Integrating 325,000 Refugee Children Into the German Education System

In a post from September 2015 I had written about how Germany plans to get 250,000 refugee children into school. Much has happened in the last six months and I’d like to give you a short update:

A Syrian refugee flashes a victory sign at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 31, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

A Syrian refugee flashes a victory sign at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 31, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The German education system welcomed 325,000 refugee children in the years 2014 and 2015 (Source). With about 11 million students (Source), the additional 325,000 children make up about 3% of the overall student body. The Ministers of Education (Kultusministerkonferenz) has already recruited 12,000 new teachers over the last 2 years, but that is hardly sufficient. At the moment, Germany is looking for 20,000 additional teachers (Source). However, the President of the Deutsche Lehrerverband Josef Kraus stated that 400,000 to 500,000 children can be expected in the long run, which would imply 50,000 additional teachers would be needed. Retired teachers have received letters in their mail from the state asking them to consider returning to school (Source). The additional costs are estimated at €2.3 billion a year (Source).

bundespraesident-joachim-gauckThe German President Joachim Gauck already stated last year that the integration of migrants into German society is a bigger challenge than the German reunification process that began in 1990 and continues to this day. Paraphrasing Gauck, while German reunification was about merging two parts that belonged together, today’s integration is about merging two parts that didn’t belong together before (Source). Especially the cultural differences will pose a major challenge for both sides – Germans as well as Syrians/Iraqis/Afghans/…

The numbers are not necessarily the biggest challenge. The UK for example is expecting 615,000 additional students until 2020 (Source), which is significantly more than what Germany expects. However, the additional 5 years of planning time that the UK has to its disposal is only one aspect that makes this comparison rather problematic. Nearly all of the children arriving in Germany do not speak German, while most of the additional students in the UK are expected to have some or even advanced English skills. Since January 2016, the German education system has already been offering 8,200 introductory classes to 194,000 refugee children across the (Source). The idea is to teach children basic German skills before transitioning them into the regular classroom.

While the UK can largely focus on simply teaching their newcomers, the German education system will have to do much more. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Source). With an estimated 325,000 refugees in school, this would imply 36,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). There is a dire need for social workers and special training for teachers to help these children (Source).

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 18.36.20Does the German population support the integration of so many newcomers? Looking at a popularity poll for the major German political parties shows that the CDU (grey line) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel lost considerably over the last year. In contrast, the AfD (blue line), a right-wing populist party, has gained massively. In February 2016, 47% of Germans thought that Merkel was doing a rather good job, while 50% were dissatisfied with it (Source). That is still a considerable amount of support given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, which could have easily led to a more widespread anti-refugee populist right-wing movement. Around September 2015 Germany welcomed on some days more than 10,000 refugees per day. That figure has dropped to 200 (Source) due to fences along the Balkan countries as well as an agreement with Turkey that obliges the country to take back any refugee who reaches EU soil without an entry permit. This makes the situation less acute and is expected to weaken populist right-wing groups such as the AfD.

Although the outcome of the refugee crisis is as unclear today as it was two years ago, the country has committed itself already on all levels (political, economical, social) to the challenge. The question is not whether refugees should be admitted, but rather how they can be integrated successfully. Although nationalist right-wing movements are still strong, there is still a solid base within society, which supports the current course of action. I want to leave you with a video that the German comedian Jan Böhmermann made as a protest against right-wing groups.

How to Apply to a PGCE Program

Teachers wantedWhat if I told you that there is a way to become a qualified teacher within a year with little upfront costs? The only requirement you have to bring to the table is a Bachelors’ Degree as well as some basic Math and English proficiency. Your nationality and the subject you studied in your Bachelor don’t matter. Still interested? Then read on and learn about the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) and how to apply for it!


The reason I am writing this is twofold. First, not many people outside the UK know about the PGCE, which is a shame because everyone can apply for it. Second, applying for the PGCE can be tricky if you don’t know anybody who has gone through the process. It was an uphill battle for me, but I managed and now want to pass on that knowledge to you.

Teaching is a fascinating line of work. Many of the usual factors that people from other careers complain about – things like monotonous work, little personal development and no societal contributions – don’t exist when working with kids. You carry tremendous responsibility, every day is like no other and you never stop learning.

I was always interested in education, but never considered becoming a teacher. In Germany – where I’m from – teacher training takes seven years! First you have to attend lectures for five years and pass the state examination. If you pass you can start your two-year traineeship at a school. If you pass all of these hurdles you are finally a fully accredited teacher. After having spent 5 years studying already I wouldn’t have considered spending another 5 years without a salary, even though if studying in Germany is for free. Just when I thought that teaching would not be an option for me anymore I heard of the PGCE.

