Center for Civic Education

Democracy and the New Millennium

Education for Democracy in a Changing School System:
Tendencies and Problems of School Innovation in Germany

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Sander
Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

A paper presented at
Democracy and the New Millennium
International Conference
Malibu, California
October 2000

At the beginning of the new century it seems that schools and education policy are faced with fundamental challenges. The modern school system has been established during the period of industrialization and the origin of nation states. In this time many aspects of learning cultures we associate with the idea of "school" had been developed. Among these are time structures and time management in schools, the division of labor in separated subjects, learning in homogeneous groups, teaching in uniform steps and last but not least the idea that schools can prepare students for their future life by teaching reliable and stabile knowledge about the world. There is a link between the way the manufacturing industry organized working and the way schools organized learning.

These and other aspects of school culture have been criticized by educationalists for a long while, just to think of John Dewey or Ellen Key. Many critics have compared school learning with working on the assembly line; but that doesn’t help much as long as working on the assembly line actually is a predominant kind of working for many people. In our days, however, we are witnesses of fundamental changes in economy. The industrial economy is declining; "new economy", information age and globalization are some of the key words for the changes we are confronted with.

It seems that these fundamental changes are in the background of debates on school innovation and modernization of educational systems we can see in many modern societies. What I would like to do is to give a survey about the recent debate on these questions in Germany. Furthermore I ask for some consequences and problems for the education for democracy or for political education, which I use as similar terms. Some aspects of the German debate are probably similar to those in other countries, others might be rather typical for the German situation.

1. Decentralization or the search for a new role of the state in school education

The German school system is on the one hand decentralized and on the other hand centralized. It is decentralized so far as the federal states, the "Länder", are responsible for school policy. On the level of the nation state there is a conference of ministers of education where a lot of agreements are made, for example regulations for school examinations in higher education. Nevertheless in some ways we have 16 different school systems in Germany. On the other hand the school systems within the Länder are centralized, disregarding some differences in practice. About 95% of schools are public schools; most of the private schools are funded by the Länder up to rates of nearly 100%. Teachers are civil servants. Traditionally the Länder parliaments and ministries of education are responsible for funding schools, for school curricula, for the employment and choice of teachers. All decisions concerning fundamental structures of the school systems as well as many decisions concerning details of regulations and financing schools are made on a centralized level.

All these aspects of centralization are under attack in the recent German debate on education policy. It is interesting to see that very often the ministries of education themselves try to initiate processes of deregulation and decentralization and in many cases against the opposition of teachers and schools. In some ways this reminds of the reforms in Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century where a reform-oriented bureaucracy tried to modernize the country by setting it free.

School autonomy is one of the slogans in the recent debate. This is quite different to the first period of school reform in the Federal Republic in the seventies, where concepts and conflicts concentrated on the global structures of the school system just like the question whether or not a system based on comprehensive schools should be established. Today the single school is in the focus of attention. The instruments of recent school innovation that are under discussion and partly used by the ministries of education are mainly

Another idea that is highly controversial discussed has been suggested by a group of experts in 1997 and concerns the system of funding schools. The report proposes a moderate system of education vouchers. These vouchers should be given to all young people and in their sum finance 30% of the educational system from the 11th grade on. A relevant part of the budgets of schools and universities would then depend directly on the choice of students.

The main tendency behind all these ideas is, as far as I see, the development of a decentralized school system that remains under public control. At the moment there is no strong movement for a mainly private educational system. But a future public school system in Germany will probably be more decentralized and competition between schools will be much more important than it is today.

2. From teaching to learning or the search for a new culture in schools

The innovation debate is not only concentrated on institutional questions. At least of the same importance is an increasing critical debate on the culture of teaching and learning in schools, which is still to a great extent dominated by teacher-orientated, content-orientated, control- and examination-orientated ways of representing the world in the classroom. Still many teachers seem to believe that learning is a result of instructing people. But newer research on learning – educational research as well as psychological research – has shown relatively clear that the link between teaching and learning is rather tenuous. Learning can better be understood as an active process of constructing networks of knowledge by those who learn – and such active processes need time, space, opportunities and methodological competence.

