Curriculum 21, competencies orientation, self-directed learning: The cantons are in the process of reforming schools fundamentally

Switzerland must not destroy its educational system

by Thomas Dähler

Nobody would maintain that Switzerland’s education system is not part of its success story. On the contrary: our elementary school, dedicated to a sound general education, nowadays prepares our children perfectly both for an academic career as well as for a career based on an apprenticeship. It prepares our children for life. But meanwhile the schools in Switzerland are being covered by an unprecedented wave of reforms, which has the potential to destroy Switzerland’s successful federalist educational landscape. Switzerland is jeopardising its high level of education based on general education in elementary school and on a dual vocational training system through these numerous reforms – and in the final analysis it is thus jeopardising its economic prosperity and standard of living.
Whether they are technocrats or experts: The troop of reformers invariably justifies its radical transformation of the elementary school with the reorganisation of education which the Swiss voted into the Federal Constitution in 2006, with a yes-proportion of 85 pe cent. The cantons’ obligation to harmonise their school systems “in the area of school entrance age and compulsory education, of duration and objectives of levels of education and of their transitions as well as of the recognition of qualifications,” was incorporated in the Constitution by the popular vote at that time. If the cantons fail to do so, the Federal government is authorised to intervene.
At that time, however, no one suspected that this timid attempt at more similarities in the cantons’ school systems would be abused to put the stamp of democratic legitimacy on far-reaching reforms. The German Swiss Curriculum 21 is just one of the mosaic particles of the profound “reformitis”, although an important one.

School seen as a company

Reorganisation away from traditional humanist education principles to a utilitarian instrumentalisation of education was already initiated in the 90’s, when Zurich Government Councillor, Head of the Department of Education, Ernst Buschor forced New Public Management on school administration in his canton.
 He declared the schools to be corporate identities and gave priority to “Frühenglisch” (learning English from an early age) which was apparently more useful then learning a second national language. Curriculum 21 continues in this spirit, which was anchored in Zurich at that time. Teachers are understood as providers of services and parents and students as customers – so this is a kind of school for which supply and demand have become a maxim, as is usual in the industry sector.
Curriculum 21 focuses on competencies and self-directed learning, on examinations and tests, and not on knowledge and subject material. Quite some time ago former SBB CEO Benedikt Weibel already criticised the abandonment of the maxim “knowledge is power” as an “education policy going in a very bad direction”. Curriculum 21 is oriented towards competencies that are to be acquired through useful knowledge and applicable skills and can be checked and measured by uniform tests. In this way, in the final analysis the schools’ educational mandate is falling by the wayside. Teacher personalities with a formative influence, who are concerned about the welfare of their students and who encourage their development, are no longer needed. They mutate to controllers of students, who independently develop, analyse and perfect their level of competencies, in order to be able to mark the right crosses on the test forms.
But a school is not a company. Resistance against the plethora of reforms that obviously do not make schools better is growing. So school harmonisation is turning into a flop.
Numerous cantons have not even joined the HarmoS Concordat. Even the concept of teaching two foreign languages early - in primary school – is crumbling. And in several of the 21 cantons popular initiatives against the Curriculum 21 have been filed.
Even cantons who accept Curriculum 21 subvert it at the same time: In Appenzell, for example, the cantonal assembly backed Curriculum 21 only after the government had stated that it would adapt it to local needs and entirely relinquish self-directed learning – the so-called learning environments. This is a use of Curriculum 21, which might – fortunately – be anything but in the interest of its inventors.

Unclear concept of competence

Outsiders became suspicious as early as when Curriculum 21 was in its early stages of development. Initially teachers and journalists were denied access to the planned contents of curriculum 21. The top-down project was obviously intended to be accomplished without any critical monitoring. Only when of the draft was published could any criticism be offered. The result was a variety of wishes for correction when the legislative process of consultation took place. This ultimately led to the cobbled-up job adopted by the German-Swiss Ministers of Education. You can tell from looking at it, that there is patchwork involved: the subjects are treated in quite different ways. The concept of competence is unclear. It covers a mix of knowledge, learning objectives and actual competencies.
“Pupils can do per cent calculations using their calculator” has a completely different dimension than “Pupils are able to classify information and sources of information about the soil as a resource, to draw conclusions for its sustainable use and to evaluate these.” While in some subjects contents are quite prescriptive, in other subjects the contents depend entirely on the ways in which the competence is to be acquired. In the subject “spaces, times, societies”, for instance, the Holocaust is only listed just as one of several events in the “age of extremes”: “The pupils are able to analyse selected phenomena in the history of the 20th and 21st century and to explain the relevance these have today,” it says. Thus it is not about an objective engagement with the Holocaust, as this event is just one of several selected phenomena helping to acquire the skill to classify them historically.
Peter Bonati, who I once met and learnt to appreciate as a lecturer at the Department of Higher Education of the University of Berne, considers precisely this imbalance between content and skills as the weakness of Curriculum 21. Bonati thinks a young teacher having little experience will have difficulties in finding the order of the teaching contents he needs to reach the competencies.

Henchmen of the education experts

So Curriculum 21 and the many associated reforms are not simply designed to harmonise the cantons’ school systems, as was specified. Instead, it is more about the transformation of schools into test factories where it is the teachers’ only duty to control whether their pupils and students are working on the given objectives. The teaching staff will thereby be largely relieved from their educational functions and also from their mission to encourage the schoolgirls and schoolboys to think critically. They are meant to become henchmen to the education experts.
A democratic debate about the functions our society assigns to its primary school is not provided for.  If it were not for those citizens who have launched initiatives and collected signatures, our primary school would be transformed without any consultation of the people. But this must not happen. The successful Swiss education sytem must not be buried clandestinely.    •

Source: Basler Zeitung from 30 April 2016

(Translation Current Concerns)