Martin Fugmann has caught a glimpse of the future. He spent six years as the principal of the German International School of Silicon Valley – not far from tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. “We were surrounded by schools where digitalization was a major focus,” says Fugmann, “and a network-based approach was central to that effort.”
When he returned to Germany in 2016 to serve as principal of the Evangelisch Stiftisches Gymnasium (ESG), a secondary school in the small city of Gütersloh, he wanted to bring with him something of the digital future he had encountered in California. He had come to realize that a new culture of learning was needed – and digitalization could be enormously helpful in achieving that goal. He also knew that this requires a new attitude on the part of teachers.
The first step he took, as the school’s principal, was therefore to start a discussion: Where do we, together, want to go? What should the future of our school look like? He brought in experts to speak at the school, went with colleagues to visit other schools, and asked students for their opinions.
By the end of the process, the teachers had reached agreement on one thing, which Fugmann summarizes as follows: “In today’s digitalized world, collaboration is becoming increasingly important. We need to understand that working in networks offers an opportunity. We must stop thinking in terms of competition and instead embrace networking and learn from one another.” Teachers should no longer see themselves as “lone warriors”.
The learning management system that Martin Fugmann has created together with his colleague Sebastian Geus (Ellen-Key-Schule, Berlin) is at the heart of this effort to encourage cooperation. Called “Nerdl” (Networked Educational Resources for Device-Aided Learning), it provides a platform for students and teachers to communicate with one another, anytime and anywhere. It allows teachers to cooperate on lesson planning and share exercises, pictures, presentations, instructional films and tutorials. Students can work together on projects, exchange ideas and provide online feedback to their classmates.
“We must stop thinking in terms of competition and instead embrace networking and learn from one another.”
As Martin Fugmann points out, “This platform encourages teachers to discuss with one another what is working well in the classroom and what needs improvement.” At ESG, teachers regularly test new learning scenarios and settings. When appropriate, they organize “Speakers’ Corners” and micro-training sessions to pass on to others the knowledge they have acquired. Fugmann stresses a crucial point: “Obviously, it’s okay to fail. It’s primarily about putting ideas into practice and trying things out.”
He also emphasizes that the intention is not to replace human communication with digital media. Nor does he simply want to emulate Silicon Valley. On the contrary: He firmly believes that there are things the United States could learn from Germany’s educational system. “Classroom instruction in German schools is still strongly influenced by the personality of the teacher, for example – and we see this as a very positive thing,” he says.
“Classroom instruction in German schools is still strongly influenced by the personality of the teacher – and we see this as a very positive thing.”
“Digitalization offers incredible opportunities,” says Hendrik Haverkamp, who teaches German at ESG and coordinates the use of laptops in the classroom. Technology is particularly helpful for individualizing instruction, because students learn much better when they can advance at their own pace and choose the areas they want to focus on. Autonomy, self-management, cooperation – these are what the future of learning is all about, Haverkamp says.
Like Martin Fugmann, however, he adds this caution: “While there is ample cause for enthusiasm, we need to be constantly asking ourselves, in each case, whether the use of digital media adds value, or whether it is better to switch off our technical devices.” This, too, is something students need to learn in school – just as they are learning a network-based approach to thinking and working.
“Technology is particularly helpful for individualizing instruction, because students learn much better when they can advance at their own pace and choose the areas they want to focus on.”