Open Learning

An introduction to the work of Falko Peschel

David Gribble

Falko Peschel, the originator of the theory of Offener Unterricht (Open Lessons, or as it is more generally known, Open Learning) did not become a teacher until he was thirty years old. Before that he was an audio-engineer who ran his own company.

During his training as a primary school teacher at Cologne university he longed to find an ideal way of teaching which would not erode the young child's natural desire to learn.

He started looking in the ordinary primary schools which had taken an active part in the school reforms in North Rhein-Westphalia between 1981 and 1985. Compared with his own time at school a lot had changed. “Adults and children sat together in circles,” he wrote in the introduction to his two-volume work, Offener Unterricht, “and celebrated birthdays and other festivals together. Individual children were given special help by teachers or remedial assistants, the classrooms had become more cheerful and stimulating with much attractive material. The children could arrange their own school day, they did not all have to do the same things at the same time. Sometimes there were even timetables which allowed them to arrange whole days for themselves or even the whole week. In my opinion school was developing in the right direction.”

In spite of all this, however, the teachers themselves did not seem to have changed – many of them were still the same people. They still kept the reins firmly in their own hands. Communication had become much friendlier, but it was still one-sided. For the children school was still hard work. They seldom preferred school to other activities. Peschel did not find the happy children, eager to learn, that he believed would characterise Open Learning.

Next he visited two kinds of free schools, outside the state system. Some, like Summerhill, offered traditional lessons but allowed the children to decide whether or not to attend, and others used systems like the Dalton plan, where the children rather reluctantly tackled weekly programmes of work in their own time. The teacher-student relationship was better, but the enthusiastic learners were not to be found here either.

His next hope lay with Montessori and Petersen schools, where he found bright classrooms arranged appropriately for children, a rich choice of learning materials and school grounds full of opportunities for investigation. Unfortunately he also met classroom atmospheres which made him shudder. He saw teachers deliberately humiliating children in front of the whole class and exercising a psychological pressure on the supposedly eager learners that seemed to him to border on physical abuse. In other classes there was perfect chaos. “The children were supposed to work independently,” he wrote, “but had no plans of their own, did exercises reluctantly and wrong, got bored, pulled themselves together again and tried somehow or other to create a more or less satisfactory programme for the day. Everyone seemed to be fighting for himself, many had no idea why they were at school, why they were ‘doing school’.”

He began to feel bored when he visited schools, and he thought that the children were probably bored too. His last hope was in a state primary school near his home, where there was a teacher who had impressed him with her talk at a symposium on maths teaching. This is how he described his visit:

I will never forget that day. I found a class which for the very first time allowed me to see Open Learning in the way I imagined it myself. The children were great. They worked completely independently at stories they had thought out, did tricky mathematical exercises, looked up the information they needed for the work they were planning in reference books, made up exercises for other children to do, skillfully transformed their stories into plays and illustrated their poems artistically. On top of that, the level of achievement in this second-year class was far higher than in the other second-year classes in the same school. It was as if the lid had been taken off, and the children were "reaching for the stars."

The teacher behaved absolutely naturally. She did not offer extra motivation in the form of special materials or smiley stickers, she gave the children her opinions openly, sent them away when she had no time, and gave praise when she was pleased. In the classroom there were no games and no teaching materials. The children worked with blank paper, which meant they had to create their work for themselves. Somewhere or other the maths books and reading books had disappeared in the bookshelves.

I was greatly impressed and at the same time utterly fascinated. I immediately asked whether I could visit again often, and my request was willingly granted. Open Learning is open for everyone. That confirmed my first impression, which became more and more complex. Of course there are some days in this classroom that go well, and others that work less well. Of course the teacher plays no insignificant role, however inconspicuous she may be. Of course there are children here too, who some days work better than others. But everything seems to work honestly of its own accord, the children know that they are taken seriously and therefore behave independently and openly. They want to learn.

Here at last he had found a classroom where the children's desire to learn had not been extinguished.

From 1995 until 1999 he taught in a primary school where he was allowed to work in his own way with a class that he took for their full four years there. (In Germany primary school usually starts when the children are six years old, and they move on when they are ten.)

This is his account of his first encounter with his group.

Here I stand, in front of my first class. 24 completely different children are to have their talents individually fostered. There is D., who although he is eight years old and has had a year in the school kindergarten is at the level of a four-year-old. There is the hyperactive B., who is highly gifted and can immediately faultlessly repeat anything that he has heard or seen anywhere, even if it was twenty metres away. Or there is M., who is completely playful and naïve and for a long time will probably not understand what school actually is. Or K., who was sent to school early, because his longing for knowledge could not be satisfied in the kindergarten any longer. And nearby are G. and N., who are asylum-seekers from Bosnia and Zaire and live with their non-German-speaking families in 20 square metres in an old factory. They are all supposed to learn in this classroom together. So a single traditional course for everybody is obviously out of the question. It is obvious to me, that I couldn't teach in a sufficiently differentiated way take into account the previous knowledge, working speed, eagerness to learn and emotional maturity of each individual. Whatever I did I would be losing the children. A good proportion would be totally left behind, and the rest would soon get bored. But they do actually all want to learn. They badly want to learn. But something new, something exciting. Something that they don't know already. And something that they can make use of.

