How digitalization should change the way we see classroom education
Remote learning during the pandemic has once more led to a discussion of the chances that might lie in a greater digitalization of classroom teaching. “We fall short, if we merely see digitalization in terms of technical equipment, that is to say, software and hardware. Any technology can only support teachers”, says Prof. Dr. Heiner Böttger, who holds the chair of English Didactics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.
“However, digitalization guided by didactic considerations offers an opportunity to bring about a paradigmatic shift that will also bear on the way education sees its own role: Children will be given more opportunity to learn at their own pace. Teachers, in turn, can be relieved of routine tasks in order to engage more with students. This will support teachers rather than replace them. Digitalization, individualization and inclusion are in a way best friends,” Böttger recently said in a hearing at the education committee of the Bavarian Parliament on perspectives in education for the year 2030.
For Böttger, routine tasks are the pure teaching of content, such as the vocabulary of a language or the systematics of fractions, which both might easily be taught digitally. Here, the use of AI already offers new perspectives for individualization, for example when the system analyzes a student’s spelling while they are typing a text. This could serve to assess students’ levels of knowledge that teachers can then use as a baseline. “This would leave teachers with more time to do what they do best – help build skills. This is contradictory to current classroom standards with all the students simultaneously working on the same task,” says Böttger.
Böttger believes several conditions are needed to allow the flexibility to alternate between self-directed phases and personal support by teachers. One of them, he says, is rethinking our idea that school is explicitly a morning spent in school. Rather, we have to shift our thinking to a “genuine” all-day school, a concept, by the way, that gives justice to findings from neuro-sciences, education studies and psychology: “The school of the future does not end at 1pm. In a sense, our children are suffering from a permanent jet lag. When the first lesson starts, to their inner clock it is five o’clock in the morning. It would be better to schedule direct interaction with teachers from 9am to 3pm and to end the afternoon with digital self learning phases.” This would not only lead to a life of school, but to a better identification with one’s own school and in that sense to a life while in school. Other countries that rely on the all-day school as the standard model and where schools have more responsibility and power to make decisions have had good experiences. “We have to end the trial stage and move forward to institutionalization.”
Findings from neuro-science have also made it into Professor Böttger’s central area of research – namely learning foreign languages at an early age. His professorship recently hosted an online conference on this topic with more than 600 participants, among them neurobiologist and learning researcher Prof. Dr. Martin Korte. He emphasized the positive impact of early foreign language instruction on the forming of connections in the brain: “Not only do these children then speak and understand the foreign language better, but also the German language.” As a general rule, both empathy and communicative skills improved – both are qualities that are socially and professionally very important. In his function as head of the PISA study, the OECD’s Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, Prof. Dr. Andreas Schleicher, also confirmed that students who master at least two languages are more open-minded and react more flexibly to change.
This goes hand in hand with the results of a pilote project that Böttger worked on as a researcher – the Bavaria-wide project “Lernen in zwei Sprachen – Bilinguale Grundschule Englisch” (Learning in two languages – bilingual elementary school English). Elementary school students who are taught in English in general knowledge subjects not only develop significantly better English language skills but also perform better in subjects such as German and maths compared to children in traditional classes. “The results confirmed the theory that children who are taught bilingually develop new neuronal networks and thus have cognitive advantages that reach far beyond mere English language skills,” says Böttger.
To him, equity in education starts with language. He sees it as vital to get from learning to read to learning by reading at a young age in order to be able to draw information from texts. He argues that where language skills are not adequate, children will not be able to understand texts later on. In cooperation with students and with the help of his team, the English didactician is currently involved in the development of an instrument for this purpose. The “Brainix” learning platform was initiated by the “Stiftung Digitale Bildung”, a foundation of software entrepreneur Jürgen Biffar. The project does not have a commercial agenda. In cooperation with various schools, the development team is testing its technology and the didactic concept in the inception of which KU students were involved. Basis for the test are the current maths and English language curricula of the 6th graders at Bavarian Gymnasien.
The learning program adapts to the different learning speeds of the students. One practical application that results from that technical option, is that a teacher can split a class. One half of the students might do exercises on their computers, while the other half talk about their learning process with the teacher. In addition, learning content in Brainix is embedded in emotionally appealing stories, be it a journey through time, a daydream or an environmental protest rally. “Real and substantial digital teaching is not simply transferring content to an e-book or sending out links to knowledge films on YouTube,” says Professor Böttger.