The most notable aspect of the German education system is that there is no German education system. Germany consists of sixteen federal states (Bundesländer) and it is up to each state to decide how it wants to organize the education system. There is, of course, some form of cooperation and alignment between the states. However, the details vary. In some parts of Germany they vary a lot. I went to school, studied and now teach in only one state (Baden-Württemberg) so my perspective is biased to the situation there. I will include some aspects that are generally true or that relate to other states but I don’t claim to present a comprehensive (or balanced) description.A second important aspect of the German education system is that its organizational structure has been tossed heavily since the OECD’s PISA assessment of 2000 which found Germany to be in the lower midfield of all participating countries. This result was made into the “PISA shock” which has dominated public debate about education ever since. Therefore, this has been the major force behind political efforts to improve education. There have been, and there still are, many such efforts.
Typical School Structure
In Baden-Württemberg the school structure used to be like this:
Four years of primary school (age six to ten),
With fifth grade, secondary education starts with three options:
“Hauptschule”: five years, leads to the lowest-level diploma (“Hauptschulabschluss”),
“Realschule”: six years, leads to a mid-level diploma (“Realschulabschluss”),
“Gymnasium”: nine years, leads to the highest-level diploma (“Abitur”) which qualifies for entering university.
The three strands of secondary education were based on the idea that students’ talents are different (e.g. some more practical, others more intellectual) and that they can be supported best by grouping them according to these distinctions. This idea has been questioned, ridiculed and upheld fervently for many years.The decision about which strand each child should follow is based on the recommendation of the primary school teachers at the end of grade four but can usually be overridden if parents choose to.The above basic structure has been in place in many states for many years. Currently, the situation is more complicated, though.
Many states including Baden-Württemberg have cut one year from the Gymnasium which now takes students to the Abitur in eight years (“G8”).
Some states have abolished the “Hauptschule” and instead introduced some form of combined school to replace the former Haupt- and Realschule.
Some states have extended primary education to six years, cutting two years from secondary education.
These are just some examples. Almost all of the sixteen states are reforming their educational system in some way – mostly in reaction to the “PISA shock.”
What’s it Like to Teach in Germany?
A typical school day
I’m a teacher at a “Gymnasium” which means that I teach kids between the ages of ten and nineteen. Typically, German Gymnasium teachers teach two subjects, which they have studied at the university. I chose to teach three (English, Biology and Geography). Recently, a new subject has been established in Baden-Württemberg which combines all sciences and technology into project-based classes. This is the fourth subject I teach.In Baden-Württemberg, the school day starts between 7:30 and 8:00 am and usually ends at around 1:00 pm. The morning is usually structured into six slots of 45 minutes with each subject taught in one slot (some, such as Physical Education, occasionally have a double slot). Normally, a student has six different subjects per day with a different combination of subjects each day.Afternoon classes have been the exception so far, but with the reduction to eight years at the Gymnasium (for which the curriculum was not reduced proportionally), they are becoming more frequent, especially in higher grades. An eighth-grader would probably have classes on two to three afternoons as well (they usually end at around 3:15 pm but can last until about 5:00 pm).From the teacher’s perspective, the situation is similar with the one big difference that our timetables are not as packed and not as regular as those of the students. We usually have empty slots and don’t always start with the first slot in the morning.The number of lessons per week varies by subject. So-called “main subjects” such as German, Maths or English have three to four lessons per week. Others, such as Geography, History, Chemistry, etc., have between one and two per week. As a teacher, you have to teach twenty-five lessons per week.Each class typically has around thirty kids. They are usually put together as one class when they enter secondary school and many of them stay in the same class until they leave school.During the morning, students mostly stay in their classroom and teachers “wander” with the exception of science classes, which are taught in labs.
Teachers prepare their lessons at home. We don’t have offices or our own classrooms at school. At most schools every teacher has one seat at a table in the staff room. At some schools not even that. So we buy all our materials and equipment (computer etc.) ourselves and store it at home. Depending on the timetable, which changes every term since you don’t teach the same classes every term, you might have mostly afternoon preparation time (if most of your classes are in the morning) or you might do your preparation at other times of the day (if you have many afternoon classes and start late on some days as a consequence).
