Assembly line. Education and the information age

Education in CE needs serious redesigning to facilitate innovation and growth.

Benjamin Cunningham
11 June 2015

This article comes from the new issue of Visegrad Insight 1(7)/2015: Raising Innovators. Buy your copy here.


Those orderly rows of desks, the incessant queuing, and bells that indicate the start and finish of the school day are ample evidence of present-day public education’s foundations in the industrial revolution. Compulsory education began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as society sought to transform farmers into workers. By the mid-twentieth century, education had become inextricably linked with national economic development, and the world’s most dynamic economies were predicated on industry. This is no longer the case.

Whereas industry accounts for 40% of GDP in Iran, it is less than half that in Denmark. Manufacturing accounts for 42% of China’s annual earnings, but just 28% in so-called industrial powerhouse Germany. Science, diets, fashions, jobs, hobbies, and even national borders have changed in the past century, but what students are expected to do in the classroom each day has stayed very much the same. One study by the consulting firm McKinsey found that while most OECD countries doubled or tripled their spending in education between 1970 and 1994, many also still saw results that stagnated or declined. Even if schools are not actually worse than they used to be, they are worse suited to contemporary needs.

In Central Europe education systems carry the additional burden of entrenched bureaucracies that date from the communist era. This adds additional challenges, but also offers an opportunity for a more radical rethink of education – who is doing the teaching, what subjects take precedence, and should education be concentrated in a person’s younger years? Interviews with a number of the region’s leading innovators, drawn from the New Europe 100 list, found a variety of ideas of how it should be done, but a surprising consensus on the ideal end result: education that emphasizes problem-solving over memorization, adaptability instead of routine, more interaction with practicing professionals, and less specialization.

“The industrial age really profited from process improvements and economies of scale,” says Peter Arvai, CEO of Prezi, the cloud-based presentation software company founded in Budapest. “The information society values creativity over experience.”

Despite differences among education systems in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, most substantial critiques strike at the very ethos of the school systems, and most find parallels in all four Visegrad countries. The biggest weaknesses in all four systems go beyond technical and bureaucratic complaints.

There are too few “practical activities”, says Patryk Strzelewicz, founder of Poland’s Dice+, maker of a Bluetoothenabled dice for digital games. The process of hiring teachers and principals is “not set up to attract talent,” says Stanislav Boledovič, CEO of Teach for Slovakia, a group that seeks to place high level university graduates in some of the country’s weakest schools. Perhaps most significant, however, and a vital starting point for reform, is that “education is of marginal interest to the government and to the public,” according to Iva Jelinkova and Lenka Řihova, founders of iSen, a Czech group that helps educators and parents use technology to work with special-needs students.

“Politicians do not compete in who has a better education policy,” Boledovič agrees. Ambitious politicians may line up to be ministers of finance, justice, defense, or foreign affairs, but the yeoman’s work of sculpting the next generation of thinkers, workers, and innovators is often viewed as a thankless job.“The Education Ministry is usually given to a smaller party as part of a coalition deal,” says Ivan Stefunko, a Bratislava-based angel investor and venture capitalist. “A top-notch politician has never been minister of education.”

If creativity, adaptability, and collaboration are the skills a twenty-first century education system is meant to provide, then institutions like ministries, schools, and classrooms “need to be run by people that have these same kind of mindsets,” Arvai says.


Talented teachers

Even if public pressure succeeds in pressuring political leaders to place added emphasis on education reform, new dilemmas emerge. Governments are quick to cite a lack of funds as an impediment to improved educational systems, but evidence shows the amount of money is less important than where the money is spent. As the aforementioned McKinsey study indicates, there is no direct correlation between bigger spending and better schooling. Hong Kong and Spain spend about the same amount per student on education but have widely divergent results. Finland spends less than 80% of what the United States does per student per year, but its fifteen-year-olds fair about 13% better on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which gauges mathematical, reading, science, financial, and problem-solving literacy.

McKinsey breaks national school systems into four categories: poor to fair, fair to good, good to great, and great to excellent. All four Visegrad countries fall into the middle of the good to great category. By McKinsey’s reckoning, improvements within this stage are based on interventions that ensure that “teaching and school leadership is regarded as a full-fledged profession.” Reforms are meant to create “career paths to ensure the profession is as clearly defined as those in medicine or law.”

In other words, priority is placed on branding teaching as a viable profession, and investments are meant to target the hiring and training of professional people. This contrasts with the emphasis on organizational systems that is the priority in less developed educational environments, or the experimentation in peer-based learning systems that is recommended for the highest performing school systems – in Estonia, Finland, South Korea, Switzerland, and parts of Canada. The goal is to get motivated, talented people to teach and to continue to educate them even as they work – a plan that mirrors how many think a twenty-first-century educational system should also serve the public.

“It is important to give teachers systemic support in their personal development and to set out a path that makes this a career,” iSen’s Jelinkova and Řihova say. “This is then associated with greater freedom and autonomy for schools themselves.”

