Dagmar Schreiber macht durch ein computerbasiertes Feedback-und Coaching-System Gymnasien, Haupt-, Real- und Gesamtschulen sowie Grundschulen zu demokratischen, von allen Teilhabern gestalteten Orten.
Die neue Idee
Frustrated by the authoritative, top-down style of teaching in German schools that asks too much of teachers while estranging students and parents, Dagmar has built an interactive, inclusive process to be used in any school to overcome these barriers and to make school and learning relevant to everyone involved.Rather than blaming one group for doing things wrong, Dagmar enables headmasters, teachers, parents and students to voice their concerns and viewpoints without fear of losing face. She institutionalizes a feedback system so that each stakeholder can confidentially and individually express their views on what they feel the school is like: how they feel in class, what help they would need, what works well, what they suggest for improvement. While the feedback and response itself has value, the true importance lies in the learning and growing processes that is fostered by the feedback system she puts in place. While safeguarding confidentiality on the individual responses, which are given only to that person, Dagmar also empowers each participant to discuss the collective results, identify problems and discover how many challenges they share.
By lifting the cover of silence that separated these groups from each other, Dagmar guides all stakeholders to develop a common goal and a collective identity as they start talking and listening to each other. Supported by the modules and tools Dagmar offers, they begin caring for their school, tapping into their own newfound community resources and most importantly, taking responsibility for changing and shaping their school environment. Feedback thus becomes a tool for change, not for punishment. Simultaneously, the resulting culture of democratic feedback encourages transparency so that dangerous trends such as abuse of students or looming conflicts can be spotted early.
More than 90 percent of Germany's schools, hosting around 12 million pupils, are financed and administered by the government. Teachers and headmasters are civil servants who in general cannot be dismissed for misconduct. This can remove a sense of accountability towards students and parents.The curriculum is all about imparting information, rather than developing general intellectual abilities such as communicating and solving problems.As a result, pupils and parents often have a negative attitude towards school. It is seen as something inevitable that has to be endured. School spirit and a feeling of belonging together are rare. There is no institutionalized way to engage parents into school life. Quite a few parents would like to contribute but they do not know how and are given no mechanism to do so. As a result, involvement often boils down to activities like baking a cake for a school event.Students cope by either trying to minimize mistakes in an attempt to live up to what is expected of them or by refusing to learn, thus becoming “difficult” in the eyes of the system. Teachers are seen as powerful authorities and adversaries rather than partners in learning.Conversely, teachers lack positive feedback and have to deal with classes of more than 30 children, resulting in feelings of exploitation and exhaustion. Statistics reveal that the teaching profession boasts among the highest rates of burnout syndrome and depression in Germany. The effects of these disorders lead to early retirement by medical prescription with only very few teachers actually reaching the official retirement age of 65. According to recent estimates 3,000 teachers per year drop out for these and similar reasons. Since they are expected to wield authority, there is little if any incentive to share feelings of frustration or failure with colleagues. No regular institutionalized exchange exists among teachers about how a class is doing. Teachers have a very compartmentalized view as they see the kids only two to six hours every week. Hence, disturbing tendencies—like a propensity to violence or right wing extremism—are often only discovered when it is already too late. Moreover, schools feel more pressure to make students score well on standardized tests, following Germany’s poor performance in an OECD comparison.
Dagmar pioneered her idea of a “feedback culture” in 2003 at her son's school in Brandenburg when, following the poor testing results, there was increased public pressure on schools to change—but neither the government, school administrations, nor teachers knew how. Taking advantage of this situation, she convinced the headmaster to let her start. Quickly realizing it would be much too time-consuming to evaluate feedback forms by hand, Dagmar convinced a firm to develop internet-based software for free that allows each participant to fill in the forms on a computer and determines the results. A feedback form comprises both statistical and more open, qualitative questions and triggers. An example of the former is “I feel empowered to express my views openly in the classroom” or “I feel threatened in class” or “I love learning” giving the participant the opportunity to choose an answer between “I agree fully” to “I don't agree.” An example for the latter is “If you could change three things in school, what would you do?” or “What could you contribute to making this class more interesting?” Without disclosing the identity of the author to others, the feedback goes in all directions. It allows teachers to express their view on the school administration and on their own teaching, and headmasters to evaluate themselves. It allows students to give feedback to teachers as well as to the school overall. Finally, parents can give feedback on the school and to describe whether and how they would like to contribute to school life.However, and most importantly, the feedback process is just the first step; real change starts when the results are discussed and solutions and action steps are developed.Dagmar starts with teachers and headmasters in half-day seminars. She prepares a folder for each, containing general background on feedback, the individual responses given by the students (which only she sees in their entirety before and where she edits out any inappropriate comments), and individual tools and training materials to improve performance, together with a list of institutions that could provide help. After a general introduction to feedback, she gives each teacher and the headmaster (who also teaches classes) their folders and gives them time to read their results privately. Those who receive really negative feedback get a private one-on-one session beforehand. Once the teachers return after about 30 minutes, a group discussion ensues. The rule is that no one has to share anything unless they want to—but many do. They begin