The Learning Makes Sense project aims to define the problems of the Slovak education system. The solutions to be presented by the project will be based on detailed research findings, and will reflect the real needs of the current education system. Without actually understanding the system, we might easily suggest illegitimate concepts focusing on the symptoms of the problems rather than their causes. At the same time, if best practices from Slovakia and abroad are to help us define the desired changes, we need to be aware of our context and take the needs of people in our schools into consideration in order to choose and implement them.
In 2016, together with foreign and Slovak experts in the field of education, as well as those in economics, demography, and the labour market, we outlined a vision of how the education system should enable its graduates to face future challenges. Once we defined the desired direction, we moved on to focus on the deeper exploration of issues that currently prevent us from reaching our goals, starting from kindergarten level all the way up to universities. This was a necessary stage in defining the content and order of the steps that need to be carried out.
One of the key ideas behind the project is that we see the education system as an internally consistent entity, with the organisation of education harmonised from kindergarten level up to universities. For this reason, we did not formulate research questions for each individual educational level, but rather focused on all-encompassing problem areas, important at all of the educational stages. We are exploring the following five areas in our research:
1. Regarding the content and form of learning: What content do pupils and students learn, and with which methods?
2. Regarding teachers: How are teachers selected, educated and further developed?
3. Regarding the permeability of education: What is the level of permeability between schools and across educational stages, both within Slovakia, and between local and foreign schools? What is the transition from school to the labour market? Is there an opportunity to return to school if someone needs further education? How do schools co-operate with the outside world?
4. Regarding an individual approach to learning: How is the potential of every child being developed, including children with transitory learning difficulties or with certain disabilities or outstanding talents?
5. Regarding the governance and funding of the education system: How is the quality in education (and science for universities) maintained and further developed? How are schools managed and how does the government manage education at national, regional and local level? How are schools funded, and what are the problems regarding the volume of resources and their use?
We are mapping the current state of affairs at schools and various institutions across Slovakia, using more than 400 individual interviews and more than 20 group interviews with all relevant stakeholders for these five cross-cutting issues. Altogether, more than 500 individuals were involved.
We explore each issue by approaching all the relevant parties. For example, regarding the content of learning, we asked not only individual students about what they learn, but also their teachers, as well as human resources experts representing their future employers. This is how we work across all the research areas. We travelled to all our respondents across Slovakia, to both large and small schools and kindergartens, to public, private, and church-run institutions, to both grammar schools and vocational schools, as well as to tertiary education institutions. We spoke to non-teaching staff and school founders. Also, we discussed these themes with the representatives of those institutions that should provide support to pupils and students, their families, as well as to teaching and non-teaching staff. We did not omit grant agencies and the Accreditation Committee in the case of universities. We also talked with people living abroad, organising focus groups with some 30 Slovak students in the Czech Republic (in Brno, Olomouc, and Prague), as well as individual interviews with Slovak scientists working abroad (in the USA, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Austria).
The aim of the individual interviews was to identify the main problems within each of the five areas outlined above. Whether the problems identified are relevant for the whole system or only a part of it (for example, a specific type of school or specific individuals) will be examined through questionnaires to be distributed in January to approximately 5,000 respondents in Slovakia and abroad. Combining the qualitative data from the interviews with the quantitative questionnaire data will help us draw up a detailed list of problems and their causes. In 2018 we plan to make a public presentation of our comprehensive analysis, based on both the qualitative and quantitative data, and shall be discussing the problems identified therein with people in various Slovak regions.
The next step in the project will be to formulate proposals for solutions, based on the best practice examples from Slovakia and abroad. In selecting the best practices, we will be focussing not only on the analysis of the resulting changes, but also on the context and conditions for their proper functioning in practice. At the same time, our recommendations will describe not only what is advantageous for the Slovak education system, but will also present; a roadmap of steps leading to the desired change, a list of relevant stakeholders that need to be engaged, and the required volume of funds together with the method of their allocation in order to support the desired change. We plan to discuss our recommendations with people from all parts of Slovakia. Prior to the general election in 2020, we will present a comprehensive reform proposal, both to the public and to all the relevant political parties (except for the extremist parties) standing for election to Parliament.