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Reform pedagogy in Germany


The term “reform pedagogy” is used frequently and sometimes with contradicting statements. Today, however, the term is mainly used for the period from 1890 to 1933. Even if the first educational reforms already in the 17th century by Johann A. Comenius, who demanded compulsory schooling for boys and girls as well as learning by doing and compulsory teaching.

One should also not forget that educational measures are passed on, expanded or changed from generation to generation. No generation starts from scratch when it comes to upbringing, education and care. Therefore, reform pedagogy must also be viewed from a historical point of view.

Furthermore, reform pedagogy must not be seen as an independent pedagogical reaction against the old school of the Wilhelmine era. Because at that time, reform pedagogy was a battle of many.

At that time, the social classes were clearly divided. The poor people received instruction in the school for the poor, the working class sent their descendants to church schools (in which the children were usually hardly taught anything beyond the knowledge of the Bible or to write and arithmetic) and the children of wealthy parents received their lessons from private teachers or Private schools. This classification was fought against, for example.

There was also a fight for the self-administration of the schools and, in particular, for the decoupling of the school from the church school supervision. During this time there were a lot of political and social upheavals.

Ultimately, regardless of many perspectives on the beginning and end of reform pedagogy, the approach is to see and develop pedagogy from the perspective of the child , with all its multi-layered facets, currents and methods.

History of Reform Education

Upbringing has always been an individual and socially necessary process to improve human development fields. (see Keim and Schwerdt 2014, p. 363)

At the turn of the century and towards the 20th century, a paradigm shift took place, away from the authoritarian old school towards a pedagogy that is seen as starting with the child. Reform pedagogy did not come alone, however, but began at a time when there were also major upheavals in society, for example through industrialization and materialism. This is important to know because the life reform as well as the reform pedagogy stood in a mutual referential context. (cf. Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 46)

The opening speech by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the school conference, which took place from December 4 to 17, 1890, should be mentioned here in particular. In this he clearly criticized the humanistic grammar school as well as the materially far too extensive curricula of higher education.

Based on the life reform movement, the child is seen as an important link in the social chain in order to be able to achieve a better future. Here, the learning of a child is seen as a natural process, which in principle does not have to be started by third parties. If a child refuses to learn, it is due to wrong methods and not to the child himself. In contrast to the “old school”, measures such as coercion, pressure and discipline towards the children are not accepted. The problem is basically to be found in the pedagogical method and not in the child. However, a child’s motivation can only be resolved through the child’s own activity. For this, direct frontal teaching must be prevented and naturally flow into the child’s activity. (see Fees 2015, p. 243)

This resulted in many educational currents with significant contributions and milestones, especially in the USA and Germany.

Milestones in Reform Education

During the reform pedagogy from 1890 to 1933 there were many important milestones as well as diverse educational concepts. However, there were outstanding achievements of individual educators who have developed special works at that time and are still effective today.

These include in particular:

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was an Italian pedagogue and doctor who was the first woman in Italy to do a doctorate in her subject. She focused on healthy as well as mentally handicapped children. In doing so, she found that the treatment and treatment of mentally handicapped children was inadequate and that there was often an educational problem rather than a medical one.

Then Maria Montessori developed her own anthropological-biological-pedagogical theory up to 1907, which especially increases the attention and concentration of children.

Of far-reaching importance was the observation of a three-year-old girl who, despite external influences, continued to play unconcerned. Maria Montessori later called this observation “polarization of attention”.

In 1924, with the support of the ruler Mussolini, Montessori pedagogy was introduced in Italian schools. Maria Montessori died in 1952. (see Fees, p. 258)

Peter Petersen

Peter Peterson was a German teacher and studied philosophy, in the field of which he received his doctorate in 1908 and even completed his habilitation in 1920. He joined the national and international reform movements of the time. He was appointed professor of educational science by the then SPD / USPD. During this time there were also efforts within these parties to create a single school. Peterson introduced his Jena Plan pedagogy with the establishment of a new training school. In theirs he was able to implement his reform pedagogical approaches and the basic idea of his pedagogy, namely that of a community.

His educational school was not closed by the SED until 1950 because they were afraid of an educational relic from the Weimar period. (see Fees, p. 267ff.)

His school concept is recognized and continues to have an impact today. He was also active in qualitative social research and published several volumes on topics in pedagogy and educational science.

(see Idel / Ullrich, p. 132)

Hermann Lietz

Hermann Lietz was a pedagogue and founder of the rural education homes in Germany. He lived from 1868 to 1919 and studied German, history, theology and philosophy. With his doctorate he achieved the Dr. of philosophy. Hermann Lietz worked as a teacher and dealt with reform issues.

(see https://www.lietz-schulen.de/die-lietz-idee/unsere-geschichte/?L=0 )

His stay abroad from 1896 to 1897 in Abbotsholme, which he completed in Cecil Reddie’s small boarding school, had a formative influence on Lietz. Because of the influences, he did not want to become a teacher or a clergyman. Because as a teacher he saw himself on the one hand as a servant of the ruling school system. On the other hand, as a pastor, he is no longer free in his religious worldview. (see CH Beck, p. 88ff)

In 1898, for example, he founded the Landerziehungsheim Ilsenburg in the Harz Mountains, which no longer exists today. For many decades, rural education centers were the role models for a new kind of education. The Odenwald School was also a school based on the reform pedagogical approach of Hermann Lietz. (cf. Idel, p. 106ff)

Educational movement from the child’s point of view

From the children’s perspective, the reform movement plays a far greater role than it does in relation to the effects it has on parents and society. On the one hand, the educational reform movements also give children from the lower and the lowest classes access to better education. On the other hand, the comprehensive support of every child is another important point. The goal of a reform pedagogical school is: to create optimal conditions for a child’s development through better forms of learning and teaching.