by discussing the accumulated results, which often reflect the negative results they received individually. As the first participants show courage to express their feelings about the results, the group is encouraged to open up and talk about their insecurities and challenges. Often for the first time, teachers realize that they are not alone but that they can help each other; the headmaster is given a new window onto what the teachers really feel like at school. In further sessions and role-plays, they explore how best to share the feedback results with the students. The feedback from the students and parents on the overall school culture (e.g. whether they feel safe, whether drugs are a problem, whether they enjoy the classes) are made public, and accumulated results are discussed among all stakeholders. For the first time, there is open dialogue among the entire school community.In multi-stakeholder groups, participants then work out what changes they want to introduce. Realizing that worldwide there are many creative educational tools that schools in Germany never use nor know of, Dagmar researched and developed a set of techniques that teachers and administrators can begin using right away. Among these are "Klassenräte" (class assemblies), during which all students of one class get together regularly to discuss and talk about what concerns them, to give each other feedback and to work on solving their problems. While teachers are present, the class assembly is entirely student led, with the positions of leader and moderator rotating among students. These are scheduled during normal class hours. Another example is called "Jahrgangsteams" (grade assemblies), which is to establish set times for all teachers who teach a certain grade to get together and talk about what is happening in the classroom, exchange ideas and knowledge and to help each other. Also, they work together to pinpoint underlying issues in the classroom or identify a student who needs help with depression or a family issue. In this way, they can stop working in isolation and begin to establish better relationships with students as well as improving their teaching methods. Normally, one teacher teaches one subject in one class—which means that s/he does not see his or her pupils more than two or three hours a week, and does not report back to the other teachers what s/he observes. Finally, for parents Dagmar recommends the development of a “parent support database.” During the feedback process, parents are asked what they would like to contribute to school life—e.g. teaching a class in a particular subject, library service, organizing extra-curricular activities, offering a guided tour through a factory, tutoring, etc. Dagmar helps schools to build a database so teachers and students can easily identify a parent to assist with a given subject, and parents can start supporting teachers and enriching the education of their children.These institutional changes foster a feedback culture that places students, teachers and parents at the center as empowered agents of change. In this way, students learn to shape their school reality, teachers break out of their isolation and learn to work together and with parents, and the school administration feels responsible for and accountable to teachers, parents and students. As an additional result, headmasters can praise themselves with innovative projects such as the class assemblies that turn their schools into regional role models, attracting more students and with higher retention rates for teachers. While class assemblies and grade assemblies are convened every fortnight, a collective feedback day is institutionalized and repeated only every one or two years—to prevent a "fatigue from overdose". Dagmar visits each school six months after the feedback process started, consulting with teachers and headmaster to see what and how changes were introduced and what support they might need.Dagmar has so far implemented her system—with the resulting school changes—in 12 public schools in Brandenburg, reaching 500 teachers and 3,500 students. She has begun connecting the schools to exchange best practices. Elementary schools are also now using her feedback method; Dagmar rewrote the forms in a manner appropriate for young children to easily use. Enthusiastic responses by schools, students and parents made the Ministry of the State of Berlin-Brandenburg take notice of her model. She is currently working with the Education Ministry of Berlin-Brandenburg to spread her system (including the introduction of class assemblies etc.) state-wide. As a first step, she will be training a first cohort of 50 carefully selected school consultants/trainers, most of them former teachers. It is utterly important to her that the feedback consultants are not active constituents of the education system, so that teachers have no fear that their results get known by their superiors. Simultaneously, Dagmar is promoting her model through teachers', parents' and education organizations in other states (since the education system is organized federally in Germany, each state has its own legislation). Her goal is to scale up to 500 schools over the next few years and to implement a "feedback quality seal," a distinction for feedback schools.
Dagmar started young as an entrepreneur and opened her own small business, an office administration service, in Munich in her 20s, and later started working as a freelance consultant for large firms. When Dagmar Schreiber's son, now a teenager, started attending kindergarten, she realized that the educational system had changed little from when she herself was young—there was still a culture of punishment and authority, but no systematic approach towards encouraging children to take on responsibility. The perception that the school system was somewhat dysfunctional was aggravated when the family moved in the late 1990s from Munich to a small village in Brandenburg, the former East Germany. She first founded a community association to enrich public life in the area. The association—which she still leads—now has a broad citizen base and holds various community events each year. Before Dagmar started her feedback system at secondary schools, she had initiated several local projects around schooling: a private kindergarten, a technology project for elementary school students in which older kids teach younger ones how to use computers, and a project in which young people from different nationalities teach others about their culture.Dagmar's idea to start the school feedback was born over time while observing her son's school. Several incidents made her realize that there was a lack of communication among stakeholders at school—most notably when discussion after a young boy's suicide revealed that many teachers and students had noticed something was wrong, but had no way of communicating or sharing their observations.