almost fully online and find this to be the best way of bridging barriers. Debating is an activity that perfectly adjusted to the online world. Having a World Champion as your coach is now possible even though there might be thousand kilometres of physical distance. We are growing really fast, employing absolute top coaches delivering classes to students in the UK, Poland, China, India, Vietnam and other countries.

We note you didn’t enjoy your early schooling in Poland, however, was there a favourite subject at all and why?

I actually somewhat liked bits and pieces of the academic aspect of school. From my early years, it was quite visible that I have an inclination for social sciences. In primary school, this would have been mostly History. Later on, my favourite subject was Civics. I also enjoyed my English classes in my two last years of high school. While, against the standards and expectations, the teacher did not really follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum, he tried introducing us early on to academic, university-level English and I felt this had a very good impact on my transition into university. I am quite confident I would have learnt way less if the classes were just focusing on exam-preparation.

Yet, my interests were rarely appreciated unless I received accolades that my schools could market as their own achievements. Typically, I was scolded for unconventional passions, involvement in ‚weird’ extracurriculars like philosophy classes or disagreeing with teachers’ opinions. In general, the school was always only a nuisance, a painful duty. The real learning always happened outside and I just hated how much time I had to spent there. In my sixth-form, this was coupled with the school environment that was horrific. On the one hand, there was a lot of psychological violence, mental health problems caused by the school. I would describe the dominant vibe as dictatorial and the frequent feeling of students as humiliation. On the other hand, it was probably more painful because I had really high expectations. According to all rankings, it was the best state school in my city and the marketing they did was fantastic — they partnered up with the ministry of foreign affairs, promised a lot of events focused on international relations and, most importantly, had a class with the International Baccalaureate programme. The sad reality was that most of my teachers did not lead classes in English, did not know the curriculum and were highly incompetent in general.

We’re aware that you used to be a member of an ultra-nationalistic right-wing organisation — could you share more about that experience if possible?

When I was 13, I was on the constant lookout for a group of people that would make me feel welcome. The first few years of my life, I was close to my two significantly older (13 and 16 years older) brothers and this clearly had an impact on how I developed. Lots of things happened very early: I started reading relatively early, got interested in „serious” stuff early and, in general, did not really feel comfortable in the company of my peers. This frequently manifested in school. I was this weird case that teachers did not really know how to deal with. When I think of my childhood years, I think that teachers always created this very artificial division — there would be a part of the class that we can, for the sake of simplicity, call „troublemakers” and another one that we can call „dorks”. Well, I did not fit into either of these. I did not struggle in school. Quite the opposite. I was a high-achieving kid, especially in social sciences. But I was also very outspoken, argumentative, and, quite frankly, sassy. Lots of these was directed at teachers. I was the first to question their competence, to ask „why are we doing this stupid task”, „why do we need this”. They obviously did not like it but I guess I saw getting into arguments with them as a way of getting „respect” from my classmates. This did not really work out. On top of that, my parents, shaped by the traumatic experiences of the communist education that harshly punished all forms of critical thinking, discouraged all attempts to call out my teachers for their incompetence and the lack of understanding and attention to my problems. Although their attitude was coming from an authentic fear for me, it only increased my immense frustration at the injustice of schools. ‘You are right but…’ was a phrase I heard a lot.

I had a general lack of validation and it is this lack of validation that made me desperately seek acceptance in other places. The bar was low. Just a few friendly conversations on politics with the All-Polish Youth members made me feel “accepted” and I quickly radicalised. For three years, it seemed to be my only safe space. In spite of the growing frustration at many of the activities of the organisation, I was too afraid of losing the only place where my opinion was valued and I could engage in discussions on politics, history, and philosophy. I took part in manifestations, helped organising them, did some minor local projects. Overall, all of this gave me some space where I could play a role and not be diminished. But there were many cracks along the way. I grew up in a family that is open-minded, especially in contrast to the conservative nature of the region. Everyone in my family has university degrees, my parents travelled a good deal and developed appreciation of other cultures. I would not call them „liberal’ by Western standards but they very successfully instilled in me a lot of values I cherish. So throughout my whole experience in this organisation, I tried keeping it secret from them. That was becoming more and more difficult. What was equally difficult was reconciling some of my views with the organisation’s general stances. I got radicalised and there were many things I believed that I am really ashamed of now. But, at the same time, I hope to think that there was some reasoning involved, at the very least. This would look like me saying that I am not a racist person and on an individual level I would be always welcoming to all kinds of immigrants but I oppose Poland opening up its borders to more immigrants because of… all these gimmick justifications used by the far-right. For some time, it was possible to somehow work it out because the local chapter of the organisation had some slightly more educated people that were well-read and could actually articulate their reasoning behind some of the views. But increasingly the kind of people that came to the organisation was just appalling and the things they were saying did not really make much sense.

Overall, I see this as an incredibly shaping experience of my life that led me to understand the value of education and creating education spaces where everybody can receive recognition, validation, and their agency can be respected.

