Individualised learning – pretense and reality

Individualised learning – pretense and reality

by Rainer Werner

Since the Green’s and the Social Democrats’ government took power in the Land of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2011, the school system (which used to be particularly successful up to then,) has been reorganized fundamentally. The “school for all (students)” – the community school is an institution where children of all talents are taught together and where they are taught in age-mixed classes.
In order to be able to handle the resulting extreme heterogenity in the learning groups in a pedagogic manner the education planners put forward the concept of “individualized learning”, a concept that is controversial among experts. It is also called “self-organized learning”. Every student works on learning material that is precisely adapted to his learning skills, a procedure where the teaching personal is required to be only the students’ companions in the learning process.
The didactic concept of individualized learning is too new to be already evaluated seriously by science. In Internet forums, though, you will find a lot of viewpoints taken by parents whose children had participated and had been suggested the “chances” of that way of “teaching”. And these judgements are not very encouraging.
The “Arbeitskreis Bildung und Schule in Baden-Württemberg” (Working Group on Education and School) published an interview with four mothers whose children have visited a community school in Baden-Wurttemberg working on the basis of the didactic prescriptions of the Green and Socialist education policy.
In the following I would like to assess the achievements and the declarations of these mothers, which I summed up along topical fields using pedagogic standards.

“My child complains about all the noise in class. It is very noisy. At this school they have bought special earphones for the children to put them on when the noise troubles them too much. So that they can work quietly.”

“If each child (works) on a different task, especially in mathematics, and if the teacher has to go to every child to answer a question, because he or she cannot stand in front of the class and explain the question and the task to all pupils at one go, there will be a problem in that”class”. The other children have to wait very long, because they don’t know how to go on with their work. And what will they be doing in that situation? They will of course chat with their neighbor and the result is turmoil.”

“There are the same complaints in the case of my child. It is above all the noise level during lessons. Because of this individualized teaching the teacher is on his or her way through the classroom, all the time in order to answer questions. That way the disturbance is even worse.”

Headphones in the classroom in order to banish the noise? No satire – but reality in a primary school, in which “individualised learning” is being practiced. Anyone who has ever taught knows that a certain silence in the classroom is the nuts and bolts of reasonable teaching, and even that sustained student learning actually depends on a quiet learning environment. Scientists have found that concentration and attention subside strongly when the noise in a class exceeds a certain level.
The parents’ statements show that the noise does not come from the fact that the teacher would not be able to ensure silence. No, it is a direct result of the chosen teaching and learning method. If students need to wait for several minutes until the teacher comes up to them to answer a question on the matter, if the teacher is constantly walking through the classroom in order to clarify unclear aspects with the students, noise must necessarily emerge. It is the inevitable concomitant of the selected method.

“Our daughter told us that they do nothing but study and fill in worksheets in the classroom. When asked whether also any introduction to new topics takes place, her response is ‘No’. Those who have a problem, have to put their hands up.”

“… because only sheets are distributed, and the teacher tries to pacify the others because there are a lot of disturbing kids who disturb teaching, the concentration, almost everything is difficult for the children.”

“But our youngest daughter often says that she prefers to stay at home or would rather do so because she learns more at home and I explain everything to her, and at least she knows how to make use of the knowledge. I also have the feeling that she can remember more of what she learned at home than in class with its worksheet teaching.”

“They also complain about the long waiting time, until a question will be answered. And then they rather wait or do not ask any more, because they know: if I ask at home, my mom will explain it better to me. She takes more time. Then I rather ask my mom at home. Last time [when waiting until a question was finally answered by the teacher] my child looked at the watch. It took about fifteen minutes.”

I do not allege that the teachers do not explain things at the beginning of a teaching sequence, or say something about the pending issue and how the students should solve the related tasks on the work sheets. But if more mothers report that their children still do not know how the tasks on the worksheets are to be done, the students did obviously not understand the “introductions” on the topic. Even conventional teaching knows this phenomenon. Experienced teachers therefore often make a student repeat in his own words after the introduction, what is important about the task. Sometimes you have to explain everything for a second time.
That pupils are left alone with the learning material after the teacher‘s introduction, as the dogma of”individualized learning” requires, is a weakness of this method. Everybody who has ever impaired knowledge to anybody else, whether to children or to adults, knows that even the process of thinking requires guidance. This is in particular the great merit of a teacher-guided class discussion. In every phase of the shared learning process, he will be able to set impulses in a way to help students to catch on and get on the right track. The fine metaphor, that”someone sees the light” describes this cognitive process vividly. How can such sudden inspiration occur, if a child has to wait for a quarter of an hour, until the teacher is ready to solve the child‘s problem of understanding?

