Education for the 21st century: repairing the machine or reinventing the game?

Blessed are the poor in discussion, for theirs is the management of education. While this adaptation of Matthew [5:3] may sound blasphemous, it sadly fits the reality of education in Slovakia. There is hardly any policy area where so many changes would produce so little effect. Why? Policy-makers almost never discuss their proposals with those who ‘live’ education every day.

Photo: CreativeCommons/PROwoodleywonderworks

On a gloomy December afternoon back in 2013 myself, a teacher trainer, and three colleagues – Zuzana, an education expert, Elena, a sociologist and Fedor, a philosopher and activist – practiced one of Slovakia’s national pastimes:  complaining over coffee in downtown Bratislava. This time the target of our complaints transcended a particular person or situation and focused on the “system,” as such. The gathering was called out due to leaked information about the new “Report on the State of Education,” commissioned by the then minister Dušan Čaplovič.

Rumors spread that the report was a comprehensive compilation of all available data and analyses and could provide the justification for far-reaching changes in Slovakia’s education system. Since the country had experienced another forcefully pushed education “deform” only a few years prior, there was good reason for concern. Even though this new report was not intended for public eyes, bits and pieces circulated among experts, and several interest groups were getting ready to engage in yet another lobbying game. It had become “usual” over years to adopt changes this way and without open public consultations.

Repairing the vending machine

For some reason Slovakia has had “great luck” with educational engineers who regard the whole system as a simple vending machine. Having their ready-made magic formulas and one-size-fits-all solutions to questions regarding education they do not feel the need to discuss their brilliant ideas with the public:

Do international comparisons show Slovak pupils lagging behind? “Let’s add more math / science / language classes!” Should pupils master  computers in this increasingly digital world? “Let’s provide a tablet to each child!” Are too many pupils pursuing academic education instead of vocational training? “Let’s restrict enrollment by levels of achievement!” Is the teacher profession unattractive? “Let’s raise salaries!” Are schools complaining about a lack of support? “Let’s give them more guidelines!”

The list of magic formulas is endless. There is no point analyzing any of them since the approach, itself, is part of the problem. Besides dealing with education mechanistically, this strategy discreetly pursues the interests of few stakeholders at the expense of all others. It ignores any plurality of ideas and solutions, and routinely downplays the needs of children, parents and teachers in the process.

Over the last 25 years close to 20 ministers of education have shaped their interventions by a mix of nostalgia for the “good old days,” carefully selected trends of today and wishful thinking for tomorrow. The sequence of their short-lived maintenance efforts did nothing to avert the overall decline of Slovakia’s education quality and causes dissatisfaction of the general public . Despite a myriad of corrections the inherited 19th century vending machine of mass education has ceased to work. Pushing the buttons does not pay off anymore and almost nobody is happy.

Graph Source: TNS Slovakia, May 2015, 1000 respondents

Graph Source: TNS Slovakia, May 2015, 1000 respondents

The state increasingly fails to fulfil its self-imposed duties. It claims, for instance, that mandatory education is provided at no cost. In reality, schooling is far from costless for all families.

Until recently the state pretended segregation did not exist in education. But whenever you visit ordinary schools or schools for the mentally disabled close to Roma settlements, the composition of classes speaks for itself. 1

The state has maintained the monopoly on textbooks, but is unable to provide them for even some of the mandatory subjects in schools nationwide. Teachers do not get support to cope with the changing curriculum and varied needs of children in their classrooms and the only “solution” the state has offered is minor annual salary increases.

But if the state increasingly loses the capacity to enforce their own duties how effectively can they compel the others to follow the rules? Educational engineers do not bother with these higher-order questions and stubbornly stick to their quick fixes. They ignore clearly articulated and internationally relevant warnings that maintenance strategies may well be the costliest and riskiest of all available options. 2

Getting rid of the vending machine

The biggest fallacy the maintenance approach to education assumes stems from the idea that small repairs can qualitatively improve overall performance. But to only polish the façade or fix the most visible defects is a delusional waste of time.

Due to the myriad of petty changes over the last 25 years we have lost common understanding of how the “machine” should look and what functions it should have. In the event of a systemic breakdown there is no plan B and the existing toolkit would prove completely useless.

