Learning together – promoting individually

The Konstanz education researcher Prof. Dr. Thomas Götz tells us about his vision of the ideal type of school

Professor Götz, you have an exciting task: As the incumbent of the bridge professorship for Empirical Educational Research at the University of Konstanz and the University of Teacher Education Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, you are involved in work on school developments, including in Konstanz. In an earlier interview for the column "In Conversation", you complained of idleness in our school system. Is this the reason why you are working as an expert on school developments?

The primary reason for my involvement is that political decisions pertaining to school development are often made without being based on evidence. Many discussions are politically or ideologically influenced without taking into account the results of empirical educational research. Again and again, decisions in our school system pertain to structural issues. The quality of our schools is primarily shaped by the actual teaching in the classroom and not so much by the large structures. The manner of teaching must fit into the corresponding structures. If we change our structures, for example introducing community schools, then teaching must also change, that is, the processes in the classroom need to be different. In the case of community schools, teachers, for example, must deal with the large heterogeneity in such classes and even use heterogeneity as an opportunity. But to come back to the question: As an expert, I would like to bring the results of educational research into the discussions, and warn that they all relate to the structural quality, without simultaneously taking into account the quality of the processes.

Which tasks do you have exactly as an expert?

I always involve facts, meaning I use evidence-based arguments. For example, it is often claimed that prolonged joint learning per se would be better, for example, to minimize social disparities. But these are assertions that can not be empirically confirmed. Or other countries are often referred to, for example Finland. Again, I always emphasize that it does not make sense to single out individual aspects from another very good school system and implement them here. We have very different conditions that make such an approach problematic. There is often a false understanding of causality, i.e. the opinion that if we do it like the others do there, then everything will be better here.

Do you see the possibility in your task of getting a little bit closer to the ideal school?

I would like to make a contribution towards this goal by at least getting a little bit closer.

What could the ideal school look like?

An ideal school would be a school where all students are optimally promoted individually according to their abilities and interests.

You always emphasize how important it is that students are promoted individually. Can a community school fulfil this wish?

It is at least a central idea to use the heterogeneity in community schools as an opportunity. Whether the school community will be successful depends on the pedagogical approaches realized there and the quality of teaching in which individualization should play a central role. This is the only way to deal meaningfully with the pronounced heterogeneity in these schools, and only in this way it can be used as an opportunity. It is important to emphasize here that personalization does not mean that all teachers respond specifically to individual students – it is more a matter of creating learning environments in schools, in which knowledge and skills can be acquired individually. An example of this is learning materials of varying difficulty, which students work on at their own pace. Teachers support and accompany this process. At some schools this is already practiced, such as at the Gymnasium Wilhelmsdorf - one of our partner schools that we are supporting during their school development process.

How do you, as an experienced researcher, assess the opportunities and risks of community schools?

I see the opportunities in the possibility that community schools can expand and enrich our school system and may have innovation potential in dealing with heterogeneity. Since individualisation is important in other types of schools, the concepts developed and implemented in community schools can be implemented to some extent in other schools. In addition, students of different backgrounds can have more joint learning experiences in community schools.

But there are also many risks. Teachers need to be intensively prepared for this new school structure. Nothing should be done hastily. When we overtask our teachers by not adequately preparing them to teach in community schools, then that not only affects them, but certainly the students. It must be clearly warned against hasty action. The G8 has indeed shown what it means to implement education reforms in a hurry. The spatial resources are another problem. Community schools need more space than other schools, for example, to meaningfully perform group and project work. It is absolutely necessary to ensure this before starting community schools. And the introduction of community schools must be evaluated intensively so that we can also empirically say what advantages and disadvantages they have over other types of schools.

Would the teachers also need to be specially trained?

Yes, absolutely. Anything else would be irresponsible. And a weekend course is certainly not enough. New concepts would need to be introduced and tested. The first pupils of the community school may by no means be guinea pigs to rash structural reforms.

Repeating a grade is no longer to be an issue in community schools. Could this be motivating for some pupils?

