Secondary school principal Walter Strasser discusses how he and his teaching team have redesigned their school curriculum to reflect thematic connections in the real world.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What motivated you to change the entire school curriculum and swap lesson plans for thematic areas?
Walter Strasser: Ten years ago, we introduced ‘learning landscapes’ in place of subject-oriented teaching. This change put more emphasis on independent student learning and reflection, accompanied by teachers as learning coaches. Instead of holding traditional classes, we have lessons in learning groups that are structured by the type and level of the subject matter. This approach allows for more individualized learning and for special theme weeks and excursions throughout the three years of lower secondary school. When Lehrplan 21 – an initiative designed to harmonize the school curriculum in German-speaking Switzerland – was introduced in our canton in 2017, we saw it as an opportunity to dissect the curriculum and create something that builds on our successful ‘landscapes’ model. We decided to create interdisciplinary thematic areas, which we call ‘learning fields.’
CSG: How have you created these thematic areas, and how many are needed to cover the material required by the curriculum?
WS: We looked at the competencies that students are expected to develop under the new curriculum and at the subjects schools are required to teach, and then grouped them into topic areas. For example, the area of sustainable development might include material from science and technology, mathematics, and home economics – as well as content from a course in applied media studies and computer science. In one thematic area, students might learn how statistics are derived and how to understand them in context; in another, they might be asked to present their work and create a PowerPoint presentation. We expect to have 33 different ‘learning fields’ in place by 2022, and are already testing the first ones during the current school year.
CSG: Reorganizing the standard curriculum requires huge adjustments on the part of both students and teachers. How are they handling it so far?
WS: All 25 teachers have been working on this project for the past two years, and they have made a commitment to see it through. In the past, school development has always focused on structure, and now there is more emphasis on content, which poses real challenges for teachers. You can’t just rely on the textbook anymore – you have to pull together material from different textbooks, be open to peer learning and including extracurricular learning opportunities, and so on. It takes a lot of effort and courage to depart from the traditional 45-minute lesson blocks and do things differently, but it brings a whole new perspective. We’re rediscovering how versatile teaching can be.
Students appreciate being able to devote more time to a single topic, which gives them more space and time to learn. They prefer to spend three or four hours on the same subject, rather than having to shift their focus to something different seven times a day.
“It takes a lot of effort and courage to depart from the traditional 45-minute lesson blocks and do things differently, but it brings a whole new perspective.”
CSG: Why are thematic areas better able to prepare students to meet the challenges of the 21st century?
WS: For one thing, there’s the digital aspect; media studies and computer science are integrated into every ‘learning field.’ Computers are used not only in a special class, but for conducting research, watching and making films, presentations, and data management. The idea is to use the computer as a practical tool. Students learn that it’s not just for specific activities, such as gaming, but an essential part of everyday life.
If I ask students to find information, they have to be able to go online and search for relevant material and then determine whether the material and sources they find are reliable or not. It’s about learning by doing, something students will need to be able to do when they enter the workforce.
Our goal is to give students the tools they need to deal with complex topics. They need to learn how to take a topic apart and put it back together, gaining a better understanding of the subject. This approach teaches students to think in terms of the connections between different areas – a skill they will need throughout their lives.
Walter Strasser is principal of the Sekundarschule Müllheim in the Canton of Thurgau in northeast Switzerland. He and his school are one of the Educreators 2020 award winners. “LoPro Sek Müllheim TG” (Local Project of the Canton Thurgau at the Müllheim Secondary School) is run under the strategic direction of the local school authority (President: Rolf Seltmann) and financially supported by the cantonal public school administration (Roland Bosshart, inspector, and Xavier Monn, school development). The project is additionally managed on site by Dr. Heinz Hafner.
The Sekundarschule Müllheim is a public lower secondary school in Müllheim, Switzerland, that prepares students aged 12 to 15 to enter a competitive public high school or specialized vocational training.
“LoPro Sek Müllheim TG” is one of ten projects in Switzerland 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.