Suddenly the classrooms were empty. No students, no teachers, everyone stayed at home. “It went from one day to the next,” says headmaster Bernd Ruddat, “without being prepared for digital distance learning.”
The corona lockdown in March hit the Freiherr-von-Stein high school in Leverkusen completely unprepared. As a stopgap solution, the teachers emailed their tasks to the students. And then? Then not much came. “This is an impossibility,” many parents were upset in school class surveys about the lack of instruction.
Many mothers and fathers across Germany share the indignation. What particularly tormented the affected parents in Leverkusen: In the direct neighborhood it was very different, namely much better, more precisely at the Nicolaus-Cusanus-Gymnasium in Bergisch Gladbach. “There are normal lessons there,” marveled a mother, whose child goes to school in Leverkusen, barely 15 kilometers away, and who is now busy explaining homework to her child throughout the day – while, like so many other parents, in the home office is working.
What distinguishes the Nicolaus-Cusanus-Gymnasium: good technical equipment. Initially, the teachers there had to improvise like their colleagues in Leverkusen. But the “entire learning process went quickly,” as headmaster Sven Hees explains. “It worked well.” It was the luck of the foresighted: The city of Bergisch Gladbach had already drawn up a general digital development plan for schools and equipped the high school with software and IT accordingly.
Two schools in Germany, two different experiences – in neighboring municipalities. Many parents in Germany experienced painful and very different experiences, and education suddenly became a matter of luck – depending on where they lived and where they went to school. “In retrospect, it’s always easy to criticize decisions,” says Susanne Eisenmann, Minister of Culture in Baden-Württemberg.
For many weeks, the public debate was almost entirely about the fight against the virus, the damage to the economy and its multi-billion dollar rescue, which is historically unprecedented. “We take care of pubs and swimming pools, but close schools for months,” scolded the head of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Gabriel Felbermayr. “What is that priority setting ?!”
It cannot be because of the importance of the problem. There are eleven million schoolchildren and almost four million daycare children in Germany, with their parents almost half of the population is directly affected.
And yet without a strong voice. The problem is the low level of organization: Large groups such as schoolchildren or parents find it difficult to articulate publicly, the interests of the members are too diverse, the free-riding is too common. So the parent associations only spoke up after a significant delay.
The teachers, whose trade union for education and science (GEW) skillfully and vocally cares for the interests of their clientele – and who is sometimes suspicious of changes, is completely different. Minister of Culture Eisenmann has no answer as to why a 55-year-old senior student council is exempted from teaching, but a cashier of the same age has to work in the supermarket: “A legitimate question that we have to discuss with unions across the country.”
The fact that schoolchildren and families were not constantly represented in the federal government’s corona cabinet also weighs heavily in the public debate. Schools are a national matter in Germany. After all, there is now movement in the topic, the Conference of Ministers of Education decided to return to normal school operations after the long vacation.
A decision long overdue for many, but which could quickly reverse a second corona wave. The weaknesses of German school education urgently need to be remedied: too much bureaucracy, too little freedom and a sense of responsibility, and far too poor equipment with computers and technology.
“The problem has not only existed for three months. We have been talking about more digitization at school for years, ”says Gero Steinmetz. Both of his sons go to the Freiherr-von-Stein high school in Leverkusen, where the father is the chairman of the school nursery.
The Corona generation pays the bill for all these failures. The economic consequences of their loss of knowledge will be gigantic. According to experts, each additional school year increases the average student’s living income by around ten percent. Conversely, this means that if a third of the school year is lost, income shrinks by three to four percent. The likelihood of becoming unemployed is also higher.
The loss of learning in later working life adds up to a total economic loss of 5.4 trillion euros, according to the Ifo Institute’s account. The lower education of future workers reduces the social product by around 2.8 percent over many years.
Added to this is the loss of work by millions of parents who have to play substitute teachers at home. According to IfW chief Felbermayr, Germany could thus lose two to three percent of economic output.
Less school costs a lot of money, and most of the students have to carry it – without knowing it. This is by no means a theoretical gimmick, because “nothing is as well documented as the connection between education and growth,” says Ifo education expert Ludger Wössmann.
How can the education economist be so sure? Because it is not the first time that there have been serious interventions in the school system.
