Letter to the Editor

Are school reforms like the Curriculum 21 ethically justifiable?

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the editorial staff of Current Concerns for the far-sighted and careful analyses of the school reforms and, in particular, of the Curriculum 21, which are in most cases only superficially discussed in the media. From the perspective of a pater familias, I have almost daily insight into the concrete effects of the almost chronically progressing school reforms. Discussions with various members of school administrations and school authorities in the canton of Zurich and elsewhere, in which I have addressed specific grievances, to say the least, ended up in a deadlock regarding concepts of learning by self-discovery or classes with different age groups, learning landscapes or other “modern” forms of learning. Here, some of the professionals shied away from any discourse like the Devil from the holy water.
As a physician, I mainly deal with patients, whereas the teacher’s counterpart is the pupil. In both professions, therefore, the human being and his or her future are at the centre, which makes these professional groups and their goals quite comparable. In medical profession, the treatment decisively determines the outcome. However, in medicine, we are sometimes pushed to the limits and have to tell the patient that we cannot cure his illness with the current methods. What also occurs, is that new forms of therapy have been developed, the effectiveness of which has been tested only on a very limited number of patients. As a natural scientist, one is always looking for the latest and the best treatments. With this in mind, many patients with incurable diseases are asked, for example, whether a new treatment method or a new drug may be tried and tested on them. The selection criteria for such procedures are precisely defined. In order to ensure that no malpractice takes place and the protection of the patient is best maintained, the investigator who conducts such studies must submit an application to the respective cantonal committee, whether he is allowed to carry out these experiments on humans. Moreover, the ethics committee must be presented with a large number of documents: listing the criteria for participation, arguing ethical concerns, information material for the subjects (patients) and much more. Only when the ethics committee has examined the entire documentation, the protocols for the patient’s declaration of consent, the patient information and so on, is it allowed to start with the search for suitable patients (subjects). All new forms of therapy may only be conducted in a strictly limited and defined scope and under permanent review by third parties. A new form of therapy which emerges from such a study, is only accepted and the cost reimbursed by the health insurance if in the study the advantages outweigh the disadvantages on a sufficiently large number of patients, and it proves to be better than a conventional therapy.
And how is this actually handled pedagogically in school classes? Have the previous forms of teaching failed? In other words, have we reached a point in pedagogy where new forms of learning are absolutely imperative? If so, where is the proof that previous forms of learning are insufficient? It was shocking to learn that many of the teachers, school leaders and authorities I talked to, have not been able to tell me whether the new teaching methods, consisting of mixed-age learning, self-discovery learning forms, learning landscapes, etc. bring out better results. Even with the competency-oriented Curriculum 21, there do not appear to be any studies or test procedures, which indicate that the students have benefitted. If a method is to be checked – no matter in the natural sciences or in pedagogy – then one starts with analysing why the previous method or the old procedure is failing. My search for a reputable analysis, which puts the previous forms of teaching into question, has been unsuccessful so far. Is this ethically justifiable? In medicine, this would result in legal consequences sooner or later.
Now it may be argued that the demands on new forms of therapy in medicine should be given significantly more weight, since the life of the patient is at stake. Is that the case in school classes? Or not? To argue that in medicine the patient can be far more vitally endangered than in the pedagogy of students, I can allow only to a limited extent. It depends on what disease one wants to treat. If I treat cancer, the correct choice of therapy can be decisive for life and death within a few months. In the treatment of age wrinkles, the consequences are much less dramatic. In pedagogy, the student is the focal point. In analogy to the medical care of the patient, the pupil is getting a general education in the school, which he needs not only for his later professional practice, but is also far more fundamental for his responsibility as a citizen of his country and an active part of society. The way in which the school career proceeds with a child can be shaping its whole life – positively or negatively. In other words, the future based on good education is comparable to that of good medical care. At least, from my perspective as a scientist and a father, I would not want to be the judge who is impacting a man’s fate more, the teacher or the doctor. In my opinion, reforms in education should be reviewed in terms of efficiency and evidence, such as new therapies in medicine, before they are introduced in a comprehensive manner.
With this in mind, the careful analyses and reports in Current Concerns are a valuable contribution to the understanding of the current reforms in the educational landscape, for which I would like to express a lot of thanks at this point.

Prof Dr David Holzmann, Maur (CH)

(Translation Current Concerns)