12063292_10153643776951823_2402302449390641618_nI started my application in April 2015, sent it to universities in July and got my first successful application in September – a six month process. I am now training at Brunel University London to become a secondary science teacher. I have been teaching my first classes since last week at an outstanding school in the heart of London (20 observations I made at a London inner-city school). I’m always exhausted, but having a lot of fun. I am very confident that this is the right thing for me.

Let’s make yours a reality. Also, SHARE this with friends who might want to work as teachers!



    • What will it cost me? Tuition fees and bursaries.
    • What will I earn as a teacher?
    • Teaching routes other than PGCE
    • Translate documents
    • Prepare a UK visit
    • Get 2 Letters of Recommendation
    • Apply through UCAS



What will it cost me? Tuition fees and bursaries.

The PGCE tuition fees are in total £9,000 and you’ll be spending at least £400 for rent each month. In total, you’ll have about £15,000-20,000 costs in a year. If you can pay it, that’s wonderful! For the rest of you, here is what you can do:

If you are a foreign student you will have a hard time getting a loan – you are only eligible if you have lived in the UK for 3 or more years (Source). However, don’t forget to look at the bursary you are eligible for (Source). Your bursary depends on (a) your previous grades and (b) the subject you want to teach. These “1st”, “2:1” and “2:2” notations can be a bit confusing. Go ahead and check in which column you would fall by checking the “Overseas degree equivalency” (here).

Suppose you want to teach Biology with a 2:2 degree. That means you will be guaranteed a bursary of £15,000. Your tuition fees are £9,000, which leaves you with £6,000. If your living expenses are ~£800 per month you will have additional costs of about £8,000 (from September to May). You’ll be £2,000 short. That’s still a sweat deal I must say.

What will I earn as a teacher?

“On average, a teacher earns £37,400 a year” (Source). However, based on a blog by a fellow PGCE student (Source) you will probably start with about £1,300 per month in your pocket each month. Living expenses will probably be around £800. That leaves you with about £500 savings per month. You clearly don’t become a teacher for the money, but your wage will increase over the years. Your chances of landing a job are utopian. “9 out of 10 newly qualified teachers were employed within six months of completing training” (Source).


Teaching routes other than PGCE

I will be explaining how to apply for the PGCE, but you should be aware of these alternative routes:

  1. PGCE Primary Education: kids between the ages six and 14.
  2. School-centered initial teacher training (SCITT): While PGCE programs are offered by universities, SCITT programs are offered by schools. SCITT’s give you even more exposure to the school environment. Also, you can start earning a salary during your training. The downsides are that (a) you get less theoretical training, (b) you cannot continue with a Master of Education (MEd) and (c) you don’t get the PGCE, which can become important if you want to work internationally.
  3. Early years teacher: Teach kids between the ages zero and five.
  4. Further education: Teach 14 year olds to adults. You can teach vocational courses (e.g. apprenticeships), languages and many other training programs.
  5. Teach First: Teach First is an NGO that places you in schools in low-income areas. You get paid from day one, but you have to bring good grades and be quite resilient as your students will often times be very challenging. This is their YouTube channel.



You can already officially apply for the academic year 2016/2017. It’s a rolling application, which means, the earlier you apply the better your chances. You can still get into a program in July (like I did), but your chances will diminish the longer you wait. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have gotten a spot for this year. Hence, start now!

Orient yourself along the flowchart I made.Infographic PGCE Apply




DO THIS NOW – Translate Documents

If you went to school and/or university abroad you will have to get your degrees checked by NARIC (here). Select the “Statement of Comparability” service (here), upload all your documents from secondary school to PhD (certificate + transcript). The service costs £55,20 and takes about 10-15 working days. If your documents are NOT in English, then you’ll have to go for a “Statement of Comparability with Translation Waiver Service” (here), which can be done for these languages: Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, Farsi, French, German, Italian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish. If your language is not among these then you have to get them translated and certified by a notary in your country before sending them in English to NARIC. The translation takes 10-15 working days.


As soon as you have your documents translated, you can (AND SHOULD) apply for the “Premier Plus” service on the “Get into Teaching” website. You will get an actual teacher to guide you through the application process. This is a free service and you must absolutely take advantage of this. However, the service is only available for students with a 2:2 degree or better.


