“The polytechnic secondary school used to establish a connection between learning in school and working life”

“The polytechnic secondary school used to establish a connection between learning in school and working life”

A conversation in the Glass Museum of Weisswasser

Current Concerns: In many European countries, including Switzerland, there has since long been an acute shortage of STEM professionals, i.e. professionals with a focus on mathematics, computer sciences, natural sciences and technology. There are no longer many graduates who trust themselves to study subjects in this area, and probably this is not least due to the fact that schools no longer adequately teach the basics of these subjects. This view is backed up by the large number of college drop-outs. Recently, a businessman in Ilmenau told me that Germany does no longer offer a tertiary education for engineers, but only a course of studies leading to a Master of Business Administration, often without imparting any technical knowledge, but aimed at turning businesses inside out to trim them into efficiency, and often ruining them in the process. This was different in former times.
    In the former GDR great importance was attached to a good education, above all in the field of the technical occupations. The professionals trained there were certainly very popular in the West. I suggest that today we speak about schools and education in the GDR era, with a special focus on the polytechnic secondary school.

Gotthard Bläsche: First let me say a word about the current situation. Far too few skilled workers are being trained in Germany today, and there are far too many students who break off their studies. Currently, the Chamber of Trade is making efforts to reach out to these drop-outs in order to enable them to complete a skilled labour training course.
Christa Stolze: I must say that the best engineering graduates were the ones who learned a profession before taking up their studies. Those of my apprentices who had first completed their vocational education and then took up their studies were of use, but those young people who after school first went to university and then came to us, were of no use at all. This is my experience in the industry.
Hans Schäfer: I would like to confirm that. I know a whole number of glass engineers who graduated from our technical college for glass art and then found themselves in the west after the turnaround. There they had to face all the differences that had accumulated in the course of the years. And precisely when it comes to work in practice, I have to say that in this respect, our people were much better than the Westerners. They brought with them skills and were willing and able to carry something through and to go looking for solutions if something was out of order, all of which left their Western colleagues pretty thunderstruck.
Christa Stolze: The Westeners sat down and waited until the spare part arrived and the craftsmen came to repair what was broken. The Bavarians always said: Those “Ossies” (Easterners) are good – they can work even if something is broken. For us in East Germany that had simply been necessary, because we had got nothing. After all, we picked up each piece of wire and we hammered crooked nails until they were straight again. The shortage economy made people inventive. I do not know how you look at that, since as the headmaster of the Vocational School Centre you were much closer.
Gotthard Bläsche: Exactly, that was due to the fact that we possessed so little. We had to face difficult conditions, there was no Marshall Plan, we had high reparations to pay to Russia and we suffered from the economic sanctions imposed by the West.
Of course you can always only give an individual view on things, because everyone has his or her own adventures and experiences, but I believe that society has become quite complacent in many respects, sleek and calm and not particularly willing to make an effort. I also observed this among students in general or among our students at college: They often exerted themselves only up to a certain degree when tasks were assigned. Rather often the effort did not continue right up to the solution. And I think more emphasis should be placed on this in childcare, education and training. This is the alpha and omega, especially where technical occupations are concerned.
Technical Jobs are, curiously enough, not quite as much in demand any longer. A few years ago, we had an information event in Krauschwitz, where the secondary schools of the region presented themselves. Our vocational school centre and various companies and representatives of institutions were also present. We were placed in a large room, together with a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenters were not very popular, although this is a wonderful profession. I think this is because too little knowledge about this and other technical professions is taught to our young people at school.
We always had quite good cooperative relations with the secondary schools of the region – in Krauschwitz, Schleife, Weisswasser – and we conducted project days, during which their students came to us and we showed them how, for example, electrical engineering or carpentry works. Our carpenters did things with the students and suddenly mathematics became interesting and they had to figure something out or else the piece would not have turned out perfect. Afterwards the students were really enthusiastic about what they had learned. I think, today too little of such things are done.
There is not only a shortage of engineers, but we also have far too few teachers who are well-trained in natural sciences. Nobody wants to be a teacher of mathematics, physics of chemistry any longer. Much the same applies to the area of professional training: No-one wants to be a teacher of metal or electrical engineering any longer. Technology is often considered to be difficult even by primary school teachers, and that keeps young people from taking this direction.

Current Concerns: And that used to be different at GDR times?

