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“Revealing to the child the wonderful world of knowledge and opening to it the gate to the world of adults”

by Rainer Werner *

Clever students sometimes help their teachers on. When I taught at a Berlin Comprehensive School, a student opened my eyes on what was going wrong in the classroom of this school. She asked me at the beginning of the lesson: “Must we again do what we want to do?” The background to this astonishing question was the habit of some teachers to “pacify” challenging classes by allowing them to do a “silent self-employment” task – including, of course, the current topics. This patronising abandonment of teaching was actually a form of capitulation to the disciplinary problems that frequently occur in school classes – even at grammar schools. The teachers’ activities were of course based on the assumption that they were doing the students a favour by saving them the confrontation with the difficult teaching content. Too often, the rebellious behaviour of the students, the gesture of delaying resistance, seems to reveal that they just want one thing: avoid learning. That may well be true for some students in a class, but not for the majority. The bright student who said this remarkable sentence, spoke for those who wanted to learn something and who rightly expected from the teacher that he was able to bring about a calm learning environment, even if it required an effort and was associated with conflict. When the student raised that question I became aware that students are often clairvoyant observers of what they experience every day in the classroom. They actually do mind what the teachers organise for the class. They have a keen sense of whether they learn something from the history teacher or whether he just talks to them, and whether the math teacher is capable of  naturally explaining the arithmetic operations he writes on the blackboard. At a Berlin grammar school students were allowed to vote on their teachers in age-appropriate questionnaires. A frequently expressed comment was, “You do not learn anything from Mr X / Ms Y.” This shows that students want to learn, and if they realise that the subject matter rushes past them without their having a chance to understand it, they perceive it as real punishment.
Students love to talk about their teachers. If they are through with the youth typical topics such as the latest fashion or trendy music, they like to talk extensively and with dedication about the advantages and disadvantages of their teachers. Often aspects play a role that have to do with the teacher’s personality; for the approval that the students show for their teacher is mainly based on personal characteristics, including clothing, speech and body language. With a new teacher they recognise instantly whether they are facing a confident person or a “broken reed in the wind”. The charisma that a person has is perceived spontaneously and intuitively by the students. In my experience, teachers tend to underestimate these “soft factors” of their profession, because they rely on the power of rules and on their authority that will get everything done.
This error often fits in well with the so-called “student-centred” learning methods that aim at moving away from teacher-dominated teaching methods, especially from whole-class-teaching. Again, it was a student who made me think twice. After an extended period of group work in the German “Abitur” (graduation) course, the bright graduation candidate asked me, “When will you be teaching the whole  class again?” The wisely-guided class discussion is perceived as a particularly effective, informative, form of learning by the students that they experience not at all as patronising. I contrast, they often experience the group work as ineffective and chaotic. Especially if they did not intensively employ the iron rules of group work in the class before. Particularly the bright students wrestle with the group work because frequently the habit of them having to bear the brunt of the work is creeping in, while the low-achieving students participate in the results of their work as freeloaders. I have therefore sometimes gathered the high-achieving students in a group and given them even more demanding tasks. This, however, has earned me the reproach of social selection by some of my colleagues.
It is a well-nursed prejudice that a conversation in class guided by the teacher is identical with the notorious monologues, which grammar school teachers pestered their students with in the 1950s and 1960s. Not even closely. The conversation or debate in class is a sophisticated method of learning, which, if mastered by the teacher, can lead to exciting and instructive lessons. The emphasis is entirely on the word “conversation”. The teacher must introduce the students into the subject matter within a dialogue, they can share the surprises and impositions which he has ready for them. For the great Germanist Eberhard Lämmert the conversation is the “alternating speech that educates and connects people”. The two adjectives can be taken quite literally: A clever run conversation in class “educates” and “connects”. Knowledge and social behaviour go hand in hand.
I can still remember a German lesson in a college course. I presented to the students the poem “The human” by Matthias Claudius. The students plunged into the strange world of sensibility and naive piety, “Empfangen und genähret vom Weibe wunderbar” (received and nursed by the woman wonderful). The miracle of the birth of a child is brought up. Is the retort procreation of children a miracle? May man actually interfere with the events of the creation? The text of Claudius distresses by its imperturbable calmness and certainty of faith. “Dann legt er sich zu seinen Vätern nieder / und er kommt nimmer wieder” (Then he lies down with his fathers / And never comes he again). The viewpoint of discussion widens. The last things are to be discussed. Students aged 17 and 18 years old love the speculative discourse. They bring everything forward that they have heard about death: Far Eastern esoteric things, scientific attitudes, Christian attitudes, also personal experiences. The poem has opened the horizon for a discourse with philosophical content. Does anyone seriously believe this teacher-student conversation would have “dominated” the students or “patronised” them? Teachers do have a big advantage in knowledge. It is important to use it for the sake of the students. Therefore the conversation in class is a very appropriate means.