One obvious incentive to draw more talented people into teaching is to raise salaries. “I don’t think we need a dramatic increase, but our starting salary is half what other graduates are earning,“ Boledovič says. “Still, a job with a bad reputation, even if paid well, still doesn’t draw top people. Opinion leaders need to make role models of teachers.“

Other shifts in mentality, driven by policy or vice versa, could draw new people into teaching. At the university level, for example, financing in the Visegrad region is still tied to the number of students being taught. Advanced degree programs have their accreditation and funding based on program guarantors. These are usually people with the longest tenure in academia, and thus the least exposure to practice in the outside world. “In most cases the programs would lose funding if they brought in younger practitioners to teach,” says Peter Komornik, CEO of, a company that seeks to create a more interactive experience at conferences and workshops. “You need to have incentives to get these other people into the classroom.”

Low tuition fees can pull more money into the university system, but so too could improved processes for harnessing revenue from intellectual property that results from research at a given institution. Stanford University in the United States is an extreme example of converting student and faculty discoveries into patents and revenue, but there are also success stories closer to home. The Czech Academy of Sciences finances about a third of its overall budget with income earned by patents from its Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. Currently, much of the region’s research is subsidized by universities before the discoveries and their resulting revenue migrates elsewhere. “With technology transfer offices, universities can create their own spin-offs,” Stefunko says.


Beyond specialization

In addition to Slovakia, Komornik of has studied in the United States, Norway, and South Korea, giving him varied insight for comparing a variety of educational approaches. “The whole point is to analyze problems, not to find the one right answer,” he says about his most valuable experiences.

Increased emphasis on problem-solving and analytic skills is too important to leave to teachers, even if they are highly trained. Like Komornik, Michalea Jacova has ample international education experience. A graduate of Princeton in the United States, she completed her master’s degree in Switzerland. Today, she is the founder of Slovakia’s Startup Awards and an investment manager at Neulogy Ventures. “When it comes to creativity in business, you somehow need a combination of complementary skills in a team to make it work,” she says. “How students [abroad] interact on a college campus means different people with different interests interacting.”

By Jacova’s account, the specialization Visegrad students are asked to take on early in their educational process stunts this interaction with diversity, and with creativity more generally. Indeed, students often study at schools specifically oriented to technical or economic fields. Even university dormitories are often segregated based on fields of study, curbing the interplay between different ideas during leisure time too. “It is insane to ask a nineteen-year-old to choose their career,” Jacova says. “The job I do now is so far from what I studied, but all of those things I studied were transferrable.”

If interviews are any indication, many making the hiring decisions at the Visegrad Four’s most innovative companies are largely disinterested in formal classroom achievements.


Spending on students



The degrees themselves, contrary to the region-wide phenomenon of cramming as many acronyms as possible onto a business card, are less valuable than they used to be. While Dice+ founder Strzelewicz concedes that the teaching of foreign languages has improved in recent years – about 30% of Poles claim to speak English enough “to be able to communicate,” according to a recent poll by CBOS – he also says new hires “basically have to start from scratch to be useful in a company.”

“You make a hiring decision based on character, if they seem willing to work hard,” Strzelewicz says. “Then you hope to teach them and that they will learn quickly.” Komornik says he primarily looks at what young people are doing outside the classroom when deciding whom to hire. “Perhaps they are organizing something in their home town to try and change something,” he says. “That shows leadership skills.”

The dominating more-degrees-are-good mentality leads many young students to study for a master’s degree or further before ever working full time. “It is fine if you only have a bachelor’s degree,” says Peter Badík, co-founder of Greenway Operator, a Slovak company providing on-demand electric powered delivery vans for rent. “Stop, try to find a career path, and once you find your way, then spend six months getting more educated.”

Such behavioral changes could spur change from below, whereby the declined value of a master’s degree leads to fewer students opting not to study for advanced degrees that provide little intellectual nor practical benefit. Fewer students would force a rethinking of how higher education is funded, and so forth. Changing schooling in Central Europe “is a mindset question above all, not a resource or geographical question,” says Arvai of Prezi. Theoretically, in a functioning democratic system, elected officials are forced to react to altered expectations if they wish to stay in office, but much pessimism about the state’s ability to adapt remains.

“After 1989, I had hoped the changes would make people more brave and innovative, not just that we would take things from the West,” Arvai says. “We should not be looking to emulate the West, but thinking about how to create something better. That is seemingly missing from the conversation.”

Indeed, most of the region’s biggest educational shortfalls are fairly similar to those experienced elsewhere in the developed world; all is not lost. In fact, Polish fifteen-year-olds outperform their German counterparts in PISA scores, despite half the spending per student. This is hardly a sign that Europe’s purported economic motor has its own school system sorted out. When it comes to questions about how best to educate people in the information age, the answers are still out there.

“There is a huge opportunity here,” Arvai says. “I don’t think anybody has completely cracked the nut on this yet.”


The author writes about Central and Eastern Europe for The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and others.

Graphic: Jan Bajtlik