Breaks are poison for learning
Not many citizens will remember this: School years in Germany started after Easter. The only exception was Bavaria, where the American occupation forces had set September as the start date after the Second World War – just like in their home country.
Reforms were tackled three times, but it was not until 1966 that Germany started school uniformly in early autumn. Teachers, parents, and schoolchildren, all ran wild at the time, complained about the complicated transitional regulations, which were different depending on the federal state with short school years and long school years. “Nobody understands why I do it,” scolded Eduard Orth, Minister of Culture of Rhineland-Palatinate, in his home country’s most beautiful dialect.
The historical example shows that changes in the school system are complex. For economists, the short school years in Germany – with the help of which school was postponed from spring to autumn – were worth their weight in gold. Because for them it was like a real-time experiment, the consequences of which they could precisely track for the age groups affected, who lacked a three-quarter school year.
The “Adult Pisa” of the OECD resulted in measurably less math skills for pupils over the age of 50 – and overall a five percent lower living income.
And there are other examples. Educational economists also examined teacher strikes in Argentina, the Canadian province of Ontario, and Belgium. In the western neighboring country, for example, teachers in the Walloon region once went on strike for months, while the Flemish part continued as normal. The consequence: the students in Wallonia subsequently had to repeat classes much more often and achieved poorer school-leaving certificates.
The Corona generation will also have disadvantages in Germany. The head of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy Felbermayr predicts that the school closings will cost many pupils “expensive throughout their professional lives” – the loss amounts to “up to 50,000 euros per pupil”, he says.
Long breaks are poison for learning. The negative effect is particularly evident in the United States, which has two to three months of summer vacation. The reasons for this lie in the country’s history, children should be able to help with the harvest. Various scientific studies show the “summer learning loss”: Not only does the knowledge stand still, but there is a step backwards.
This applies particularly to students from disadvantaged families. The contemporaries, however, who are supported by their parents and attend a summer school, for example, are usually more vital at the end of the holiday than at the beginning.
The corona crisis also exacerbates a basic problem of the school system in Germany: inequality. According to youth researcher Klaus Hurrelmann, well-off and academically shaped families can “keep up” because the learning break is “not so important”. The professor for public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin warns: “The situation is different for children from poorly situated or poorly educated families.”
The phenomenon is not new, was first mentioned in 2001 in the first Pisa study – but was hardly eliminated in the following two decades. Almost all OECD countries manage far better than Germany to compensate for disadvantages caused by parental home. So the weaker, who receive little help at home, to pave the way through school – and thus better prepare them for the job market.
In Germany, every fifth student belongs to the problem group of high-risk students who do not even meet the minimum requirements. In the meantime, the numbers have improved, but the trend showed a downward trend in the latest Pisa study in 2018.
And there are poor students who are falling behind even further in the corona crisis. If the federal states do not take massive countermeasures, “these children will no longer be able to catch up,” said Jutta Allmendinger, head of the Berlin Science Center.
And the backlog is huge according to all surveys and expert assessments. Teacher association president Heinz-Peter Meidinger already predicted in the Handelsblatt interview at the beginning of the pandemic: “If we can replace even a quarter of the classroom instruction with digital means, we can be happy. I’m afraid it will be much less in many schools. ”
There is no question of catching up or touching up. Extra courses during the holidays – which start in just a few weeks in some places – have so far been almost not an issue in the ministries of culture, a survey by the Handelsblatt showed. So most of the students will lose another six weeks.
The school ministers are too busy organizing the gradual reopening – and are too afraid to spoil the teachers with additional tasks. The GEW had already made it very clear that it did not believe in extra missions during the summer holidays. And that, although at least the less committed part of the educators definitely had more free time due to the unusual face-to-face classes.
If there was anything good about Corona and the school closings, it was that the weaknesses in our school system were uncovered, reforms could finally have a chance. But it must first be determined: where is the problem?
Snail’s pace with digitization
The crisis in which Corona plunged our schools has many reasons. While millions of workers worked largely without problems from home, reports of chaos came primarily from schools. Schools without their own IT platform, teachers, 90 percent of whom have to use their own computers, others who at the beginning only laid out exercise sheets for picking up at school and then stopped reporting to their students for weeks.
On the part of the pupils, entire armies disappeared for weeks because they did not have a laptop or cell phone or simply went diving. According to individual surveys, teachers completely lost contact with a quarter of the pupils, especially in primary schools.