In case I had left the students to themselves – as usually in the “self-centred learning” method requires – with this poem and some warming-up questions, the majority of students would not have been able to advance to the above-described deep layer of the poem. The results of a conversation or a discussion in a shared class lesson can never be reached by a written reply to questions on the text. It is one of the sad consequences of this supposedly student-friendly method that it cheats the students out of an educational experience that can only be gained in conversation.
Once, I had an interesting discussion with a trainee, with whom I worked as a mentor. He asked me if I could recommend him a good text for his demonstration lesson in German literature in a 10th grade. I said, “The neighbour” or “An Imperial Message” by Franz Kafka were good, time-tested texts that students would like because of their existential content and with whom he could also check their understanding of texts. The trainee looked at me somewhat despondent and thought that the expert seminar leader wanted to see “learning at different stops”. I replied ironically that in this case he could forget Kafka. Kafka’s texts could not be learnt at stops, they required a solid station.
It has become fashionable to take the method of teaching more important than the content. Previously a teacher who planned a German lesson for the 8th grade asked, “What text is suitable for students, who are still in their adolescence, to give them a little guidance?” Today, one asks, “Which competencies are still to be worked through on the competency grid?” In the pedagogy department of bookstores one encounters huge amounts of books entitled “Training Methods”, “Learning exercises”, “Graduation Training”, “Competencies Training”. One wonders whether one has not by mistake stopped in the sports department.
In my experience, competence orientation changes our view of the lessons to be planned. The topics that are difficult to understand are likely to be “sacrificed” (done away with) when they cannot be taught with one of the major competencies. Unfortunately, topics also get lost which might meet with the students’ enthusiasm. Arousing students’ interest for the subject matter is the recipe for the success of a good education. A boring lesson is often the worst thing students experience at school. They suffer and begin to hate the teacher as a “sleeping pill”. It is therefore regrettable that the formal principle of competence orientation in the classroom helps kill the moments of tension that might be given by the subject matter.
In order to spread good teaching concepts at school, the grammar school already mentioned above introduced a “revolutionary” innovation model: the open classroom. Teachers were encouraged to announce exciting hours in the staff room and invite colleagues to join in. So I experienced – as a non-specialist teacher – a particularly clever physics lesson, 8th grade: the principle of buoyancy, demonstrated on Easter eggs. The teacher put three liquid-filled glass cylinders on the teacher’s desk. Then she put in Easter eggs in different colours. The red egg fell to the ground, the yellow remained in the middle, and the blue hovered on the surface. The students were puzzled about the eggs behaving like that. After many false starts (“It is up to the colour”) a student had the right idea: It is up to the different states of liquid. The rest of the lesson was classical physics with formulas and calculation operations. The five colleague “guests” were enthusiastic because they had experienced something that enriches every classroom: a wittily presented problem and a wisely led classroom conversation aiming at the resolution.
In my experience, the greatest quality potential of our schools lies dormant in the professional and methodical improvement of education. For this we do not need new types of school and no didactic “inventions”. All we need is passionate and creative teachers.
However, good teaching does not live by its exciting moments. Students love it, too, to be confronted with intellectual challenges. Demanding too much of them is always better than fobbing them off with flat content. In my German lessons I like to discuss such texts, which I consider indispensable for the spiritual maturation of young people. And I let myself be guided by the intent: content before method, intellectual added value before competence. The poem “To the moon” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “Füllest du wieder Busch und Tal/Still mit Nebelglanz …” (Bush and vale thou fill’st again/With thy misty ray ...) has always been my first choice. Firstly, it is one of the most valuable poems of Goethe from his classical period and it meets high literary demands. On the other hand it is impeccably beautiful, completed in content, form and language – so it has an aesthetic quality. Third, it contains a message that can convey something important to young people in our modern times: There is a fulfilled life, even beyond the great world gear “Seelig, wer sich vor der Welt/Ohne Hass verschliest” (He who from the world retires / Void of hate, is blest). Thus, the poem offers endowment of life with meaning and spiritual orientation.
Would it really be justified to neglect such a treasure because it opposes the “student-centred teaching methods” and the “competence orientation” only because it is difficult to open up? You have to realise: Just what makes the quality of our classical texts, their poetic code, proves to be an obstacle to their being studied in the “modern” classroom.
If you have worked as a teacher for some time, you might have seen many instructional fashions come and go. You might also have stated that the real concern in teaching has never changed: School education and training serve to reveal the wonderful world of knowledge to the child and to open to it the gate to the world of adults. Hence, it is especially important that the teacher is authentic and credibly takes responsibility for what he teaches his students. I am happy to be guided by the “permission” of the educational expert Jochen Grell, “You may teach directly, the whole class at once. You need not be ashamed of yourself that you want to teach students. School has been invented so that you do not have to teach each child individually.”    •

First published in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 14 January 2016

(Translation Current Concerns)