Professional development is usually voluntary and mostly organized by the school boards. The structure is traditional: typically half-day or full-day seminars that you attend in person. In Baden-Württemberg, school authorities are slowly starting to implement other ways of professional development, for example, blended learning settings with seminars that are combined with e-learning, e.g. via Moodle courses. However, these are mostly used for long-term development such as one-year courses for educators who want to develop their career to have specialized roles, such as being head of a department.The use of information technology is not actively encouraged by school authorities, although, it’s of course “crucial” and “essential” in the speeches. There are some courses offered on the use of technology (both as a means of learning and as an aspect of teacher work flow). However, these courses are voluntary and live in a niche. I’ve seen many of these courses canceled for lack of sufficient attendees.Information Technology plays a very insignificant role in professional development. Many teachers use it at a basic level (web research, e-mail) but few go beyond that. Blogs by educators are a rare exception. A seasoned teacher-blogger recently did a competition for the best teacher blog on the German Internet and found around seventy blogs to start out with for all of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I don’t know a single blog by a teacher trainer, let alone a school administrator.
Technology for Teaching
Most German schools have one or more computer labs. Teachers book it to do a lesson based on the computer as the main tool.In Baden-Württemberg, the use of learning management systems, such as Moodle, have recently gained momentum. More and more teacher training seminars are being offered on the use of Moodle in general and for specific subjects. However, it is usually up to the individual teacher to decide if and how they want to use technology in their classrooms.There is no broad initiative to teach students “21st century skills” or make them “media-literate.” What’s being done is usually done by individual teachers or individual schools. Therefore, this varies greatly. My school has started building a distinct course for computer skills, including “craft” (such as handling certain software etc.) and “meta-skills” such as how to deal with social networks, etc. However, I couldn’t give any generalized description of even the schools in my vicinity because I simply don’t know what they do (and have no way of knowing, either). Naturally, I have no idea what the situation is like at the state or even the country-level.Recently, a paper was published on behalf of the Ministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Department of Education and Research – a department of the federal government. This is despite the fact that education is the domain of the individual states) which deals with media education. However, its focus is on the top structural level. It gives very broad guidelines, which will need to be translated into more tangible courses over the next couple of years. If and how that’s to be done was not part of the paper.So what do students do in the classes held in the computer lab? They do web research for presentations, they make presentations, and they sometimes do language exercises with the CD-ROMs that come with their textbooks. From my experience, that’s about it. Of course, some teachers take it much further than that (wikis, online collaboration, writing projects, making and editing videos etc.), but that’s rare if I’m not completely mistaken.
Obstacles to Using Technology in the Classroom
From my experience, almost all obstacles are technical. Both parents and students are generally very open to the use of technology in the classroom. I’ve had one critical conversation with a mother about the fact that our school hosts the photographs of school life on Flickr because she thought that was a risky place. However, when I explained to her that we did that because Flickr gives us many options to protect those images from being downloaded and abused, she was fine.The number one technical obstacle is the limited number of available computers. Generally, in the lab two students have to share one computer which makes many individual working methods impossible. Other limitations are slow connections or pieces of equipment that are missing or broken when you need to use them. For example, you might have planned a lesson with audio content but you realize that many headsets are broken. You might have thought of a way of sharing those computers wisely among your students, but then three machines are broken and your scheme doesn’t work anymore. Things of that sort happen frequently.Another important point is that there’s no technical staff for maintaining the computers. A teacher is responsible for that. He gets some deduction from his teaching obligation but typically the time needed for maintenance exceeds the deduction.At my school, there’s a content filter in place, which seems to be well-maintained and sensible. I’ve never had any problems with it. The sites which are blocked are usually the ones you want blocked and most other sites are accessible.
While I was writing this post it became very clear to me how limited my experience is beyond the very few schools and places I’ve seen and worked at myself. Even looking at my own school it’s hard to generalize because I have limited knowledge of what my colleagues do in their classes. What I know comes from conversations during breaks or while commuting and is therefore patchy and anecdotal. I want to emphasize once again that what I’ve tried to describe is my personal perspective. If you ask the teacher next door to me, you might get very different results.====================================Andreas Kalt teaches English, Biology, Geography, Science, and Technology. He has been a teacher for five years (two of which were in training). He’s especially interested in using technology to improve collaboration between teachers and students, give real-life perspectives to learning, and make students and colleagues realize the potential of computers for education.He writes about education topics (in German) at Rete-Mirabile.net and has a website about web design, reading and photography at andreas-kalt.de. He’s also using Twitter to stay in touch with interesting educators from around the world.
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