The maintenance mindset overlooks the 21st century education system’s most important challenge: Education cannot be designed and managed top-down anymore, because learning takes place everywhere and is increasingly co-created by learners. Schools and companies develop their own curricula, approaches and training schemes, parents and pupils are becoming more involved in school management and local self-governments are entering the education process and decision-making. Learning is no longer a one-directional transfer of knowledge from those who know to those who are taught. It is a much more democratic interaction of all involved.

A machine that, after each push of the button, ejects an identical mediocre product is useless for a society that requires flexibility, cherishes uniqueness and strives for innovation. Since the machine has failed to produce the “quality products” it was originally designed for repairing it is not an option

So, what other options do we have?

The four of us sitting at the café knew that no matter how malfunctioning the system was, it could not be changed radically. Even more difficult than doing away with the machine is overriding the widespread maintenance mindset that regards education as something “given“ and “provided.”

You need to bring children, parents and teachers to the center of decision-making, since their handling of education is crucial for the system’s operation. They are not screws, belts or cogs in wheels, switched on by someone temporarily in charge, but individuals, interacting and affecting both the system’s performance and results. You cannot make the right decisions by staging mock consultations and graciously letting people have their say, without really listening. You cannot compensate for the missing knowledge by inviting a few experts in to fine-tune magic formulas. You need a transparent policy-making process that is open to all. You need new rules of the game.

Reinventing the rules

The object of the board game, Sorry!, is to roll dice and “race” around a board to get back home as quickly as possible. 3 When you encounter anyone in your way, you bump them back to the beginning. Showing any mercy would ruin the competition and deprive the ultimate joy of kicking someone off the board to start all over again. In the end, there is only one winner; the rest are losers.

In regard to education, the four of us decided to play a different game; we started by reinventing the rules, and the first thing we dropped was the race itself. Even if timing is important, hastiness almost never produces the best outcome. Next we stopped the practice of eliminating the other players. Why shouldn’t two or more of them share the same field?

Once you do away with the race and the kick-outs is there even anything left of the game to enjoy? A blank slate offers the opportunity to redefine the fields and attribute new and different meanings – education has links to various fields – labor, learning, childhood, family, finances, research, religion and many more.

We were determined to offer the new rules to the broader public, together with the full version of the secret report as soon as we got a hold of it. We want people to see that there can be a completely different way of making decisions in education. No more Sorry!. The game can be joined by anyone, at any time. It is even possible to take a time-out, and pause whenever a particular issue or field needs to be thought about more thoroughly. On that gloomy afternoon we started playing a brand new game and we still play it today.

How we got to know more

Of course there are more sophisticated ways to start a public campaign. Our initiative, We want to know more about the future of education in Slovakia, has not followed a comprehensive plan or marketing strategy from the outset. In fact under our new rules of the game, there were only blurry ideas about the types of activities that were worth trying.

The campaign team organized 12 creative workshops for pupils and the general public in all parts of Slovakia.. We presented the collected ideas of people who “do” education at a number of conferences, roundtables and public events. We facilitated online discussions on education’s purpose, content and management. We collected real stories of children whose needs are recognized and accounted for by the current system. And we continue to monitor what other players are doing through a weekly newsletter, which has become a major source of information and inspiration for many. 4

Since its launch, almost 20 organizations and hundreds of individual supporters  joined the campaign. 5 Its main goal is to revive the public discussion and reinvent education through the active involvement of children, parents, teachers and other stakeholders. Everyone should have an opportunity to shape the future of education in this country. Therefore we, inspired by the Czech campaign, Česko mluví o vzdělávaní, 6 and the British initiative, Beyond Current Horizons, 7 decided to run creative workshops for both children and adults across Slovakia.

For both symbolic and practical reasons we made the target year for the initiative’s fruition 2040. Symbolic because the same amount of time, 25 years, has passed since Slovak society underwent major political, economic and social changes, but without any substantial changes to the country’s education system. Since we do not want to waste time the next 25 years, we started to map out what kind of education people might like to see in the future. Knowing how easy it is to get distracted by unproductive complaints, the 2040 perspective allowed us to forego the limitations of the current system and replace the powerful, “Why not?” with a more provocative, “What if?”.

What if there were more teachers in the classroom? What if learning was not organized according to the age or by subjects? What if mandatory education was provided at different places, not only schools? What if there were no grades? What if teachers, parents and pupils co-designed the learning journey of each child? What if…?

These and many other questions got the workshop participants thinking creatively, designing different educational environments, considering strategies to meet learners’ diverse needs, and conceptualizing innovative teaching methods and new approaches to education management..

