by Jürgen Zimmer Thirteen Theses and Commentaries THE SITUATIONAL APPROACH: IN A NUTSHELL The situational approach has its origins in the educational reforms of the early 1970s in West Germany. Based on a critique of curriculum design in formal education, it initially stemmed from a much-publicized reform at an elementary level – in kindergartens. Back then, like today, a central question was how ideas about the future and imaginings of a world which is worth living in for all – children, young people and adults – can be realized. The origins of the situational approach encompass the work of social critics such as Shaul B. Robinsohn, Paulo Freire, Siegfried Bernfeld and Ivan Illich. The consequences include not only extensive kindergarten reforms, but also community education, learning in projects, open teaching, promoting entrepreneurial spirit and UNESCO’s “Open Learning Community”. Autonomy, competence and solidarity, the educational and developmental objectives of the situational approach, lead the design of educational and psychosocial fields of work with children, young people, families and communities. Business enterprises which feel a sense of duty to be part of the solution to global and local, environmental and social issues have integrated these objectives into their mission statement. To shape the present and the future with self-determination and in solidarity with those who are weaker; to allow the potential of all members of an institution or a society to come into play, beyond old boundaries; to develop personal, social, factual and methodological competences in contradictory and challenging life situations – these are the targets, established through the situational approach for the development of social communities which are increasingly influenced by global processes. In recent years, the situational approach has proven increasingly to be a universal principle of development: learning in real life, learning as a challenging adventure, open-ended learning, learning to stand on one’s own feet – these are the principles that are demanded by a plethora of social fields of action. The further development of the approach was initially driven forward by kindergarten teachers, educationalists, psychologists and development workers. Over the years, the situational approach networked with other movements and set new priorities; new fields of application include intercultural education, the integration of people with disabilities, the alleviation of poverty through entrepreneurship education, psychosocial work in conflict areas, Youth and Adult Education. To date, the approach has spawned debates amongst urban planners, development workers, socially-oriented businesses and educational institutions around the world. It has also become clear that we cannot talk of “the” situation, because situations are always different, depending on whether they are in India, Brazil, South Africa, Italy or China. MISSED LESSONS 1. For many teachers of higher education, training in didactical methodology is thin on the ground: it doesn’t exist. As a result, the courses on offer are often characterized neither by a variety of methods nor by practical relevance to reality. Traditional lecture and seminar patterns dominate and theory is not followed by practice, nor is reflection followed by action. Knowledge gained in this way is easily forgotten because it is not connected with personal experiences. 2. New uniformity in the educational system threatens to cancel out diversity in forms of learning. The increasing strangle hold by the rampant examination system is leading to the restoration of learning which is divorced from reality. Education is increasingly reduced to memorization for the next test, then forgetting what has been learned and memorizing again for the next test. This renewed ‘de-schooling’ of schools continues at university level and is further fueled by international comparative tests. HIGHER EDUCATION DIDACTICS IN THE SITUATIONAL APPROACH 3. Situative and systematic learning cannot be separated from each other, but rather enable each other in alternation and are closely related From 1986 to 1988, a broad-based Delphi survey on the development of education was conducted in the Federal Republic of Germany by the Ministry of Education and Science. Hundreds of experts were involved in multiple phases, and the results showed numerous similarities to the situational approach: the acquisition of skills for the development of problem-solving knowledge is seen as increasingly relevant – the situation approach helps in locating and weighing up these problems as well as in the provision of realistic settings and highly differentiated learning environments. Increasingly, learning will take place through the alternation of formal and situational training. Problem-solving knowledge is becoming more important than pure knowledge. We will have to say goodbye to the canonization of knowledge into a fixed educational canon – the situational approach has long been building on exemplary situations, expressly renouncing the attempt to find the ‘timeless’ and transcultural. For curriculum development as part of blended learning, it is important that developments and interventions in practice are in an alternating relationship to expounding theory, and that both are aligned to the respective key problem and serve to solve this problem. This reciprocal relationship is brought alive through its connection to the situation. 