Headmistress Silke Müller has been campaigning for digitization in schools for years. In our interview, she tells more about the technology at her school and gives tips for teachers and parents who want to do more in this area.
Even in 2023, not everything in Germany will be technically up to date. Schools in particular often lack the necessary equipment and finances.
The forest school in Hatten in Lower Saxony is one of the leading schools in Germany in this field. In a two-part interview with the headmistress, Silke Müller, we spoke about the hurdles of digitization, her successes and tips for teachers and parents.
The first part of the interview, which deals with the topic of social media and influencers, can be found here:
Headmistress talks about social media and influencers: “Huge disaster”
“The school is still very much rooted in old structures“
Irina from MeinMMO: Hi, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Silke: My name is Silke Müller. I come from beautiful Lower Saxony, district of Oldenburg. And I’m the principal of a high school, the Waldschule Hatten. We have about 850 children and 85 colleagues as well as school chickens and dogs.
In Germany we have what feels like 30 different types of schools. You can imagine that we are Hauptschule and Realschule, up to class 10, but with a different concept called Oberschule. With the first educational qualification that they can achieve in Germany, the children go to work, to a secondary school or whatever.
Since 2009, however, we have been strategically very digital, starting with projects from back then. And since year 2013/14, all children from year 7 onwards have a parent-financed tablet.
We take care of three core goals in addition to the normal analog lessons: the teaching of low-threshold IT skills, a basic understanding of AIs and, above all, digital ethics.
Your school has an ungraded subject called Digital Studies. What skills are taught there?
When we started with strategic digitization in the classroom, we had this holistic approach: digitization in every subject and everywhere. But schools are still very much rooted in old structures.
- We have compartments, although the world is not divided into compartments.
- We often don’t have enough time to get through the curricula.
And if you say “By the way, you still have to do media skills training,” then that’s basically correct. But for the beginning you need the right input, so that the children are told, “Pay attention: data protection, rights to your own image, you have to be careful here, you can do that, these are creative possible solutions. This is how you can use apps and save data.”
If you look at my desktop, you can see that I never had media literacy because there was no media at school at the time. I graduated from high school in 1999 and I think we had a computer lab, but I was in there once. It was also about writing Word documents.
That didn’t exist, but the children have to learn data security and data order. And we said that if the children are now entrusted with a device from year 7, then you have to get away from the thought “They just play around with it or use it for internet research.” Then they need input. Unfortunately, this cannot be regulated in any other way than by compressed time, which we only devote to this topic.
“These are very religious discussions”
How difficult was it to get your school digitally and technically up to where it is today?
I could talk about it for nights on end, but I’ll put it this way: You need determination, stamina and a very thick skin. You really have the discussion with the teachers about the apple eaters and the window peekers. These are very religious discussions, whether to use Apple or Windows or whatever.
It goes all the way to this “Why does it have to be?” This unspeakable debate on added value. Yes, my god, because the world is digital. That’s why arithmetic, writing and reading were also learned in the past, because you have to be able to do that in order to survive in this world.
So I also need knowledge of the media world to survive. That this is still being discussed today. I go so far as to say, “People, if you don’t do that, then you’ve really missed your job, because school prepares you for the future and is part of the present.”
There are many, many discussions. We teachers are very special people who think we have an idea of everything and are often incapable of criticism. But we are also under a lot of pressure at the moment because this system is tipping over and no longer works properly in the form in which it is written.
But the fight is big and I’m very happy that we now have a basic conviction among the entire staff of the school family that this is the right way. That means we no longer have to discuss things like ChatGPT and not simply accept them uncritically, but we also don’t have to brush them off immediately and say “No, ban them.” But it was a tough road.
“Parents are proud to have their children here“
Can you bring example tasks that the kids have to work on with their tablets?
Yes of course. In English lessons, for example, there are many vocabulary programs that can be learned online. There are digital textbooks that provide specific exercises, quizzes that you can take. There are programs in mathematics that generate tasks, using AI by the way.
With us, the kids write with the Notability program, which means that they learn to keep digital folders. So keeping order and having a digital school bag.
It’s generally very diverse, right down to very production-oriented things. They make podcasts on topics, create explanatory videos and, by the way, learn a lot more when they have to explain a fact themselves for others who are supposed to understand it.
What feedback have you received from parents about this?
good. We’re only starting in Year 7, and that will remain the case for the time being. In 5 the kids come into contact with rental devices, but not consistently because we put a lot of emphasis on social learning.
But the parents almost demand it and say “Hey, start before that.” But, and I think that’s really nice, the parents who have their children at our school get good feedback themselves about how great the forest school is. They are proud to have their children here and are very supportive. And that’s great.
Is it difficult to obtain tablets for the financially weaker families?
Yes for sure. However, one has to say that when the children come here after the 4th grade, the parents already know what is coming up in 2 years. That means there is enough lead to take austerity measures.
If it is still scarce, and this is often the case in everyday life, there is a kind of social fund with which the weaker families are supported by the association. First you get a loaner device and if you say “Ok, that’s it”, you can cancel the contract at any time.
What can teachers and parents do?
You are committed to ensuring that the same or at least similar program is implemented at other schools. What can teachers and parents do to achieve this?
Build up a lot of pressure. To the school board and the school management. The position is very distinctive because we are the engine. We can also say “no” and if we do that, nobody can do anything.
On the one hand, build up positive pressure, show that you want to support something like this. At the same time, however, the clear requirement that you want it. I also don’t think it’s necessary to take the entire staff with you straight away, you first need a critical mass that says “Ok, we want to do it and we’ll take it into our own hands.”
That you get the wheel running, so to speak. You then pull a lot of people with you, but you will always keep the negative critical mass and the refusers. But they become less over time and you have to honestly say that you can hardly get hold of them.
You can always pull one off and soften it up, but there will always be and everywhere. But it’s not the ones that do development, nor the ones that do great disruption.
What would you wish for from Germany in terms of digitization in schools?
First and foremost, I would like all 40,000 schools in Germany to get to work quickly and say, “All right, we have to give our children access to the digital world.
On the one hand, that means natural technical equipment, which is the foundation of everything. At the same time, it is a drastic demand on the federal and state governments, because we are still discussing whether we can get fiber optics and WiFi in the schools. That must not be.
And it also has to be about strategic concepts very quickly. What do we want? That you not only buy the devices, but also administration, maintenance and development issues must be clarified.
A lot has to change in terms of personnel. We need a new working time model for teachers so that all of this can be managed at all.
My wish is that we not only understand digitization as mechanization, but that we finally understand that it is also a question of attitude. Letting this topic of social media into schools is really a heartfelt wish for me.
That we say every school really needs a social media outreach and every school should raise the issue at every conference.
We would like to thank Silke for the interview and wish her continued success at her school and in the field of digitization.
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