German Schools and Modern Teaching Methods

School blackboard - © suppose it was inevitable that once my daughter started school I would be comparing the school system in Germany with that in England – at least with the one I experienced at the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

But I wasn’t quite prepared for the cultural shock that followed, and am still often left trying to work out whether it is a difference between the national systems that I am observing, or whether times have just simply moved on.

When I went to to primary school in England…

… the teacher wrote on the blackboard and we copied down the words, sentences, sum, etc. into our exercise books.

… we had text books that had exercises in, but these had to be copied into our exercise books before we did them

… handouts were something that you took home with you

… we learnt things like the times tables by heart, because we repeated them so much verbally in class, and the teacher would make sure that everyone had their turn

… we added and subtracted numbers by writing them above each other and drawing a line underneath

… standard stationary items like drawing paper were provided by the school

… we rarely had homework.  If we did, it was usually to learn something like the times tables, or spelling.

… school finished at 3.30pm

My experience so far of German primary school has been…

… that there is a blackboard in the classroom, but not much gets copied down from it other than the homework.  Any exercises to be done are either pre-printed on handouts or on pages of a pre-printed exercise book.  Even words that are to be learnt for a spelling test often come on a printed piece of paper.  On the other hand, if there is something parents need to know, such as when a test is going to be taking place, the pupils often have to write it down themselves in their homework books.

…  things are not learnt by heart, at least not in class time.  This appears to be something we are expected to do at home.  As for each child having a turn at answering a question in class, this concept seems to be foreign and it is not uncommon for parents to be told that their children do not put their hands up enough to offer an answer.

… there are different methods for adding and subtracting numbers, but definitely not by writing them in columns.  To calculate sums with numbers between 21 and 100 I have counted 7 different methods!  They have such names as the Autobahnmethod and the Verliebte Herzen. I might try and explain these another time.

… almost everything has to be purchased by the parents, like paper, pens, exercise books and drawing paper.  Of course, not just any type, there are often recommendations as to which brand to buy so that everyone has the same colours etc.

… there is typically homework in at least two subjects per day, which is sometimes of quite a plentiful quantity.  Of course, if the child has not understood the material during the class time, then the parents become surrogate teachers for the afternoon – which is ironic considering that homeschooling itself is not permitted.

… the school day finishes at lunchtime, sometimes even before noon.

So is this the modern way to teach primary school children, or is it just the way things are done in Germany?  I welcome your comments!

Whatever the answer, there is a market served by schools that offer a more rigid form of education.  The most well-known are the Montessori and Waldorf schools, the latter of which has a reputation for not using text books in class.  In fact, the reputation is not without basis, because the Waldorf method of teaching requires the teachers themselves to create the materials that they use, rather than simply following the steps through a book.

Of course, these alternatives are not without their cost, and from outside the system it is hard to understand why these alternatives need to exist at all.  But from the inside, I am beginning to understand the system more, and wondering why the state school do not apply more traditional methods.


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About Graham

Graham Tappenden is a British ex-pat who first came to Germany as a placement student in 1993, returning in 1995 to live there permanently. He has been writing for since 2006. When not writing blog posts or freelancing for the Oberurseler Woche and other publications he works as a self-employed IT consultant solving computer problems and designing websites. In 2016 he gained German citizenship.


  1. My daughter went to a Montessori primary school which was a state school. It just depends what your local Grundschule offers really.

    Bear with them… the system works – in fact it works extremely well. You do have to make sure homework is done (or you need to fix for your child to go to a Ganztagsschule which supervises homework). And although you end up buying paints and books etc. it’s way cheaper than paying for private education in Britain…

  2. Joachim H says

    I have been at school in Germany about ten years before you, Graham. When I heard fellow students in England talk about their time at school, there seem to have been differences for a long time. Those differences seem to have ‘developed’ since 😉

    A real drawback of schools in Germany is that they finish at around noon. This may change in the future – I have read and heard a lot of programmes to introduce lessons until about 4 p.m. However, these programmes depend on the respective ‘Bundesland’, the city/community, the schools and many more things. There is something very ‘pre-modern’ in the German Federal system…

    So this is a difference. The homework, which increases when you get older, is a consequence from that. What you don’t learn at school you need to do at home.

    Pens, paper, exercise books, drawing paper, etc. had always to be bought by parents. At least where I went to school. This, again, may depended on the ‘Bundesland’ where the school was located.

    So here again, we have a difference between Britain & Germany.

    With respect to the other points I am not so sure. My children are Waldorf pupils so I cannot say anything about e. g. ‘standard methods’ of adding an subtracting.

    One ting you may take for granted: The German (state) school system is very diverse. Currently no-one responsible in our country has any clue as to what to change but they are changing goals, measures, contents, staffing, budgeting etc. on a yearly basis – only to have German pupils receive better results in PISA or other comparison studies. Not for the pupils sake but for the sake of Germany’s reputation.

    On this background, you may understand why some ‘alternative’ school concepts like Montessori or Waldorf become more and more attractive to parents: They don’t change every 12 months – not even before or after elections or PISA competitions.