4. The situational approach respects neither the border between Humaniora and Realia, nor the boundaries of subjects and scientific disciplines. In kindergartens, this means connecting social and subject-based learning. In the field of engineering education, building a bridge cannot simply be an architectural or structural matter – indeed, it takes place in a social, environmental and cultural context which is important to identify and consider with care. Example: an interdisciplinary research group at the Max Planck Institute for Educational Development in Berlin examined two industrial companies with a chief interest in revising the didactics of mathematics teaching. The question was which mathematics-related skills mature people need to understand the processes of such a company with a critical consciousness. In this research group, mathematical, sociological, psychological, economic and educational science skills were represented. From the results of the situation analysis it was concluded that the most important knowledge is the ability to analyze pre-mathematic values and quantification processes which are controlled outside of mathematics. This insight would probably not arisen from a mono-disciplinary approach. The qualifications that can be formulated out of a situation like this are of a different kind all together than those which deal simply with “getting your sums right”. 5. Elements of the curriculum (modules) can develop out of key situations and problems. The resulting four steps of situation-related curriculum development are: • Exploration: identification and analysis of the situation It is important that this is oriented towards an interest in gaining new insights and grounded in theory. The analysis can be carried out by the students themselves, through discourse with actors in the situation as well as through the acquisition of knowledge which is relevant to the situation and experiences from other sources. • Decision: the determination of qualifications and objectives Carrying out a situation analysis can help to ascertain which facts are relevant to qualification, providing pointers towards desirable skills and competencies that are useful for dealing with situations and their intrinsic problems. However, the situational approach is about more than just a subject-related qualification. It can open our eyes to what is desirable, to real utopias and to shaping situations anew. In the words of Ernst Bloch (“the Principle of Hope”): “We need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.” • Action: Interventions People want to gain qualifications in order to make a difference. Inherent in this are both the competence and the intervention. This can be short and to the point or take the form, for example, of a project. Example: The most famous project in American Progressive Education was reported by William Heard Kilpatrick. In the typhoid project, when two pupils from a farming family fell ill with typhoid, their school class investigated the reasons behind the outbreak on the farm, found out the causes, formulated recommendations to address these causes, and assisted the farmer in implementing these to ensure that typhoid did not break out again in the future. • Reflection: evaluation and further perspectives Questions inherent in an evaluation of the first three steps include the following: was the situation analysis sufficiently differentiated and were suitable theories formed? Were the objectives realistically formulated? Were the interventions really connected to the objectives? From any given situation, many bridges can be built to further situations and provoke never-ending learning processes. Example 1: The swimming pool at the School For Life northeast of Chiang Mai (Thailand) was initially kept clean by an energy-intensive filter system. When the people heard about the theory of a “natural swimming pool”, they put small rice paddy fish and a few plants into the water and watched happily as the little fish – in contrast to goldfish – kept the water clean. At first there were more and more of them, but then their number started to decline again. Why? Small green water snakes were now cavorting in the pool and eating up the little fish. The children and adults decided to put larger fish in the pool instead of the small ones, so as to supply the kitchen. But then a cobra family with a particularly aggressive cobra mother moved to the water’s edge, and once again the fish were in trouble. Later, they tried microbiological methods, but no sooner had the water become clean, there was a small earthquake which cracked the base of the pool and out seeped the water… Have all these problems been resolved by now? No, but a lot has been learned. Example 2: You can develop a curriculum from generative themes stemming from a company, city, region or country. The generative themes themselves, rather than the structure of a scientific discipline, shape the curriculum. In Nicaragua in 1986, a fourteen-day seminar was held with 60 members of the Ministerio