DO THIS NOW – Prepare your UK visit

There are three things you need to take care of in the UK:

  1. The Literacy Skills Test: If you didn’t do the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) during your education, then you have to take the tests. It doesn’t matter how good your English is. The test is free of charge and can be taken up to three times. It checks for your spelling, punctuation, grammar and comprehension. You can access past test to practice before taking the test (Past Tests) and you can sign up at a local test center (Skills Test). I really can’t say how difficult it will be for you. It may be a walk in the park or for you or require a few days of preparation.
  2. The Numeracy Professional Skills Test: Same story. Take it if you didn’t do the GCSE. You can take the test at the same test center and even on the same day if you like. Past exams are here and you can sign up here. I highly recommend the past tests. Take a day or two to prepare for this. It’s not difficult, just many things that you probably have forgotten by now.
  3. At least 5 School Experience Days: You need to have been observing lessons at a UK school for at least 5 days (some universities only require 3, some more than 5). Your experience will form a central part of your Letter of Motivation. Universities will not consider you if you don’t have the required experience days. You can (1) write schools directly and ask if they would have you and (2) access a booking system by the Department for Education (Source). You can only get access if your foreign degrees have been translated by NARIC to be 2:2 or better.


DO THIS NOW – Get Two Letters of Recommendation

Your first letter of recommendation should come from a university or college, preferably somebody who knows you well. Your second letter of recommendation should be someone who can comment on your character and suitability for teaching. Read the details here.



Apply Through UCAS

First, find the universities you want to apply to. I would first choose a city where you want to do your PGCE. This can be England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland uses a different system and they don’t offer the PGCE (they have a very similar program called the PGDE. It’s definitely worth checking out if you want to study in e.g. Edinburgh, Glasgow or St. Andrews). It makes a lot of sense to apply to London based universities because (a) there are so many of them and (b) you won’t have to travel across the country for the interviews.

If you want to find out about the quality of the program, the best thing you can do is check out the latest Ofsted inspection (Source). Ofsted is a very respected governmental body that assures quality at universities and in schools. You want to find university programs that have been rated ‘outstanding’.

You can start your application via the UCAS Teacher Training site (Source). You can apply to three universities. The application fee is £23.

These are the components you need to submit with your application.

  1. Letter of Motivation: You can get some help on how to write it (Source). In short, you need to talk about (1) why you want to become a teacher, (2) your observations during the school experience days, (3) why you think you’ll be a great teacher, (4) what you’d like to do after the PGCE.
  2. 2 Letters of Recommendation: Here are the basic guidelines (Source).



If all your applications failed you enter the Apply 2 track. You can basically continue applying to one university at a time until September/October when the courses start. You don’t have to pay an extra fee.



If the university is interested in you they will invite you for an interview. That means, you have to book a second flight and come over to the UK. Alternatively, you may ask them to schedule an interview over Skype. You should also have a reason why you applied to that specific university! Your host university will tell you what to bring, but in short you can expect to bring along the following:

  • ID with photo
  • Evidence of GCSE equivalent degree (NARIC translated)
  • Certificates (e.g. Bachelors’ Degree) à May need to be original
  • Transcripts showing the grades of all individual subjects à May need to be original
  • Evidence that you passed the Literacy and Numeracy Professional Skills Test

You may be asked to:

  • Give a presentation (prepared in advance)
  • Simulated classroom with a bad behaving student
  • Personal interview with the recruiter
  • Write further tests: The universities sometimes have in-house test in order to ensure that you fulfill their standards.



If you are given an unconditional offer you are all set. Start looking for a place to live because you are starting your teacher training in September!

If you are given a conditional offer you will probably have to take a Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) course in the subject you want to teach. The courses can sometimes take until July/August – depending on the course you want to teach. But don’t worry! These courses don’t cost anything and you can even get a bursary of up to £7,200 for that (Source)! They may start as early as in April and their duration varies depending on the subject you need to freshen up. Find out more about SKE courses (Source).



Once you’ve successfully applied to a PGCE program you can look forward to one heck of a year. It is going to be very demanding. You’ll be training in the classroom from October to December and then again from February to May. The successful completion of the PGCE will allow you to work in any school in the United Kingdom (excluding Scotland) as a so called “Newly Qualified Teacher” or NQT. In your first year you will still be observed in your classroom from time to time. If the observers (other teachers) are confident that you do your job well you will be awarded the “Qualified Teacher Status” or QTS. Congratulations, you can now work as a teacher without supervision!
Finally, you can also work as a teacher abroad since the PGCE is recognised by many countries and schools around the world. However, your QTS can only be done at a British school. Keep that in mind!