Evelin Hubatsch: We used to have the pre-vocational polytechnic secondary schools for all students from the first to the tenth grade. From there you went on to high school, first after the eighth and later after the tenth grade. Each of the polytechnic secondary schools had a close connection to one or more partner companies. Work in the school garden, handicrafts and needlework were taught as polytechnic subjects in the first to the sixth grade. In the seventh to the tenth grade, students used to spend one day a month in the partner companies, and there they had to actually work.
For instance, I was in the iron foundry Keulahütte in Krauschwitz. That is not exactly a job where you put on a white coat. I had to make moulds for the foundry, so I had to lay bricks properly. But this way one learnt to appreciate the value of these people’s work, who stood their ground day after day. Students built up an understanding of the profession and some of them would develop a career wish in this direction.
Gotthard Bläsche: The labour stints were put down on the timetable as subjects to be studied – as productive work (PA), and as Introduction to Socialist Production (ESP) for the theory lessons. In the theory lessons we learned for instance technical drawing and the like. And in the practical work stints we filed and drilled and leaned many other craft skills in the companies, skills needed by a locksmith or electrician or whatever.
I went to an industrial company, but buddies of mine were assigned to agricultural work and spent their labour stint day there. Every week they spent four hours on the farms, and after that they mostly had another two or three school lessons. You were also graded for PA and ESP in your report.
As the young people got to know agriculture, industrial plants and whatever else there was, they had a real idea of what to expect in these professions.
Evelin Hubatsch: Up to the fourth grade of the polytechnical senior classes, German lessons were predominant, as we had ten to fourteen lessons a week. After thoroughly learning the German language, the focus was put on the subjects of mathematics, science and technology.
Hans Schäfer: For human beings, language and thought go hand in hand anyway. If you have no command of the language, you can neither think properly, and today that is partly lacking even where the language is part of a profession.

Current Concerns: The West is heading into a completely different direction. For example, the OECD calls for more and more academics, although it is known that the countries with the highest rates of high school graduates also have the highest unemployment rates. Under the pretext that the “knowledge society” requires this, practical knowledge is more and more being reduced and destroyed.
Listening to you makes me wonder whether it would not have made sense to sit down together at the time of the turnaround and think about what parts of the two school systems were worth preserving and then to co-ordinate and merge them?

Gotthard Bläsche: After the turnaround everything we had done was wrong as a matter of principle. We were not asked.
Referring to what you said about the theories of the OECD: I think we will always need practically oriented people; the world is not theoretical. It takes a lot of crafts knowledge. The requirements have indeed changed, because other gadgets and devices are available which have to be operated and controlled, but it is still important to learn general things, to try out things and to be able to put two and two together.
I have found that among young people disorientation often leads to a lack of motivation. If they do not know what’s coming up, then they are unwilling to work. Overall however, I think that the young people are no less efficient today than young people were in the past. This also depends on the school. I have great respect for some schools around here which are doing an excellent job and educate their students quite well. Only I imagine that there is often too little coherence, that students do not know what can be done with what they have learnt and how they can link together what they have learnt. They often do not know what it might do for them. The conception of this causal relation is often lacking.
In the polytechnic secondary school, the effect was that young people learned something at school, for example in mathematics, they went to the company and they noticed: If I want to solve that, I’ll have to be able to do the maths. As a result, there was a connection between learning at school and working life.     •

Participants in the discussion were: Evelin Hubatsch, former chief executive of the Lausitzer Glaswerke GmbH (Lusatia Glassworks Ltd.), Christa Stolze, former head of decoration of the Porzellanwerk Weisswasser (Weisswasser Porcelain Plant), Gotthard Bläsche, Head of the Vocational School Centre in Wesswasser up to the year 2013, Hans Schäfer, former lecturer at the Glasfachschule Weiss-wasser (Weisswasser Vocational School for Glass), as well as Jochen Exner, second chairman of the friends’ association “Glasmuseum Weisswasser” and Dieter Sprock for Current Concerns.

Station of young natural scientists and technicians, Weisswasser

ds. The station of young natural scientists and technicians offers extracurricular youth education. Providing opportunities in natural science and tech-oriented fields as well as creative programs geared towards those more interested in artistic fields, it seeks to support the youth in determining where their professional future might lie – an important task that schools, often are unable to oversee properly. During a recent visit, the station’s director Bernd Frommelt explained the dilemma: “During my time at school in the former German Democratic Republic, we used to have a subject called ‘productive work’ which was no longer taught after the reunification. Even though the work wasn’t always fun for us kids, we were still able to get to know different professions and could also see whether we were or maybe weren’t suited for a particular job. Here at the station, kids are given the opportunity to try out different things – working with wood, metal and other materials, either in the field of electronics or within nature. They are given the chance to ask themselves: “Am I patient enough to build a model ship with the help of a construction plan – every week over the span of an entire year – to release it into the water in the end? Or am I more interested in nature or electronics? We, along with seasoned professionals, also offer a camp focused on digital technology for those particularly interested – for the potential future engineers.”
Last year, the station worked on a project based on the idea of rediscovering old fruit varieties. “Due to the progression of brown coal open-pit mining and the uniformization of the products – every apple has to have the same size and isn’t allowed to have any discoloration – many of the old fruit varieties have vanished and are almost extinguished”, Frommelt stated. The station’s collaborates with a specialist that, together with the kids, visits the areas taken over by brown coal open-pit mining. They collect branches of old apple varieties before these villages will be cleared out.

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