The Gesamtschule Unterstrass in Zurich has received the 2015 Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize in recognition of its “Self-Management and Socially Responsible Action” project, which focuses on the sensitive period of adolescence.
In an interview with the Jacobs Foundation, the principal of the school, Dieter Rüttimann, explains how the idea of the project came up and how the project is used in connection with a variety of school subjects.
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
The idea dates back to the year 2000 and the introduction of the primary level, which combines two years of preschool and first grade. There was no curriculum, and there were no teaching materials. Since it is possible to complete the primary level in either two, three or four years, we had to develop criteria that would allow for an accelerated track. In this context, interdisciplinary skills like self-management and social behavior are particularly important. Based on scientific findings, we drew up plans and formulated the skills to be acquired by the end of first grade. In cooperation with the schools in Hinwil, Switzerland, where children are taught in mixed-age groups, we created a “skill passport” for each grade level and subject, which was given to parents as well as children.
In the current school year, we wanted to focus on self-management and social behavior. It is important, in our view, for self-management always to be seen in the context of social behavior. Obviously, both of these interdisciplinary skills play an extremely important role in school achievement.
How have parents and children responded to this project?
In designing the skill passport, we sought feedback from an advisory group made up of parents. On the whole, parents are grateful to us for bringing the topic of self-management into the schools. As we were putting the project into practice, however, we overlooked one thing – which was pointed out to us by an eighth-grader. She wanted us to include another focus area on dealing with life’s challenges ¬– referred to in the scientific literature as “adaptive coping strategies.” As we set out on this adventure, with great enthusiasm, we devoted the first few lessons to discussing important questions raised by the young people themselves: How can we best cope with our parents’ divorce or the death of a close relative? There were serious and intense discussions and role playing. We believe that by coming together to think about and discuss these issues and explore further questions, we will be able to find a variety of ways to cope with such challenges. In keeping with the idea of self-management, this also means helping students to help themselves, taking advantage of their own resources.
How do teachers prepare for this project? Are there special training courses?
It is important for teachers to know a great deal about executive functions (working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibition), metacognition (planning, managing and reviewing) and social behavior, from the perspective of developmental psychology and neuroscience. As a team, we have spent many years undergoing further training. In implementing the project, we use games, certain kinds of questions and targeted interventions, such as peer tutoring and reciprocal teaching. Those methods, which involve older students teaching younger children, have shown very positive results.
In teaching “adaptive coping strategies,” where we use a team-teaching approach, experience in counseling and training in psychology are extremely helpful, since students are very emotionally involved and affected by these issues.
Do all students participate, or is participation voluntary?
Although skill levels vary greatly, all students participate in the “self-management and social behavior” project.
Similarly, all of the adolescents are involved in the “adaptive coping strategies” project. To make sure that everyone’s voice can be heard, and to facilitate more in-depth discussion, we work with only half of a class at a time.