Do let me know if you have any further questions. I’d be more than happy to help you out!
And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog. It would be great to see you around!

20 Observations I made at a London inner-city school 

Over the past 3 months I have been working at a London inner-city school. Having been educated in the German system I was able to experience a British school with a contrasting perspective. Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

  1. Students line up outside the classroom and before the lesson and inside the classroom after the lesson, waiting for the teacher to invite them in or release them, respectively. They also line up after lunch break to enter the building in an orderly fashion
  2. Yellow separating lines in the corridors and on stairs make sure that two-way traffic is possible within the school building.
  3. Between lessons the teaching staff stand in the corridors to make sure that students get to their next class in a quiet and orderly fashion.
  4. Students wear school uniforms. Students in casual attire may not enter the school building. Teachers are asked to dress formally and address each other with ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Addressing a teacher by their first name is not allowed.
  5. Nike and Adidas backpacks are terribly fashionable. I estimate that 90% of all students have one. Similarly, sports shoes are a source of pride, especially for the boys.
  6. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited on school grounds. Any spotted device will be immediately confiscated for at least a number of days.
  7. In class, each student has a work book for every subject, which they are not allowed to take home. The teachers keep them, grade the quality of the work and provide written feedback. Worksheets are glued in.
  8. Teachers try to minimise passive learning (classical teaching) and try to engage students through activities – from crossword puzzles to tinkering with circuit boards.
  9. Teachers need to be able to prove that learning occurs in every single lesson. Therefore, teachers present the ‘learning objectives’ at the beginning of the class. At the end of the lesson the students have to write into their workbooks what they learned in that lesson. 
  10. Teachers have access to a database, which details previous, current and expected grades as well as any identified special needs (e.g. learning difficulties, emotional or psychological instabilities) and financial standing (free school meals) for every student. This information is used to provide extra support for disadvantaged students.
  11. The date is also used to set the difficulty of the tasks during the lesson as well as the difficulty of the homework. Teachers are held accountable for providing each student with the appropriate difficulty. It may be that the teacher has to prepare the same worksheet in three variants in order to cover all the levels of ability of the students in a class. On top of that come special needs students.
  12. A number of staff members deal exclusively with the special needs students. They offer one-on-one tutoring and lots of psychological coaching (anger management, self-confidence building).
  13. Teachers can ask lab technicians to organise an experiment in advance and have the materials delivered to the classroom. Sometimes the lab technicians will even perform demonstrations (e.g. alkali metals in water).
  14. Students of a year group (year 7, year 8 etc,) are organised into classes (7A, 7B etc.) based on their levels of ability. The most able students are in the A-set (7A, 8A etc.). A year 8 student may be in 8A for English, but in 8C for Science and in 8D for History.
  15. Every six weeks the students are reevaluated and can move up or down in the classes. In rare cases, students can skip a year. Repeating a year practically never happens.
  16. When a student disrupts the class the teacher writes the names on the board. Two further disruptions lead to a ‘demerit’ (a negative point that is recorded school-internally). A third disruption can lead to same-day detention. Students may also be sent outside the classroom for a few minutes or their parents might get a ‘bad news slip’, which details their disruptive behaviour.
  17. Every week a few kids get excluded from school for a few days due to improper behaviour. A kid tried to trip me, which led to a two-day exclusion.
  18. The so called ‘pastoral managers’ are equipped with walkie-talkies and assist teachers upon request by paying classrooms a visit and restoring behaviour that is conducive for learning. They have the power to keep, exclude and expel students. They are highly respected by the students.
  19. Good behaviour is rewarded with ‘merits’, which are – just like demerits –accumulated over the year. Merits can lead to great prizes such as a Samsung tablet or a bicycle, while demerits may result in the student not being allowed to go on school trips. Students can be expelled on the basis of bad behavior.
  20. Every classroom is equipped with a surveillance camera, which is often times used as evidence when one statement stands against another statement. One kid was caught frequently disconnecting the power cable from the computer to stall the class.

Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

Merry Christmas!

School in Prison – An Experience Report

Disclaimer: The name of the prison is not mentioned and the names of the inmates have been altered for privacy protection purposes. 