de Educación in order to decide which generative themes would characterize the current situation in the country. All of them started with “falta de …”: lack of energy, lack of food, lack of spare parts, lack of medicine. Broken down into a university curriculum, this resulted in a subject or module on the theme of “the lack of spare parts and what can be done about it” and a project to address the recycling of a contrast fluid used in the only X-ray machine at Managua’s hospital, so as not to be dependent anymore on contrast fluid imported from Sweden at a high price. The subject “the lack of energy and what can be done about it” pointed the way to a rural area where there was no more firewood because of deforestation, and the attempt to build a biogas plant without being able to buy the necessary materials in the nearest store. 6. Interventions within the framework of the situational approach are dependent on the acceptance of the actors in the given situation. Dialogue is one of the cornerstones of the situational approach. Teachers become fellow learners, students become co-researchers, the former objects of research become subjects who help steer the development process. If a department of a company which was highly innovative when initially founded loses its power of innovation over the years, and situation analysis has identified the problem areas with the participation of all stakeholders, ways out of the dilemma will be pursued, corrected and readjusted together. Adult education thereby becomes adult self-education, primarily. Students of the Carl Benz Academy might fail or get held up battling in new terrains, but failure also contains intensive learning when it is done at a high level, as Hermann Glaser (a gifted former Head of Cultural Affairs of the City of Nuremberg) once put it. Example: In the tea plantations on the steep slopes of Darjeeling, one of the key problems is soil erosion, caused mainly by deforestation. Workshops attended by members of a university and tea plantation workers addressed the question as to which conditions would be necessary so that newly planted trees or bushes would not be cut down again after going to seed. The workers responded that the bushes trees could stay if they had another economic benefit, for example in connection with the breeding of silkworms or because edible mushrooms grow well under certain trees. Counter-example: An expert from the developmental organization GTZ initiated the setting up of a Craft Chamber in the capital of a small African country, investing a large sum of money. As soon as he had gone, taking the source of the financial support with him, the Craft Chamber gave up the ghost. 7. The situational approach needs allies If the inhabitants of a Brazilian village with the generative topic “water” wish to gain access to the river, but are frightened off by the private army of the large land owner whose disused land they have to cross, then they don’t take an active part in history, like the young Paulo Freire would have wished, but rather they fail upon meeting barriers that they cannot overcome alone, and their literacy teachers behave like a vanguard without troops. The older Paulo Freire learned from this, and highlighted the importance of joining forces with the social movements, with the movement of the landless, the women’s movement, the Afro-Brazilian movement or the unions. 8. The situational approach is not a vehicle for the promulgation of closed world views In a documentary scene towards the end of the film “La Victoria” by Peter Lilienthal, a literacy teacher shows a poster on which many people are all looking in the same direction, although it is not clear what they are looking at. The teacher asks what the people are looking at so expectantly. The illiterate pupils – the scene is a barrio on the outskirts of Santiago de Chile – offer answers, but none of them are right. Finally, someone suggests that they are looking at the compañeros of the MIR (revolutionary left movement in Chile). Yes, says the teacher, that’s right – because the MIR helps you. The teacher is part of this left-wing revolutionary movement herself. Abuse of the situational approach includes when its users come with ideological baggage and engage in dialogue with manipulative intent. Example: The “Iglesia ni Cristo”, an aggressive Philippine sect along the lines of a “Church Business” tried this and wanted to use the situational approach to capture the key problems of the people in order to wrap them around their little finger. They were prevented from doing so. 9. The situational approach must first of all take seriously the interpretations of meaning of all participants These interpretations of meaning may be influenced by “magical-intransitive consciousness” (Freire) or by incomprehensible cultural patterns, but respects demands that they are perceived and negotiated in dialog. Example 1: Years ago, German pharmaceutical representatives met with a German-Filipino student group in Manila. The pharmaceutical representatives lamented the lack of sales even of reasonably priced drugs. The students researched: the obstacle was not the price but the fact that the leaflets did not specify which ceremonies were to be carried out on taking the