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New Upper Secondary School Berlin

About two years ago, a group of approximately 20 students, parents and teachers started developing ideas for a new kind of upper secondary school education – the Neue Oberstufe (NOS) at the Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum (ESBZ). These ideas soon caught fire and a great number of other people interested in shaping the future of education as well as schools, foundations and scholars have since joined the network.

Implementing the concept in Berlin state schools

Currently, we are working towards gaining government approval to put the concept into practice in Berlin state schools. Some elements of the NOS agenda were approved last summer (2015). We are now officially allowed to:

  • Carry out six interdisciplinary projects – which we call pulsars – per year, in which students from years 11-13 can mix and work together
  • Set up four learning expeditions (LEX) per year for students in Year 11. Each learning expedition can last one week.
  • Year 11 students get a feedback report at the end of the first term instead of the usual grades

What is a pulsar?

In traditional upper secondary schools, all subjects are taught separately in accordance with a core curriculum (the RahmenlehrplanRLP) set by the government, which students need to complete in order to prepare for the Abitur – the German general qualification for university entrance.

However, students and teachers at the ESBZ increasingly felt that the system of cramming isolated disciplines conflicted with their learning needs. They set out to create a new learning format and a learning environment that would satisfy the legal requirements of the RLP as well as their learning needs. They came up with a solution they found so inspiring that they called it a pulsar.

Pulsars are interdisciplinary learning environments designed and led by experts, not necessarily just teachers, and are a core element of the NOS concept. A pulsar focuses on a particular topic and involves content and skills from a range of subjects, all of which are ultimately required to master the Abitur. A pulsar lasts for a period of one to two weeks. The location of the learning environment can vary, depending on the topic and the experts involved. All students in years 11, 12, and 13 can participate in a pulsar.

Experts choose topics that are inspiring, fun and complex, and explore a variety of different aspects from several school subjects. As Sven, a member of the NOS development team, put it, “Pulsars are like rock ’n’ roll at our school. They involve different aspects of practically all subjects with the crucial difference that they actually relate to real life.”

Take the pulsar in astronomy for example. The region of Westhavelland in Brandenburg is the darkest place in Germany. The country’s first star park is located here. You can see the Milky Way, the North Star, various constellations and shooting stars with the naked eye. For one week, lessons take place in that park in the afternoon and from 10:00 p.m. until 02.00 in the morning, combining elements of physics, history and biology. Students learn about astronomy and astrophysics, how planets orbit the sun, about meteoroids, and how the view of the world has changed over time; they learn about the history of the Space Race from 1955 to 1972, and then explore related biological aspects like light pollution, sustainability and the associated ethical, aesthetical, economic, and environmental considerations, just as stipulated by the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Youth and Science requirements for Abitur. If one of the teachers/experts also happens to be fluent in English, these lessons could even be held in English too.

Students can choose the pulsars from a course catalogue, just like at university.

What is a learning expedition?

Unlike the pulsar, which is a topic-based learning environment designed by experts and teachers, the learning expedition (LEX) is a student-led research project.

A LEX consists of six stages:

First, a student comes up with an idea for a topic he or she would like to explore.

Second, the student gets together with an expert to define a focused research question. Together, they draw up a choice of possible foci and learning paths. The student then chooses the path he or she likes best.

The third step is the planning stage. The students define the outcome they are aiming for, which media they will use and then plan the process, working backwards from the target to the starting point. They also define the criteria of a satisfying result and structure the process record that will guide them through their LEX. The outcome is based on the terms of reference determined by the Kultusministerkonferenz (Standing Conference of Education Ministers) for the Abitur exam. In most subjects, this involves the three stages of reproduction, transfer and personal evaluation. Possible formats include a show piece of some practical task in combination with a short research paper and an oral exam, or a research paper in combination with an oral or written exam. Together, the teacher and student set the criteria for a good paper and presentation.

Thinking backwards from their desired outcome to what they consider a suitable starting point, the students plan milestones and a daily schedule for the duration of their LEX. The students know that they have to keep a track record that documents their daily work in some way, and choose the format that suits their style and project best. Options might include drafts, overviews, mind maps, notes, models, reports, newspaper articles with highlights, tables, videos and podcasts with additional summaries/notes, entries in learning blogs, comments on websites, sketches, drawings, pictures, essays and stories etc. The teachers support the student by providing relevant material and sources, like literature, newspaper articles, expert interviews, documentaries, university lectures etc. Another crucial factor is the level of autonomy the students think they want during their LEX. They can choose to be in touch with a teacher in person every day, or only every couple of days via email or some may prefer to turn up on the day they write the exam, present or hand in the results of their LEX. The teacher and students make appointments.

Step four is the implementation phase. Of course, the students can modify the level of support they require as their work progresses and their needs change and contact their tutor/teacher.

Fifth, the student presents his findings or learning product at a peer-learning exchange. This presentation can be part of the final examination if the teacher and the student have agreed on this step from the beginning. Finally, the teacher, tutor and the student meet to reflect on their LEX learning process. Self-evaluation and constructive, critical feedback about the quality of the outcome and process are important learning opportunities. Since everything is planned and set by both the student and the teachers, the criteria are transparent from the word go. In retrospect, they can also evaluate how far the level of autonomy they chose corresponded to their needs. If, for example, a student chose to work alone throughout the LEX, only returning to school for the exam or presentation and is disappointed by the result, he or she might need closer supervision during the next LEX. Also, if a relatively autonomous learner decides to be in touch with a teacher every two days, just to be sure, and reaches good results by the end of the LEX, they may decide to reduce the level of supervision next time. These reflections are an important part of the learning experience. Students become aware of their qualities and needs and can gradually improve their level of autonomy and self-evaluation skills.

(written by Jossif Schmidt, jossif.schmidt(at)gmail.com)