7092845355_bc0bdb1453_k (1)9 AM. Security guards line up along the corridor at a young offenders prison in the UK. They escort one inmate at a time to their respective classroom. I only carry my notepad and a pen – anything else including phones is strictly prohibited. The inmates are between 15 and 18 years old and wear grey sweatshirts and sweatpants. As they walk down the corridor they turn and shout, asking for my name – clearly not shy. The large majority of them committed thefts or robberies, but a handful are in for murder or rape. I don’t know who is in for what and some of my colleagues have chosen not to inquire. They say it changes your perception of the inmate in a negative way. Together with Maggie, an art teacher, I wait in the corridor until all inmates have entered. She unlocks the classroom door using one of the keys on her heavy keychain that she carries in a special pocket fixed around her belt. She locks the door behind us.

12528604_83f1f5e748_oI meet Andrei, a 16 year old who moved with his family from Rumania to the UK. Andrei is a Romani (‘Gypsy’). He was caught by the police robbing a corner store and was sentenced to half a year in prison. I am told that he could hardly speak English when he arrived three months ago, but he has come a long way since then. I find him arguing with his British inmates about whether the Volga is an actual river. In March he will be deported back to Rumania, where his father as well as his girlfriend are waiting for him. He is supposed to get married and expects to have children very soon. He wants to live in Germany some day. His mom took off along with his three sisters after she found out that he had smoked weed. I can see how is cheerful character recedes as he tells me that he may never see them again. It truly pains him. He promised himself never to smoke weed again and hopes to make things right with his mom in the future. Like most of the inmates Andrei regrets what he did. When I was asked about what the inmates were like I found myself saying over and over again: “They’re just kids who did something stupid.”

On a Friday we admitted a 16 year old boy named Mark who had robbed a woman with two of his buddies on the street. Mark was clearly frightened as he was only incarcerated yesterday. He seemed quite shaken, but accepting of his new reality. I can only imagine how tough it must be for a 16 year old to lie in his bed at night, inside a locked room, listening to the other inmates shouting through the walls, trying to have a conversation. No soothing words of your parents across the phone line, no internet to distract your mind. The full realisation of your situation sinks in.

Mark tried to commit suicide over the weekend. He is now being monitored very closely.

5997920696_ecb224068e_bThe plexiglas windows have steel bar reinforcements and the doors are locked by the teacher from the inside. In case of an emergency, the teacher can press a green button on the wall, which will summon security guards within 10-20 seconds. A lot can happen in 20 seconds, given you reach the green button. There have been cases of violence against teachers – it’s a very real job hazard. However, most of the violence occurs between the inmates. I saw security guards rushing past my classroom because a boy had thrown chairs at another boy. He had to get stitches. In one of my classes, one of my boys threw another over the table – supposedly play fighting. It’s understandable why teachers refrain from pushing the kids too much.

school education prisonIn theory, the boys have excellent conditions to pursue their school work. They get 30 hours of education per week, classes have no more than 2-7 students and teachers can often times tutor them on a one-on-one basis. The lessons can be tailored to individual goals and needs. Every inmate gets a cell with a desk and a chair to work in peace. The classrooms are just 3 minutes away by foot. Ideal conditions – in theory.

In practice, most of the kids hardly make any progress. Most of them were never good at school and never learned how to work with discipline and persistence. Most of them don’t have academic goals such as passing their GCSE or A-Levels. An achievement mindset has to be taught – primarily by the parents who set an example. Many of the inmates have poor socio-economic backgrounds, nobody to push them forward and no emphasis on education. The teachers they meet in prison are in many cases the only person in a long time who tries to push them forward academically.

It pains me to see that many teachers actually don’t push the inmates very much. The drive and the sense of accountability that I felt in the presence of other teachers at an outstanding school in central London was missing inside the prison. Teachers don’t stick around long enough to build deep enough relationships. Maybe, teachers have little hope in truly having an impact on the lives of these children. Many of them only stay for 100 days or half a year and then return to the very environment in which they derailed in the first place. It is difficult – if not impossible – to achieve true and lasting changes in a young person’s life within such a short amount of time. Education is all about patience. A the delicate offshoot needs to grow in a protected space until strong enough to stand by itself. Teachers cannot be expected to solve such deep running problems within 100 days. Maybe they don’t push the inmates because they have no hope for them.

Connor was by far the brightest student I met during my stay. He was 17 years old and hasn’t gone to school for three years. He wanted to know what the Large Hadron Collider does and whether cancer will soon be curable in all cases I explained to him how mutations lead to cancer, why they are detrimental for the body, how chemotherapy works and why a bone-marrow transplant is such an ingenious therapy for Leukemia patients. His thirst for knowledge was incredible and much more than that of any student I have ever met in school. He told he he wants to do his GCSE and A-Levels, but thinks these degrees are unattainable for him. He lacks a lot of self-confidence.

