Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What prompted you to have your students offer workshops for younger students?
Renée Lechner: While I was on sabbatical at Microsoft in the US, it became clear to me how far behind we are in Switzerland in the use of digital technology. My students are preparing for careers in business, and no matter where they go after they finish school, they will be dealing with digitalization either directly or indirectly.
Developmental psychology tells us that teenagers are more likely to listen to and learn from their peers, rather than from adults. With this in mind, it seemed to make sense to have my students organize workshops on digital topics for slightly younger students.
“Developmental psychology tells us that teenagers are more likely to listen to and learn from their peers.”
CSG: How does that fit into the curriculum?
RL: As a school that prepares students for business careers, we provide opportunities to gain practical experience in setting up a business venture. We used to have our students create their own small-scale companies, making things and selling them to their classmates, but that’s not much of a real-world exercise. This project requires my students to interact with people and helps them develop skills for their professional lives.
It’s beneficial for them to learn from others, and not just the teacher. Through the start-up network Startfeld in St Gallen, students were able to collaborate with other people as they planned their workshops – someone with a Smart Home start-up, for example, or someone in the field of robotics.
The students also worked with digital channels, using professional tools, and learned the corresponding programs. They developed a business plan, found ways to market their workshops, and designed flyers and other promotional materials.
We established an association under Swiss law to run these workshops, and this allowed the students to gain insight into the relevant laws and the structures necessary for creating such an association.
CSG: How did the first series of workshops go?
RL: We started this project two years ago as a pilot, with no funding. My class of 19 had six months to develop the workshops, starting from zero. They had to come up with an idea, work with expert advisors, and draw up a budget for materials.
“Learning to be flexible was a good experience for the students.”
They marketed the sessions, sometimes writing hundreds of emails to teachers, ran practice sessions, and reworked the content. Interest was huge: We offered ten workshops over ten weeks, and all were fully booked within two weeks.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, posing enormous challenges for my students. They had to convert their workshops to an online format and prepare materials for shipment to schools. Like everyone else during this difficult time, they were frustrated when the technology failed to work perfectly. But we managed, and the students did a great job.
Two of our classes, with a total of 38 students, organized workshops during the 2020-2021 school year, but it wasn’t easy, given the continuing pandemic. There were restrictions on the number of students in one room, and every day the workshops were different. Still, learning to be flexible was a good experience for the students.
“The students who have participated in the peer-to-peer learning project have much better people skills.”
This school year, we’re finally running the program as originally intended. The workshops are offered as part of the Smartfeld regional program for promoting digital education. Interested teachers can request a workshop for their classes, and my students will deliver it.
CSG: What do your students take away from this experience?
RL: As students begin their apprenticeships, I’ve been receiving very positive feedback from employers. The students who have participated in the peer-to-peer learning project have much better people skills than those who have not. At the age of 16 or 18, they’re already accustomed to talking with adults, and they’ve become more confident. They are viewed as partners, and have gained the necessary skills to present their work effectively.
Renée Lechner teaches at the Kantonsschule am Brühl in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Together with two other teachers, she blogs about digital teaching tools at Web2 (in German). She is one of the Educreators 2020 award winners.
The public Kantonsschule am Brühl, located in St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland, has a business program (Wirtschaftsmittelschule) for students in their last years of secondary school (ages 16 to 18). Three years of academic study are followed by a one-year commercial internship.
In the “Digitalisierung: Peer to Peer Learning” project, students worked with advisors from start-ups to develop workshops on topics related to digital technology, such as Smart Home, Robotics, and the History of IT. The students budgeted, marketed, and presented their workshops for sixth to ninth graders.
“Digitalisierung: Peer to Peer Learning” is one of ten projects in Switzerland that have been recognized by the Educreators Foundation in its Shapers of the Future 2020 competition. The prizewinning projects use digital transformation as an opportunity to create inspiring learning environments. The initiative is a collaboration between the Gebert Rüf Stiftung, the Jacobs Foundation, the Mercator Foundation Switzerland, the Beisheim Foundation and movetia.