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Bildung at a school in Germany: The ESBZ School in Berlin

| December 3, 2018 | 0 Comments


Education has the power to transform individuals, communities and societies.

As educators, we hold onto all the successful methods of education passed down to us from many years of accumulated practical wisdom, but we must also continuously adapt, alter and even transform our educational practices because without doing so, we become stagnant and irrelevant. I visited the Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum (ESBZ) in Germany to observe its innovations first-hand. It’s a dynamic educational environment relevant for our times, where management, teachers and learners are challenged to live and learn boldly yet humbly. It’s a young school, barely 11 years old, founded by renowned educational innovator Margret Rasfeld in 2007,1 using the buildings of a former communist East Berlin state school. ESBZ is a real ‘innovation laboratory’. In their efforts to reimagine and rethink high school education, ESBZ’s educators have implemented a number of alternative educational methods and features.

Timetable innovations

One of the most remarkable features I noticed was the structure and nature of the learning periods. In junior high, grades 7-9 are taught in mixedage groups. These groups may change from day to day according to the choices learners make, and the practical matter of space availability in classrooms. Every morning from Monday to Friday, pupils ‘sign up’ for a 90-minute period in one of their core subjects: German, English, mathematics or nature in society. By the end of the week, every pupil must have attended each of these four subjects at least once. Pupils choose themes of work and start answering questions independently. All content themes are broken down into work tasks, with sources readily available in class. Working individually or in small groups, learners complete these tasks, reading required information and explanations, discussing relevant topics, and answering questions in writing. It might take a week or longer to complete each of these themes. New themes of work are available once all tasks have been completed. This thematic structure is called bausteine – building blocks – which the teacher oversees while groups do different work, and individuals complete tasks at their own pace. Every theme culminates in a summative assessment that each learner writes as they are ready. If passed, this results in the pupil being credited with a certificate of completion for that particular theme of work. Pupils must accumulate a prescribed minimum number of certificates for each of the four mentioned subjects each term. When the required number of certificates have been earned, the pupil ‘passes’ that subject in that term. Learners take responsibility for their efforts and academic outcomes, being held accountable for completing themes and accumulating certificates. The school operates on the belief that every student has an intrinsic motivation to learn – an internal ‘engine’ that propels them to complete tasks without undue punishment or even reward. Like all adolescents, some socialise or get distracted. At any point, though, the teacher can request to see a learner’s log book, which is a record of their work for every period. Learners are required to set goals for themselves for the week, following up to see if they were able to achieve them. Similar to the Dalton school method,2 these periods give learners freedom of choice within the limits of this system. Other timetabled subject choices include science, sport, religion and social responsibility. There are also school periods set aside for projects and reading hours.

Life challenge

Grades 7-9 learners are required to organise their own threeweek Life Challenge trip outside of Berlin. On this trip, they must do something adventurous or challenging, or something that benefits the community in some way. Parents provide a budget of €150 for the three weeks, i.e. €50 per week, which includes costs for all transport, accommodation, activities and food. Learners must plan the whole thing, making all their own arrangements while budgeting their money carefully. Learners decide which of their classmates will accompany them, then they write a proposal, and present this to their teacher for approval. The school provides a number of options supervised by social workers or parent volunteers, including working and staying on a farm, a church-sponsored youth camp in France, or hiking over the Alps for three weeks, cooking their own food and staying in tents along the journey. Many learners go somewhere interesting and offer to work in exchange for a place to stay. This negotiation starts from the planning stages. For example, in a recent year, a group wanted to go sailing on the Bodensee, but did not have sufficient funds in their budget to hire the sailing boat and required equipment. Parents not being permitted to cover these additional costs, the group managed to successfully negotiate with boat owners to work on their boats as unpaid deckhands in exchange for a few days of sailing at their own leisure. A Grade 8 boy explained how he and two friends were arranging a bike trip from Berlin to Amsterdam – a distance of 650 km – for their life challenge trip. They would be cycling with backpacks and a tent, planning all their stopover points along the way, then return to Berlin by train. I asked him why they chose to go that far. He answered that the last year they had gone to a town a mere 300 km away and realised how they had totally underestimated themselves, they could go so much further. They felt so excited and empowered to do something they never thought they would be able to. One group travelled with adult volunteers to the southern part of Turkey along the border with Syria, where they built playgrounds for children in a refugee camp. Learners return to school exhausted but exhilarated. They report back to the rest of the junior high students about their experiences, reflecting on how they overcame obstacles, what personal discoveries they made, and how these achievements altered their perspectives.

