Nathalie von Siemens and Jörg Zeuner, exchanging their views on education
Education

Education

“Teachers are the heroes of our time”

Business and society are changing, and lifelong learning is becoming a must. Nathalie von Siemens, CEO of the Siemens Stiftung charitable trust, discussed in 2017 bold reforms for a sustainable education system with Jörg Zeuner in his position as Chief Economist of KfW.

About Ms VON SIEMENS
Nathalie von Siemens

Nathalie von Siemens is Managing Director of the Siemens Stiftung charitable trust and a member of the Supervisory Board of Siemens AG. She has a doctorate in philosophy. In her book, “A Brimming Spirit. Werner von Siemens in Letters”, she created a collage from her great-great-grandfather’s letters, providing insight into the great inventor’s life.

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Ms von Siemens, to get straight to the point: do we need to reinvent learning?

NATHALIA VON SIEMENS: I don’t think so. Learning is part of being human. But we may have to reinvent classrooms and learning spaces. In that sense, I believe we should be promoting change, especially in our education system.

What would the Siemens Stiftung like to contribute to this change?

VON SIEMENS: The Siemens Stiftung focuses on STEM education, that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM education is important for training skilled workers, for example. Societies which have industrial manufacturing tend to experience social prosperity – and that is one of the prerequisites for social cohesion. However, we also found that STEM education is an excellent vehicle for forming values. STEM subjects promote social mobility and political maturity, for we live in a highly technical democracy.

Mr Zeuner, why do you, as an economist, often analyse educational issues?

JÖRG ZEUNER: Firstly, because education is critical to economic growth and prosperity. Without good education, we lack innovation and productivity. When it comes to productivity growth in particular, the German economy has problems. Secondly, education is central to societal and economic distribution issues. Without a high-quality and open education system, there are no equal opportunities. Unfortunately, we have a lot of catching up to do here as well – from nursery right through to university. Let me give you a figure: a primary school pupil whose parents are university graduates is three times more likely to go to university than his or her classmate with a lower-level educational background. Financial support for education is just one building block among the many needed to change this.

About Mr ZEUNER
Jörg Zeuner

Jörg Zeuner was Chief Economist of KfW from September 2012 until April 2019. Dr Zeuner regularly shares his views on economic policy in current debates across Germany and Europe. The economist previously worked at the International Monetary Fund in Washington for more than ten years.

VON SIEMENS: Having a selective education system really is economic nonsense. Against the background of digitalisation, this becomes even more evident, as many simple activities are being eliminated by automation. Instead, we need the skills necessary to handle complex tasks. Studies show, however, that our school system still focuses on memorisation and repetition. This was extremely important in the 19th century during industrialisation. But the world is very different today.

Does that mean we are actually teaching the wrong content?

VON SIEMENS: We need to rethink the ideas that shaped education in the 19th century. When it comes to professional life, we no longer even live in a knowledge society. Knowledge is quite freely available. Above all, we must promote the ability to develop something new from this knowledge. People need the chance to develop those kinds of skills.

But do we even have people qualified to handle these extensive educational tasks and the associated changes?

VON SIEMENS: Everyone bashes teachers in some way or another, but in my opinion, teachers are the heroes of our time. We work intensively with teachers on three continents. The energy and passion that we see in them is incredible. They want to further their development. At the same time, 75 per cent of teachers in Germany say that their training does not prepare them for the challenges of their profession. That’s something that has to be taken seriously.

ZEUNER: The everyday life of an educator is missing a few things – not least the time for further education. Given this state of affairs, the problem that nearly half of the teachers will retire within the next 15 years also presents an opportunity. The next generation of teachers is already in training. At any rate, we know from research that the performance capacity of education systems is critically dependent on teacher and teaching quality.

Is simply ensuring that teachers undergo better training and further development enough?

ZEUNER: In addition to training, I also see resource issues as a priority, particularly since the task load of educational institutions continues to grow. Inclusion will not succeed without more special educational needs teachers, and the need for language support is also on the increase. We need more genuine all-day schools too — not least because disadvantaged students in particular benefit from the equal opportunities they offer. Although the expansion of kindergartens is indeed a success story, it has not yet been completed. The use of existing resources is not optimal either: school funding and staffing should be more oriented towards social criteria such as education or migration background.

VON SIEMENS: So much has been achieved in early childhood education. We now have educational standards for kindergartens in almost all federal states. That’s great, because we have to start as early as possible. In the case of science-based STEM subjects, investments in education for children under 12 are very effective. After this age, their effectiveness decreases significantly. This is because children reach puberty and tend to develop other interests. Now the challenge is in the education chain. We should not create enthusiasm at the kindergarten level that is later disappointed in primary or secondary school.

