Zdenek Slejška

Ashoka Fellow
Zdenek Slejška
Czech Republic
Fellow od roku 2013
This description of Zdenek Slejška's work was prepared when Zdenek Slejška was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

Introduction

Zdeněk Slejška is empowering both Czech schools and citizens to transform their education system from within. To do this, Zdeněk repositions schools as centers of community life and incentivizes parents, experts, businesses and communities to become stakeholders in education.

The New Idea

Zdeňek nurtures a vision of education that impacts Czech society as a whole, reaching beyond the classroom with an interdisciplinary approach that posits education as “everyone’s business.” In this vision, pupils are regarded not only as students, but as support for their parents, employees for companies, and capable citizens. Zdeňek believes that national education should provide youth with skills that enable them to quickly adapt to new environments and realize their full potential.

Zdeňek’s organization, EDUin, carefully tailors a comprehensive engagement opportunity for each group of stakeholders, such as “Parents Welcome” certification and “Extra Class” for students, providing them with clear-cut guidance about how they can tangibly influence the education system. He has created a first-of-its-kind national information hub for education reform and content, Beduin, a highly specialized news agency which collects, organizes, and disseminates strategic information and expert comments related to events and trends in education. In doing this, Zdeňek has reached an untapped network of businesses, media outlets, and politicians very much committed to revolutionizing education. By helping stakeholders see the immediate value engagement creates on the local level, Zdeňek achieves a twofold mission: (i) stakeholders become motivated to gather others to participate in important debates on education and to lobby at the national level to achieve long-lasting policy change, and (ii) schools, which are at the center of these relationships, reap the benefits of educational improvement.

The Problem

Czech education faces two challenges. First, the priorities and goals of the national education system are not defined and there is no clear strategy for education development. The general public is not aware of the alarming trends in the performance of pupils; in fact, there is currently a high satisfaction rate among parents. This complacency stems from believing what worked for them in their youth will work for their children. Next, there is no impetus for reform at the school level where redesign for best practices and attracting stakeholders’ resources could happen. The combination of teacher rigidity toward change, the purely theoretical approach of the Ministry of Education, and a lack of public interest inhibits modernizing education. To date, the country has witnessed fragmented attempts to engage only certain groups of stakeholders, without steady cross-section engagement with a grassroots movement to trigger systems change.

Over the last two decades, Czech students’ scores on international comparison tests (i.e. PISA, TIMSS tests by OECD) have worsened, noting one of the most drastic declines among the participating countries (from 6th to 7th position in 1995; to 27th to 30th on recent tests). Students’ performance is closely intertwined with the organization of the learning process. According to further OECD statistics, more than half of 15-year-old students claim they are bored at school and only 12 percent actively enjoy the time they spend in the classroom. This huge gap between parent and student perceptions, which is due to the parents not knowing the facts, means that they are not the engine for change they must be if reform is to come.

The ability to express oneself articulately, communicate with people of diverse backgrounds, empathize with others, work as part of a team, and develop efficient solutions, are all crucial to modern day success. According to a study by the US Department of Labor, 65 percent of today’s pupils will be employed in adult jobs which currently do not exist, highlighting the importance of acquiring new human change skills early on. Today’s pupils must grow into flexible adults able to adjust to accelerating change.

The Strategy

Zdeňek founded EDUin to mobilize and leverage a dynamic group of stakeholders to drive and promote the education changes today’s world requires. Zdeňek’s efforts are aimed to open “closed” school systems so that they might benefit from the expertise of a wide-range of stakeholders and equip pupils with the skills to succeed in new environments. He envisions the graduates of such a school to be active, empathetic citizens and flexible lifelong learners with a strong sense of curiosity and passion. An engaging school that acts as a productive learning space will generate high-achieving alumni.

To explore and develop a common vision for and understanding of education and to reinvigorate best practice exchanges among grassroots experts, EDUin organizes regular stakeholder communication. Activities at the national level include roundtables on trending topics in education several times a year which are open to the public; yearly conferences on pedagogical topics at the Senate (hundreds of teachers and headmasters have participated); closed “fish bowl” sessions for experts in education to share opinions on divisive issues in a risk-free environment (with experts), and lobbying assistance for parents and students on particular topics. EDUin also works strategically at the regional level. By mobilizing grassroots expertise through workshops in all fourteen regions of the country, EDUin acts as a partner to the Ministry of Education; drafting a National Strategy of Education.

