In its search for the best schools in Germany, the German School Award jury selects 20 top schools to visit each year. We accompanied three jury members on their visit to Rothenburg Elementary School in Berlin.
Flanked by two spiral staircase turrets, Rothenburg Elementary School in southwest Berlin is reminiscent of a small castle. Above its arched entrance, the inscription "Income Tax Assessment Commission" calls to mind the building's original function as a tax office more than a century ago. When the large taxi carrying the jury for the German School Award pulls up in front of the school on this late afternoon, the principal Kerstin Krins and her deputy Andrea Gorek are waiting in the doorway. Only a few children still linger in the building, collecting their belongings before they make their way home.
It's 4:30 p.m., and the three jury members are meeting with the school administration, parents and cooperation partners for initial talks this afternoon, before observing lessons in various classrooms and subjects the next day. Rothenburg Elementary School is one of the top 20 schools being considered for the German School Award, which has been presented annually by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Heidehof Stiftung since 2006. The teachers and administrators are palpably excited. And this is understandable, because they have a chance to win Germany’s most prestigious and highly endowed award for schools, bestowed by the President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
"Many schools are under the impression that the strict inspectors are now coming to evaluate their work," says Hermann Veith, an education researcher at the Georg August University in Göttingen and a member of the jury for many years. But it is important to dispel this notion at the first meeting on this early summer afternoon, because an open atmosphere is essential for an authentic picture of the school.
The chairs are placed in a circle, in the center a round carpet with a vase of flowers, as is customary in the rooms of this Montessori-oriented, inclusive elementary school. After a round of introductions, everyone seems more at ease.
It quickly becomes clear that the jury experts are here as curious learners themselves. Hermann Veith works in teacher training and wants to see how academic knowledge is applied in practice. Udo Michallik, Secretary General of the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the German States (KMK), describes the school visits as his "personal training" in how political decisions play out in practice. And Thilo Engelhardt, principal of the Heidelberg Forest School – the 2017 winner of the German School Award –likes to be inspired by innovative ideas from other schools. Attending for the first time are one female and one male pupil from the Federal Conference of Pupils who will be looking over the jury's shoulder.
Before the meeting, the jury members have taken a close look at all the application documents and noted down questions to clarify in their on-site discussions. How independent are the children expected to be in their learning? Or – how does the school work with data-based diagnostics and support?
After the discussion, there is a tour of the building. Although it may seem unimportant, the tour is essential so the experts can find their way around the school the next day. The schedule is tight, and the jury wants to see as much as possible, so there is no time to waste wandering around the halls. In addition, how learning groups are distributed among the rooms and floors says a lot about the school concept.
At Rothenburg Elementary School, 280 children are spread among classes that combine grades 1 to 3 and 4 to 6. To ensure the children already know each other before switching into the upper classes after third grade, partner classes work together on one floor, sometimes already on joint projects.
The jury members are also introduced to the teachers’ lounge – known here as the staff lounge because the teachers work in multi-professional teams, combining both educators and school support staff.
And as the jury members walk through the empty building, they also note the difficult conditions that must also be considered in their evaluation. The Rothenburg School building was not originally built as a school. The classrooms are often very small and leave few possibilities for creative arrangements. When groups are divided or children need space to work with a partner, they must use the hallways. The dilapidated gymnasium is being renovated and cannot be used, and the children have to take turns eating in a tight rhythm in the small cafeteria in the basement. At the very top of the building under the eaves, the jury is given a key to a small attic room where they can retreat and discuss their observations the next day.
In the morning before classes begin, the jurors stand in the attic room and decide who will go to which classes. The quality of teaching is at the heart of the six areas the jury considers during their visits. All doors are open to them. Hermann Veith decides to visit the first period of math lessons in the combined years 1, 2 and 3. After a brief introduction, he takes a seat quietly in a back corner of the room so as not to disturb the normal course of events. That’s not so easy, because of course the children are also excited about the unusual visit.
"That's normal, but you usually become so immersed in school life over the course of the day that they hardly perceive you as an outsider."
As each child finds his or her assignment and place, Veith slowly walks around the room, looking at textbooks and assignment formats, observing how both independent and collaborative learning work. The children are accustomed to their routine and know what they need to do. Veith discovers quickly that he is experiencing an authentic lesson and not one staged for the jury.
After about 20 minutes, he switches to the next room: math in grades 4, 5 and 6. The students are in an escape room – not a virtual one, but a real-life one. They are given tasks with mysterious coordinates that they discuss in small groups until they crack the code to open a combination lock and receive instructions for the next level. Veith closely observes whether the task formats activate their reasoning skills, whether the children develop strategies to solve the puzzle and how the teacher provides constructive support without telling them what to do. These are all important criteria for good teaching. On his agenda that day are also two English lessons, a German lesson and a class council – a kind of topical discussion group where children learn the principles of democratic debate.
Silent observer: Jury member Hermann Veith takes a lot of time to observe lessons.
While the other jury members delve further into lessons, Veith meets with a few students from all grades before lunch – without their teachers.
Veith wants to know how the children themselves experience the mix of grades, what exactly independent work means to them, and how it differs from the so-called learning periods on the timetable. And above all, what makes the Rothenburg School special from their point of view. The children are effusive about their experiences, and quickly discuss more among themselves than with the juror. "Can you imagine how exciting it is for us when we ‘firsties’ work together with the big kids from the sixth grades for the first time?!" the youngest girl asks the older ones. The sixth graders smile knowingly; after all, they too were once first graders. For Veith, this conversation is also about getting a sense of the school climate. Indeed, the children's well-being is a basic prerequisite for good learning.
At noon, the jury members all meet again in their attic room, share their experiences and discuss what they want to clarify in their remaining discussion with the teachers. Then they take only a short break, because now the evaluation process begins. There are intense, controversial and deliberative discussions. After two days of conversations and observations at Rothenburg Elementary School, an astonishingly clear picture of the lessons and the school emerges. Hermann Veith notes down key points for the report on his tablet. At the second jury meeting in mid-June, the visiting teams will present their schools. Then they evaluate together which of the 20 schools should be among the 15 nominees and which will be the winners.