drugs. Example 2: On behalf of her organization, a German PhD student was supposed to investigate why the rural population in Tanzania refused to take medication to treat an otherwise fatal disease. Her situation analysis showed that the people believed that the sick patients had been occupied by the most evil of all curses and therefore irretrievably doomed to death. Only when the project staff changed their strategy and spread the word that the magic formula contained in the drug reversed this curse and could bring the half-dead back to life again, did the drug / magic potion start selling like hot cakes. Example 3: A project by the Carl Benz Academy examines the occasional car-rampages carried out by Chinese owners of luxury cars, destroying their cars in public or letting them be pulled by oxen. The analysis so far seems to suggest that there are not only technical, but also social and cultural reasons causing this behavior. 10. One of the strengths of the situational approach is that it is culturally adaptable. Since the 1980s, in some countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, workshops and projects on the development of a pre-school curriculum have been carried out. These events all began with an intensive brainstorming session to identify and prioritize the key situations of the children in the region. These situations differed depending on the location. Examples: Thailand: “Going to the Temple” (meaning cultural alienation through cultural invasion); “Chaotic traffic in Bangkok”: (meaning: it is almost impossible for children to cross a road). Philippines: “Surviving a typhoon”; surviving on a sinking boat; “surviving fire” (in Slums); “surviving gunfire” (between army and Guerilla). Malaysia: “Boys don’t touch girls because they think they have to marry them”. South Korea: “Getting lost in the city” (the house numbers in Seoul are not in rows, but rather added according to when a building was built, meaning that number 2 can be somewhere entirely different than number 3). Indonesia: “Girls don’t eat bananas” (Taboo), “New York” (the answer from children in a kindergarten in Jakarta when asked what is the capital of Indonesia). Hong Kong: “Home Alone” (parents go to work for 9 or 12 hours and leave the children alone at home). Singapore: “Alone in the elevator” (meaning isolated children as a result of the government’s single child policy). Ghana: “Girls and women don’t eat chicken” (in a workshop, it turns out that this is only true in one province, where the men have convinced them of this so that they can eat the chicken alone. In the neighboring province, the women eat chicken). Nicaragua: “Fear of armed attacks” (meaning the activities of the Contra in the 1980s). 11. The situational approach doesn’t need a campus or a school building to unfold. It doesn’t stake any territorial claims. It is mobile, goes to the hot-spots where things are happening, and favors contrasting milieus. These hot-spots are action sites characterized by a generative topic. This means that instead of the students gathering where professors teach, both meet at selected locations where things are going on and engage with them. In his famous essay “Sisyphus or the Limits of Education” (1925), Siegfried Bernfeld remarks that the ridiculousness of pedagogical activities is that it is done in the wrong place and only protects the status quo. Ivan Illich (“Deschooling Society”) wrote that the most intense learning takes place through unhindered participation in relevant environments. Example 1: a group of German students prepares for a trip to the slums of Manila. They are taken directly from the airport to their accommodation: huts encircling Smokey Mountain, the city’s enormous reeking garbage mountain from which around 3000 families make their living. They are shocked. But the aim is clear: assisting in developing Productive Community Schools, in which “learning and earning” are connected. The students learn that the road towards this aim is one long obstacle course. Example 2: a team of Turkish and German university teachers from Berlin take around 70 students for a stay of several weeks in West-Anatolian villages as part of – or better still, instead of – a seminar on intercultural education. During this time, a military coup ensues. The borders are closed. The students and their teachers take on the role of immigrant workers for a while, and are touched by the heartiness of their hosts and find out that there are other ways to treat foreigners than was the case in Germany in the late 1970s. 12. Those who work with the situational approach might find themselves veering off the path they were on. Since situations are, by their very nature, not fully detectable events, they can take unexpected turns. This is often a good thing. Example: a high school teacher working in an Afro-Brazilian majority school on the southern periphery of São Paulo works on forming a curriculum of sassy resistance against the white Goliaths. Teachers, parents, neighbors and the headmistress take part in an intense and spirited way – it is a mixture of workshop and party and lasts several days. But then the story takes a different turn: a delegation of around twelve Guarani Indians enters the school building, sit