What made you get into competitive debating? We note this is what led you away from the organisation.

I was very lucky to get involved in competitive debating. This was a real turning point. I became less arrogant. After all, being forced to defend many opposing views was not an easy thing for someone, who just until recently at that point had been surrounded by far-right nationalists. But I was not humiliated. The egalitarian character of competitive debates where all teams are evaluated only by their intellectual merit was incredibly appealing. This is what I was lacking in formal educational settings and precisely what made me so fascinated about debating.

The beginnings were not easy, though. I went to my first competition with a friend who convinced me by saying it is basically going to be a party with university students. It was Polish Universities National Championship in Krakow and I learnt about the format of debating on my way to Krakow. The competition was really difficult — we discussed about tough topics, there was little preparation time, and, obviously, I was never trained in debating! The most difficult motion was about Western Sahara and, even though I was interested in international relations, the idea of debating something like this…at the age of 16…. Well, it seemed nuts. Perhaps, the competition was not a complete failure because we actually got some points but one could not tell based on this result that I would one day win this very championship. Given this experience, I am not sure I would have stayed if not the community. I finally felt that I have met ambitious people, interested in „serious” stuff that find pleasure in rumbling about it day and night. I stayed and never regretted this. To be honest, the decision to start debating and everything that followed with it was what saved me from a school experience full of frustration and unproductive misery. Otherwise, I would have probably just felt entirely lonely in my school. Clearly, it was the best decision of my life.

What are you most passionate about with your current studies and your role as Co-Founder?

Harvard is an absolutely phenomenal place and the Education School is full of people doing amazing things for this world in the field of education. There is so much to learn not only from the faculty but also from my peers. To be honest, I feel too overwhelmed at the moment to fully process what makes me most passionate about this experience because everything just pumps me up! I think that what I enjoy most is the nature of many classes that are entirely based on experiential learning. My degree is called „Learning Design, Innovation and Technology”. While it is a rather open-ended master’s of education degree, the most important part for me is learning design that can be defined as a practice of using research to create different learning experiences in the most effective, engaging way possible. This somehow forces on us a mode of learning that is very specific. It is a very huge difference from my undergraduate experience where every week consisted mostly of readings. In fact, in all of my classes here, we engage in some projects, hands-on, practice-based learning every week. This can be very small but exciting. For example, we have lots of small learning design exercises where we are challenged with creating learning experiences — lessons, online courses, exhibitions, workshops, literally everything — and actually doing them to get feedback. Only this week, I had to design a school bus that would enable students’ better learning (how sick is that!), create a learning sequence to teach driving using only one specific theory of learning (which was a very difficult and sophisticated thought experiment), or create and teach short lesson about a painting I have never seen before. I am not an artsy person and I must say it was MIND-BLOWING to see some of the learning design principles in work in the context that I find so alien. There are also bigger projects — this semester, I will be working with faculty members to create online versions of some courses that have been running in-person at Harvard more many years now. In the education technology class, I am working in a team developing a technological solution to schools’ lack of support for teenagers engaged in social impact projects. All of it is really cool.

Harvard also creates lots of opportunities for my entrepreneurship endeavours. We are now incubated at the Harvard Innovation Labs where we are using the expertise of multiple mentors and other teams. I am also taking a class at Harvard Business School called „Field X” which is basically an entrepreneurship-in-practice course. The premise is that we get a grant and lots of support from multiple mentors to move our business forward every week and, by the end of the semester, we will be participating in a pitch competition in front of a few hundred investors. Our goal is to utilise these opportunities as much as possible, expand to new countries and develop both on the education as well as the business side of things. Currently, we are in negotiations with partners in Canada, Singapore and Panama. If we manage to close these deals, we would have presence on four continents!

What’s your best experience since the birth of Think and Speak Academy?

It felt amazing to start with our first group. It felt even better to start the second one. In fact, we had a bit of a tough moment. Working on the venture in our free time in addition to full-time jobs and studying last year was not easy and it definitely burned us out a little bit at some point. When we opened up the recruitment for the second group, we could not gather people for a long while. But we tried a different type of outreach, doing a free class and having coaches message people in attendance directly and it worked out! One thing I learned from this past year is that the amount of time and effort you put into your venture is sometimes almost directly proportional to results. This means that when things are not going well the worst thing is to „leave it as it is”.

As you’ve experienced three different education systems, Poland, the UK & now, the USA, is there anything specific that you would change in global education?

There is so much to change that I even do not know where to start. Studying at top schools in the US and the US, and also working in independent schools in London, I cannot really say I experienced the education systems of these countries — I only saw a bit of the very unrepresentative part of them.

Outside of debating and studying, what are your hobbies?

I enjoy watching Netflix, playing squash and football (the real one, not the American one…) and TRAVELLING! I am itching to travel and my dream is to do a hitch-hiking trip to Iran.

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