Even if Connor pushes himself over the remaining half year in prison he will probably not continue on a success trajectory. Many return to prison because they derail in their home environments – just like they did in the first place. There are exceptions to the rule and I hope that Connor can pull through, but the odds are stacked against him. Conner does have more of a shot than the others and it is for inmates like him that teachers have to continue pushing.

Yes, Andrei, Mark and Conner have the odds stacked against them. Teachers can only influence them for a short period of time, they’ll return to the same environment that got them into prison and will likely be back in a few  months. Education will only be stressed inside prison. But maybe, if teachers push the inmates enough, they can foster enough self-confidence and communicate the importance of education so that the boys can continue on that trajectory without external help. In an ideal world, the prison would offer an intervention plan that stretches beyond their prison stay. They would get the needed support until they can support themselves. In the end they are just kids who did something stupid and don’t have the support they need. They are lost and need guidance from adults who care about them and their academic achievements. 30 hours of school per week is a good start, but hardly enough for the most needy kids out societies. May these kids beat the odds. I wish them all the best.

A Case for More Discipline in Education

In Summary

  1. This post is based on a leading German education veteran called Bernhard Bueb who led the renowned boarding school Schule Schloss Salem in south Germany.
  2. He argues that the ability to ‘make an effort’  has to be taught to young people repetitively
  3. This can only occur if students accept their parents and teachers as their leaders who act in their interest.
  4. Parents and teachers carry the responsibility to act as potters who mould their children by setting appropriate tasks.
  5. As young people develop the ability to set their own goals and pursue them they earn independence of external guidance.
  6. Discipline should ideally lead to self-discipline, but it takes a lot of leadership from adults and lot of trust and discipline from young people. An old saying: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness”


What This Post is Based on

bs-buebThe Schule Schloss Salem is a world renowned boarding school located in the south of Germany. It has been educating the elite since 1920 including Prince Philip – Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Sofia of Spain and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark. Bernhard Bueb, headmaster of the school between 1974-2005, published a bestselling book in 2006 entitled “Lob der Disziplin: Eine Streitschrift” (translation: “Praising Discipline: A Polemic”) (Source). In it, Mr. Bueb talks about the importance of discipline in education, as witnessed at Schule Schloss Salem. This post recounts some of the points he made to an English speaking audience.

The Gardener’s Rule

People usually don’t like the word ‘discipline’ very much. We associate it with things like duty, rules, self-control and even compulsion and submission. Discipline requires effort, which humans actively try to avoid. However, we admire people who are disciplined. It is a universally sought after character trait because it allows one to overcome difficulties and reach goals.

PotterPlantBueb groups teachers and their teaching styles into gardeners and potters.  Teaching like a gardener means to promote, foster, nurture, encourage, facilitate and support your students. They believe that students will find their way all by themselves if they follow their interests and get the necessary support from their teachers.
On the other hand, teaching like a potter means to force, demand and push students as well as subject them to the leadership of the teacher. In other words, they demand discipline. Such teachers see themselves as blind dogs that guide students along a path they believe to be appropriate.

Today’s zeitgeist clearly favours the gardener. The teaching profession is shifting from a role of authority and leadership to a role of mentoring and nurturing. Students are given more and more choice in their studies and their extracurricular activities instead of having teachers decide what would be most appropriate for them. I would like to argue for the potters among the teachers. I believe we need more discipline in schools because it is in the best interest of the very students we teach.


Discipline is Effort

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 22.51.00An infant is hardly able to suppress its desires. It acts out of pure impulse. By forcing a young person to do something they don’t like they can learn to appreciate the positive outcomes that come with effort. They learn that suppressing their impulses and resist temptations can have great benefits. The graph below illustrates how we reach our goals by overcoming initial effort. For example, a student prepares tirelessly for the big drama class performance. Another student studies for days on end for the upcoming exams. Such behaviour is not trivial and needs to be taught through many cycles of repetition. It takes many years of schooling and lots of parental guidance to engrain an understanding of how making an effort leads to desirable outcomes. Eventually, students learn to discipline themselves and become free from guidance – they become more free.


Discipline and Freedom

In school, teachers impose their authority over students by setting challenging tasks they don’t necessarily want to do because teachers want them to experience the positive outcomes of their demands. With time, students learn to apply their effort-making abilities to reach their own goals, essentially achieving self-discipline. This earns them more freedom because they become able to pursue their own goals without the guidance of a mentor. However, the first steps in their early years can only be achieved with the help of enforced guidance because young people are most of the time not able to see the advantages of making an effort without having experienced it themselves. The German poet Paul Fläming said that “he who masters and can control himself can conquer the whole wide world” (translated from German).

