School and Learning in Germany

School Lessons As in Grandpa’s Time? The “Village Schoolhouse” of Kürten-Dürscheid

‚Marienkäfer’ der Grundschule Kürten-Dürscheid; © Grundschule Kürten-Dürscheid‚Marienkäfer’ der Grundschule Kürten-Dürscheid; © Grundschule Kürten-DürscheidA year ago the primary school Kürten-Dürscheid abolished the usual division of school classes according to age group. Since then, first graders sit together with fourth graders and take their lessons in common. Opinions in the region are divided.

It is Friday morning in the primary school at Kürten-Dürscheid. Twenty-two pupils of the “Lady Beetle” class are taking their lessons. At first glance the class composition already looks unusual: amongst shy six year-olds with cute gaps from their baby teeth sit girls and boys who seem much older – budding teenagers.

In Kürten-Dürscheid there is no first grade, third grade or fourth grade – only the “Ravens”, the “Bears” and the “Lady Beetles”. Here nine year-olds solve math problems or do spelling exercises together with six, seven or eight year-olds of the all together seven classes at the school.

Opportunity for a new teaching concept?

Age group non-specific teaching; © Grundschule Kürten-Dürscheid“Our teaching concept soon brought us the name of ‘village schoolhouse’”, recalls headmistress Elisabeth Michalk. In spite of this, the educationalist is convinced that she took the right step in 2008. Up to then, her primary school was structured quite traditionally: six year-olds were in the first grade, nine and ten year-olds in the fourth. On the other hand, it had been already decided four years ago that school would sometime change to age group non-specific teaching. Yet the conversion was implemented only after much specialised advanced training and planning.

“When we explained to the parents of pupils who were already at school that in the next school year we were going to introduce age-group non-specific teaching, the responses were very mixed”, remembers Michalk. Less euphemistically put, many parents removed their children from the school because of this change and cancelled new registrations. Other parents questioned the new system – as did Jutta Josten and her husband: “We were very sceptical and couldn’t imagine what good it was supposed to do”, she says. “I was worried that the school was going back to a teaching system that has been looked upon as obsolete for decades”.

Nevertheless, in spite of long hesitation, the Jostens did not remove their son from the school, and even sent their youngest son there: “We wanted to give the new and courageous teaching concept a chance”.

Encourage and challenge

Headmistress Elisabeth Michalk; © Grundschule Kürten-DürscheidMichalk not only changed the composition of the classes: “It’s not enough to say: ‘Now we’ll teach everyone all together’ and then it works”. Instead, she introduced a new teaching model that was adopted as much as possible to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the pupils. In this way, weaker pupils could be encouraged and stronger ones challenged. In addition to the common, age group non-specific teaching, each pupil receives a weekly schedule. It fixes which lessons are to be taken in the next five weekdays. “We don’t think up these requirements”, stresses Michalk. “They are based in the end on requirements set by the Ministry of Schools”.

In Kürten-Dürscheid the maximum number of pupils from the same age group in a class is seven. “Problems therefore become much more quickly visible than in larger age homogeneous classes”, says Michalk. The concept also allows for children to have more time for their lessons if need be. Children who learn quickly, on the other hand, can master the material in a short space of time. Moreover, in a mixed age-group class, repeating or skipping a level is easier: no child then need be separated from his class teacher, his schoolmates or his accustomed schoolroom.

The change after one year

Teaching staff of the Kürten-Dürscheid primary school; © Grundschule Kürten-DürscheidNow, one school year later, the Joston’s have confidence in the modern “village schoolhouse” concept. “I don’t see any difference between the learning speed of my children and their peers at other schools”, says the mother. But she has noted new traits of character in her children: “Our younger son was always somewhat reserved and shy. But now that in all his classes there are older pupils, who assume the role of a sort of godparent and help him, he has, after a short period of settling in, become much more self-confident”. Her oldest son, too, has changed. “He’s now completed the second grade and is much more independent. He even assumes responsibility for other children”.

Examples such as this one have encouraged headmistress Michalk in her efforts. “Restructuring the school certainly cost us quite a few new registrations, but the new system prepares pupils well for their later schooling”. In the meantime, apparently, parents in and around Kürten-Dürscheid see things similarly. Nearly forty new children are registered for the “village schoolroom” for the coming year.

Rüdiger Teutsch
is an education journalist living in Cologne.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2009

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