Most of the quotations in this article come from his two-volume work, Offener Unterricht. In these two books he does not lay down any rigid system for helping the children in a class to learn in the way they want to learn, but he recommends a daily circle time when the children have all arrived, where any problems or proposals may be brought up, and each child individually is asked what his or her plans are for the day. The classroom, he suggests, should be arranged with a fixed area where the children can gather for circle time, and a variety of arrangements of individual seating spaces, some in groups but many facing outwards, towards windows or walls. In his first two years with his own class there were three circle times every day – the opening meeting for everyone, where children might get ideas from one another, and purposeful learning was understood to be the aim, a second half-way through the morning after the voluntary break time, when those who wanted to could present what they had been doing or come to listen and perhaps get new ideas, and a third at the end of the school day (before going home for a late lunch, because few German schools run on into the afternoon) to reflect on the day, to hear what others had been doing and to decide whether to take work home. In the third and fourth years the children often organised their time effectively without needing these frequent meetings.

Peschel listed three ways in which his methods differ totally from the time-honoured prescriptions of conventional education. Firstly, lesson plans, government requirements, timetables and so on are thrown out in favour of space for an autonomous class organisation which allows, in relation not only to content and method but also to the temporal arrangement of the school day, an almost limitless freedom. Secondly, the teacher doesn't “teach” any more, he doesn't tell anyone what to do, but instead accompanies learners along their individual paths, analysing, offering stimuli, drawing attention to related topics. The children no longer have to sit quietly and swot up, they are able to learn from their own investigations and conversation with others. They decide for themselves how they will learn, what help they need, what they will learn and even the rules of the class and the organisation of the school day. And thirdly there aren't any more of those handy text-books, which give all the children the same work to do and make it so easy for the teacher to assess what progress they are making, and how they compare with others.

“In practice,” he says, “we see an important phenomenon, which is that an apparent slowing down of learning due to the laborious searching for one's own way when one first meets a new area, generally leads later to a speeding-up in other areas. This means that the sometimes indirect progress resulting from self-direction is, in the end, much more effective than the direct progress of the teacher's course.” In support of this view he quotes Peter Gallin and Urs Ruf, who in their book Sprache und Mathematik go so far as to say that free learners seldom stray far from the ideal route, that is to say the one that best suits them personally.

Parents are, of course, often unwilling to believe this. Peschel quotes Karin Heitzlhofer, a parent, describing a parents' evening where she tried to defend a teacher but was faced with an extreme example of irrational hostility.

The teacher was swamped with complaints: as representative of the parents I was blamed for having allowed all this, so that it had reached the point where our children would not be able to get into the grammar school. I was ready for these complaints and was able to show, with the aid of examples of school work and comparisons of achievement, that the children could do exactly what they were supposed to be able to do at the end of the fourth year. I thought – too soon – that that would settle the matter, but the problem had not been solved. One mother shouted: ‘Then just make our children scared!”

Peschel's response to this reveals the contradiction in the parental fears.

If the parents had sent their children into a class where there was traditional teaching then everything would have taken its normal course, and as responsible parents they would at least not have taken any incalculable risk (or at least so they think). Parents will take a positive or negative attitude towards Open Learning according to the way their own child develops under the system. Now it is no longer the child who is responsible for eventual failings, but the method – just the opposite to traditional education, where the blame is not generally thought to lie in the method or the teacher, but always gets landed on the child. An incredible contradiction: in teacher-directed lessons it is the child who takes the blame, in child-directed activities it is the teacher. The question of guilt ought really to be turned exactly the other way round.

Of course Peschel wants to change teacher-training, and his recommendations for enlightening would-be teachers would be relevant to all of us. He recommends asking students to think about their own education, how they were trained to accept the status quo and how they think school might have been improved. And as they do so, they should be asked how they learnt, when they learnt and what they learnt most easily, and invited to discuss their own answers with other people who have asked themselves the same questions. This, says Peschel, will lead quickly to the basic theory behind Open Learning, because they will find out that they are all completely different in terms of learning rhythms, times of learning, preferred conditions for learning, methods of learning and choice of topics of interest. “The significance of learning guided by interest,” says Peschel, “immediately becomes clear to them, when they consider what content they find it easy to absorb, for example what learning they do not experience as ‘learning’ at all (the solution of computer problems, learning a foreign language in the relevant country, certain connections between medicine and biology).”

The advantages of Open Learning can be proved by experience, and Peschel's four years of successful teaching must carry enormous weight, but they can also be understood in the abstract. All you need to do is to reflect on your own education and you will remember that trying to make you learn things that did not interest you was usually counterproductive. After a while you were no longer merely uninterested, you were actively hostile.

In his own class Peschel created conditions in which children wanted to learn. They understood that they came to school to work, it was work that they wanted to do.

This makes a strong contrast with A. S. Neill's assumption that if children are in charge of their own lives they will spend most of their time in play, and Maria Montessori's statement that play is children's work. In Peschel’s ideal classes learning is a pleasure, but it is not play.

Perhaps, given this distinction, even a government that has done its best to close Summerhill down, might find it possible to accept the idea of introducing Open Learning.

Offener Unterricht, by Falko Peschel, is published by the Schneider Verlag Hohengehren GmbH