I have been holding off on posting about German education because I knew it would be a meaty post that required some time to flush out. So, this will be part one of a small series on German education. I can’t do justice to the German education system in one blog post!
Before I begin a little background on Germany’s education tracks.
Germany’s secondary education system is broken into a few tracks. After Grundschule (grades K-4) students move into tracks:
- Gymnasium- The most challenging academic option, usually for students looking to go into university or receive a dual academic and vocational degree. Gymnasium schools end at grade 12 or 13.
- Hauptschule- A vocational track beginning in grade 5 and ending at grade 10. Students are in the same courses as students in Gymnasium up through grade 10, but the focus is on vocational training and students usually exit into an apprenticeship program.
- Realschule- Another secondary track for grades 5-10. Students can exit into vocational training or transfer to Gymnasium at the end of grade 10.
- Gesamtschule- This is a track that can accommodate students looking to go into university and those seeking a vocational track. Students who finish after grade 9 receive a Hauptschule degree and those finishing at grade 10 receive a Realschule degree.
During my time in Germany we visited a Gesamtschule and a Gymnasium school in Hamburg. I also had the chance to meet with teachers from another Gymnasium school in Brauchschweig.
The one commonality I found in all these schools was their commitment to project learning. All students take three core subjects: German, English, and math. Science and history are added in higher grades. The schools we visited and the teachers we spoke to were experimenting with scheduling: rotating schedules, longer school days, social emotional learning time, etc. But, I would venture to say the project curriculum was a core subject as well.
Starting in grade 5 students spend a portion of their school year working on interdisciplinary projects. In one school we visited students paused learning in core subjects for a few weeks to devote themselves to projects, one project every 8 weeks. In another school “project time,” as they called it, was built into the weekly schedule. In both instances, projects resulted in a student presentation and included many opportunities for reflection and feedback leading up to that presentation. Students work in groups. They sometimes work on solving a social problem or coming up with a solution.
Sounds just like project-based learning, huh?
Students have a general topic, but they are free to choose their focus under that topic umbrella. Here are some examples of project topics.
In the first example you can see students start out with a “Getting to Know You” unit (Kennenlernen). Other topics include dance, dream rooms, and moral courage. The second example includes topics like water, forests, and the school does politics. Every project includes learning excursions outside of school and interviews with experts. The expectation is that all projects are completed during the school day.
We sat down with students at one school and they explained more the project learning process from their perspective. Students are in constant contact with teachers while working on a project. Teacher contact and student documentation of work are part of a student’s final grade. Students are graded more on the process than on the final product. The teachers don’t teach the content for the projects. Students teach themselves. Lots of freedom in voice and choice.
In one project, students are expected to become active in politics and research how they can take action with a political issue. This water bottle is an example of a political project students researched. They convinced their school to only purchase this water because the proceeds go to an African aid organization.
But, sometimes their political action doesn’t lead to a lasting change. In these instances, the students learn a valuable lesson about being active community members.
Project work can be done in collaboration with other grade levels or in cooperation with public or private organizations or universities. All that contact and coordination is done by students, not by the teachers. In general, students are given a lot more freedom in Germany. Taking time out of school to research project work with field experts is encouraged.
Below is a sample schedule showing how project time is integrated into the school day.
It takes up a big part of the school week because teachers, students, administrators, and state governments see the value in this kind of learning.
The entire time I was visiting I was thinking, “well, this is how project-based learning should be happening.”
As someone who has worked on and presented on project-based learning for years I was impressed with the effectiveness of the model. I didn’t get the sense that state and district leaders were worried about the loss of core instructional time. I didn’t feel that teachers were overwhelmed with the process or the grading or the logistics of project work in Germany. I found students to be actively engaged and excited to tell us about their projects and what they had learned. I also found those students to be independent thinkers, individuals with a high level with self-efficacy. Even though the schools and students called it “project curriculum” or “project time,” I didn’t feel like students were producing typical projects (dioramas, posters, and the like). In my eyes it was project-based learning.
American educators and school systems could learn a lot from this model of real-world learning in action.