Children think that freedom means the exemption of rules (e.g. ‘the freedom to drink alcohol’ or ‘the freedom to stay at the party until midnight’). These rules exist for the protection of young people. They can be lifted if children show that they can handle that freedom responsibly. In the ideal case, parents and teachers act like a benevolent dictatorship that gives more freedom to a child as it matures.


Discipline Requires Trust

6060083868_4b51418347_bRelationships are two-way streets. Although young children are strongly dependent on adults to guide them, they must in return have to know that adults are acting in their interest. The idea is that children will only make an effort if they trust the guiding adult. Teachers must be accepted as professionals who know the student, can guide him or her through the education landscape and towards a brighter future. Think of teachers as guide dogs. They know the terrain and can guide each student along a certain path depending on their needs. But they can only do so if the student trusts their leadership and willingly completes the guidelines. Teachers could let students wander the forest by themselves and make sure they progress. However, only by forcing students along certain paths can they learn to appreciate things that lay outside of their perspective. An old saying is very fitting at this point: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness.”


What to Do?

Bernhard Bueb suggests that schools should teach their students more discipline. The goal still is to educate independent minds that can set and pursue their own goals without the guidance of another person, but that ability needs to be taught. Teachers and the school leadership should use their knowledge of the individual student to select coursework and activities that are more beneficial to the development of the student. This requires that students and parents trust the judgment of teachers and school leadership to make the right choices towards the development of a child. Asking young people to do things they don’t like (e.g. coursework) will strain the relationship to the student, but it can endure if the student can trust the leadership of the teacher.

I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Do you agree with this train of thought and have something to add? Do you have some counter-arguments?

What The Martian Teaches Us About Scientific Literacy

The Martian

If you have watched the recent blockbuster ‘The Martian’ by Ridley Scott you will know what I mean when I say that interdisciplinary education is crucial. In the movie, the NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on Mars after having been unintentionally left behind by his crew. Mark has to figure out how to survive for the next years by growing his own food, producing water and protecting himself against the arid conditions on Mars until he can be rescued. I want to reflect on why an interdisciplinary education is important and how/why we should reform our school curriculum to emphasise the interconnectedness of disciplines instead of their distinctness.

In today’s world, the sciences are usually separated into biology, chemistry and physics. This division is a very reasonable one, given the vastness of our cumulative human knowledge, which has become unknowable for any human being over the last few hundred years. A student who wants to become a scientist doing cutting edge research will eventually have to narrow her focus, but that’s what university is for. In school, we want to teach students basic scientific literacy:

“Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions…” (Source)

I see scientific literacy as a set of basic rules about how the world works, a student can apply to a novel situation in order to derive insights, make predictions and better decisions. The ‘Martian’, although he had never grown potatoes before, now had to do so in an alien environment. His understanding of these basic rules (e.g. manure contains valuable nutrients, plants need earth-like atmospheric pressure, water can be extracted from the air) allowed him to plan his survival. Most of these basic rules are not confined to a single discipline, but span across.

15911816856_72ca90d313_kImagine teaching students about ‘balance’. In biology, you could talk about how prey and predators form a stable environment, how the extinction of a predator would lead to an overpopulation of prey animals and how that would throw the ecosystem off balance. You could also talk about homeostasis and how organisms keep their internal environment within certain parameters. In chemistry, students can learn about balancing chemical reactions and in physics about the balance of forces that keep the electrons in their orbits as well as earth around the sun. Many school already have such methods in place, but the concept of ‘balance’ could be extended to non-scientific fields as well – political balance between nuclear powers during the cold war, balance within a human relationship.

Restructuring the school curriculum to highlight basic rules is not necessarily more work for students, but initially more work for teachers. Instead of following the chapters in a book, teachers from the different sciences have to come together and discuss how they could coordinate their lessons around these concepts. Maybe even have a project week in which every school subject participates! Students would be able to see how the concept spans across the disciplines and get a deeper appreciation for the world they live in.

So, what’s the point I’m trying to make. Firstly, scientific literacy is hugely important for making better decisions in life. It involves tackling topics in an interdisciplinary way in order to extract generalised concepts. The student can gain a deeper understanding about how the world works and apply their knowledge to novel situations. Secondly, I want to stress the importance of building a deeper appreciation for what the sciences are. It’s not the working hours or the pay check that gets students motivated to become scientists, but the awe and wonder that science has to give.