Away from the values of corporal punishment with the rod and the partial abandonment of performance assessments through grades. Teachers no longer face children as an authority figure, but as partners and supporters on the path of learning. Children should now follow their own thirst for knowledge through their own activity and of course learn without the above-mentioned coercive measures. You are encouraged to create things yourself and to strengthen personal responsibility. In many reform pedagogical currents, great importance was attached to self-determination.

Acquiring knowledge is no longer a mere exercise, but also takes place through experimentation, research and simply trying out. In kindergartens in particular, topics that are so well known today, such as free play, finger games and singing songs, are an achievement of reform pedagogy with immense advantages for children. Because even kindergartens now had educational pretensions.

It can be said that the reform movement was an immensely important event, knowing that reform pedagogy is a process that never ends and is still taking place today! Because even today there is research into topics of education and current actions are scientifically questioned. Nevertheless, during this time there were immensely important advances in the treatment, care and upbringing of children, which are still effective today and have enabled millions of children to have a carefree, non-violent and educational start in life.

Pedagogical currents of the present & modern

There were many different pedagogical concepts in the reform pedagogical movement. In the following you will get an insight into what I believe to be the most important and still effective educational currents of the present and modern.

Especially nowadays, many alternative school concepts meet the desire of many parents for holistic education and support. For many, the pressure to perform or the rigid and inflexible curriculum is a thorn in the side. A closer teacher-child relationship is often seen as particularly outstanding compared to state schools. It is important to know that the respective educational concepts sometimes differ significantly.

The most important reform pedagogical approaches are:

  1. Waldorf pedagogy based on Rudolf Steiner
  2. Montessori pedagogy based on Maria Montessori
  3. Jena-Plan-Pedagogy after Peter Petersen
  4. Reform educational rural education home movement according to Hermann Lietz

Due to the sometimes different and incorrect conceptions of Waldorf education, I have selected this as an example from the above-mentioned group in order to illustrate the reform pedagogical approach in more detail.

Waldorf education

Waldorf education is based on the anthroposophical movement of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The first place of activity of Waldorf education was opened on September 7, 1919 in Stuttgart with the support of the Stuttgart manufacturer Emil Molt. Today it is regarded as the mother school of Waldorf education. (see Fees 2015, p. 263)

The first Waldorf school in Stuttgart still exists today under the name “Freie Waldorfschule Uhlandshöhe”. It is recognized by the state and is open to all children and young people. In 2017, the anthroposophical movement offered over 2,000 Waldorf kindergartens and over 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide. These institutions are of fundamental importance within the movement, as they pass on the tradition of the anthroposophical movement and young people are recruited. (cf. Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 118)

Educational concept

The Waldorf School was the first community school in Germany that was open to all social classes. In Waldorf education there are special methodological and didactic measures compared to other educational concepts, with an excerpt of the most important measures being presented below (cf. Idel / Ulrich, p. 124):

  • Class teacher principle

A class teacher generally teaches across topics and subjects in the first eight years of school. At the end of the eighth school year, a class teacher change takes place through a separation process. This change of teacher is part of the development and maturation process of the pupils in Waldorf education.

  • Class size

In the past, large classes were formed in order to be able to represent a cross section of society. (Shifts, parenting professions, character and others). Nowadays there are also smaller classes in the Waldorf School.

  • Epoch lessons

In contrast to classic lessons with subjects that change every day, themed lessons also take place. This usually lasts two hours a day and usually takes place in the morning. The lessons are interdisciplinary and deal with a topic from a diverse range of perspectives (e.g. the topic of the sea = geography, structure of the sea, the sea as an economic factor, the sea as a living area, etc.)

  • No school books

Classic textbooks are not used in Waldorf schools. Cross-topic, so-called epoch booklets are used in which the children themselves record and document the subject matter covered.

  • No performance reviews

No grades are given. The assessment runs through a kind of portfolio, which includes strengths, weaknesses and other characteristics of the child, so that a holistic view of the performance level of the respective child becomes visible.

  • Monthly celebrations

Monthly celebrations take place with all ages and deal with topics such as eurythmy, songs and poems from German and foreign language classes. These community events are intended to strengthen the school community and also serve to impart school knowledge.

  • Eurythmy

Eurythmy is an art of movement that tries to unite language, music and human movements and to make them visible.

Criticism of Waldorf education

Waldorf educators have until recently rejected empirical studies because they are of the opinion that educational teaching takes place on a level that is not tangible for the rational sciences.

This also raises the question of whether Waldorf schools are so-called Weltanschauung schools and whether the anthroposophical movement is beneficial for children and young people. It should be noted that compulsory subjects and indoctrination on topics related to the anthroposophical worldview make the Waldorf school a worldview school. (cf. Böhm 2012, p. 99)

Till-Sebastian Idel and Heiner Ullrich (Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 126) also hold a similar opinion to Winfried Böhm (Böhm 2012, p. 99). However, these also pay more attention to empirical studies and statements from well-known newspapers.

The former Waldorf high school teacher Rüdiger Iwan put a large number of Waldorf dogmas to the test and is now considered a critic of Waldorf education.


Sebastian Götz
Sebastian Götzhttps://krippenzeit.de
"Ich lerne für den besten Job der Welt und möchte euch hier auf Krippenzeit daran teilhaben lassen."
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