Is Schools of Tomorrow about redefining the concept of learning, about questioning one-sided perspectives and established knowledge?

Silvia Fehrmann: Yes, this very question has been around for a few years in contemporary art, but also among critical academics. Therefore, it also acts as a background for HKW’s cultural education program. But in Schools of Tomorrow, we concentrate on how we can rethink schools. To do that, we first have to define the society we want to live in. After all, the future isn’t predetermined and our ideas of it also shape schools. So what could a school that shapes the future look like? How does a static institution become a dynamic network that is rooted in society and capable of bringing about change? These questions are at the center of our cooperation with educational theorists, artists, students and teachers so that new formats and strategies for more participation by children and teens can emerge.

Mr. Seitz, as a media educator, you’ve been asked to think about new formats that give students more room to maneuver. Isn’t this kind of democratization already taking place in schools?

Daniel Seitz: That would be nice, but it’s not what I’m experiencing. A true culture of participation still doesn’t exist in many schools. Teachers still work within extremely narrow structures, which obviously don’t work: Teaching is rigidly timetabled and a number of subjects have little relevance to later life. Of course, project learning and other alternative formats are taking place now – but only as trial models and not broadly. In Germany, there are about 11 million students, and of these, a few hundred thousand are enjoying truly modern lessons. The others have to put up with school forms that originated fifty or a hundred years ago.

How could more participation be implemented in practice?

Silvia Fehrmann: There is a variety of exciting, experimental school approaches worldwide. One example is the Quest to Learn public school in New York, which we will also introduce at the conference. It’s a traditional public school, with classes ranging from sixth to twelfth grade, but the curriculum is completely game-based. This doesn’t mean that learning only takes place in a digital environment. On the contrary, the school sees itself as a hub for school and extracurricular learning experiences, as a catalyst for cooperation between mentors, art institutions and social actors. Of course, digital tools are used, but the learning processes are geared toward acting together, as in the case of online gaming. The gap between children and teenager’s everyday lives and what happens in schools is striking: Young people make video calls in the evenings with, say, their uncle or grandmother, but video chat is not part of foreign-language lessons. That’s where John Dewey comes in with his progressive education. As early as 1915, he examined experimental approaches that dealt with the changes of that era. We are facing similar tasks today.

Some teachers are anxious about the openness of the digital sphere in particular, fearing for their own relevance. How do you see this, Mr. Seitz?

Daniel Seitz: Oh yeah, the old fears of people who work with people. Actually, the educators’ job is to make themselves superfluous. Especially since it’s not going to happen anyway. One hopes that the old role of the teacher who shovels knowledge into the minds of students will soon be passé. But even in new structures, children naturally need learning guides. Today they’re all growing up with the Internet and have a high level of user knowledge. But acquiring the knowledge of order that it demands – how do I categorize media, what information do I trust –requires teachers.

So no more fears of too much Internet?

Daniel Seitz: No, not if it’s done right. That’s when the playful approach succeeds. The anarchic nature of the web offers children enormous freedom. This is an important alternative to the often rigid, formal structures of everyday school life, also for understanding our networked thinking today. The children who come to Jugend hackt are really trying to change the world a little through programming. Overall, though, I wouldn’t focus so much on the digital. Today, children are living in a post-digital world, they no longer understand what digitization is supposed to mean.

Silvia Fehrmann: The question is: How can we promote a critical and creative approach to digital trends and social media? The school graduates of tomorrow will be dealing with the Internet of Things, working with non-human intelligence, living in so-called “smart cities.” This makes it necessary to understand how devices, data, software and networks organize our social life – but also that their programs and protocols can be rewritten.

Then how relevant is the reform education approach of yesteryear for our schools today?

Silvia Fehrmann: Overall, it’s hard to say. In the reform education movement, critical, progressive approaches coexisted with anti-modern ones. The latter preached the retreat to the countryside, sometimes placing little value on children’s self-determination. Instead, among the different movements in “progressive education” from the United States and Latin America, there are approaches that are productive for us today: strategies for democratizing knowledge, experiments that break out of the classrooms and open up the urban space, experimental approaches that use art to explore the world.

Urban learning is the key word here. What exactly does it mean?

Silvia Fehrmann: Back then, John Dewey was dealing with three processes of change: industrialization, migration and urbanization. He examined school projects that grappled with the experiences and skills children needed in the new urban space with its main streets and overcrowded rental housing. This is when credence was given to the idea that exploratory learning in the urban space is essential for an understanding of the society in which one lives. It wasn’t a rejection of modernity but proactively dealt with the city. One example is Berlin’s Großstadtpädagogik (Urban education) of the 1920s, which the congress will also discuss, or, from a contemporary perspective the work of the New York Center for Urban Pedagogy, which empowers city residents to engage actively.

Sounds like an approach that could be of relevance even today for all large city schools.

Silvia Fehrmann: Yes, that’s true; many of the reform education approaches are anchored in the mainstream in Germany in one way or another. However, today, we run the risk that experimental innovations are tested in private schools, while public schools suffer more and more from the pressure of performance monitoring. The debate over education disappears from public discussions and an obsession with results replaces it.

Daniel Seitz: The issue of exclusivity is indeed a problem in alternative school formats. Especially socially disadvantaged families quickly push their offers into a hippie or esoteric niche. Payment barriers also prevent possibilities of participating in these alternative school forms. But the whole breadth of education belongs in the center of society.

True, needs are becoming more diverse everywhere today, everyday life is becoming ever more complex. Does the daily grind demand too much of children, and, at the same time, do we expect too little of them?

Daniel Seitz: I think growing up as a teenager today is a huge challenge. Many young people are worried about the future and they fret about school and fear failure because of the crises that surround us. That is alarming. Teenagers are asked to deal with all the negative media images of our day. At the same time, they’re told what they can’t do; for example that good grades aren’t enough. It’s all very confusing. And that’s why we need formats that help students develop a sense of who they are – not who they should be.

Silvia Fehrmann: Exactly. If we want schools to empower democracy, then it can’t be just about training future workers who are conformist and affirmative. Most of all we must encourage them to think critically and sometimes to disturb the order. John Dewey’s most important finding was that democracy is not preached but made together, and this is where the school needs society – and vice versa.

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson