Falko Peschel, the German educator, did not become a teacher until he was thirty years old. His first book about the theory and practice of Offener Unterricht – Open Learning – was published in 2003. This is how it begins:
For more than twenty years, types of work such as free study, weekly plans, project learning and workshop teaching have been implicitly required by government guidelines and they have had a stronger and stronger presence in classrooms. Current theoretical discussion is characterised by concepts such as independence, personal responsibility, lifelong learning, creativity, individualisation, meaning for life, activity-orientation and holistic learning not limited by individual subjects. There have been demands for a teaching style that does not require all pupils to do the same thing at the same time in one and the same way, as prescribed by a teacher. What has been demanded is pupil-centred teaching.
And I have been searching for this kind of teaching ever since I was a student. I started in perfectly ordinary schools which had been active in the school reform movement and had, for example, helped to create the guidelines and teaching plans for Nordrhein-Westfalen between 1981 and 1985. Much had changed in comparison with my own schooldays. Adults and children sat together in circles and celebrated birthdays and other festivals together. Individual children often received special help during lessons from the teacher or special-needs teachers, the classrooms looked brighter and more stimulating because there was more attractive material. The children could organise their time themselves, hour by hour, they didn't always all have to do the same thing. Sometimes there were even timetables which allowed for the whole day or the whole week to be independently organised. Education seemed to me to be on the right track.
However, in spite of this openness the teachers themselves seemed somehow to have remained the same (which was sometimes literally true). They still held absolutely all the reins in their own hands, and in spite of the openness still ultimately decided exactly what the pupils were to do. Communication had indeed become much friendlier, but remained nevertheless one-sided. For the pupils school was still hard work, for some a bit pleasanter, for others a bit tougher. Children seldom preferred school to other activities. Once again my ideal of the enthusiastic child learning of her own free will, from which the theories of open learning stem, was contradicted. So I set out on my search again.
I visited model schools and free schools which had been founded to show traditional schools that free learning is possible. But here things got really complicated. Either there was absolutely conventional subject-teaching and the pupils were presented with apparent self-direction by the participation in lessons being made voluntary, so they could, basically democratically, decide between more or less boring lessons and activities they organised themselves, such as pingpong or football. Or there was no great difference from other progressive schools, where week-long work schedules were performed rather reluctantly. Admittedly there was a difference to be found with conventional schools in the teacher-pupil relationship, which did seem to some extent friendlier and more co-operative. But in spite of that I did not find the enthusiastic learner here either.
In my experience 'normal' schools did not yet have a co-operative relationship between teacher and pupil, and the free schools, broadly speaking, had no interest in providing a range of learning opportunities that would draw the child in. So I turned now to the schools which were based on the so-called progressive pedagogy. I visited Montessori and Petersen schools and met practice in which open teaching appeared to be a basic principle. There were cheerful classrooms arranged to suit children, a rich choice of work materials and school grounds with all kinds of opportunities for investigation. However, here too I found that open learning doesn't have to have anything to do with a positive attitude towards the child. I met learning atmospheres which made me shudder. Teachers deliberately showed up children in front of the whole class and exerted psychic pressure on supposedly voluntarily learning children that seemed to me to verge on physical abuse. In other classes there was perfect chaos. The children were supposed to work independently, but had no plans of their own, performed tasks unwillingly and wrong, got bored, pulled themselves together again and tried somehow or other to create a curriculum for the day that would have some sort of point. They all seemed to be fighting for themselves and many of them didn't know why they were in school at all, just 'got through' the day. The teachers were suffering partly from over-pressure and partly from trying, over and over again, to reconcile concept, child and content, unfortunately often without success.
So much for progressive teaching. . . . My last resort was to see how the latest subject concepts were being put into practice in schools. For some time I had been in contact with Jürgen Reichen, known for his book Reading through Writing and his method of 'workshop teaching.' I sought out classes in Germany and Switzerland which had been using workshop teaching and self-guided learning for some time. By now I was ready for anything. It was lovely to see that as a rule the children worked independently and also thought up many activities for themselves. Even so here too I found that the outcome at the end of the day was often rather inadequate, which made me realise that the outcomes that appear at the end of the day in black and white are not the only ones that count. But perhaps by now I had just lost the wish to go on looking for open learning. I was finding my school visits rather boring, and I think that basically that must have been more or less what the children thought too.
Offener Unterricht, Teil 1, pp 1-2
School is rather boring. This is a moderate criticism, and I think Peschel could well have gone further. For able children many subjects are often rather boring, but for the less able many subjects are actually painful – incomprehensible, pointless and humiliating.
Falko Peschel did not write about Open Learning until he had taken a class in an ordinary German school right through their four years of primary education. This is how he described the first time he met them.
Here I am, standing in front of my first class. 24 completely different children are here to be helped to develop. There's D, who, in spite of being eight years old and having had one year in the kindergarten, is on the emotional level of a four-year-old. There's hyperactive B, who is highly gifted and can immediately accurately recall anything he has ever seen or heard. Even if it was twenty metres away. Or there is M, completely naïve and lost in her own world, who probably won't know for a long time what school actually is. Or K, who has been sent to school early, because his drive for knowledge could not be satisfied in the kindergarten. And next to them are G and N, who are asylum-seekers from Bosnia and Zaire and live with their families, who speak no German, in just 20 square metres of space in an old factory. They are all expected to learn together in this class.
So a common curriculum, in the normal sense, is out of the question. It is obvious to me that I absolutely could not teach in a sufficiently differentiated way to take adequate account of the background knowledge, the working tempo, the drive for knowledge and the emotional development of each individual. One way or another I would bypass the children. I would be going right over the heads of a good number of them and soon bore the rest. But they do actually all want to learn. They badly want to learn. But something new, something exciting. Something they don't already know. And something that they can make use of.
Offener Unterricht, Teil 1, p 160
In his book Falko Peschel describes how he solved this problem, but what is relevant for this catalogue is one element of the problem itself – the almost universally held view that a common curriculum is the core element of all school work.
Probably most primary school classes have a similar range of ability to Peschel's. Perhaps the scale will be weighted more heavily towards one end or the other, but there will probably be at least one or two children close to either extreme.
I have recently helped a seven-year-old grandchild with his homework. He was at the stage of learning spelling at which you have to laboriously spell out each word sound by sound. When the spelling is as illogical as English spelling you make a great number of mistakes, and he had little chance of success with any word of more than one syllable. His homework consisted of making lists of words that had –ing added to the end of them. They were to be in three columns, one with no change to the original word (such as go, going), one with the final e omitted (come, coming), and one with the final consonant doubled (sit, sitting). The exercise was meaningless to him, and without my help he could have done nothing.
No wonder so many school-children are soon bored, discouraged or hostile.