It suddenly became clear how far Germany’s schools are lagging behind in digitalization. The plight was well known for a long time: In the latest Pisa study in 2018, more than half of the 15-year-olds indicated that no notebooks or tablets were used in class. According to a study by the University of Paderborn, a third of the eighth graders have only minimal knowledge, they can just open emails, click on links or insert a word in a text.
The technical equipment was only marginally better in 2018 than in 2013: on average ten students had to share a tablet, in 2013 it was 11.5. And just over a quarter of the eighth graders attended school where both teachers and students have access to school WiFi.
It can hardly be due to money. Although the federal government had already provided five billion euros for the digital pact in early summer 2019, it is now topped up by half a billion for end devices that should be usable after the summer holidays. But experience has shown that funds do not reach schools quickly enough. According to a survey by the magazine “Focus” in the 16 federal states, less than 300 million euros have been approved to date. In other words, only six percent of the funding was drawn.
The snail’s pace is always justified by the fact that the schools and their sponsors, the municipalities, first have to present conclusive concepts. In addition, in some countries the necessary funding guidelines were only completed at the end of 2019. Minister of Education Anja Karliczek had repeatedly said that quality comes before speed. Urgency looks different, but Corona could now trigger the necessary boost.
That would also be more than necessary: Even the digital pact billions can, according to the teachers’ association, manage and not remedy the lack of IT infrastructure. In international comparison, Germany’s expenditure on education, measured in terms of gross domestic product, is usually only in the middle of the range, according to the OECD.
A lot of energy has also been lost for decades in ongoing changes to the school structure, which are different in every federal state. This is especially true for the introduction of the eight-year high school, which has since been withdrawn many times.
The controversy over community schools had raged for years, primary and secondary schools were merged almost everywhere, but the high school was largely able to maintain its special position. The dispute over the slow expansion of all-day schools – which are particularly valuable in order to promote disadvantaged students in particular – also costs the system a great deal of strength and energy.
Federalism exacerbates the problems: countless rounds were necessary to agree on uniform educational standards nationwide, and real comparability of the Abitur is still a long way off. In the pandemic too, the conference of culture ministers, for example, fought vehemently and for weeks over whether exams like the Abitur should take place at all.
At the beginning of the corona pandemic, schoolchildren were seen as virus throwers who fall ill less often, but are all the more dangerous for their fellow humans because they move more carelessly than adults. That has changed: Various studies from abroad indicate that children and adolescents spread the virus far less than adults.
A new study from Baden-Württemberg, in which four university hospitals were involved, specifically targeted children who were in emergency care of schools or day care centers. Here, too, the scientists found no evidence that children are drivers of the infection process – they are infected much less frequently than their parents.
These findings now open the way for a broad opening of schools – albeit often with distance rules and smaller classes. However, there remains the danger to teachers at the workplace: depending on the federal state, the group of educators who are either older than 60 or have previous illnesses and therefore belong to the risk group is estimated at up to 30 percent. At most, these can be used voluntarily.
Many of the other educators currently felt “like taking part in an experiment” and were very suspicious of school policies, the education and science union criticized. This had massively criticized the return to class without distance rules. It could not be that the culture minister conference for the opening decisions can only be advised by virologists and educational scientists, but not speak to the representatives of the teachers, GEW board member Ilka Hoffmann said.
Should the schools open again for all age groups as planned after the holidays, the teachers would have to be tested for Corona once a week as a precaution, even without symptoms, demands association president Heinz-Peter Meidinger. This is miles away from what the ministers had in mind: most only provide random tests. Brandenburg wants to test the first three months every two weeks. And some parents are worried too. In summer Germany travels the world again, the virus could be dragged into the country and spread again – just in time for the planned start of school.
But even if everything runs smoothly and there is no second wave, the school system must change thoroughly. The old school is no longer enough for new times. More than 50 percent of school heads viewed digital education as a very important task in 2018 – that sounds good, but it also means that almost half did not see it that way at the time.
Now there is much to suggest that thinking with Corona has changed radically. “We urgently want to become more digital,” says head teacher Raddat from the Freiherr-von-Stein high school in Leverkusen.
