A revolution in school reform – finally!

Austria’s new Education Minister Sonja Hammerschmid had barely taken office before she began ruffling feathers. The new “pilot” Comprehensive Schools and proposed centralized Education Directorate were not closed debates, she announced.  Nor were teachers’ qualifications, nor a school director’s right to hire and fire, nor….   It was quite a list.

Regional governments and teachers unions were not pleased.

“What’s needed is a new conception of teaching,” Hammerschmid told the Austrian daily Die Presse in early September. Not by changing what subjects are taught, she insisted, but how.

“We need to teach with a stronger focus on raising thematic questions.” she said, using the example of climate change, where a geographer might team-teach with a biologist and a physicist. This will be easier with more autonomous schools, one of the few reforms with nearly universal support.

But a lot of laws will also have to change – everything from the elimination of strict teaching unit-hours, to the school schedule and the integration of outside music and sports programs.

This is not going to be easy.

In Austria, education has long been a world of devils and details, with debates raging on the wisdom of routing  students through the Gymnasium (humanities) or Realschule (math and science) preparing for university, or the AHS (General High School) system, usually leading to vocational school. Other debates focus on extending the school day to accommodate working families, on inflexible national curricula, rigid teaching qualifications and distant school governance.

All of which is important, but not enough.

Putting thinking on the syllabus

Rarely does anyone talk about what’s happening inside these structures, what Austrian school students might be learning – which is, sadly, very little – about how to read intelligently, how to marshal an argument or defend an idea.  It is a pervasive failing I know from 15 years of teaching in Austrian universities.

Austrian schools don’t teach writing, nor do they teach critical thinking in any meaningful way, only correct spelling and grammar, the correct re-presentation of the course material. Original thought, ideas or insight are not on the syllabus.

Which is what makes Minister Hammerschmid’s approach so revolutionary, and so needed. What could be more important in the fog of fake news and electronic echo chambers that dominate public discourse?  What could matter more, when  – just when we need it most – we are losing out ability to think out of the box?

Midway through an Austrian Gymnasium, Dominique Veltz was sent by her bi-cultural parents to France to finish her schooling – her first experience of a French lycée.  For weeks, she wandered around in a state of shock.  The other students were writing essays, analyzing literature, arguing points of history. She had no idea where to begin. She was terrified.

“In an Austrian Gymnasium you were expected to learn a lot of material; in a French Lycée, you were expected to think!” said Veltz, who became a marketing executive with McCann.

It changed her life.

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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic