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Die ganze Woche (Österreich) 31st August 2005

[A photograph of a child making a mark on a timetable]

Schoolchildren make their own timetable

The school year is about to begin and for 1.2 million children in our country that means learning things by heart, taking tests, doing exams and hoping for good marks. But there are also new, interesting proposals about a "democratic school".

When school begins next week in Vienna, Niederösterreich and Burgenland, as well as a week later in the rest of the Austrian regions, the year's programme is already fixed for the pupils in normal schools: What will be the topic in biology lessons in November, what mathematical formulae will be gone over in December, all this is controlled over the heads of the children by the curriculum and the teachers. It is completely different for the 1,040 pupils between six and nineteen in 40 "democratic schools". There every student can learn for himself what and how he will learn. The staff meet with the children and decide on the topics and arrangements together. It works because on average there are only 26 students in each school and there are often only five pupils in a class. Of course there are learning objectives, but how they are reached is up to the children and young people. Claudia Gerhartl, a teacher, says: "Our timetable is fixed considerably earlier than in other schools, because we collected the children's wishes at the end of the year, before the summer holidays. We teachers suggest a timetable, which the children can than alter."

Every pupil has one vote, regardless of age. "On a fine day there may be an expedition to an open-air swimming pool," says Doris Pfneiszl-Gruber, from the Storks' Nest School in Kaiserdorf (B). "The rule: if ten children sign up for the open-air pool a staff member goes with them to the nearby pool. On many days the weather was a bit too cold for our taste, but we don't want to dominate the children and we don't stand there with our index fingers raised. Everyone should experience things for themselves, that's the way you learn best."

She does not believe that that kind of education conveys too little material: "Everything that our children know they also understand. I doubt whether that is also the case in a traditional school. In our school there may be somewhat less material, but it really goes in. In other schools the children often only learn by heart, without understanding the content. I think we know that only too well from our own school experience." Brain research indicates that what we learn stays with us more easily and longer if the pupils enjoy it and join in willingly.

In the Stork's Nest  the fees are 240 euros a month, twelve times a year. For the second child 80 euros  are added, and 40 for the third child. Barbara Manak, the mother of Hannah, 7, and Emily, 5, has her children at the Storks' Nest: "I do not understand why the Ministry of Education doesn't grant any supplement. It's a private school with official rights, that is to say fully recognised. My husband and I support the education system through our taxes, and have to pay for the school privately once again. I understand that not everything is paid for, because there is more staff and that means more costs. But a proportional supplement would be more than appropriate," thinks Manak.

In Vienna there are already two "democratic schools" with a secondary stage. "In other regions people are stuck at the starting-gates," asserts Andrea Berger, co-ordinator of the "Association for self-directed learning". One is the Workshops and Cultural Centre (WUK)  - its 25th anniversary was celebrated in April. The fees here are up to 315 euros a month and that puts it at the top. WUK student Carina Brestian says: "I total enjoy learning. Of course I have to push myself from time to time, but I do that on my own."

Last year Carina learnt less geography and more history.  But even in the WUK no one can avoid the three compulsory subjects, German, Maths and English, although people can vote on the content. Her teacher, Claudia Gerhartl, teaches German and asks whether the children are feeling more like literature or spelling. "The end result is that everything comes up," says Gerhartl.

Lotte Kreissler teaches English and German in Vienna and has been concerning herself with "democratic schools" for years: Kreissler is convinced that "The state school is undemocratic. It is like greenhouses which life can't get into. Of course there are now and again positive exceptions and committed teachers - unfortunately they are in the minority."

Isn't it necessary to conquer the "inner beast" by controlling it? Kreissler looks back over her more than twenty years of experience as a teacher: "In traditional schools even the children themselves say they need a certain amount of pressure from a marking system, in order to achieve anything. But in alternative schools I see that after six or twelve months the children conquer the 'inner beast' on their own." Michael Sappir, a 17-year-old student, does not believe that younger children in particular need guidance from adults: "That is only necessary for people who have been ruined by traditional, industrial instruction." Doris Pfneiszle-Gruber is convinced that this form of school does not create any problems for the world of work. "Pupils manage the change into trade schools or grammar schools without any problem, and they pass their A-Levels. What's more, a well-developed personality asserts itself in everyday work. Nowadays we see a lot of grown-ups in psychotherapy who are looking for meaning and self-realisation. They are only catching up on what they missed out on as children."

Markus Wolschläger.

[In the boxes]

New arrangements in the 2005/2006 school year

[Other box]

Progressive education

Various approaches to school reform are to be understood by the term "progressive education."

[Beside the photograph of Lotte Kreissler, it says "State schools are greenhouses, where life can't get in."]

Democratic Schools
- a film about the desire to learn

Demokratische Schulen
- Ein Film über die Lust zu lernen
Resolution der
IDEC 2005

IDEC 2005 Resolution
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