One main practical result of that rather theoretical insight is a strong demand for new methods of teaching and learning behind instruction, methods based on active ways of concerning with subjects. Many new curricula and a lot of textbooks – which in Germany need to be compatible with curricula– strengthen the need for those active forms of learning and give practical help. In some Länder the ministries of education are supporting special programs of in-service teacher training with the aim to enable teachers to change their styles of teaching.

Pressure for changes of school culture also comes from the new media. In Germany working with new media in schools is rather still in the initial stage. One concrete aim of German education policy is that until the end of next year every school shall have an access to the Internet. The computer equipment of many schools is still not satisfying, particularly of primary schools and school on secondary I level. Very often those school have only few and too old computers. On the other hand the number of schools and teachers who are very involved in working with new media is increasing. One of the experiences those schools and teachers often make is that it is very difficult if not impossible to use the chances and prospects of new media within the traditional structures of teaching and learning. If students work intensively with the Internet it causes some problems if every 40 or 45 minutes the bell is ringing. The situation becomes even more difficult if one tries to produce homepages, multimedia presentations, digital video movies or other media products as learning projects in schools. Furthermore the role of teachers changes if students are used to working on their own with the Internet or CD-ROMs because in that case they often don’t need information from teachers but assistance for selecting and interpreting information.

One of the problems that make innovation difficult is a generation gap among teachers in German schools. Many teachers who work in schools today have been employed in the seventies and there are schools where the average of age among teachers goes up to 50. The problem is of course not the age of life of teachers itself; the problem for innovation in those schools is that there has been no relevant change of personnel for 10 or 15 years. Fortunately it seems that the chances for young teachers to get a job are much better today than they were in the last 10 years so there is a good chance that innovation will be supported by a new generation in schools.

3. Challenges for the education for democracy

What are possible consequences of these developments for the education for democracy, where are new opportunities, where are risks? Political/civic education is a rather small subject in schools. If in a more decentralized school system the single schools are challenged to develop their own profile it is not very likely that a vast majority of schools will search for a profile based on political education and social sciences. Much will depend on the commitment and ability of teachers of political/civic education in the single schools. Cooperation and networking with others school subjects will become much more important for the education for democracy. In schools where teachers of political/civic education will not take initiatives for an integration of their matter into the school profile there is a clear risk that the importance of the education for democracy will be declining.

Fortunately there are some interesting and successful approaches of interdisciplinary forms of political/civic education which can easily be linked with developments of school profiles. One example is a privately initiated program called "democratic acting". The program invites schools to realize learning projects beyond the normal structures of teaching that are relevant for the education for democracy and to send documentation about their project. Every year a jury selects the best 40 projects. The winners are invited to present their projects on conferences and seminars and to learn from each other. In the first half of the nineties more than 700 projects were sent in. The topics are very different; they concern e.g. questions of multicultural education, history, environmental problems and local politics. Another approach is the development of cooperation between schools in different countries. The European Union for example is supporting school programs that are focused on multicultural or European education and integrate international cooperation. In this connection a network of so called "European Schools" has been established.

Furthermore the increase of responsibility for the single school in the course of decentralization can support education for democracy on another level. If schools have more competencies participation of students in decision-making could probably be an effective practical training of democracy.

Beyond institutional questions the search for a new culture of learning is rather a chance than a risk for political education. In many cases teachers of political/civic education have more experiences with methods of active learning, realizing open learning projects and dealing with controversial questions than other teachers do. Probably the need for innovation in this field might therefor for political/civic education rather be less than for subjects like mathematics or sciences.

In summary it may be said that the debate on school innovation in Germany causes some risks but also new chances for the education for democracy. Maybe in one way or another we shall have to solve some problems when we try to modernize our subject for a future school system. But we don’t have any reason to quote the German comedian Karl Valentin who said: "The future used to be better."

<<Center for Civic Education homepage

Send comments regarding this page to