Community school

ESBZ is one of a small number of schools in a pilot project launched by the Berlin senate, namely Gemeinschaftsschule or community schools. The secondary school landscape in Germany is dominated by the prestigious gymnasien – highperforming academic schools focusing on the respected Arbitur qualification – as well as two other types of school, realschule and hauptschule, which are vocational and general high schools respectively. However, community schools like ESBZ offer an alternative, where learners still have the opportunity to write Arbitur examinations in the senior high or upper secondary school.

Classroom Berlin

Teachers take advantage of the many educational opportunities of Berlin’s excellent museums, galleries and historical sites to extend learning experiences beyond the classroom and to constantly engage and challenge learners. Short outings are common at ESBZ and other schools because of the ease, affordability and extent of public transport throughout the city. Moreover, learners are mobile and move about independently to and from school from a young age.

Experimental learning formats

One of the school’s experimental formats is called Pulsar weeks – innovative multidisciplinary learning exercises in the upper secondary school. Pulsar weeks take place several times per year, where learners and teachers stay after school to engage with curriculum topics, ideas and subject content in fresh ways. Learners attend presentations, discussions and practical workshops. Topics must be relevant to the Abitur curriculum, but in ways that are future-oriented, meaningful, interdisciplinary and appropriate to real-world experiences. Examples of some Pulsar topics are:

• “From mirrors to holograms” (combines specific elements of the Abitur mathematics and physics curricula)

• “DEXIT” (a variation of the Brexit theme; what if Deutschland had to exit the European Union? Combines elements of the history, political science and geography curricula)

• “How the universe functions, and how humans can ‘technically’ adjust to it” (combines elements of information technology and physics).

Another experimental learning format is known as learning expedition. These are designed for independent research, learning or skill development in upper secondary learners. They resemble one research tasks (ORTs)3 that some independent schools in South Africa offer to matric students. Besides some similarities, a number of differences exist. Learners must develop their own topic and aim of research while taking responsibility to complete this research independently; formulating a learning objective while sticking to a specific required format, then documenting this and reflecting on their learning. This resembles the “hypothesis/research question, methodology and written analysis” process required for ORTs. The intention is to deepen learners’ knowledge and competence in a self-selected subject. They also differ from research tasks in other ways. They include the possibility for skills development in chosen vocations beyond simply knowing or understanding. Whereas ORTs deepen understanding of the research process together with specifically acquired theoretical knowledge from the sources and actual research, learning expeditions allow for rigorous, practical learning. A third format is known as LAK – Lern und Arbeits Kompetenz – life skills for learning and work. Similar to life orientation, themes include:

• drug awareness

• stress management

• finding your first apartment

• basic entrepreneur course

• how to file your tax return

• relaxation techniques.

As a life orientation teacher myself, this confirms to me the absolute relevance of the subject in South African schools, just as it is in a German school. At ESBZ, this format was specifically created to address the real and practical life skills needs of learners. It goes beyond the requirements of examinable subjects. I found it noteworthy that in South Africa we have heard calls to scrap life orientation as a subject altogether,4 while an innovative school like ESBZ is finding ways to bring it into the school. South African life orientation teachers must ensure this subject remains relevant by regularly adapting content and appealing to real needs of learners. “The current complex and global challenges require a paradigm shift in society and education,” says Rasfeld, and based on such thinking and what I learned at ESBZ, I have the following general recommendations for any school interested in fostering or implementing innovative educational ideas.

