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"Free alternative schools achieve a great deal" - Expert Interview on Educational Experiences and School Quality

Photo: Alanus Hochschule

Free alternative schools are unique, even among private schools in Germany. They are not committed to one uniform pedagogical concept, as are, for example, Waldorf or Montessori schools. A new study, published in 2016 by Springer VS and financially supported by the Software AG Foundation, examines the educational experiences and school quality of these schools from the student perspective.

In this interview, we talk to study authors Dirk Randoll and Jürgen Peters of Alanus University, research assistant Ines Graudenz, and Klaus Amann, board member of the National Association of Free Alternative Schools and the Free School Untertaunus. They tell us about the study results and life at these schools.

The study is focused on education in free alternative schools.  What distinguishes this form of school? 

Klaus Amann: Free alternative schools are distinguished above all by the fact that there is no uniform educational model, but many different pedagogical approaches. The National Association of Free Alternative Schools has established guidelines that ensure a common orientation among all of these institutions in Germany. This includes, in particular, the principle of democracy - and in a more radical way than is allowed for under the school laws of the German states. During the school day, the students have a say in what and with whom they study. This gives the learner a relatively strong role in the educational process. It is not the adults who create a school for children and young people; they determine the learning process together. This is what unifies the free alternative schools.


Another special feature - according to the results of the study - is the high level of student satisfaction in free alternative schools. What accounts for these positive educational experiences? 

Jürgen Peters: The high satisfaction of the student population has to be looked at carefully, because - as we were able to determine - a high proportion of children and students switched to a free alternative school in the course of the educational career.

Dirk Randoll: About 60 percent belong to these so-called "school switchers." These are usually students who had poor learning experiences in standard public schools.

Jürgen Peters: In free alternative schools, the opportunity for free development, for example, is experienced in a particularly positive way, even if students often discover that this entails facing new challenges. Students that have attended free alternative schools from the beginning, in contrast, primarily value the opportunities for co-determination and input – for example regarding the school day schedule. 

Dirk Randoll: The feeling of being able to co-determine the educational processes, and the experience of learning as something not determined by others, are fundamental reasons why free alternative schools enjoy such high satisfaction rates and a high degree of identification with the school.

Jürgen Petersen: That's why mobbing and school anxiety are practically non-existent at free alternative schools. When I can co-determine something, then I am a part of it: and not victim of a process, but a co-creator.

Ines Graudenz: In addition to co-determination, a good and trusting student-teacher relationship influences whether the student enjoys learning and goes to school without anxiety. The learning facilitators are interested in each student as a person, they listen carefully, and they communicate their appreciation. 

Dirk Randoll: Students at free alternative schools perceive that their teachers trust them. They don't need external motivation; they ask their own questions and learn at their own initiative. Learning develops out of this curiosity. Grades are not the important thing – what matters is the joy of learning and students' search for answers to their questions about life and the world. In this way they feel taken seriously and accepted. This appreciation is responsible in large part for their positive learning experiences. But there are of course many other factors....

Klaus Amann: ... to which belongs, among others, the size, or rather the smallness, of our schools. A school center with 3,500 students has a completely different quality compare to a free alternative school with 35 students.


How do school switchers, who come to a free alternative school from the normal public school system, handle this initially unaccustomed closeness and freedom?

Dirk Randoll: Indeed, as a school switcher, one must first learn to find one's way in this new school culture. They suddenly have a degree of freedom that is very surprising at first. After all, they have experienced a very different type of school and school learning. 

Jürgen Peters: These students were previously motivated primarily by grades and achievements. It's a large challenge for the free alternative schools to integrate these students into the learning process.

Dirk Randoll: Especially because they have the largest percentage of school switchers - for example compared to Montessori and Waldorf schools...

Jürgen Peters: … and are therefore confronted with a large number of students with very different backgrounds. A large number of the students who switch to a free alternative school only after grade 5 do so because they simply couldn't succeed in a standard public school. In the new school system, these students, who view themselves as poor learners, want to first be taken by the hand. Instead of orientation they suddenly experience an unfamiliar degree of freedom. At first, they can't deal with this freedom as well as those who began in this type of school at an earlier age. This freedom presents an adaptation challenge, especially for the poorer performers, but this dissipates over the course of their time at the school. When you interview these course-changing students again at the end of the 10th grade, the differences between individual students have become nullified. They have arrived. In the area of integration, the free alternative schools have achieved a great deal, in our view, with this type of approach.


The concept of "performance" is not uncontentious among free alternative schools...