down silently on the floor of the seminar room and observe the happenings for an entire day. They are silent. Finally, however, one of them stands up, announcing that he is chief of the Guaranis, his name is Karai, and he wants to report what their problems are and why they also need a school of resistance. They came from a reserve near São Paulo, and because the city was continuing to grow and was rapidly approaching the boundaries of the reserve, white land speculators had begun to individually ambush and shoot the Guarani Indians. For this reason, the Indians were only leaving the reserve in groups. The professor asks them what kind of school of resistance they want. One with weapons, says Karai. The professor finds this idea hopeless and presents another idea: the Guaranis could build an Indian Academy in the reserve, an academy for the reconstruction of indigenous knowledge and its connection with modern knowledge. For example, one could merge old knowledge of ecology with modern knowledge, and that would be interesting for many Brazilians and guests from other countries, and they would visit the academy, fund it through their donations, and stop the speculators through their presence. No sooner said than done – almost. A Swiss foundation supplies the money. The Indians start to build their academy, the press come, the first visitors register, but then everything turns out differently. “Globo”, one of the big television companies in Brazil, turns up with the plan of making a 42-part “Novela” on the (invented) love story between the Karai’s beautiful daughter and a young white Brazilian. And so it is. And when half of Brazil sees this story and the press photos of the reserve are published, even more people want to come and see the site of the action. The academy was done for, it wasn’t necessary any more. It sufficed to take an entrance fee from the visitors. But they had reached their goal nonetheless: no more shootings from speculators, and Karai thanked the teacher with a long hug when he saw him again years later. His “magic” had worked, he said, and he had already guessed when he sat in the Afro-Brazilian school that things would develop in the right direction. 13. The situational approach meets with innovative entrepreneurship. It is better to create jobs yourself than running after non-existent ones. You can start early. Example: in the “Villa Kunterbunt” kindergarten in the Brandenburg village of Crussow, since the mid 1990s, the children have successfully been breeding thousands of common German garden worms (2 for 5 Cents). The children researched what makes works happy, because happy worms have lots of babies – 500 little worms per happy worm. They discovered that a wormery with different layers of worm-friendly earth and an upper layer of fresh organic compost can be arranged in a variety of ways. They discovered that by holding a bright light over the wormery, the fully grown worms, ready for harvest, can be motivated to come out of the ground and form bundles like balls of wool that can be easily harvested, while the younger worms carry on burrowing around in the soil, apparently oblivious to the light. They have discovered that the flies that like to eat worm eggs can be shooed away by the smell of old oil, which is why the kindergarten sometimes smells like a car repair workshop. The children have learned to love their worms and have started selling them to gardeners and horticulturalists rather than fishing clubs. What they haven’t got the hang of yet is the cultivation of the aristocratic Canary Island earthworm. Of handsome figure and lively temperament, these are usually flown in from the Canary Islands for German customers, and cost 20 cents each – a steep price. The Canarian worm doesn’t feel at home in Crussow’s little wormeries, not even with a special menu – it loves the liberties of free-range rearing. But how do you get a worm that burrows eight feet into the ground (in order to get married and protect its 500 worm eggs from flies) to come back up to the surface again? By drilling 7,80 m deep holes and sending down a scent which promises a royal gala dinner for worms? But shouldn’t this menu really exist, so that when the worms crawl up and poke their tips out of the ground to sniff, they don’t return back home disappointed? The children of Crussow have not yet uncovered the secret of how to help the Canarian crawlers settle into the Brandenburg soil and stay together, or how to collect them. It would certainly be an economical quantum leap. The children of Crussow could undercut the import prices of Canarian earthworms. They could rear more of them outside than in the basement. Sales would roar. The surpluses generated would be sufficient for the formation of reserves and investments. Because the children have discovered a new market niche: there is no one who repairs bicycles in Crussow… The Essence The ‘wilder’, the more unexplored the terrain, the greater chance the situational approach has to unfold, and the more we have the opportunity to be refreshed. But even for those who work in institutions, the principle of hope holds true: in terms of learning, the situational approach is an escape artist.

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