To build a movement for education, an education fitted for the future, and to attract local stakeholders’ support Zdeňek designs local engagement opportunities for parents, communities, media, and businesses. Higher parental involvement in school life tends to result in an improved school climate, higher achievement, better attendance, and more responsible student preparation. To increase parents’ participation in education affairs, EDUin takes schools through a Parents Welcome certification process, with a set of criteria to show the school is gearing its activities toward welcoming parents. Many parents consider involvement for the first time. EDUin has reached over 40,000 students. Zdeňek believes 25 percent of schools will “tip” the country toward parent-friendly certification and compel others to join. EDUin provides schools and parents with a manual on best practices about school-parent communication with monthly updates, organizes training on efficient communication for both teachers and parents, and convenes an annual assembly of Parents Welcome school representatives for in-person networking and information exchange.

Zdeňek also promotes a connection between schools, communities, and businesses to ignite interest and investment in the education sector. In part, EDUin is engaging businesses in the education process to unleash the untapped resources and expertise of the sector. Another program, Towns of Education, calls for local schools, businesses, municipalities, and citizen organizations to jointly draft business engagement strategy. The strategy includes activities like peer mentoring between school and business management, year-long internships at companies for teachers, and business professionals co-teaching at schools. Multilevel, mutually beneficial engagement ensures that education becomes a priority and remains at the center of action. Zdeňek also encourages systems-change by spreading successful local programs throughout the country.

EDUin has also created Extra Class, a youth program that enables students to plan community development projects and raise resources for their implementation. Initially, 24 classes (500 students) took up the program, and Zdeňek wants eventually to engage most certified schools. The launch was organized by EDUin in cooperation with the retail-chain TESCO, united by a common vision of creating better neighborhoods. TESCO nominated this program for an Innovation Award, which would mean Extra Class would be expanded to other countries where TESCO operates.

To fortify the emerging movement and to bolster EDUin’s work at the local and national level, Zdeňek actively leverages media and looks to multiple communication tools to raise public awareness. In addition to his information hub, Beduin, Zdeňek has also begun an online newsletter that is distributed to over 10,000 weekly readers and an online portal with text and video reports, which attracts over 15,000 daily readers during peak season. They have quickly become valued as unique and trustworthy sources of unbiased information. This effort has significantly increased the attention devoted to education in public discourse and the mainstream media. Beduin has thus grown into a respected center of education. Even the Minister of Education now turns to Beduin and Zdeňek’s other outlets for consultation.

Zdeňek grasps that the sort of fundamental change he seeks requires everyone—from students and parents to business and mayors and ministers—to recognize the world has changed profoundly and that education must as well. Therefore he is working with them all—and engineering them each to nudge the other. His plan is to reach this critical mass first in his own Czech Republic and then bring his approach to other areas. He’s already engaging partners in Slovakia.

The Person

As a student, Zdeňek was disappointed by learning things in school that he felt were esoteric and irrelevant. This set him on a path to search for both what to learn and how to learn it in a more interesting way. When neither a bachelor’s nor a master’s degree in education provided him with a sufficient answer, Zdeňek searched outside formal education. He joined Scouts and later on the Holiday School Lipnice (a chapter of Outward Bound), and here he discovered the concept of long-term experiential education. Attracted by this concept, Zdeňek became a lecturer of experiential education and realized how the methodology helps people of any age relate to what they study and discover, as motivation to study and acquire knowledge more efficiently. He found that hands-on learning led to better retention and real-world relevance.

Zdeňek co-founded EGREDIOR, to implement experiential education in schools. Having developed methodology manuals and trained hundreds of teachers, EGREDIOR achieved significant success in a few years, as many schools expressed interest in experiential education. In some schools, newly trained teachers actively implemented this methodology, and eventually, an entire district of Prague implemented it in their schools.

After ten years, Zdeňek was approached by the Ministry of Education and was offered an opportunity to develop a new open source system for experience exchange among teachers. Perceiving this offer as opportunity to help teachers nationwide further develop their professional skills and promote experiential methodologies, Zdeňek devoted four years to working on a portal (www.rvp.cz). It grew to be the most comprehensive open-source pedagogical database in the country. Through this work, however, Zdeňek began to understand that the best way to achieve his overall goal to reform Czech schools would be by working outside the government.

During Zdeňek’s lecturing years and his work on the portal, he discovered the obstacles that inhibited education improvement. Though a combination of factors is involved in the system’s stagnancy, the lack of public awareness about alarming trends in education was most significant. Together with colleagues, Zdeňek established EDUin to employ a comprehensive approach to change the education system by working with the public to understand that they had to take action.

EDUin has won the trust and support of education stakeholders— largely due to Zdeňek’s personality and approach. One of Zdeňek’s main principles in life—formulated throughout his experience in both formal and informal institutions—is avoiding coercion. Encouraging people to do what makes them happy is the only way they can unlock their potential. He also emphasizes the importance of considering all three human dimensions—rational, emotional, and physical—when working with people. Zdeňek believes in the power of freewill and mutually beneficial sharing of information and experience. Together, these principles create a life-philosophy influenced by the Czech philosophic school, Principles of Life; Family Constellations philosophy; and Chinese medicine.