Klaus Amann: We're generally skeptical with respect to classic school performance.

At free alternative schools, the idea of performance is very different: namely, that student should be able to determine their performance qualities themselves, and should not be forced into a corner with a pre-conceived form of performance and examination. When performance in the traditional sense also works, then that's a nice side effect. But we're primarily interested in self-development and self-definition. We are a good school when we succeed in this - and not when we achieve top results in tests.

Ines Graudenz: Beyond a doubt. The ability to influence learning and self-organize is well received by all students. But at certain points - our study has shown this clearly - they still want more guidance and clarity about where they stand in terms of performance. By their own admission, they sometimes wish that their teachers would apply more pressure and incentives for learning. This is especially true for the gifted students, who could definitely achieve more if they were challenged more.

Klaus Amann: So at free schools it's not the students who refuse to perform, but the school itself, in a sense, that objects to performance? 

Ines Graudenz: We didn't experience the teachers at free alternative schools as performance objectors. It's much more the case that there is great openness to rethink or adapt processes, for example when dealing with gifted versus slow learning students; there is also considerable skepticism regarding tradition performance measurement. It remains a large challenge for the learning facilitators to find a balance between students' desire for more orientation and feedback and the teachers' desire not to foreground performance.

Dirk Randoll: This desire is completely legitimate, because the system outside of the free alternative schools demands performance. This culture or "habitus" of performance is, however, problematic. Performance heterogeneity – and this is something we know from research into inclusiveness – also means that high performers must learn to be considerate of those who are not coming along as well. This is an important aspect of character that cannot develop when a student believes that he is the best, and that for those who deliver less, well, tough luck.

Jürgen Peters: What is performance, anyway? Does that mean that I can achieve a lot, in the end? Or does it mean that I am able to work something out for myself? Naturally, the ability to work on something freely does not immediately lead to better grades. But one has still learned something. Here, two different levels of performance are being mixed up that one really shouldn't compare with one another: A student may perhaps know less in mathematics, but perhaps he has acquired a large number of methods that help him to address a complex set of questions. 


We have spoken at length about the students at free alternative schools. But what makes a good learning facilitator for these students?

Klaus Amann: This question arises for me especially when I interview prospective teachers who don't come from a free alternative school, but from the regular school system. For me, what is essential here is always the personality of the teacher. It's important to me to see that a good teacher takes the other person seriously – irrespective of whoever approaches her. This is the central prerequisite for a trusting relationship between teacher and student to develop. The well-known educational researcher John Hattie came to similar conclusions on the basis of meta-analyses...

Klaus Amann: According to Hattie, what matters is that the teacher is recognizable to the students as a person, as a human being who reacts to others. This is what characterizes a teacher at a free alternative school: he or she cannot hide behind didactic competence, behind knowledge, behind institutional regulations and rule systems. Instead, he knows: in every school day I encounter a learning situation in which I am quite deeply involved. For this reason, most free alternative schools also don't have a specific teacher's desk in most learning and group rooms. 

Ines Graudenz: ... and that leads – as we were able to observe – to a relationship among equals, in which not only the students learn, but the learning facilitators learn from the children and young people. And much more: the student participants often express that they are able to criticize their teachers and are always able to voice their opinions freely. That is something that shouldn't be taken for granted, and which is often postulated as desirable, but which hardly ever takes place. 

Klaus Amann: In a very radical form you can find this student feedback in Sudbury schools and other democratic learning institutions. Here the teachers are elected or deselected by the students. 


On the subject of "handling student feedback": What have the survey results changed in the schools that participated in the study?

Klaus Amann: The schools that received individual evaluations had the chance to see how they compared to the average. At our school, for example, we were consequently engaged with the question: 'How do we deal with the fact that our students want to know earlier and more clearly where they stand?' The consequence for us was not "now we'll assign grades;" rather we thought about a solution that fits the logic of free alternative schools. To do so, we took a look at our feedback processes and examined whether, where, and how we could design them so that the children and young people hear more often what they have accomplished.

Is the shaping of feedback processes a topic that you also want to address in the national association?

Klaus Amann: The study identified many topics that we want to address, for example in our national meeting. Performance heterogeneity and the feedback culture in free alternative schools are just two of these. Above all, the research results have drawn our attention to working with school switchers.

These new findings will flow directly into how we advise school initiatives, for example during the founding a new school. Here we have to point out these specific problems, which exist in addition to the challenge of starting and leading a school. Because the study clearly demonstrated: you have to have a distinct concept for school switchers. The student questionnaires could show us the sticking points here and there that we need to pay attention to.