That repeating a grade still exists is incredible and almost scandalous. If a student does not show sufficient performance in a subject, he needs to repeat all the other subjects for a whole year in which he performed well or even very well. An early warning system must be implemented; vulnerable pupils should be promoted in time – and even during the holidays. The individualization thought at community schools could, in fact, prevent students from showing very poor performance in individual subjects.

At community schools, not the teachers but the parents should decide how the child continues after the fourth grade. Do you see this as chance?

It's not just about the community school. In general, the binding recommendation for primary school in Baden Württemberg has been abolished. Well noted: There will continue to be recommendations but they are no longer binding. I see a great danger in this. Looking at the educational aspirations of different social classes, university graduates wish more strongly for their children to attend a Gymnasium than non-university graduates do. With a non-binding recommendation it is more likely that more children of university graduates go to the Gymnasium and few children of non-university graduate, even if the children have performed equally as well in school. This means that if the recommendation is rather to not go to the Gymnasium, university graduates will be more likely to send their children to the Gymnasium anyway than non-academics would. I think the gap in this area will become even wider, that is, social injustice will grow in this field, in my opinion, due to the introduction of the non-binding primary school recommendation.

Autonomy is required more of pupils in a community school. They register themselves, for example, for the competency test. Is there a danger that some students never reach the learning objective?

One principle of the community schools is that there are different learning objectives. And this, among other things, is the strength of this type of school.

There are always complaints that today's school graduates are inadequately educated. Could the community school solve this problem?

I think one should not play off the various types of schools against each other. The community school is a type of school that will expand the existing education system and hopefully enrich it. The Gymnasium in Germany for example is a very good school - the story of the Gymnasium in Germany can well be described as a success story. There are also very good other secondary schools such as the Hauptschule and Realschule – as the PISA studies have shown, for example. The community school has a focus on individualized teaching, but it is not to be designated as a superior school per se – it should not even have that objective. And of course individualisation is a key issue in all schools, but it is a particular challenge for community schools due to the great heterogeneity prevailing there.

One final question about the eight-year Gymnasium, the G8. What do you think of it from a scientific perspective?

This is not a question for science. It's about which extent of basic education we want to have at the Gymnasium in our society. G8 leads to earlier specialization at the expense of general education.

Since 2007, Prof. Dr. Thomas Goetz has held a so-called bridge professorship for Educational Research at the University of Konstanz and the University of Teacher Education Thurgau (PHTG) in neighbouring Kreuzlingen (Switzerland). At both institutions he is in charge of student education to become a Gymnasium teacher. His research interests are antecedents of emotions in the learning and performance context, domain specificity of emotional experience, boredom in the classroom, promotion of self-regulated learning in secondary education and teaching quality. Before coming to Konstanz he held interim professorships at the University of Erfurt and the University of Education in Heidelberg. Thomas Goetz received his doctorate at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich in psychology, where he has also received his post-doctoral degree in educational psychology. Before graduating with a degree (Diplom) in psychology at the University of Regensburg, he was already qualified as a music teacher with the organ as his major.


Professor Götz, did you enjoy going to school?

Mostly yes – I have always enjoyed learning and thinking through things. School is also a social space in which I felt very comfortable. But I was often bored at school – which is perhaps one of the reasons why I am now researching boredom.

What were your favourite subjects?

Math – for me it was always like a puzzle, and German - though I as a lefty always had terrible handwriting and still do. In primary school I had to fill out countless additional "penmanship sheets."

There were not many schools to select from when you were young. Do you regret this in retrospect?

No, ultimately it was the individual teachers who shaped my school days.

Would you like to have been promoted more individually?

Yes. There were subjects, such as mathematics, which were very easy for me and where I often felt under-challenged. And then there were also subjects in which I really had problems, such as in chemistry. Individual support would have been helpful. But outside of school, I was encouraged by my parents very individually - for example, with piano lessons.

What does your dream school look like?

A school where not teaching but learning is in the foreground and the learning process is encouraged and supported according to the pupils’ abilities.

Does this dream school need to remain an illusion?

If we have no set ideas, we can not reduce the difference to how things actually turned out. In other words, if we had no dreams, they could never become reality.