All education comes from doing

by Carl Bossard*

Thinking is a derivative of doing. There is agreement. Controversial is the role of the teacher. Should the teacher be an active guide or just “coach”? A plea for student-oriented guidance.
“Why was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a genius?” American physics Nobel laureate Carl Wiemann asks rhetorically. The professor replies himself: “No one is born a genius. […] Brilliant was first of all Wolfgang Amadeus’ father Leopold, a mediocre violinist, but excellent music teacher, who wrote one of the first books on music education for the violin.”1 And this fatherly teacher had his son Wolferl already compose when he was a little boy – and kept looking over his shoulder to correct every minimal mistake.

Absolute failure tolerance today

Correct the smallest mistakes and thus optimise the whole! So Leopold Mozart’s method. What difference to dogmatics of today, for example, to Jürgen Reichen’s literacy approach “writing by ear”, scientifically called “Writing to Read”. The children write the words as they hear them pronounced – phonemically. They do not have to pay attention to spelling.
The joy of fabulating without constraint is the highest didactic principle. The children should not be disturbed. Nobody is allowed to intervene. Vocabulary and grammar are ignored. Faulty forms are part of it. The children would later correct themselves and accuracy would come automatically, according to Reichen’s assumption. Also the ability to read would emerge naturally. This is why educationalist Reichen claimed absolute failure tolerance. According to him every kind of intervention or correction destroys the child’s creativity.

Myths in education discourse

The magic formula is clearly the following: Students work “actively” and “self-regulatedly”. They can acquire the written language themselves, much like infants learn to walk and to speak. Reichen’s credo was sacred to countless educators and university pedagogues. Empirical evidence for proving this practice was not available; faith was enough. It was only years later that this allegedly “ingenious” method of language learning was scientifically tested. It should have been forbidden a long time ago, according to Zurich emeritus professor Jürgen Oelkers. Nowhere are opinions and myths as persistent as in educational discourse, even if they are long considered outdated.

Ingenious is not always ingenious

Ingenious was, according to Nobel Prize winner Wiemann, Leopold Mozart; Jürgen Reichen was also considered ingenious. Both promoted “active learning”. But what is the difference? For Wiemann, “active learning” means letting students do, correct them, let them carry on, correct them again, have them make a kind of autodidactic experience, but under the guidance of a teacher – quasi following the example of Daddy Mozart.
Under the guidance of a teacher, says Wiemann, not through the teacher’s withdrawal from the learning process2 – that’s the nuance! “Without intensive teacher control, high learning effectiveness cannot be achieved; not to mention the difficulties that weaker students have with independent learning,” writes Professor Elsbeth Stern, didactics researcher at ETH Zurich.3 For many children, open and free forms of learning are more of a risk than a chance.
Learning coach? No: teacher! –

The practical test

If that sounds too academic, here comes the field test: A few years ago there was a notorious class at Johannesskola, a problem school in the southern Swedish city of Malmö. In the ninth year, this class received eight new teachers as part of a documentary film experiment. The experiment faced strong resistance; the teacher unions were up in arms about it. But every week it magnetically lured viewers in front of the screens.
In Sweden the ninth grade is very important for the students’ future progress. Here it is decided whether the young people can transfer to a further education school. The eight new subject teachers were recruited from across the country; they were educators who had won prizes or otherwise proved to be well-versed. All over Sweden, week after week, TV viewers watched live how demotivated failures became high school students: almost all students reached further education; In the national comparison tests, the class took first place in mathematics.

The success of actively guided learning

One can explain the secret of this success with structured teaching and actively guided learning. The teachers interpreted the brilliant progress straightforwardly: Decisive for their work were respect and aspiration, authority and affection, love of their subject and affection for the pupils. They were teachers who wanted to set and control goals.
Years ago, the founding rector of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, Franz E. Weinert, wrote: “It is not the external school structures that are ultimately decisive, but the teacher and above all those teachers who have the ability to combine a high degree of subject-oriented learner activity with a high degree of student-centred teacher control.” It was like that in Malmö.

Direct instruction, but no revival of ex-cathedra teaching

The renowned education researcher John Hattie comes to a similar conclusion. “Direct instruction” has a high value for him.4 Unfortunately, the English term “instructional design” is translated with the frowned-upon word “Frontalunterricht” [frontal instruction; CC] and thus connoted with the old authoritarian school as in Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” or in Friedrich Torberg’s novel “Der Schüler Gerber”. And thus the authoritarian school is evoked.
But Hattie does not mean the old bogeyman. Hattie has the teacher lead through the lessons like a director in a didactically clever way. The teacher attaches great importance to the students’ self-activity. The basis is another important factor: the clarity of the teacher. It provides orientation and thus creates a learning effect.

Even Amadeus needed instruction

If you trust for a brief moment Hattie’s studies, the American Nobel laureate Wiemann and the Swedish experiment, then you cannot really stop being surprised – surprised about the fact that self-regulated and self-reliant learning without a teacher is still given so much weight today. Above all, all three convey a single message: good and active learning needs inspiration and instruction, guidance and feedback. That was true even for an exceptional talent like Amadeus.    •

* Dr phil. Carl Bossard, certificated grammar school teacher, was head of the Nidwalden gymnasium in Stans, headmaster of the “Kantons­schule Alpenquai Luzern” (grammar school) and founding rector of “Pädagogische Hochschule, PH” Zug. Today he is running advanced training and counselling schools. His key interests are educational policy and social-historical questions. Publications see

1    Schmundt, Hilmar. Wie (fast) jeder zum Genie werden kann. (How [almost] everyone can become a genius.) In: Spiegel Online. 2.12.2018
2    cf. Reichenbach, Roland. Ethik der Bildung und Erziehung. Essays zur Pädagogischen Ethik. (Ethics of Education. Essays on Educational Ethics.) Ferdinand Schönigh, Paderborn 2018, pp. 204
3    Felten, Michael; Stern, Elsbeth. Lernwirksam unterrichten. Im Schulalltag von der Lernforschung profitieren (Teach effectively. Benefit from learning research in everyday school life.) Cornelsen, Berlin 2014, p. 6
4    Hattie, John; Zierer, Klaus. Kenne deinen Einfluss! “Visible Learning” für die Unterrichtspraxis (Know your influence! “Visible Learning” for classroom practice.) Schneider Verlag, Baltmannsweiler 2017, 2nd ed., pp. 91