“One Size Fits All...Cannot Be the Optimal Model”

A short interview with Professor Dr. Miriam Vock on how to deal with diversity in school and teaching.

Image: Miriam Vock

Miriam Vock is Professor of Empirical Research in Instruction and Intervention at the University of Potsdam. She is also the author of a study sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on how to deal with diversity in school and teaching. In a brief interview she answers some questions for us on that topic.

FES: In your study on how to deal with diversity in school and teaching, you stress that “good teaching has to fit!” What, specifically, should educational approaches include in order to acknowledge diversity and think proactively about it?

Vock: In every classroom students are sitting together who are different from one another in many respects. For example, they may exhibit differing levels of development, kinds of talents, or individual strengths and weaknesses. Also, their family backgrounds may be quite heterogeneous. At home, students may receive different degrees of support, and the language spoken in families with a migratory history may not be the same as the language of instruction in the classroom. Given this background of differing learning conditions, it is clear that the traditional teaching style, following the motto “one size fits all” in which all the children learn at the same time, at the same pace, and—supposedly--progress at the same rate, cannot be the optimal model. Instruction in lockstep asks too much of one part of the class, while not challenging another part sufficiently. Learning succeeds or works best when the teaching tempo matches individual learning potentials, so that what is asked of the students is just slightly above their current level of knowledge. Therefore, a teaching style that challenges all the students in the appropriate ways must adapt to them.

One important thing for nuanced instruction is for the teachers to have a solid understanding of the students’ skill levels and especially of the gaps in their knowledge. In that case, teaching can begin at the respective points where the students already are. That places high demands on the teachers, and they need more support for adaptive teaching than they have been getting up to now.  

In the study, among other issues you pay considerable attention to the integration of school-age refugee children. What new demands does that place on the school system and the design of instruction?

In 2015 alone, it is estimated that about 150,000 school-age children and young adults fled to Germany and now are in school here. Roughly two percent of the entire body of students has a refugee background. Quite often these newly enrolled students have undergone traumatic experiences in their homelands or during their escape from there, speak little or no German, and must first adjust to life here in Germany, frequently under very precarious circumstances. When “welcome classes” for refugees were organized hastily in 2015, there was a dearth of sound educational concepts and instructional materials, and there were not enough qualified personnel to go around. Sometimes there were not even enough suitable rooms in the schools to accommodate these classes. And as yet there are no good, well-tested responses to the questions: “When will there be a transition to regular classes and how will that be arranged?” Obviously, the top priority is for refugee children and youngsters to master the German language. But we also should encourage them to continue learning and using their mother tongues, something that other countries have been doing for a long time. Unfortunately, in Germany we still lack high-quality, nationwide course offerings and instruction in the mother tongues of many of our students.  Moreover, there is another “construction site” in our educational system: the schooling of young adult refugees who no longer are required by law to attend school, but who, because they had to flee their countries of origin, did not get a school-leaving certificate. When it comes to the education of parents, teachers are confronted with a situation in which recent immigrant families are not familiar with the educational system here, since things were done differently in the schools of their homelands than here in Germany.

The pilot project that you started, “Refugee Teachers Welcome” is intended mainly to make it possible for refugee teachers to find an entrée into the German school system. What could a teacher with refugee experience potentially offer?

Among the many people who have fled to Germany, there are quite a few experienced teachers. But at first their credentials could not be accessed in our country. Consequently, many refugee teachers languished without jobs in refugee lodgings or tried to make ends meet by doing unskilled labor. At the University of Potsdam, where we enroll several hundred teacher-trainees every year, we decided to upgrade these refugee teachers’ qualifications so that they could find positions in German schools. We started that program early in 2016, because we believed that the refugee teachers could act as good bridge-builders between the newly arrived immigrant children, teens, and their families on one hand, and the German school system and its teacher corps on the other.They understand the language, culture, and educational system in the native lands of these children and young people. At the same time, in our program they study German very intensively and pick it up quickly, while learning how the German school system works in both theory and practice. We expect them to be in the forefront of integration in schools. Since October, 2017, the first graduates of our program have worked as assistant teachers in Brandenburg’s schools.

What needs to be done to support schools as they develop more inclusive and needs-based instruction?

Adaptive teaching, which takes individual differences into account and at the same time emphasizes common learning by very different kinds of students, is an ambitious goal and means a lot of work for teachers. For example, teachers will have to find time to do a regular diagnosis of the students’ current levels of knowledge. Formats such as group work, project work, and special attention to children with learning disabilities don’t turn out well unless they have sufficient resources. These include having enough qualified staff, suitable materials, and simply enough space—e.g., a second room where small groups can meet. The transition of schools toward full-day instruction has great potential since, in principle, there will be more time, staff, and rooms available. But unfortunately in full-day schools today this potential is not being fully realized. Also, teacher training and continuing education play a crucial role, so that teachers will be well-versed in the methods and techniques of adaptive, nuanced instruction. Generally, it can be said that the idea of adaptive teaching represents a true paradigm shift for many schools, especially secondary schools. It will involve a great deal of rethinking and commitment.


Contact in the FES: Marion Stichler, Education and University Policy


Vock, Miriam; Gronostaj, Anna

Umgang mit Heterogenität in Schule und Unterricht

Berlin, 2017

Download publication (1,3 MB PDF-File)

Spotlight Migration and COVID-19

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