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Democratic education in populist times

Published on 29. November 2019, 10:35 h

Work starts for a Europe-wide network of laboratory schools

How do children learn co-determination in their schools and how do they cope with all the diversity of opinions, abilities, and cultural differences? This is just one of the questions being addressed by the new project LabSchoolsEurope. It is being coordinated by Bielefeld University that initiated the project together with Bielefeld’s Laborschule [laboratory school]. Researchers and teachers are cooperating in the project to develop innovations in democratic education for dealing with heterogeneity in primary schools. Universities and schools are working together at five locations—in Austria, the Czech Republic, England, France, and Germany. The project is being funded by Erasmus+, the European Union programme for education, youth, and sport.

Professor Dr Annette Textor, Dr Christian Timo Zenke, and Nicole Freke (from left to right) are developing methods with which pupils can learn democratic skills in the LabSchoolsEurope project. Photo: Bielefeld University
Professor Dr Annette Textor, Dr Christian Timo Zenke, and Nicole Freke (from left to right) are developing methods with which pupils can learn democratic skills in the LabSchoolsEurope project. Photo: Bielefeld University
‘Particularly in the present time shaped by populistic attitudes in which democratic values are being increasingly questioned, we already have to start in school with thinking about how our society actually does and should deal with heterogeneity,’ says Professor Dr Annette Textor from the Faculty of Educational Science. She is the scientific director at the Laborschule Research Unit. ‘Schools offer an ideal environment for practicing democratic behaviour and thereby preventing racism, group-focused enmity, and other misanthropic attitudes.’

The Laborschule, a state-run laboratory school, has been testing new teaching and learning methods since 1974. ‘The Laborschule should reflect society in miniature. This includes teachers and students using democratic guidelines to regulate their affairs,’ says Dr Christian Timo Zenke from the Laborschule Research Institute. He is the head of the LabSchoolsEurope project. According to Zenke, the principle of taking a democratic orientation applies to all ‘laboratory schools’—that is, schools that follow the tradition of the American pedagogue and philosopher John Dewey and engage in continuous research on their teaching processes together with universities. This is why the partners in the project are also working on innovations in democratic education in their own practical research.

This Thursday and Friday (28–29 November 2019) the partners are coming to the kick-off conference for LabSchoolsEurope at the Laborschule in Bielefeld— the oldest laboratory school in Europe together with the neighbouring Oberstufen-Kolleg [High School College].

‘For a long time, our school was one of the few laboratory schools in Europe. There is now a boom in schools linked to universities with many new schools being set up in recent years,’ says Nicole Freke, head of primary teaching at the Laborschule Bielefeld. For five years, she headed a research and development project on democratic processes and participation in the primary school section of the Laborschule. LabSchoolsEurope is building on this project. ‘For us, it is interesting to see which new approaches the project partners are using to address democratic education in primary schools. At the same time, they can profit from our experiences with, for example, group councils and other participative formats,’ says Freke.

The new network should develop and evaluate methods and materials for dealing with heterogeneity. ‘Outcomes are, for example, multi-lingual practice guidelines, teaching materials, and successfully tested sequences that can be made available online,’ says Dr Christian Timo Zenke. ‘We are also interested in documenting, comparing, and further developing the various approaches to participatory school research.’

Bielefeld University and the Laborschule are cooperating with eight partners in LabSchoolsEurope: the École des hautes études en sciences sociales [School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences] and the Lab School Paris (France), the University of Cambridge Primary School (England), the Masaryk University and the Labyrinth Laboratory School in Brno (Czech Republic), and the University College of Teacher Education Vienna with its Primary School and Lower Second School for Pre-service Classroom Teaching (Austria).

The EU programme Erasmus+ is funding the project for three years until August 2022 with a total of 420,000 Euro over the funding line for strategic partnerships in higher education. LabSchoolsEurope is the second project in Erasmus+ that is currently being coordinated by Bielefeld University. The project ‘A European comparison of teaching material – criteria for its development and evaluation’ headed by Junior professor Dr Michaela Vogt will run until August 2021.

Further information:

Dr Christian Timo Zenke, Bielefeld University
Faculty of Education Science, Laborschule Research Institute
Telephone: 0521 106-4555
Email: timo.zenke@uni-bielefeld.de

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