    The German state, however, seems to be quite content to allow these alternative schools to exist but they are not funded to the same degree as state schools are (they get ca. 60% of what a regular school would get). So these schools need to get additional funding from the parents. The government wants to limit the amount parents have to pay. In my eyes (and not only to them) it seems to be an attempt to dry out these alternative competitive approaches to teaching in Germany.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    @Cathy: Hessen seems to be rather lacking in the Ganztagsschule department, or at least our part of it is

    @Joachim: I think the difference that gets to me the most is the difference in teaching methods, ie. relying so much on handouts and less on blackboard work. Do you remember how it was in your day? I think you make a very valid point about making changes to get a better PISA rating rather than for the good of the pupils.

  4. Joachim H says

    Hello Graham,

    you asked me about handouts vs. blackboard in ‘my time’. Well, by the time I went to primary school, the teachers wrote exclusively on the blackboard. We copied what was written there. Xerox machines – did they exist already? I reckon they did but were too expensive.

    Later, from the late 70s on (on ‘Gymnasium’), we sometimes received special copies: special, yellowish paper with blue prints on it which smelled faintly of alcohol. 🙂

    The teacher had to type his or her text on a special matrix (no corrections possible!) using a type writer. The school secretary used this matrix to make copies of the typed text to the paper mentioned above.

    This matrix material was expensive, too, I guess. At he beginning of the 80s, xerox machines became more frequent in school, public libraries (10 to 20 ‘Pfennig’ for a copied page), etc. By that time, I had finished school.

  5. Hallo Joachim,

    I remember those copies as well – I think the machine must have been something like this:

  6. Hi Graham,

    My own school experience was in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, where I received an amazing education and went on to earn my Masters in Education at Columbia University. I taught in California for over 20 years. My 13-year-old son until last year attended a wonderful public school in California which used the International Baccalaureate curriculum. Curiousity, love of learning, and problem-solving were emphasized and homework was not overwhelming, fun and project-based, and repetition of skills learned in class, the teachers made sure of that. The school was bilingual and he learned every other week completely in German, so he came here fairly prepared linguistically. Still, he is not a native speaker and our German is limited, so we can only offer so much support at home. He has attended Gymnasium in Hessen for a year and a half, and we are also in huge culture shock, similar to what you’ve said and to what others have said. Not about handouts or use of the blackboard, though. About much more significant differences in pedagogy. As a teacher myself, and knowing the American system, I am accustomed to teachers being at the very least polite to students, and in general very encouraging. We also see each student as an individual learner to be met where he or she begins and taken as far as possible in learning. That is a teacher’s job: to motivate learners. “The lighting of a fire, not the filling of a bucket,” as the saying goes. We see the class as a team of learners who help each other learn, and the teacher facilitates that. Our experience in Germany has been quite the opposite. Teachers commonly shame and bully students in front of the class, see nothing wrong with doing so (we have met with teachers and been told this) and seem to believe their only job is to present the content in whatever form they want to present it, with no thought to whether or not the students are learning. Learning is the students’ job, and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re not good enough. And the content is presented as “learn this my way and spit it back to me or you lose points.” In Math my son lost points for using the wrong color pen on some part of a test. Competition is encouraged. The blackboard is used mostly to post test scores, not by name but by how many students received a top mark, middle mark, etc. We are constantly being told our son does not raise his hand enough, and that “participation” is 50% or more of the mark, the rest being the 4 or 5 big written tests the students take. Teachers claim to keep accurate records of how often a student raises his/her hand, but how can they possibly do that for 28+ students and teach? They can’t: an impression is made in the first week, and if a student has not made a good one, he or she is relegated to the bottom and it’s very hard to change the teachers’ impressions of a child. (Classmates have also told us that clearly the teachers abuse this system and have favorites who get good marks without lifting a finger.) But no one challenges it, because the teachers have all the power: one can get kicked out of Gymnasium, and teachers can get a student kicked out because the grading system has no transparency. Homework is given in overwhelming amounts, and as noted by others, cannot be accomplished if the student has not learned the material in class. So, parents must become teachers at home. Negativity and rigidity seem to be the norm: we have asked for help, insight, and support mostly to be told our son is simply lazy and can’t do the work. Note: he was a top student in his old school! I must note one or two teachers have been the exception, and we are grateful for their help. But, despite our requests, no allowances have been made for his non-native speaker status, nor for a medically diagnosed condition related to handwriting difficulties. (After much asking, we have gotten a provisional allowance for him to type his homework, and we won’t give up…) So why don’t we just use an alternative school? Good question. Partly because our son has made very good friends in this school and at his age that is vital. And despite the poor treatment he is receiving, he wants to stay. The content actually has the potential to be interesting and the education is a classical one, which in the US one would not receive until completing the first two years of university. However, there is a total paucity of technology and that stumps us: in this world, how can students be prepared for work without a thorough grounding in technology, not to mention critical thought? We also believe our son wants to stay because the common view among both students and parents seems to be that if you can’t hack the Gymnasium, you are a total failure. Newspaper articles and conversations with locals from friends to shop workers has confirmed for me that this is a general cultural belief. The alternative schools (at least the public schools) can be very rough and even less teaching takes place. And the private schools are a mixed bag or cost a fortune. Sooo…that’s our two cents. I do believe the German system can and must change. (For example, in accordance with EU law, German schools must integrate and support special needs students now, whereas before those students went to separate schools which are being shut down.) The question is how quickly change can happen in an atmosphere where tradition seems to be valued more than creativity and progress, it seems to me. For our part we continue to support our son and hope we can make it work for him.

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