The students’ interest is great anyway. As a study by the IW from the Corona period shows, at least older people prefer to learn digitally: In a survey among 17-year-olds, 42 percent said they learned best with videos from the Internet – normal lessons preferred only 27 percent.
But: watching videos on tablets, digital lessons are not that easy. Teachers and students report many pitfalls and limitations. How can the future be shaped well with education?
The future could look like this
The Ernst Reuter School in Karlsruhe is different from conventional schools. For example, there are interactive boards or whiteboards in the classrooms. “Digitization is a huge advantage for all types of learning,” says Micha Pallesche, principal of the media school, which has won numerous awards for its digital concept. The community school organized throughout the day was the first in Baden-Württemberg to be recognized as a “smart school” by the industry association Bitkom.
Pallesche explains the school’s approach. With the smartphone, the pupils had “the knowledge of the world almost in their pockets”, and the teacher was no longer the sole provider of knowledge. The pupils could acquire facts through “YouTube videos, tutorials or through research on the Internet”. In doing so, the teacher plays a different and, at the same time, decisive role: he has to impart media competence, with the help of which children can filter out high-quality knowledge.
At the Ernst Reuter School, learning is mobile and not limited to the classroom. “We have far fewer phases in which teaching is frontal and a much higher proportion of self-learning phases,” says Pallesche.
One third of the students learn in conventional classes, in self-learning phases and in groups. In corona times, however, students cannot sit together so easily. So, like in the office, more virtual exchange is encouraged. “Group work, for example, only works if students can exchange data, files, films, texts,” says Pallesche.
“Mom, school is still weird. I have to put on mouthguards when I go to the trash can, but not when I’m in the square.” – 11-year-olds after two days of school in corona conditions, it’s not easy.
– Birgit Kelle (@Birgit_Kelle) May 28, 2020
The prerequisite is, of course, the technical equipment: Even in the Karlsruhe flagship media school, five to ten percent of the students had no laptops at the start of the corona lockdown in order to learn from home. But they all got borrowed from school.
Digital education is not an end in itself in Karlsruhe. It is about the “optimal and effective use of the” resource “students”, it says in the statutes of the school. To lift them, the children produce explanatory videos for their classmates, for example. They learn and impart knowledge at the same time. They also acquire important media skills: What is important? Which source is trustworthy?
There is a feeling of belonging, a positive basic mood that breaks down traditional hierarchical structures: “Our students conduct further training for teachers and neighboring schools,” says Pallesche, whose concept is recognized nationwide.
The entire teachers’ conference recently organized a “Fishbowl” – a popular method of discussion for large groups, also in many companies, with few active people driving the discussion in the middle and the crowd sitting around it. “The students sat in the middle with us – and we were amazed at their visions,” says Pallesche.
In the foreseeable future, of course, not all schools can reach the lighthouse level. So far, the industry association Bitkom has only honored 41 smart schools in 14 federal states. “But all schools can continue to move in this direction,” says Jacob Chammon, director of the Education Digitalization Forum.
For this, however, the corresponding training of students and trainees is urgently needed – “this is much more important than the technology itself”. And, of course, quick time and money to train the mass of active teachers – this is also what the scientists call for education.
The further training does not have to be extensive and does not necessarily have to take place outside of school. According to Chammon, multiple micro-training courses are extremely useful in everyday school life. This is an ongoing task: “After all, you don’t learn the multiplication tables in one day.”
The decisive factor for the whole process is the “attitude of the school management”, which must make digitization a top priority. However, if the school principal or principal are not IT-savvy, a team of dedicated teachers can drive the process – but they would need the management’s backing.
The chance to start again
The fact that the German system is changing so slowly could even be an advantage – by learning from the mistakes of other countries. Scandinavia, Holland and Estonia are the pioneers in digitizing schools. In his home country Denmark, for example, almost every pupil from grade 1 has a laptop or tablet.
“But that’s not always a good thing, because a lot of people sit alone in front of it,” says digital expert Chammon. “Especially collaborative and cooperative learning processes with digital media do not succeed on their own, the teachers have to teach them first.” Germany could do a lot better here right from the start.
In his book “Let’s rock education” Daniel Jung also warns against “pouring money out of schools so that they can equip their classes with tablets”. The schools would not be a bit better.
