In order to break educational inequality, Roman Rüdiger has developed the first successful mass scaling platform for German schools to put children in charge of their own learning and to enable each of them to develop essential social and emotional skills. Realizing the limited influence of schools alone on educational success, he has applied his peer-based approach to parenting and to the wider educational ecosystem of teacher education and employers.
The New Idea
Many outstanding schools have always understood that pure teacher-oriented learning cannot tap the full potential of children. They focus instead on peer education and resource orientation, i.e. the belief that schools cannot teach competencies but that schools, turning teachers into coaches, have to give children space to develop them on their own and teach them to each other. However, the actual change of school cultures towards peer-based learning has been limited to either singular institutions with dedicated principals or special chains of schools like Montessori Schools. Roman Rüdiger changes this in three ways.
Through the buddY initiative, he has developed a mechanism that allows each and every school to turn into such a peer-based institution. These schools start from what students know (and not what they don’t), and they allow each student to explore and develop, beyond cognitive skills, the essential emotional and social changemaking skills of teamwork, leadership and creativity. Through a very clever combination of partnerships and alliances, smart marketing that conveys excellence and an inclusive approach that demands high commitment and investments from schools, Roman Rüdiger has managed to reach tremendous scale. To date, Roman Rüdiger has reached 1,400 schools, over 15,000 teachers and over 500,000 children.
In addition, Roman has understood that successful education is determined not primarily in school but at home. After having identified key stumbling blocks to student success both within and outside of the school, he is broadening the focus of buddY to support parents to become teachers/coaches, too.
Roman’s third level of innovation is to use his peer-based approach to engage and educate the wider ecosystem around education and parenting, from reforming teacher education to consulting future employers.
Germany’s schools system fails in terms of equality of opportunity in education. Around 29% of the children in Germany are at a high risk of poverty, have unemployed parents or have parents with low educational achievement. Among children with migrant backgrounds, this number rises to 48% who share these characteristics. These children typically enter school not only with a deficit in knowledge and learning skills, but also with a lack of social skills and sense of self-efficacy. The standard school curriculum – which is usually teacher-centered, deficit-oriented and focused on academic and cognitive achievement – is mostly unable to handle this diversity and compensate for this skills gap. As a result, and as shown by numerous studies, the socio-economic background very strongly determines children’s’ educational success and career perspectives. The result is not only a moral failure of the education system but also a significant lack of skilled labor, creating a substantial drag on the German economy. In the state of North Rhine Westphalia, for example, over 600,000 jobs will remain unfilled by 2025 due to a shortage of skilled labor.
Alternative pedagogical approaches for such challenges have existed for a long time. They typically integrate social and emotional skills in curricula, are resource-oriented instead of deficit-oriented, and create peer group education settings that put children much more in charge, thereby managing to reach, teach and strengthen those that usually fall through the cracks. However, the spread of such concepts in Germany is minimal. For example, schools with alternative curricular models (like Montessori or Waldorf) make up only around 600 out of the 35,000 (usually public) schools in Germany.
The systemic barriers for a greater diffusion of peer group-oriented curricula in schools are numerous and complex. School education is a state matter, making top-down federal approaches and quick spread of citizen sector approaches impossible. Schools themselves are often underfunded and over-directed concerning their budgets and staff selection or development. In addition, different reform efforts have led to an “innovation fatigue” in many German state schools. And they have often produced an even stronger focus on academic achievement and “hard” cognitive subjects, diminishing the time for emotional and social development.
Another major factor remaining largely unaddressed in Germany is parenting. According to the PISA study, the influence of parents on the educational success of children is more than twice as big as the influence of school. However, many parents, especially those from underprivileged households, have trouble understanding how they can assume a resource-oriented perspective towards their own children and how they can support their learning at home and in day-to-day situations.
The lack of peer-based approaches continues to the wider ecosystem. Teacher training happens mostly at universities where candidates are primarily trained as experts for their subject and have very little exposure to practical teaching at schools or even peer based pedagogical setups.
The resulting, more directive teaching style has dramatic effects also on the teachers themselves; a recent study showed that 30% of all teachers suffer from exhaustion and burnout. The authors recommend that teachers need more social and emotional competencies and more practical trainings before they start their job.
The core mechanism Roman is spreading in schools is that students become “buddYs” for each other in specific “buddY projects”. This means, for example, that older students introduce new ones to the school as mentors, settle disputes between them, or explain math to younger students. Some projects also involve service-learning, for example, during which students run a program where they teach seniors in the community how to work with computers. This empowerment of students requires teachers to turn into coaches in order to create an activating peer-education-oriented teaching and learning culture. Teachers suddenly have to be able, for example, to consult students about how to structure topics and how to teach them.