Common sense at work

Collaborative work of workshop participants produced loads of inspirational ideas, sketches and even architectural designs and action plans, that no single policy-maker or expert can develop on their own.

No pre-existing model is given to participants and every new idea should meet a simple criterion – it has to benefit children and their learning. The participants’ outputs do not try to tackle the whole “system” or oversimplify it by one-size-fits-all solutions. On the contrary, they manage to develop educational models that can work for individuals, communities and contexts they all know.

If a participant lacks certified “expertise” in pedagogy or educational management their common sense guides them. If current limitations and constraints are forgotten most people are well equipped to explore opportunities instead. As a result, and to the participants’ great surprise, the creative work generated solutions that are fairly consistent and complementary to the findings of the most rigorous education research. Moreover, they have an added value that only few expert outputs can claim – a rootedness in local realities and lived experiences.

The extraordinarily productive teams were made up of people of different ages, with different backgrounds and from various professions. For example a community worker coupled with a local mayoral candidate, who was a pilot by profession, reinvented the physical space of classrooms. The initial stance of one of the prospective decision-makers was that you could not just move chairs around the room – that some things were simply given. However, as they gradually rearranged the space so that it could better reflect different needs and enable the various interactions required for different subjects the initial “given” was dropped. After only an hour of creative work, they concluded that light materials, foldable chairs, desks and other pieces of furniture make it possible to re-arrange the room quickly and safely. Moreover, their re-design has a clear and properly acknowledged consequence for curriculum, school timetables and management.

In a different town a group that included a teacher, a local entrepreneur and a municipality officer developed a system of local schooling that takes place all over town. They identified the potential for direct learning in the local hospital, senior house, police station, orphanage, museum, cultural center, municipal office and even the vineyard and the marketplace. Besides identifying different spaces and “subjects,” they also determined the knowledge, skills and values each learner can develop at each location, the requirements for the “teaching” staff in the involved institutions, as well as the timeframe and logistics of their educational carousel.

Although the few homogenous groups that formed were faster to reach consensus and come up with agreed upon solutions, teacher-only teams tended to get stuck by the constraints of the existing system. Without any external input they struggled to think outside of the box, and in the end “invented” only what they already do anyway. Similarly, the few parent-only groups often lacked knowledge about the learning process or school management. While they were excellent at producing lists of ideas and demands, they struggled to develop the workable strategies needed to put them into daily practice.

It was a combination of the collaboration of teachers and parents, the children’s sharp insights and the other stakeholders’ experiences that produced truly innovative and workable solutions. The workshops proved that “lay” people are willing and able to reinvent education locally and have valuable experience that can help change the system. What they need is a voice and a chance. A number of participants confessed they had never had an opportunity to take part in anything similar, and this is a shameful waste of the country’s potential for innovation.

Making the case for change

Creative grass-root solutions cannot substitute for conventional policy instruments. They can complement various statistics and analyses that are routinely and exclusively taken by policymakers to design systemic measures. The need to combine these two types of expertise has led to the development of the Atlas of Ideas on Education, the campaign’s major output, which will be presented on the campaign’s webpage and to the public in autumn 2015.

Local anecdotal evidence may easily impress anthropologists and dissatisfied parents, but politicians, sadly, are rarely swayed by these ranks. In order to make the case for systemic change stronger a more representative case is necessary, and for this reason the campaign commissioned a sample survey about both people’s experience with the current educational system and their wishes for the future of education. 8

The survey identified clear demands for accessibility of comprehensive and quality primary education in every neighborhood  (57%); no specialization requirements at early stages (69%); and a financing system that would not burden family budgets (73%). However the most demanded changes in schools are not related to equipment or curriculum, but for the creation of safe and pleasant learning environments (83%) and an improvement in teachers’ approach to children (76%).

According to many, a good teacher is one who can account for the different learning needs of every child, instead of primarily focusing on gifted pupils (59% to 18%). Schools should not only develop knowledge and skills but also foster attitudes and values (61%). In classroom settings, teamwork and collaboration are clearly preferred to excellence and competition (55% to 15%). Diversity is not seen as an obstacle to learning (58% to 16%), and people feel the best performers should be grouped with other pupils (55% to 29%).  And finally, standardized tests are not viewed as the only markers of quality education; equally important is tracking the individual progress of each child (37% to 39%).

