Education – Humboldt or McKinsey?

Education – Humboldt or McKinsey?

by Carl Bossard

Some say [the new Swiss] Curriculum 21 is nothing less than a paradigm shift. The others appease: Nothing would change. So, what now? An external view.
A tried and tested recipe: Whoever wants to propagate and sell the new, caricatures and defames the old. So does the President of the German-Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, the Schaffhausen Christian Amsler, in relation to Curriculum 21 and teaching up to now. “In the past, something was simply ‘covered ’”, he succinctly declares. Today, in contrast, with competences “interaction of knowledge, ability and willing” would be trained, he stresses full of euphoria.1

In the past passive, now active learning

It is as simple as that. A striking contrast is constructed by typically presenting the status quo as badly as possible: Until today, something was covered; in the future, one would at last train competences. Curriculum 21 was the trigger. It would lead from the old to the new school, from the outdated to the contemporary learning. In such a way, at least, Amsler’s statement can be interpreted. Entire generations of conscientious teachers are put under general suspicion by his casual sentence.
With his statement, he is not alone. Recently, in the journal ph-Akzente of the Zurich University of Teacher Education was to be read: “While in the past, learning in school often meant passive takeover of passive knowledge, today learning is about active examination of learning objectives and learning contents.” Here too, a disastrous dichotomy: in the past passive consumption of subject matter – today (at last) active learning and constructing.

The buzzword “competence”

These “past” educators are wondering rightly whether they did not train competence with their learning goals based on skills – and furthermore, they may ask why one is talking about a paradigm shift and what Curriculum 21 with its competences will really bring. Not without reason the basis calls introductions to Curriculum 21 in its own words often lost time – and probably lost money for the cantons.
The word “competency” once meant “responsibility”. Meanwhile, however, as economic-educational double bellow it became an orotund replacement word for “skill” and deteriorated into a “catchphrase”.2 Jürgen Oelkers, Zurich Professor Emeritus for Pedagogy, points out that today the buzzword “competence” has to “serve for everything that sounds somehow innovative and yet rarely transcends the traditional concept of ‘knowledge and ability’”.3


At first, pedagogy knew only three competencies: social, methodological and self-competency. Then professional competency was added. And because the word competence means everything and by that does not really say anything, it has to be split up into different partial competencies. The second version of Curriculum 21 therefore covers on 470 pages 363 competences divided into more than 2,300 competence levels.
Homo sapiens thus becomes homo competens. As a result, there is no longer anything we cannot be made competent for: team competency, inter-religious competence, curiosity competence, stress competence, presentation competence, underlining competence, assistance-acceptance competence and so on and so forth.

Being able to solve problems

Prof Franz E. Weinert, founding professor of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, is regarded as the father of today’s concept of competence. However, many scientists have distorted and watered down his precise ideas. Weinert wanted to break the school of an often unilateral dominance of knowledge. Promoting and training skills, that was his motto: Young people must be able to solve problems. For this they need knowledge, willpower and motivation.
Conscientious teachers have always been guided by this old insight: one has to know something, one has to be able to do something, and both together should help young people to think and act better. This includes the “three great B”: basic knowledge, basic skills and basic principles. This triad cannot really become obsolete, because it represents something like an ultimate. A kind of a general law of nature – such as the pedagogical tablets of the law of didactic Mount Sinai. They are short, concise and concrete.

The fear of haphazardness

The Curriculum 21 brings much and embraces a lot. But the fundamental skepticism remains: Who brings so much, brings something for everyone. But everything is the enemy of something. Or in other words: When the abundance of specifications seems so comprehensive, they become hardly reality in everyday life. Not for nothing the Basel social-democratic representative of the Council of States Anita Fetz says in the ZEIT: “An overly ambitious bureaucrat mouse gave birth to a document mountain.”
She speaks out what many fear: The many presets cause that knowledge and skill building will remain rather haphazard and the systematic neglected. But young people need cognitive order structures, thinking processes need clear knowledge structures. “When dividing school into innumerable separated competences, the form of teaching is sometime falling apart to dust” notes Ralph Fehlmann, expert for teaching methodology at Zurich University.

Combining knowledge and skill

Realistic teachers knew it ever since: Skill or just competence can be developed only with general and specialised knowledge, a non-additive knowledge, but an overall structured knowledge. This requires a clear teaching strategy: how do I as a teacher impart understood and applicable knowledge to students? Reflecting and describing the own learning process, known as metacognitive thinking, promotes and strengthens this teaching strategy.
Such teaching is not to be equated with the mere adoption of knowledge. Ever since students had to understand, work through and apply the contents, in order to continually improve skills and knowledge. Therein lies the secret of learning and effective teaching. Also in the old school. This requires no paradigm shift.

Against the spirit of arbitrariness

However, looking at the Curriculum 21, one gets often the impression of arbitrariness and randomness. It looks like the important thing in school is not so much geometry, grammar of German language, the creation and comprehension of texts, the history of our origins as such, but primarily the acquisition of skills such as “to learn learning” or to google information. That is not wrong in principle, but skills just arise as a side-effect of intense reflection and working on content. Knowledge and skills are not formed casually, but as a result of engagement. In such a teaching, teachers are not degraded to administrators of skills and to learning companions. They remain what they always were: pedagogues.
School and lessons have more than just instrumental sense, they convey more than measurable and applicable skills – with the cold calculus of economic usefulness and the employability. That would be a school of McKinsey.

Technocratic spirit

Education cannot be acquired in the hurry of rapid completion; it is more than professional qualifications and “being fit for …” It does not correspond to our humanistic view to disassemble children and young people into skills. A technocratic spirit is inherent in the deconstruction of people into partial skills; there is something soulless breathing.
Therefore the Curriculum 21 should place a stronger focus on the educational and philosophical goals of school and support them in a humanistic way. The present time needs a stronger orientation towards values as Wilhelm von Humboldt has represented: Education as cultivation of ourselves and as the ability of comprehensive orientation – in a world that is more and more falling apart. The imperative of our time is Humboldt instead of McKinsey.     •

1    Amsler, Christian. Bildung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung im Lehrplan 21 – für unsere Kinder und für die Zukunft. In: 3/2016, p. 3
2    Dubs, Rolf. Die Defizite des Lehrplans 21. In: Schweiz am Sonntag from 2.11.2014
3    Oelkers, Jürgen. Die Persönlichkeit im Lehrberuf und wie man sie bildet. Vortrag an der PH Zug from 27.10.2009, script p. 9

(Translation Current Concerns)

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