Quantitative evaluations of the first phase of the buddY programs show that these projects create open spaces where children can discover and explore not only their cognitive but also their social and emotional potential. In particular, students learn how to take over responsibility, are less violent and impulsive and develop much more self-efficacy and empathy. The projects also improve the learning atmosphere in schools significantly.
Roman has compiled his approach into a smart comprehensive package that is attractive to schools. His scaling approach is both top-down and bottom-up.
One the one hand, Roman Rüdiger partners with school authorities early in the process to ensure a public mandate for his approach. For authorities, buddY is an attractive partner because of its inclusive approach, its track record, professionalism and rigorous evaluation conducted by external partners. The buddY program can, under one overarching framework, both initiate new and integrate existing school projects run by students themselves (like drug or violence prevention). This saves school authorities the complexity of handling multiple partners for different schemes.
On the other hand, he approaches schools directly and with a very strong focus on appreciation of teachers, i.e. validation of their work and inspiration. This peer emphasis combined with a high level of professionalism is central to buddY’s success in engaging core stakeholders. Orientation and introduction sessions conducted by buddY embody the philosophy of peer learning. buddY staff (who are experienced teachers and principals), other educators in the program and students offer testimonials before the launch of a partnership. In addition, buddY starts only after the “school conference” (teachers, parents and students) has agreed – and its first steps are an audit among students and a discussion with the school leadership to find out what their concrete development goals are. buddY does not prescribe the path the schools should take. Just as teachers need to become coaches for their students, buddY understands itself as a coach for the whole school.
In return, buddY asks for a strong commitment to a multi-year development process. In 2014, the first schools has completed the full process, having established structures and a culture that are irreversible. The process begins with six days of basic trainings for the teachers over 18 months to establish the project. They are led by “process moderators” who are specifically trained by buddY (320 process moderators have been trained to date). At the end of the basic trainings, buddY organizes a full day event where the school takes stock. Including the advanced trainings, the school development process takes around six years.
buddY is now partnering with eight of the 16 federal states in Germany. It has been mainly funded by-foundation grants. With Germany’s labor market facing severe challenges, Roman starts to diversify more and has reached out to the business sector, convinced a group of companies that had supported local schools to improve graduate employability that just focusing on the final school year is insufficient. Instead, he got them on board as a partner to support schools in a much more thorough change process based on the buddY methodology. The flexibility of the approach has allowed Roman to apply his approach in more and more different scenarios. He has for example, tackled school turnaround projects, leadership trainings for principals and an implementation of the Ashoka Youth Venture methodology using the same pedagogical framework.
In cooperation with Prof. Sliwka, an education expert, Roman has developed a training to reach parents. Implementing this follows the insight that parents would have to do something very similar to teachers in buddY schools, which is to turn into coaches that nurture in daily life the competencies children have already developed and give them the space to explore more of them together with their peers. The training aims to reach parents of children between three and six, usually from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and is in its pilot stage in four cities.
Parents come together for moderated parent meetings over a period of nine months where they learn through roleplays how to become a learning coach for their own children. To start with a trustful relationship, the meetings are run by kindergarten or primary school staff that were trained by familY. In order to avoid stigmatization for a difficult target group, the trainers usually approaches parents with a personal invitation to “discuss some parenting tricks” instead of advertising an official program. The meetings are offered in six languages, among them Turkish, Russian and Arabic.
In his latest programs, Roman is tackling the wider ecosystem around education to spread the peer-based model. The most prominent program is “studY”, aiming at reforming teacher training. It is based on pilot partnerships with eight different universities and education schools in 2014, which in turn work with 5 to 6 schools. Teacher candidates visit and intern in “buddY” schools to learn how to integrate the buddY approach into their teaching style already before they enter their job. In addition, they attend lectures about the role of parents and self-reflection, some of them given by students themselves.
Roman grew up in Silesia (a region of present day Poland) in a family that taught him a “can do mentality.” At the age of 12, he immigrated to Germany, experiencing himself how difficult it can be to integrate in German schools with limited language skills.
Already in his school days he was engaged in urban youth organizations and was a deputy to the local youth assistance committee. He realized that progress happens when you push the envelope: When budgets were to be cut for youth, he organized a demonstration and put a pile of cow dung in front of the local town hall. He studied social pedagogy and accomplished his mandatory social service year, and at a young age became managing director of a youth support organization. In 2000, he became the leader of the department for youth support of the Workers' Welfare Organization, one of the big social service providers, in Düsseldorf.
During his time at the WWO, he started working with Kurt Faller, a pioneer in school mediation, who had witnessed “buddy” schemes in the USA to empower gay and immigrant communities. At the same time, he was inspired by a prevention program for street children that focused on social and emotional competencies. Excited by these new approaches, he worked to launch buddY as a new institution in 2005, which set him on the path to where he is today.