“Children at this age need someone to lead them and give them a feeling of security. Also they need a sense of achievement in which they experience: I was taught something, then I practised, and now I have mastered it!”

“The quota for the year is the school curriculum. This is not comprehensible for a child at this age. How­ever, the child must decide: How much do I have to work every day? Actually, the child does not know, how it is performing in comparison to the school year, how much time it will need, how many modules are still to be done. As a mother I have to care about this, since the teacher doesn‘t.”

“I also feel that this self-directed learning is very difficult for the child. Mostly it has to struggle through the material on its own. Queries regarding the learning content will only be answered very slowly, if there is any spare time at all for this child.”

It is quite obvious that the children miss the teacher in his or her traditional role: As an expounder, an advisor, a helper, an inspirer, and as a role model. Who are the teachers who are the most successful in teaching? These are teachers, who are “burning” for their subject. Those teachers who teach passionately and who will inspire the children with their “fire”. The author Klaus Mann once said that teachers have to be “hunters of souls”. How is that possible, if the teacher is degraded to a “learning guide”, who should only respond to pupils’ enquiries? It is not surprising that a pupil of a Swabian primary school answered the question of her parents who her favourite teacher was, as follows: “the all-day lady”. She was referring to the social worker who played with her during breaks – and who had some time to spend.

“It seems to me that it is the parents, as we have already heard in many cases, who are the real learning guides.”

“And if you ask me today, what the quality of the school is. I would like to answer: You only will perform well at school, if you have strong parents. De facto strong teachers do no longer exist. I very much hope that school will one day take on the education of the children again and that it is not the family that has to take all the responsibility.”

“[We hope that] the teacher will go around as he did in the past and will take a look, where the child is at and what its difficulties are and where teacher support is required. Children should not be left alone. It is unacceptable that the parents have to assume the teacher’s role after the child has already been at school for four hours. It is difficult to learn with the children at lunch break what they missed at school. This cannot be compensated by parents.”

As the statements of the mothers show, the children are depending very strongly on parental help with this learning method. Parents have to explain at home, what the teacher has failed to do during lessons, probably due to stress while trying to respond to all the requests. Parents are feeling pushed into a role that is not their own. Bad conscience in the case of the child’s failures at school and conflicts between parents and children are the result. There is bitter irony in the fact that an education policy, which took the challenge to decouple the child’s achievements from”parents earnings”, will again reinforce exactly this dependency by an unworkable learning method: Children with an educated middle-class background will get specific assistance at home, whereas lower class children or children with migrants’ milieus must do without this assistance. The well-intended is often just the opposite of the well-done.

“There is hardly any teamwork any more, which I find a pity. [What we would like to see:] There is a lesson where children try to do everything together, working in groups and teams, learning to develop things together. They should see that there are differences, that there are well-performing and less well-performing students. Children, who are stronger at one subject and perhaps weaker at another one, that the children are not in competition, however the diversity should be seen and acknowledged. I think this will ensure a more sustainable imparting of learning content.”

Individualised learning turns children into lone wolves. Something gets lost that has always given the classroom its meaning for the pupils: being a place of community, protection and companionship. To date, the class as a joint study group has had the function that the children can pit themselves against the others, that they inspire each other, but also help each other in solidarity when it is necessary. Why a policy, which looks at education through the “social spectacle”, disregards this very social function of a school class, is one of the many absurdities with which this method of learning is tainted. Individualized learning finally proves to be isolated, antisocial learning. “Somehow paradox: At teaching level isolation is propagated while at school structure level they are propagating of ‘learning together as long as possible’.” (Michael Felten)

“The child feels more in competition with the others. Statements such as ‘X has already come so far, but I’m faster than Y’, can be heard very often. The children feel very much under pressure, I think.”

Since in heterogeneous learning groups knowledge and talent of children differ very much, the pace at which they work through the worksheets, must be different, as well the outstanding learners do the stint within a few days, while the slow learners take weeks. The learning tests are therefore written at different times. So it is inevitable that the children “evaluate”, who is the fastest and who was allowed to write the test first. In internet forums I found sharp judgments of parents referring to the mood in classes. They speak of a “new stigma” and “selection”, which are therefore particularly “mean” because they take place under the label of “shared learning”. Classical Comprehensive School, once the Social Democrats’ favorite school, is far superior to this concept because there the students are taught in courses with different intensity (streaming), whose level is appropriate to their abilities. These courses usually develop the same solidarity among the students, as was customary in the traditional classroom.