The survey findings are promising for several reasons. Firstly, they indicate remarkable consistency between people’s views about the future and the values they consider important in life and education. Secondly, they demonstrate that younger people and parents are more critical of the current educational system than other groups are. Thirdly, they show society’s clear inclinations on a number of fundamental questions. Finally and most importantly, they illustrate that there are no unbridgeable divisions between different social segments in Slovak society. In other words, the variety of preferences is not so broad that a consensus cannot be reached. So developing a much needed vision and long-term strategy for education that would be immune to electoral cycles and narrow partisan interests, should face no major obstacles.

Butterflying the effect

Given Slovak citizens’ general dissatisfaction with their education system, it is rather surprising that enough sustained pressure has not been produced to keep political incumbents on alert, especially when the issue involves such a numerous pool of stakeholders – and voters. The explanation is trivial. So far no Slovak government has been held accountable for its educational policy; and even when all electoral programs and government declarations have highlighted education as a priority, it has never been one.

Rare appeals for change have been fragmented, marked by stakeholder competition rather than collaboration and often overshadowed by issues like unemployment, social security and health care. The fact that we have not yet seen elections in Slovakia where educational programs mobilized voters, does not mean it cannot happen in the future.

The parents of currently enrolled children daily witness how little has changed since their own school days. If their discontent becomes loud enough they have the potential to become a driving force for change. Together with our society’s undervalued teachers and increasingly dissatisfied employers this may constitute a critical mass that will not be politically negligible.

The upcoming battle will thus be waged for nothing less than public attention. The campaign aspires to set the agenda for politicians and the media by presenting the public’s demands to education and requesting qualified offers. We will attempt to link the collected ideas and identified public preferences with pedagogy and education management expertise. The next step will be the thorough scrutiny of current and future decision-makers’ views, programs and actions before the upcoming parliamentary election in March 2016.

Even though some may consider inviting laity onto the policy-making boards a sacrilege, there is no other way to account for the varied needs and interests involved in education. Continuous public consultation should become a cornerstone of participative policy design, implementation and evaluation, so that the malfunctioning system can gradually be reinvented. Otherwise we are doomed to push the buttons and simply polish the façade of a machine that expired long ago.

The secret report we anxiously waited for did not change much. In the meantime an 8th grader taking part in one of the campaign workshops described the flawed system more succinctly than any report could: “The ideal way to learn is to ask questions. But we do not have this opportunity. If we kept asking questions, the teacher would get nervous and say we are hindering the process.”

The time is ripe to make some people nervous in Slovakia . . . and it is not teachers.


  1. In response to the European Commission’s infringement proceedings against Slovakia for breaching the EU‘s anti-discrimination legislation in its treatment of Roma school children, 2015’s amendment to the Education Act acknowledged for the first time that discrimination and segregation exist de facto in Slovakia’s education system. Both national and international organizations have mapped segregation practices in Slovak schools for decades, including ERRC, Amnesty International and the Slovak Public Defender of Rights, ombudswoman, who prepared an extraordinary report on this subject in 2013.
  2. The OECD Schooling for Tomorrow initiative developed tools for future thinking, which account for several trends inside and outside education. Out of the six developed scenarios the “robust bureaucratic school system” aimed to maintain the status quo and the “system melt-down” scenario caused by an exodus of teachers (and learners) are arguably the least desirable options.
  3. Originally an Indian game, Pachisi, transformed by the German, Josef Friedrich Schmidt, to a board game called Mensch ärgere Dich nicht; in Hungarian Ki nevet a végén?; in Polish Chińczyk or Człowieku, nie irytuj się, in Czech Člověče, nezlob se!; and in Slovak Človeče, nehnevaj sa! Among English-speaking audiences it is known as Ludo or Aggravation.
  4. See the campaign’s website. You can subscribe there to a weekly newsletter in Slovak distributed to more than 5,000 individuals and institutional subscribers to date.
  5. The campaign supporters include non-governmental organisations, think-tanks, schools and parental associations, a publishing house and educational media
  6. The Czech campaign was run by EDUin.
  7. The British initiative was run by Futurelab at the National Foundation for Educational Research.
  8. The survey was conducted by TNS Slovakia from 22nd April until 5th May 2015 on a sample of 1000 respondents representative by gender, age (18 – 65 years), educational attainment, size of the municipality and region. The summary of survey findings is available in Slovak.
Peter Dráľ

Peter Dráľ

works as educational analyst and free-lance trainer for several Slovak and international organisations. Peter is also part of the team working on the campaign "Chceme vediet viac" (We want to know more).