How Germany Plans to Get 250,000 Syrian Refugees Into School


As a German, I would like to share an inside perspective into how Germany plans to handle 250,000 new students coming mostly from Syria. The refugee crisis has pushed every other news topic aside over the last two weeks and I’d like to share these news – which have not been communicated in the English speaking world to such a degree – with you.

German Syrian Flag800,000 refugees are expected to seek asylum in Germany just this year (Source) and with a 42% (Source) of all requests being granted, Germany would expect 336,000 new inhabitants for 2015. According to the U.N. half of all refugees are under the age of 18 (Source). That would mean an additional 168,000 students that would need to go to school. Some estimates say Germany should prepare for 250,000 additional students (Source).

It’s the sheer volume of students arriving in such a short period of time that is starting to worry authorities. Apart from the current logistical challenges of registering and moving refugees across the country to their new homes, the schools will feel the pressure in the coming months when kids will start to join their German class mates. Many schools may actually benefit from the influx of refugee students because student numbers have been declining for years due to Germany’s shrinking population. 250,000 new students may save a number of schools from closure (Source). With currently 11 million children going to school an additional 250,000 would equal to an increase of just 2%. This may not seem like much, but it’s a gargantuan challenge for the educational system. Here are 4 key challenges and how Germany plans to tackle these:


(1) Healing Psychological Wounds and Letting Refugees Feel Safe

You can’t just empty a busload of refugees at a local school and expect them to magically adapt to their new environment. Many kids will arrive terribly scared and confused from their journey, away from home and surrounded by a completely different culture (Source). The cold winters will also pose a challenge to Syrians. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Family Ministry expects 110,000 refugee children under the age of six to live in Germany by the end of this year (Source). This would imply 25,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages Caritas daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). PTSD can easily take years of psychological care to treat, which would be a significant cost factor for the public health care system.


(2) Adapt to the Language and Culture8154287681_f58e5c8dee_k

The German language is not your Sunday ice cream in the park. The pronunciation as well as the grammar can cause some serious headaches. Since 2005, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been offering “Integration Courses” for newcomers. These courses are comprised of 600 hours of German lessons and 60 hours of lessons on the German state and society. The BAMF will be spending an additional €25 million (£18 million, $28 million) this year alone and expects the costs to be much higher in 2016 (Source). This will require a joint effort of community colleges, private language schools and church institutions to find more German teachers and increase their course offers.


(3) Varying Levels of School Performance

Many of the kids will not have gone to school for months if not years. A Bavarian teacher said: “Student ability ranges from true illiterates who have never gone to school, who have tended sheep or who have worked in some other way – to students who are able to attend Gymnasium [UK Sixth Form, US High School] and who can speak two, three languages, but not German” (Source). This situation requires individual support in order to ensure that each child can develop properly at the right pace. In Germany, the yearly average cost for public school education per child is about €6,500 (£4,775, $7,367), but this figure will be far higher for refugees as they need extra classes and tutoring to get to the same level of ability as their German class mates.


(4) Intercultural Education and Professional Networks for Teachers

Norbert Hocke from the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) says: “We need intercultural competence from educators as well as trauma specialists” (Source). Cities and municipals are calling for expert-networks that serve educators with advice and consultancies. A model project at ten daycare centers in Saxony has is already offering intercultural training to primary school teachers. It is expected that kids will learn German faster and their parents parents can connect with other parents and find more time for their German courses.



Why Helping Syrians is the Right Thing to Do

15307288216_9e2816f682_kYes, the challenges are massive. Yes, it will demand a lot of time, effort and money to get the job done. Whether Germany will financially benefit in the long run is unclear, but also completely beside the point. It is vital that young Syrians everywhere are properly educated. I really hope that they’ll one day be able to return home. And when they do, they should be equipped with all the tools they need to rebuild and develop a prosperous nation that can feel safe and help maintain peace.


As for Germany

9680885082_733815fbb5_kThere have been more than a dozen attacks on refugee accommodations (Source) across the country, but a resounding 93% of Germans say that Germany should host refugees (Source). Why Germans are so willing to help refugees is debatable. However, support for refugees is very likely take a dip in the following months and years. Good societal integration is very difficult and problems will surely arise. German political leaders will have to tread very carefully when justifying the billions of Euros spent on refugees rather than increasing government spending for the education system, which has been stagnating for years. Proper integration takes years of hard work and Germany is just at the beginning of things. Just 75 years ago, the Nazis moved millions of Jews via trains to concentration camps. Today, those same trains move refugees into German communities. A remarkable transformation.