“[...] in parent-teacher meetings we criticize that the performance level of children is poor and low. Then we hear from the school: ‘We do this and we do that. And everything is great. And we really only care about the children’.”

If pupils learn only little in class over a longer period of time, a gradual decline in performance sets in, which is sooner or later “pulling down” the entire school. This process can be observed at all integrated school forms. Since they are constantly busy with disciplinary problems, the teaching of the subject matter must become stunted. No school board is willing to admit that the level of performance at their school leaves much to be desired. All too often they appease, deny and talk sweet. Until the inspectorate is coming up and reveals the defects, in the wake of which the registration numbers of pupils decrease. A responsible school management would reveal the weaknesses in teaching of their own accord and develop counterstrategies together with the teaching staff. If the results were that the chosen (or rather the prescribed) learning method was responsible for weak performance among pupils, they would openly admit it and demand renunciation of the unfit. The welfare of children is always more important than the dogma of a learning method. In other words, governments and parties come and go. Deficits suffered by children in their school years may be a burden for their lifetime in some cases. Who would take responsibility for that?


Individualised learning does not correspond to the ideal concept of teaching and learning. A reasonable learning process includes the intellectual exchange among all students. Mutual stimulation of different talents, which the defenders of “learning together for a longer time” put forward as pedagogical profit, does almost no longer take place in the Gemeinschaftsschule, because there the class has lost its traditional function as a learning and discussion community. For the great Germanist Eberhard Lämmert a conversation is the “alternating speech that educates people and binds them”. The two verbs can be taken quite literally: A clever-run classroom discussion “educates” and “binds”. The cognitive (knowledge) and the affective (social virtues) go hand in hand. Why do we give all that up for the sake of an ideological setting?
Yet another aspect is often overlooked by proponents of individualized learning. Primarily the stronger pupils will benefit from this form of learning because they can organize and discipline themselves well. The nestor of (West) German didactics Hermann Giesecke warned years ago against the illusion that children with learning difficulties might benefit from heterogeneous learning groups, if we only differentiate the learning process: “Almost everything that modern pedagogy considers progressive, will be a disadvantage for the children from uneducated milieus. Especially the disadvantaged child needs an almost old-fashioned, directly guiding, but also patient and encouraging teaching in order to escape from his or her condition.” (quoted in: Michael Felten: “Bildungsgerechtigkeit – Gespenst oder Gebot?” [Educational justice – specter or commandment], 2012). And this “directly guiding” teaching, the discussion guided by the teacher, can only be done in relatively homogeneous groups of learners. Those who want the one thing – common learning or learning together – must defend the other thing – the differentiated system, with its homogeneous classes.
I entrust the “printed permission” of the educational scientist Jochen Grell to all teachers in this republic: “You may teach directly, addressing the whole class at once. You need not be ashamed of yourself that you want to teach pupils. The school has been invented in order not to have to teach each child individually.”    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

Rainer Werner is a retired high school teacher for the subjects German and history. During his teaching career at three Berlin schools Rainer Werner wrote numerous books, especially teaching aids for teachers of German. The scale of titles ranges from “Psychoanalysis and Literature” over ”Poetry in German lessons” to Schiller’s drama ”Die Räuber”. These books’ objective is to provide the teacher with didactically edited material for ambitious and creative German lessons. With lectures and workshops on German didactic topics Rainer Werner especially addresses young teachers and trainees to inspire and delight them for modern German lessons that succeed at involving students. Rainer Werner also interfered in public education and school policy debates. In the ”Tageszeitung”, the ”Frankfurter Rundschau” and the ”Welt” he published essays and commentaries on education and on education policy. As an outstanding expert he also participated in debates on the radio. In 2011, as a result of his long teaching experience and his education policy engagement, he published the book ”Auf den Lehrer kommt es an” (The teacher matters). It intends to show the teachers who engage in school, but also a wider public ”how school can really succeed”. In 2014 he published his latest book: ”Teachers Make School. Why good teachers are so important”. Since his retirement in 2011, Rainer Werner has increasingly engaged in the ”internal school reform” that most schools have begun to realize by now. In training sessions, workshops and lectures Rainer Werner shows what steps can be taken in the lesson planning and in the design of school life in order to make their own school a ”good school”. Rainer Werner operates the website:

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