The trust

The Siemens Stiftung charitable trust, which was founded in 2008 by Siemens AG, is tasked with providing answers to global societal challenges. The work focuses on improving basic services in developing countries and emerging economies, strengthening culture and promoting education. The trust is actively involved in the project work as a cooperation partner for regional and national organisations. In the area of education, the trust promotes explorative learning in Europe, Africa and Latin America through the global Experimento

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Is simply ensuring that teachers undergo better training and further development enough?

ZEUNER: In addition to training, I also see resource issues as a priority, particularly since the task load of educational institutions continues to grow. Inclusion will not succeed without more special educational needs teachers, and the need for language support is also on the increase. We need more genuine all-day schools too — not least because disadvantaged students in particular benefit from the equal opportunities they offer. Although the expansion of kindergartens is indeed a success story, it has not yet been completed. The use of existing resources is not optimal either: school funding and staffing should be more oriented towards social criteria such as education or migration background.

VON SIEMENS: So much has been achieved in early childhood education. We now have educational standards for kindergartens in almost all federal states. That’s great, because we have to start as early as possible. In the case of science-based STEM subjects, investments in education for children under 12 are very effective. After this age, their effectiveness decreases significantly. This is because children reach puberty and tend to develop other interests. Now the challenge is in the education chain. We should not create enthusiasm at the kindergarten level that is later disappointed in primary or secondary school.

Does the economy already do enough in terms of continuous professional development? Nowadays we all want to practise lifelong learning. What does this look here?

ZEUNER: It is well known that structural change requires everyone to take part in regular further training, but the reality is the Matthew effect: those who have an education receive more education. Our studies show that every second university graduate participates in at least one further training course a year, but only one in six without a vocational qualification do the same. The major training hurdles are time, cost and underestimated requirements. Companies sometimes lack the incentive to invest in the human capital represented by their employees. One approach – although it does pose practical problems – is to include employee knowledge as assets on the balance sheet. Investment in training would then increase company value and not just costs.

VON SIEMENS: That’s a great point. That is precisely one of the problems. If I can’t get across that training is a real investment, then it’s just an immediate cost. And costs just aren’t terribly tempting. Investments, on the other hand, are much more attractive.

Ms von Siemens, you looked intensively at the life of your great-great-grandfather, Werner von Siemens, for a book. What can we learn from his innovative and entrepreneurial spirit?

VON SIEMENS: Reading the 9,000 letters that he sent and received was, for me, a mixture of a virtual fireside chat and a good TED talk. It was like communicating with someone who is 200 years old, but who lived in a comparable time. It was a time of technological paradigm shifts; work was changing, accelerating and becoming more interconnected. At the time, it was a social issue. Today we ask ourselves: “does digitalisation result in social division?” “What do we have to do to prevent that from happening?” These are similar societal movements. What I was able to learn from the letters was his attitude – his strong awareness that new ideas must bring social benefits.

Nathalie von Siemens
“Above all, we must promote the ability to develop something new from the available knowledge.”

Nathalie von Siemens

What impressed you most about Werner von Siemens?

VON SIEMENS: What really fascinated me was the moment when he decided against both an academic and a civil service career and says: “I feel called to freedom, so I’m doing it now and starting a business.” This entrepreneurial spirit characterises him, but so does his sense of humour. There are some really, really funny letters. He had both of his brothers in the company, and they were always bickering.

Do we lack entrepreneurs like Werner von Siemens today?

ZEUNER: No question – we need entrepreneurs. They strengthen the economy by putting pressure on established companies. At the moment we have a historically low number of entrepreneurs, but this is simply due to the buzzing labour market. Many people would rather opt for a job vacancy than become self-employed. Ultimately, it is a matter of designing good framework conditions, through funding offers, for example. But there are also starting points in the education system that ensure the right framework. We should promote qualities that are important for entrepreneurship — risk-taking and decision-making, personal-initiative and problem-solving skills – from an early age. And this brings us back to explorative learning.

SOURCE
Cover CHANCEN 2017

This article was published in CHANCEN autumn/winter 2017 "Mut".

To German edition

Where would Werner von Siemens be working today if he were 30 years old? Would he have a start-up in Berlin, or would he be working in the research department at Siemens?

VON SIEMENS: Are those the only options for great minds today? Maybe he would invent something completely new – a new form of economic organisation. Someone with such an intense desire for freedom cannot be restricted to these two alternatives alone.

Published on KfW Stories: Friday, 1 December 2017

Last updated: Tuesday, 30 April 2019