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Bayreuth educationalist: "Parents should not and cannot be teachers."

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University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 060/2020, 24 April 2020

The current practice of “exercise forwarding” cannot compensate for classroom lessons, and is "in part of symbolic nature", says Prof. Dr. Fabian Dietrich, Chair of School Education at the University of Bayreuth. He cautions against unrealistic expectations: "Parents cannot simulate school, and nobody can expect when classroom lessons have been suspended, that pupils can compensate for this at home and on their own". Dietrich demands clear statements from teachers and schools as to what is expected, and advises parents to remain calm.

Prof. Dr. Fabian Dietrich, Inhaber des Lehrstuhls für Schulpädago-gik an der Universität Bayreuth

What is your assessment of the current provision of lessons?

There is no doubt that the current school closures are creating a completely new situation for all concerned. However, the continuation of school without class lessons is actually a paradox, because lessons as face-to-face interaction are the essence of school. In this situation, for which no one could be prepared, it seems obvious to fall back on traditional forms and practices first, namely the (now partly virtual) distribution of exercises and worksheets, and thus literally "homework". Such formats are primarily aimed at practice, i.e. the development of routines, and less at learning in the sense of acquiring new facts, skills, and abilities. This can be useful nevertheless. Yet normal classroom lessons cannot be compensated for in this way.

Why are teachers trying to do so regardless?

In the meantime, the ministries of education and cultural affairs have laid down guidelines on how teachers should organise and support "learning at home". Teachers and schools can and must orient themselves by these guidelines. The makeshift continuation of school is in part of symbolic nature. It signals normality. This way, the school as a central social institution, which is of central importance for children, young people, and their families in everyday life, maintains its profile. At the same time, its significance and a sense of responsibility are being demonstrated. What would it mean for society’s view of school and teachers, given the background of their already ambivalent reputation, if "Coronavirus Holidays" could and were to be proclaimed blithely with no end in sight?

How do parents motivate their children to do these exercises?

Meanwhile, there are tips and advice for parents to be found on the education portals of the federal states and elsewhere. The extent to which pupils are willing to do their set tasks at home depends on their family's traditional attitudes and views of school, the biography of their school experience, the individual interests of the students, but also on the current situation at home. The relationship with parents is also important, especially when they pressure their pupils to do their schoolwork. Fundamental difficulties - i.e. Including possible school-related motivational problems that go beyond the usual situational unwillingness known to most parents - may become particularly apparent in the current situation. It seems obvious to me that the current situation, in which family members have been living together in a small space more or less permanently, and with considerably reduced external contacts, for several weeks now, is not very suitable for solving or dealing with any such fundamental problems. Accordingly, a certain degree of perspective would seem to be in order here. In this context, it may help to remember that parents cannot and should not be teachers.

But that's how parents feel right now: They feel it is their responsibility to make sure their children complete their workload and understand new material.

Such a delegation of responsibility towards the parents would be inappropriate and inadmissible. School "motivates" pupils in particular, very specific ways, thanks to its institutional and organizational constitution, not least delineating itself from family and leisure time. This is often criticized, but from an analytical perspective, it is highly functional. School is characterised by a rigid temporal order (timetables), a specific spatial design (classrooms), traditional and partly ritualised forms of interaction (teaching), and the roles that students and teachers play in these.This high degree of pre-structuring reduces the need for negotiation and ensures that the structural motivational problem in the classroom is usually not very obvious. Upon entering school, pupils learn that "motivation" is expected and demanded at school, irrespective of any genuine interest in the content. If parents now ask their children at home to complete the tasks set, they cannot draw on this institutional framework and could hardly simulate it.The only possibility is to refer to this framework: At a pinch, the school exercises will then still be completed for school and not for the parents' sake - or not, as the case may be.

To work on topics independently - as many teachers now demand - are schoolchildren even capable of that?

