Margret Rasfeld pioneers a systematic change in how schools unfold students' potential by radically putting them in charge of both their own education and of opening up schools to society. Having built two role model schools herself, she now drives a larger shift towards innovation and entrepreneurship with a network of and around schools pioneering meta-competencies for the 21st century.
The New Idea
In today´s quickly changing world, youth have to be prepared for uncertainty, be actively linked to their surroundings, have to embrace failure and have to practice empathy. Margret realized that this can only be done by radically putting students in charge. She thus is creating a movement dedicated to transform schools, convince teachers and other stakeholders of this radical shift: From teaching to learning, from authority to putting children in charge of shaping their own education and life.
In her Berlin-based prototype school Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum, founded in 2007, she holistically puts known pedagogical best cases into practices, forwards the radical shift and thereby creates new role models. For example, one of the subjects is called “Responsibility” centering on civic engagement. Also every student has to master regularly a self-chosen three-week “Challenge” outside of school. Thus students not only reach out to local communities, but are also building new connections into society and overcoming the traditionally high walls around German schools. Although her students have not been selected for intellectual ability, their GPAs in A levels are comparable or better than in other German high schools.
To turn from a body of practice to a social movement and to bring her ideas to a broad public Margret co-founded in 2012 the initiative Schule im Aufbruch (“Schools Rising“) - reaching an audience of 30,000 during her road shows in 2014-15. The initiative is currently bringing together 40 schools as part of an informal learning network and is about to open regional offices across Germany to help them in their transformation. Margret also scales her ideas by asking others to learn from her students: as Ambassadors of change they instruct teacher courses, consult professors of pedagogy and school officials. In the program “students and managers” they share their insights on teamwork and leadership with managers. Margret founded the Education Innovation Lab in 2015, bringing the different stakeholders together, to distribute and develop new material and offer further teacher trainings. All of these practices are informing the movement and a paradigm shift in learning practices.
Margret is convinced that today’s school system inadequately prepares students for the environmental, economic and social challenges they will face in the 21st century. The long wait for reforms towards more innovation and entrepreneurship has caused society in general, and students and parents in particular, to lose faith in the ability of the school system to change at all. Burn out rates among teachers are at record highs. Parents have never been as unhappy with schools. Only 20 per cent of students say they enjoy going to school. As a consequence, fewer and fewer schools have the active engagement and experimentation they need to adapt, let alone begin to nudge the system.
The systemic problem causes all key constituencies to fail in their own, specific ways. Teachers have to be multitalented changemakers, yet are faced with severe time constraints, inadequate training and continuing education, and an increasing cynicism from parents. Principals have experienced a drastic transformation of their role, from chief educators to administrators of complex budgeting processes, and survival fighters against the imminent threat of demographic change. Parents, finally, are struggling with their role as active partners in the education process, due to fast changing skill requirements, and growing demands of work life.
The German education system has seen several far-reaching reforms during the last decade: The landscape has changed to an extensive all-day school system and also new concepts of comprehensive schools to restructure the present polynomial system are implemented. Each reform puts additional stress on all stakeholders while restricting time, budget, and freedom of schools. At the same time new concepts offer new opportunities and more and more principals and teachers say, that more of the old is not the solution. Against the reform fatigue, a large number of initiatives have sprung up in the already very diverse parts of Germany. Next to useful awards and networks of practitioners, several social entrepreneurs have begun to bring change to key aspects of the failing system: They improve integration of disadvantaged students, allow for better participation, improve the use of technology, or improve conflict management, to name only a few.
However, all of these remain, in Margret’s analysis, limited to small and isolated improvements, and leave a more fundamental problem unresolved: Schools do not permit themselves to truly take responsibility, and think bigger. Most stop well before they reach the boundaries of what they can actually do. And to reach this fundamental change the potential and expertise of one of the key constituencies lies still idle – the school students.
Bigger, bolder examples are needed to serve as role models. Despite the many calls for reform, and the multifaceted landscape of small innovations, schools remain stuck in the old paradigms of teaching, separated core topics, fragmented school days, hectic and closed experiences, linear thinking, and conformity.
Schule im Aufbruch is a national movement of schools designed to inspire a rethinking of what is possible at schools, and provide schools with the ideas and resources of a peer network to take action. It grew out of a meeting of minds at a board reporting to the German Chancellor, and incorporated in 2013 with Margret and two senior mavens in the field as co-founders. It is accompanied by the Education Innovation LAB as the knowledge development and peer-based training arm that has grown out of Margret's Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum (an Ashoka Changemaker School). As co-founder of both efforts, Margret is the overlap between these efforts, and the broadly visible figurehead.
