*wl.* “Students are too stupid for an apprenticeship.” An article with this dramatically-worded subtitle in the “Blick” of 9 February 2015 points out that the majority of applicants for commercial and technical apprenticeships display serious deficiencies in their scholastic qualifications. Reading, writing, arithmetic and a good work discipline are key skills that apprentices should have acquired in elementary schools so as to be able to meet new challenges at their training places and in their vocational schools. For years however, more and more voices have been heard complaiming that this foundation is fragmentary in case of many apprentices.

Many masters and supervisors therefore allow their apprentices to fill their academic gaps during working hours. In addition, various vocational schools offer special tuition in elementary school knowledge for apprentices – and that partly also during the time in which they should be working in their training companies. All the participants in professional education spend a lot of time and money to ensure that apprentices will pass their exams. Yet, despite the high cost, there are high failure rates, for example, 25 to 30 percent of failures are unfortunately normal with electricians.

Because of the controversial introduction of Curriculum 21, discussion is currently focussing on the elementary schools’ actual mandate. The promise is that the above-mentioned school reform is to bring about significant improvements. With the deceptive notion of “competencies” it is alleged that the pupils will supposedly become more competent. This article is questioning whether this claim is true, using the example of teaching mathematics. The “Berner Zeitung” of 13 February 2015 reports how this has changed in recent decades.

Here Prof Caluori of the University of Education for North-Western Switzerland explains: “Thirty years ago, I stood in front of the class and said something like, ‘This is how it is done. This is the fastest and most elegant way of solving the problem.’ […] Today, students are taught to actively discover and develop their own solutions.” In the same article Prof Wälti of the Berne University of Education says that mathematics grades should better reflect students’ thoughts rather than only the accuracy of their solutions. And the lecturer Alfred Zahner of the St. Gallen University of Education proposes, for example: “Watch the traffic on St. Leonard Street for ten minutes. Determine what the percentage of red motor cars is in respect to all cars driving by the bus stop.” In other words, you walk out there, count cars for ten minutes, solve one (!) percentage problem and finally return to school. Would you rather prefer something a bit more efficient?

The teaching of mathematics has greatly changed: For example, today the number range is no longer expanded by small steps. Whereas until a few years ago first-graders first dealt with the numbers one to six, then up to ten and only after that up to twenty, they are today expected to do maths calculations up to 20 right away. The important difference of computing in single or in double figures (ten transition) used to be introduced and explained systematically, but now pupils are expected to find their own “creative ways” to cross this bridge. In old teaching materials for the second form the multiplication table was introduced and practised in numerical series, however the latter do even no longer appear in current teaching aids. Where do these changes come from?

For about 20 years, the well-sounding key concept of “constructivism” has been dominating the educational theory taught by most lecturers of teacher training colleges or educational universities. Even before this development the conventional teacher role and with it the well-proven classroom teaching has been forced back strongly by buzzwords like “open classroom” and “individualisation”. Since the nineties “constructivism” has then figured as a kind of overall theory for various educational reforms: It was now assumed that as human beings, we are principally unable to discern reality, but that we piece together or “construct” our own individual image of reality in our brains. According to this theory there is no longer any objectivity. It is alleged that anything like learning occurs only when the student “discovers” that his previously constructed image is not useful for the solution of the problem. These theories are of course at odds with a teacher who introduces a topic to his students systematically and in small steps. Now he is only supposed to create so-called “learning opportunities” and “learning environments”, where students should “discover” something “autonomously”.

Curriculum 21 seizes on this theory. Its “principles”, for example, state: “Ideally, organized learning environments offer learning opportunities supported and varied by teachers and teaching aids. These are designed to acquire single, but more usually several, facets of one or more skills as well as to consolidate them and to apply them in special situations.” Curriculum 21 expressly demands that in mathematics, students should look for their own paths, explore relationships and formulate conjectures – again we meet the idea that students shall discover mathematical structures independently, while the teacher is only the provider of their material of research. However, most students need the structured guidance of a teacher – so the above-mentioned method of teaching often produces dyscalculia and frustration instead of mathematical understanding.

On the other hand, Curriculum 21 fixes the “basic requirements” in actual arithmetic at such a low level that more education cuts are to be feared – after all, with all this “exploring” and “discovering” there is not enough time to learn the subject matter previously studied and practised. For instance, according to Curriculum 21 and unlike before, students need not master the multiplication tables at the end of the second grade. And even later they are only to become acquainted with it, instead of mastering it. However, the students are expected to use a calculator in maths from the fourth grade upwards. Written multiplications and divisions are then entirely omitted. Also up to the end of the ninth form percentages, exponentiations and root calculations do not have to be understood but are simply completed by using a pocket calculator. After all, there are not even any “basic requirements” fixed for this area that all students would have to satisfy.

In the consultation response of the “Schweizer Gewerbeverband” (Swiss Trade Association) about Curriculum 21 we therefore find the following assessment: “In vocational education the standards of mathematical knowledge and skills are rather modest in scope. In most occupations it is much more important that the basics have really been mastered at the time of entrance into the first year of training. These are skills in which some sort of drill is expedient, even if that word is frowned upon in educational theory.”

Until the nineties, teaching materials had introduced the structures of mathematics gradually, step by step, and teachers had also applied this “sort of drill”. Curricula and teacher training laid the foundation for structuring a lesson systematically. Today “constructivist” teaching is proclaimed almost everywhere at educational universities where teacher training takes place. The same applies in the area of teaching materials: Systematically structured books, etc. are disposed of in the waste paper, while the new compulsory teaching materials follow the concept of “constructivist” teaching. They have been adapted to Curriculum 21 even before it has been adopted, and for example in Thurgau they have already been made compulsory.

This shows that Curriculum 21 is part of an agenda, in which critical debate or democratic participation is not welcome. For years, Curriculum 21 has been developed in virtual secrecy. This has cost the cantons almost 9 million Swiss francs. In the canton of Thurgau alone, 4.7 million Swiss francs have been budgeted for the introduction of the new Curriculum from 2013 to 2021. Not included are, of course, the follow-up costs for special education at schools and remedial courses at vocational schools for those students who do not discover the required mathematical relations by themselves, as well as for the planned federal education monitoring (testing), in which the acquisition of all those “competences” is to be checked. By 2019 educational monitoring in Switzerland will have cost further 6.75 million Swiss francs, the cost of remedial courses and special education are unknown.

It is high time that the industries paid attention to the school issue. If the education bureaucracy and the colleges of education no longer work in the interest of society as a whole, it seems necessary that all citizens – including entrepreneurs – should clearly express what they expect of the educational system. •

(Translation Current Concerns)

Markus Möhl, president of the school board of the vocational school Lenzburg: “In addition, more and more young people are no longer reliable and able to withstand stress. […] Through individual learning goals and increasingly self-directed learning they hardly experience what failure means. […] By means of individualization the interests of the individual are essentially placed above the welfare of society. This promotes selfishness and ultimately harms all.” (Aargauer Zeitung from 15 January 2015)

Heinz von Foerster, one of the founders of constructivism: “You ask a child, ‘what is two times two?’ And it says, ‘green!’ Such a response is unpredictable in an ingenious way, but it […] contravenes our longing for security and predictability. This child is not yet a predictable citizen, and it might one day not even follow our laws. The consequence is that we will send it to an institution for trivialization officially called school.”

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