Become an innovation laboratory

The first and most obvious recommendation I have is to adopt the mindset of an innovator. Encourage discussions and critical rethinking, challenge existing teaching practices, seek out fresh insights and new ideas. This is a risk, because new formats or techniques could backfire and fail. Often educators and parents are risk-averse, but to be an innovative school means you will need to take this risk.

Challenge, stretch and empower teachers

To innovate, you need to empower educators to devise and implement their new ideas. Empower teachers with the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, then modify and improve upon them. We need communities of educators who challenge each other’s thinking, continually sharpening each other in the process. To adequately prepare learners for the future, it is teachers who must extend and stretch themselves, and be in a school environment where this is fostered. Continuing professional teacher development (CPTD) can be a good place to start, but schools’ primary motivation for training shouldn’t be the earning of points5 but rather to truly stretch educators who are thought leaders, innovators and risk-takers. There must be an educationally innovative atmosphere for teachers at school.

Challenge, stretch and empower learners

Learners have an innate motivation to learn and grow, to be creative and try new things. They need motivated and dedicated teachers to metaphorically push, pull and stretch them. But we must not underestimate our learners’ ability to manage and think for themselves. Under the wise and benevolent guidance of sympathetic and enthusiastic teachers, school learners must be empowered to become more active in critical thinking, taking the initiative, conflict resolution and change management.

Provide for diversity

Learning to live together means creating spaces where we allow others not only to survive or co-exist, but to thrive. Sharing our lives together in a school community, we must provide for racial diversity in all the practical ways necessary in South Africa – but in addition, as independent schools, we must maintain an awareness of our communities’ relative socio-economic privilege and not live in ‘suburban bubbles’. Learning to live together in South Africa means that we must come out of that bubble, learning to talk other cultural or experiential ‘languages’ with empathy and patience. Diversity also means we must look beyond the prevailing cultural language of materialism.

Real world educational skills

ESBZ’s Pulsar format taught me that teachers can integrate the stringent curricular requirements of the German Abitur course with real-world experiences and skills. Seeking education with real applications, connections and skills prevents the too-narrow focus of production-line teaching towards final examinations only.

Real-world survival skills

Life orientation must continue to be the vital subject that it is intended to be. Learners need to be exposed to real life skills encompassing everything from financial literacy, relationship advice, study and self-management skills, and community service to sustainable living on planet Earth. Life orientation teachers must continue to take their roles and subjects seriously, advancing their subject, while schools must oppose all efforts to discontinue or diminish the subject.

Education as responsible adventure

For teenagers, education must be a journey of adventure, discovery, self-actualisation and empowerment. Building on the age-old virtues of self-discipline, work ethic and moral guidance, schools must be places to harbour and facilitate both education as adventure and education as responsibility. Learning to live together, learning to act, learning real-life survival skills must be challenging and exciting.

The impact of ethical empowerment

Schools must be places of idealism and purpose. At ESBZ, I observed learning and format innovations that stem from shared values of inclusivity, moral courage, social awareness, thoughtful and diverse community building, and a welcoming of others, including refugees. Schools’ willingness to become innovation laboratories requires intellectual initiative and courage. Schools must never be cynical places – which could include the cynicism of materialism and social exclusion. My visit to ESBZ showed me the impact a community of empowered teachers and learners can have when stretched outside their educational and social comfort zones. In this way, schools can better prepare learners with real-life knowledge, as well as the curriculum’s summative outcomes. Life skills are vital for coping in our ever-mutable and inconsistent world. I am convinced of the enduring value of a subject like life orientation, but teachers must keep it relevant and engaging. In German, the word for education is bildung – a concept where formation and cultivation are crucial elements in the process of shaping and educating a person. I believe teachers must continually shape their own methods, too, reviving their impact with innovations in an ongoing process of learning, teaching and relearning.

Kyle Lauf teaches life orientation and business studies at Assumption Convent in Germiston, Johannesburg, Gauteng.

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Category: Summer 2018

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