Abundant digitalization worries him, especially among the youngest. He refers to brain research: “In order for the child’s brain to develop, haptic sensations, smell, weight, and form are required.” Young must know: He runs the successful learning platform Mathefragen.de with 670,000 subscribers and more than 2,500 Videos. In his work, Jung found that digital learning online only works properly for students between the ages of 11 and 14.
The Karlsruhe pioneer Pallesche also sees positive things in the pandemic: “To put it quite cynically, you could say that Corona was almost too short to change the whole system.” In any case, he hopes that the majority of schools and teachers “will not do it Wishes before Corona time and falls into the old routine ”. The longing for change, “for more flexibility and agility” is very great for many.
To do this, however, politics would have to “give schools more freedom” – this is also an old demand from the education experts – and clear out the curricula, for example. In any case, it is encouraging that the Federal Chancellery is organizing an “Online Barcamp School Rethink” together with the LMU Munich on the occasion of the national digital day.
There teachers, pupils, parents and everyone interested should discuss the school of tomorrow. Things are moving forward, the pandemic has started a lot, says Pallesche: “Reform education is currently experiencing a renaissance through digitization.”
A gratifying development. According to the digital expert Chammons, “acceleration is coming into the system”. With teachers, widespread fears of the foreign digital media would vanish, the horrific visions of artificial intelligence and robots that replace the teacher would disappear. On the contrary: “Many teachers have learned that it is not so difficult to organize a digital lesson.” At the same time, Corona also showed “how important school is as a social learning location”.
A school practitioner who knew the opportunities of digitization long before Corona knew this: Kai Schmidt. He is a high school principal and math teacher at the high school in Uelsen in Lower Saxony. Far more students know him as “Lehrerschmidt” on Youtube.
On the video platform, he explains the school material from basic arithmetic to linear systems of equations to stochastics in small snacks – and to watch again and again. More than 540,000 users have already subscribed to it.
But according to Schmidt, digital teaching works better in some subjects than in others, for example mathematics is best suited for this: “The linear function always looks the same.” As a German teacher, his wife was faced with greater challenges: “It is difficult to find one in the video To explain poem analysis, and even more difficult to improve. “
But maths teacher Schmidt is also happy that children of all grades come back to class – if only alternately, in half the class. At last he can see how attentively the class is following his comments: “Of course there is the possibility that the students can do something else in a video conference,” says Schmidt. “It’s a different kind of learning, much nicer and more direct.”
Schmidt sees something good in the crisis: “It was the biggest field trial ever for the digital school.” Now it is important to “evaluate what has proven itself and what you can take away from it”. The high school principal and his staff are thinking about digitally checking their homework more often in the future and using the present tense differently.
In addition, teacher conferences could be held digitally more frequently, and Schmidt also considers debriefing with students in the afternoon via online conferences. “I think we took a giant step forward in digital media because we saw what worked and what didn’t.”
The data protection problems that committed teachers can deal with when they use WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft teams or private email accounts to communicate with their students in the absence of school services need to be clarified as quickly as possible, and if not in doubt, their consent of all parents. A bitter argument rages in Thuringia because of the
State data protection officers for teachers who use WhatsApp, for example, face fines of up to 1000 euros. There is great outrage, there is talk of a “punch in the face of committed teachers”, from the CDU to the GEW.
But even when the technology is in place and legal issues are resolved, “digital media alone do not guarantee good or even better instruction, but good educational concepts and didactic know-how are required,” warns digital expert Chammon. Nevertheless, their potential is gigantic: Above all, the individual support of children, which has been a central requirement of many educational experts for years, can work better digitally.
Headmaster Ruddat from Leverkusen is one of them. Even today, he still has reservations about video lessons, which he does not think is always useful from an educational point of view. Too many students would disappear from the teachers’ direct view. “Suddenly the picture is gone, they turn away or are distracted.” Ruddat is convinced that full face-to-face lessons cannot be replaced by video lessons or the sending of materials.
Despite these concerns, Ruddat wants to make his high school significantly more digital. Together with colleagues, he is working on a plan to integrate digital systems into the classroom. They are also in discussion with the city, the school authority. She had already announced that she would equip the high school with the Office 365 software, which would make video conferences and web chats with the students possible in the future. The headmaster is certain that the school would be much better prepared for a second wave of infections.