While the network propagates a highly individual and open-ended transformation paradigm, much of it is inspired by the large number of innovations tested by Margret throughout her career as a teacher and principal - in particular her broadly celebrated work at the Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum (ESBZ), a private school she launched in 2007. The school is completely run by teams of students and teachers, and has developed an unparalleled richness of curricular and extracurricular programs run by the broader school community. The school replaces many traditional education concepts with 21st century ideas: From mere knowledge transfer to the ability to process knowledge and apply it to one’s own actions, from teaching children to empower them, from closed doors to open teams, from conformity to complexity, and so forth. They holistically puts known pedagogical best cases into practices, i.e. to learn in inclusive and age-mixed groups, define and monitor own projects, self-organized learning without marks and to use teachers as coaches. In school assemblies pupils learn to publicly praise their peers – a way to cultivate feedback and empathy. Among its signature innovations are the courses “Responsibility”, centering on civic engagement in the local community, and the self-chosen three-week “Challenge” outside of school with almost no budget.
Through series of talks, films, road shows (typically conducted by students themselves), and public campaigning, Schule im Aufbruch builds national awareness for bold, new school practices, and serves as an inspiration and magnet for early pioneer school communities. Margret wants to include 2.5 percent, or 875 schools with different profiles in order to tip the system. Her transformation process for each school has three more phases after the inspiration phase: Knowledge, Action Triggers, and Networking.
In the Knowledge phase, schools can leverage the curriculum materials and examples contributed by other schools in the network. The knowledge production has been much accelerated by the need of schools in many German states to rapidly adapt and expand their curriculum from morning only to all day education. Margret has anticipated this development, understood its potential as a blank slate learning space, and has started the Education Innovation Lab (EIL) as a hub for the collection and dissemination (online and through workshops) of best practices, but also to develop new learning materials. She is convinced that self-learning and other innovative concepts, putting students in charge of their own education need qualitative and supporting products, services and formats. Not existing today, this work will close a gap in the transformation process of schools. For this the Lab brings students, teachers, design thinker, game developer, psychologist and many more together and is positioned between research, education and businesss-world. Currently 13 schools are co-developing curricular materials with the EIL. While schools pay the EIL for deeper interaction, its knowledge is distributed free of charge.
In the Action Trigger phase, a step by step manual and massively open online courses (MOOCs) on school transformation serve as the main guideposts for school communities to transformation into their own hands. They can use a self-evaluation tracker to understand their progress, and tap into a mentor network for peer guidance.
Finally, the Networking stage supports schools with providing an online community, creates short movies (directed by students) about their schools, organizes students to serve as ambassadors at other schools, and encourages regional networking through a dedicated volunteer kit. In 2014, the ESBZ welcomed 200 hospitations, and its students trained 1,500 participants, and the MOOCs reached 5,000 attendees. 40 schools have pledged themselves to the network, and have started 30 regional groups. 300 additional schools are interested to join the network and she will work with 250 new founded comprehensive schools in the federal state of Baden Wuertemberg. She already convinced minsters of education and arts - this acceptance and support is very important for not leaving the initiative only on a school level and to prevent from restrictions. Furthermore the movement has begun to spread to Poland, Austria and Switzerland.
All of this happened with Margret still in a full time role as principal of ESBZ. She now rededicates her retirement completely to the role of social entrepreneur, evangelist, and architect of a network that is uniquely positioned to change the education culture. Her focus is now on three pillars on which the movement will stand: customised online resources for everyone inspired by the campaigns and examples, regional networks of schools serving as peer resources, and the development of the Education Innovation LAB into a professional, creative hub producing curriculum materials and events. In addition, Margret is a key contributor to a new-founded alliance of social entrepreneurs focused on education innovation.
Margret comes from a working class background, and had to fend for herself early on while her parents started and ran a small retail business. They provided an early example of entrepreneurship and empathy in the tough environment of post-war Germany. Margret was the first in her family and the only student of her primary school year to attend university. As student president and church group leader, Margret organized a city-wide youth festival when she was only 15. In her early student years, she experienced the 1968 revolts, the peace movement and the anti-nuclear activism first hand.
A teacher and school reformer throughout her life, Margret has at every stage pushed the boundaries of the paradigms and roles in which she operated. For example, Margret encouraged her students to run a café for refugees, and she started a school garden initiative that grew quickly and received several awards. Her subjects, biology and chemistry, allowed her to confront students with global environmental challenges from the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s, she started initiatives including local sustainability dialogues, cultural learning, etc.
In 1996 she developed her own concept with a strong focus on inclusion, student empowerment and community education, which was selected for a school that needs to be founded and Margret became principal. As principal, Margret quickly gained national recognition, and took on the challenge of starting a completely new school in Berlin in 2007. Her Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum has become the launch pad for a national campaign, and has made Margret one of the most sought after inspirations for policy makers, educators, and parents.
Coming from a working class background, she really has a sense of education as an equalizer. Through her practical work with students and of course of her professional background as a teacher and educated in gestalt therapy and theme-centred interaction/TCI she learned how to set a topic and to empower youth and communities. Often teacher have reservations and say to Margret, that they can´t change anything at their school, but the students’ presentations and trainings are so inspiring that the reservations have no chance to endure. Standing on stage today, together with her students, hearing the applause and standing ovations of 5000 teachers, she feels encouraged but also remembers her own words: “The old system is broken. We need courage, vision and action!”