Despite all the possible criticism that schools have traditionally not been designed to promote the independence, autonomy, and creativity of students, the serious expectation that in times of school lockdown students could compensate for this loss "on their own" at home, or that parents could now use the current period of homeschooling to compensate for academic shortcomings, seems problematic in various respects. In this context, the question must also be asked of the extent to which the issue of "independence" serves to delegate responsibility for education to the parents.

What role does a daily rhythm - getting up, breakfast, going to school - play in (self-)motivation?

In particular, the cancellation of classroom lessons has caused the loss of fixed time structures: starting and finishing times, fixed timetables, and ritualized teaching procedures. The fact that these to a great extent mitigate a major burden, is now becoming obvious as families re-fight the question of daily scheduling every day, over and again. In this sense, the establishment of analogous structures - such as determining when and for how long a day a child should be doing schoolwork - can be helpful and relieve some stress. It can provide orientation and reduce the need for negotiation. A clear scheduling of the daily distance learning also marks a symbolic difference between school and family or leisure time, and thus counteracts tendencies to dissolve boundaries and overlap.

What should teachers do to keep students on task? What shouldn't they do?

The switch to working at home and the elimination of teaching also requires an adjustment of expectations and demands: What can and should distance learning achieve? What can and should be demanded of pupils? In this respect it would be advantageous if teachers could provide appropriate orientation. This is facilitated by feedback loops and feedback formats, which should not least relieve parents of the above mentioned questions of motivation and structuring.The prerequisite for this is that contact with pupils is maintained, and both parties transition to new forms of communication.

Are video conferences and learning platforms the right tools?

They can help. However, communication is possible without elaborate technical prerequisites, and can still take place via e-mail or telephone. In any case, maintaining contact seems to be especially important for students from families who have only limited resources and conditions to cope with the current situation on their own. In my opinion, a special duty of care now applies, which may include encouraging contact with appropriate support systems when in doubt. Now more than ever, the way, to what extent, and by what means teachers stay in contact with and approachable to their students, is how their professional self-image is being expressed. The call is not for some heroic ethos of being there for students day and night, but only a continuation of professional practice with other means.

Are we experiencing a turbo-boosting of digitization of schools?

Their starting points have varied enormously. In some schools, the use of digital forms of communication and technology in everyday school and classroom life has been firmly established for some time. In the current situation, this is of course of great advantage. Elsewhere, however, even the use of e-mail for school business still does not seem to be the norm. At the individual school level, therefore, there are very different starting points with regard to the technical infrastructure, but also with regard to skills, experience, and motivation, with regard to a partial compensation for the loss of classroom lessons with digitization. It should also be borne in mind that the digitization of schools presupposes the availability of appropriate technology throughout the country. Here, too, the question of the ossifying of social inequality by schools arises. In principle, the current situation is likely to put pressure on schools low on technological sophistication to change, for example, by reporting positive examples in the media.

Do you believe that teaching and learning will change for good?

The current use of digital media, learning platforms, and apps does not correspond to what the digitization of schools is all about. At present, attempts are only being made to compensate for the loss of teaching. Some things will turn out to be superfluous or less functional when conventional teaching restarts. In this sense, the much-criticized backwardness of schools can be in part attributed to the fact that not everything that is being propagated at the moment makes sense in the end. Of course, the degree of change also depends crucially on how quickly and to what extent school normality can be re-established. It is also possible that the current use and testing of digital communication media and forms of communication may show, that although they change teaching on a superficial level, they leave its structural logic untouched. Many of the learning apps students are clicking their way through are, in fact, indistinguishable from the traditional workbook which has been used by generations of students, despite their appearance suggesting otherwise. Whether tasks are distributed analogously as paper copies, sent by e-mail, or processed on learning platforms, exercises and their significance in school instruction are here to stay. As stated already: normal class cannot be compensated for that easily.


Prof. Dr. Fabian Dietrich
Chair of School Education 
University of Bayreuth
Currently only per E-mail: fabian.dietrich@uni-bayreuth.de

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Ralph Reindler​

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