Innovation in schools…

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After presenting some examples in previous posts of how human innovation takes place in some companies, I would like to share today some stories about successful innovations in schools in 3 European countries where I have lived: Germany, Spain and France.

In Berlin, not far from the impressive Museum Island, you will find the ESBC (Evangelical School Berlin Centre). Despite its “evangelic” name, only 1/3 of the students are baptized and classes are very heterogeneous in terms of profiles, origins and cultures. The philosophy of this school is very clear: in the current fast-changing progressively digital world, the key mission of a school is to develop students with determination and strong personalities, able to make the most of constant change thanks to a strong ability to motivate themselves.

According to Margret Rasfeld, the school’s headteacher, “nothing motivates students more than when they discover the meaning behind a subject of their own accord” and therefore, there are no grades or exams in this school. Indeed, until they turn 15, students decide the subjects they want to work on in each lesson and when they want their exams to take place. And actually, when exams can be avoided, students can propose other ways to prove their skills, for example by coding a videogame. There are few subjects set in advance, namely Maths, German, English and Social Studies as well as more innovative ones such as a “challenge” course, in which students are sent on an adventure fully planned and organized by themselves, such as trekking abroad or working in a farm.

More and more schools in Germany want to adopt this philosophy not only for its novelty, but also for its results, as year after year the students of this institution have better results that the other Berlin schools. Other schools in the country are adopting these methods and rely on the teaching materials that are developed at the “education innovation lab” of the school. For the moment they are 40 but the number keeps increasing…

2,000 Km away from Berlin, “Las Musas” high school in eastern Madrid also has an innovative approach to conflict management. Indeed, they launched 3 years ago a peer mediation program with the objective of preventing bullying (suffered by 1 student out of 10 according to “Save the Children”) and any other conflicts that may arise in the school. This includes anticipating new possible ones, for example by paying attention and spending some time with students seeming lonely or having integration problems. The peer mediation team is very small, it is only composed by 16 students out of 1,300 in the high school, aged between 12 and 14. What is important is that the members of this team are chosen by their peers in the school, which gives them the legitimacy to act. The skills needed for this mission are among other communication skills, conflict management, active listening, empathy and social skills.

So, how does this peer mediation actually work? It is very simple. Students having a conflict are first of all encouraged by mediators to find a solution informally by themselves. For example, in the past, two students having had a fight agreed to do a presentation about violence in front of their class. If this first level does not work, any of the parts can ask for a formal mediation, that is, a meeting with the mediators (and sometimes a teacher). During this meeting, mediators listen to both versions, take notes and help find a solution which is agreed by both parts with a 15 days follow-up. Most of the problems of the school are solved through this channel.

This approach has some major benefits. First, being among the students allows mediators to have a much sharper view of the problems and of the possible fair solutions. Furthermore, they manage to get information not accessible to adults, such as some personal problems, or some conflicts on social networks. The good news is that mediation can reach even this level. Indeed, if mediators see a possible conflict starting for example in a whatsapp, they can send the logo of the mediation team to the group to remind everyone of their presence, what usually puts the tension away. Second, this approach is also positive for the mediators, who perceive it as a unique learning experience allowing them to develop social skills useful even outside the school. Finally, people involved in such initiatives consider that peer mediation is very positive even beyond the context of the school, as it empowers students and makes them learn to become committed and trustful citizens. This initiative can also be found in other regions of Spain, such as the Basque country, Catalonia or the Valencia region, where a recent study highlights that 90% of the students would strongly recommend this system. Other countries are very active in this type of initiatives too, such as Finland, which has been using them for long time now.

1,000 km away from this high school in Madrid and about 5 km away from where I write this blog entry, the “Ecole élémentaire Dunois” in Paris also adopts a quite innovative approach to some of its activities. For example, self-management is strongly encouraged and these 9-year old students are used to propose and vote solutions to solve the problems the class finds. Also, students can choose the subject they want to work on among the ones proposed by the teacher and work at their own rhythm monitoring their progress via an “individual work plan”. Furthermore, students can work in pairs and mark their peer’s homework under teacher supervision (funnily enough, this trend of relying on peers for learning and development is more and more present in Executive Education too). Finally, mornings often start with a “what’s new?” ritual, during which each student shares any news or subject he/she wants to share with the class or by filling a self-reflection school journal that each student has. These are just some examples of the Freinet philosophy, created in the 1920’s by Frenchman Célestin Freinet and followed by the school. This philosophy is also called “the pedagogy of the chosen work”, because according to a teacher of this school, when students express themselves through their work, they decide voluntarily to take work and it becomes a need. Like the ESBC school in Berlin, this shows the importance given to developing the self-motivation, the autonomy and the uniqueness of each students.

In order to encourage innovation in schools, the French ministry for Education launches an annual contest in which schools all over the country share their innovations and apply to specific categories such as “avoiding school drop-out” or “primary schools evolution”. In this category, the winner idea this year was the “Twictée” a collaborative learning device to improve orthography inspired by Twitter. After the contest, a Top 30 of the most innovative initiatives in published by the ministry. I consider this is a simple yet powerful way to encourage and value innovation in schools.

There are of course many other innovative initiatives taking place in the schools all over the world, but I found interesting to highlight some concrete inspiring examples here. After all, schools educate and develop future generations, who will have in their hands the difficult task of inventing the future of the world – the sooner they get in contact with innovation, the better!

Sources:

“No grades, no timetable: Berlin school turns teaching upside down” (The Guardian, july 2016)

“Chavales que atajan el acoso de raíz” – in Spanish (El País, March 2016)

“La méthode Freinet, une pédagogie innovante au cœur de l’école publique” – in French (Le Monde, September 2014)

TOP 30, cahier des actions school initiatives, journée de l’innovation – in French (French ministry of Education, March 2016)

 

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