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How a German School Educates for Sustainable Development

The world is facing a climate change crisis—and all its repercussions are yet to be felt. It is humanity's predicament to face its role in causing and solving the problem of climate change. Are we equipped for this responsibility? Do we have the knowledge, ethical awareness, and resilience to cope and thrive in the changing natural environment and animal populations around us?

The answers to these questions are to come out of our education systems, but those are already flailing under the weight of many problems, including boredom, mental health problems, violence, and pandemic-related stressors. We know our children’s education is not always fit for purpose. Often, there are obstacles to progress, leaving us unable to implement what we know “works to raise youth to become educated, trained, resilient, and optimistic adults.

The Integrierte Gesamtschule Oyten (IGS, or Integrated Comprehensive School), located in Oyten, a small rural town east of Bremen not far from Germany’s North Sea coast, offers a fascinating alternative. Founded in September 2012 and educating youth aged 11 to 19, it aims to implement new thinking around learning delivery that relates to the now. It seeks to foster a sense of responsibility, ownership, and a passion for problem-solving the critical issues of our age, and not least the climate crisis and the implementation of UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) framework.

Student's Council in session. © IGS Oyten
Students' Council in session. © IGS Oyten

Integrated Education at IGS Oyten

Education research has shown that students learn more through interdisciplinary project work than standalone subject learning. IGS Oyten starts the school day with the “Open Beginning,” during which students may discuss the news, for example. They then progress to the morning “Learning Lab,” during which they take mathematics, German, and foreign languages.

Students sit in groups and engage in peer-to-peer learning with individual checklists assisted by teachers’ individual or group coaching. The school diversifies assessment by including written exams and plays, presentations, and dialogues. IGS Oyten’s approach is a very personalized approach to subject learning. Luisa, a sixth-grade student, says, “I can work at my own pace and decide far more freely which tasks I want to work on.”

After a short break, learners move on to theme-oriented education, bringing together subjects such as history, geography, and the social sciences in project-based learning. Then students move on to subject-based knowledge in physical education, natural sciences, art, and music. Following lunch, there is an individual study hour, special interest courses, with one-to-one tutorial support, and children working with their checklists.

IGS Oyten School Forest model.   © IGS Oyten
IGS Oyten School Forest model. © IGS Oyten

Learners also have tutorial time, class meetings, and presentations during the day. They are developing “Frei-Day [Free-Day] for Future” on Fridays, or Freitag in German, a play on the German word frei, meaning “free.” On this day, children work on their own projects. Other hands-on projects in the pipeline are the school forest, solar initiative, and the model school.

Already up and running is the Sustainable Pupils’ Firm, a registered cooperative that hosts different specialist firms to foster vocational skills. One example of this is Make–IT, which does electronics, robotics, and physical computing. Dieter Schmidt, who is Didaktischer Leiter (meaning didactic leader or teacher involved in curriculum development) at Oyten, says, “Our approach is that these topics do meet recent and future questions much better than historically ‘grown’ subjects, which meet the structure of universities.”

IGS Oyten School Forest planting.   © IGS Oyten
IGS Oyten School Forest planting. © IGS Oyten

Why deliver education in this way when it involves a significant structural change to the way education is provided? Schmidt explains that when the school was founded in 2012, the team decided to take the opportunity for the new start by implementing a different structure: “In Germany, there is a saying from the philosopher Christoph Lichtenberg: ‘If you make something different, it may not become better, but if you want to make something better, you have to make it differently.’” Most importantly, integrating education in this way allows children to engage with critical issues, not the least of which is climate change.

Delivering Climate Awareness

The program complies with ESD goals and the German National Action Plan on ESD’s aspiration for children to become “change agents.” To become a change agent, students need subject knowledge, twenty-first century skills, interpersonal relational skills, and the ability to understand their social and natural environment as a whole. Students meet experts out of school, have greater responsibility and participation within the school, and are part of the local and regional educational landscape.

ESD underpins most of what the school does in a “whole systems approach” that affects the administration, building structure, staff, education, and broader stakeholder involvement. Take the content of theme-based lessons described above. One example of this is a project around the North Sea’s Wadden Sea tidelands, where one student looked at how pollution affects the tidelands' ecosystem.

The projects involve diverse subject expertise that pupils apply to their specific examples. Another example shows this learning in action. In one project, students looked at the question: “Does production change the world?” They studied the production of chocolate, figured out how it is made (by trying to make it at home) and researched the topic, including climate conditions for growing chocolate, social aspects of harvesting (such as child labor and slavery), and fair trade. Other projects researched the production of mobile phones, jeans, and hamburgers.

Another example is “Network Earth—What Can I do?” Pupils choose a specialty based on their own interests; four pupils, for example, are working on photovoltaics. They build models or research problems and solutions for sustainable energy resources.

The projects are not just confined to research and interdisciplinary learning. Students also learn the ability to act on their findings. Students give presentations to their classes, and their projects are assessed not only through grades but also learning development reports. They may also discuss the results with local politicians.

"IT-Freaks" — a working group to learn IT skills. © IGS Oyten
"IT-Freaks" — a working group to learn IT skills. © IGS Oyten

The Future of Learning

Climate change is a highly contested issue in politics, embroiled in culture wars rather than a deliberation based on science and planning for an altered future. It can be challenging for those who are unprepared to look at reality when there is no possibility to practice ownership in school. Implementing ESD into the curriculum of schools can change that. As Schmidt says, “ESD has to become the guiding principle for school and curriculum development to prepare the pupils to cope with their future. The pupils need content knowledge, but they have to have the possibility to realize and get experience with their own projects and reflect those together with their co-pupils and their teachers.”

If children can learn that they can effect change to alter and mend the environment, they may create a society that can face the future without fear.


*Deborah Talbot is a former academic and journalist with three decades of research experience in sustainability as a concept, focusing on cities, the environment, eco tech and education.


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