British teachers visiting Berlin to compare notes on gifted and talented programmes were struck by the independence of the German pupils, writes Yojana Sharma
They seem like any group of Year 4 and 5s on their computers. What distinguishes them is their concentration over long periods, and, when you look closer, the topics they are working on: gravity, horses, and martial arts.
This is a group of gifted and talented pupils at Berlin's Franz Marc primary school preparing for their "experts' round table" where each chooses a topic and presents it to the others. The "expert" expects varied and penetrating questions from his peers and often responds fluently and without hesitation.
"It's like a university for kids," says Elisabeth Teige, Franz Marc's headteacher. "We've made a book of experts' presentations, and when a class anywhere in the school wants to know something on a particular theme, we consult the book and find we have an expert right here in the school."
The experts' round table is just one of the activities for gifted and talented children in Berlin observed by a group of primary teachers from Sandwell in the West Midlands. The visit was organised by the British Council and funded by the Department for Education and Skills as part of the teachers' international professional development initiative (TIPD).
Lucy Gibbon, of St Hubert's Catholic primary school in the West Midlands, says they had not expected to go to Germany when they expressed an interest in gifted and talented work. "But I was absolutely amazed at the independent working skills of the German children. Instead of writing on random topics or government-enforced topics, they were writing on self-selected topics."
While observing gifted and talented provision, the Sandwell teachers said they learnt about independent working across the entire ability range.
"At first we did not think we were looking at a gifted and talented programme at all, then we realised that what they do is very good for gifted and talented pupils as well," says Georgina Kelly, in charge of that area for Sandwell local education authority. Provision for gifted and talented - around 2.5 per cent of the cohort - was made compulsory in Berlin two years ago. This does not mean just bolting on special classes or accelerating pupils by allowing them to jump a year - used for a long time in Germany - but integrating the needs of these pupils right through the school system.
At Franz Marc, pupils may go up to a higher class for their "talented"
subject(s) or attend afternoon enrichment classes. Others, like the "experts", are withdrawn from normal classes and work with a teacher on enrichment themes with a group of similar ability children across the age range.
Dr Hinrich Luehmann, head of the Humboldt Gymnasium in northern Berlin, offers special afternoon courses in philosophy, mathematics, physics and English drama for up to 70 pupils from surrounding primary and secondary schools. There can be an age difference of up to four years in the classes, but pupils are highly motivated.
"There were a lot of underachievers in our system before," says Dr Luehmann. "We want to avoid this and find a way to support the elite without being elitist. Here they can be with their friends and we find they become more self-confident, not always trying to hide their talent, as before."
At Rheinhold Otto primary school in Charlottenburg in western Berlin, gifted pupils often work independently but within their own class with their individual weekly work plan as part of the new emphasis on differentiation. This is a radical departure for Germany which, until recently, relied on chalk and talk and a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The Sandwell teachers were astonished that it seemed to work so well for gifted pupils when compared with England with its decades of experience in group work.
"Pupils pull a piece of work out of a pile, complete it, then tackle another," says Ms Kelly. "They were left to do things and they did them.
They were quite driven,"
Carla Clarke, deputy head of Albert Pritchard primary in Wednesbury, says:
"There was more learning initiated by the pupils. Perhaps we spoon-feed the children too much."
In England, her pupils are given a creative curriculum in after-school clubs and work on thematic topics within class. But the Germans make it go further. "The independence and skills they (the Germans) give them work well with gifted children," says Ms Clarke, "and they can produce higher quality work."
Although teachers going abroad on a TIPD visit state a specific area that interests them, their awareness is heightened simply by being in a different environment.
"It is interesting to see how different our jobs are, yet how similar,"
says Ms Gibbon. "We had the same concerns about our pupils, but German teachers have more flexibility. When we told them about the amount of planning we do for lessons, they said: 'You are more German than we are!'."
Ms Clarke adds: "Our expectations are high in literacy and numeracy; theirs are high across the board. Back in England I will try to find time in my timetable to provide for more child-initiated time and move into more thematic work," she says, although some teachers worried that the emphasis in England on numeracy and literacy left little time for other things.
Many in the Sandwell group are hoping to set up longer-term links with the Berlin schools. "Our schools will be swapping emails, perhaps a class newsletter, on a topic or theme," says Ms Kelly.
The Sandwell teachers were astonished at how modern the city is and its youthful buzz. They were quite envious of its superb public transport.
"I loved Berlin, the feel of the city and its history, the differences between East and West Berlin and the wonderful museums," enthuses Ms Gibbon. "It was quite different from what I expected. And very worthwhile to visit. A real eyeopener to see the German schools."