Education graduate student/teacher finds educational lessons in Germany

October 17, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ashley Silvernail is a College of Education graduate student pursuing her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in children’s literature and a sixth-grade language-arts teacher in Baltimore. Over the summer, she participated in the Diversity in German Education program offered by the German-American Fulbright Commission, which offers an overview of the German school and post-secondary education system.

Through the program, Silvernail observed the German education system firsthand in several different classes, ranging from first to sixth grade and including learning disabilities education and Waldorf education, an alternative educational style that gives teachers a high degree of autonomy in their curriculums and emphasizing qualitative over quantitative assessment.

“Being able to speak to administration and teachers was an experience that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in any other program,” she said.

In observing the German education and speaking to German teachers, professors, headmasters and special educators, Silvernail said she saw a major difference between the mainstream German and American educational systems.

“Germany did not utilize technology in the classroom, yet the students remained focused,” she said. “There was a purity to their learning style that made it easier to pay attention to what was actually being taught and not just the gadgets.”

According to Silvernail, the German approach to learning disabilities is drastically different from the American approach. Elementary schools are specifically dedicated to children with learning disabilities and their curriculums are designed with these disabilities in mind.

“Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety classrooms are no larger than nine students, in order to minimize distractions,” said Silvernail. “There are hands-on learning classes such as home economics and woodshop to help specialize the education.”

Students then sell the products from the classes at the local market, said Silvernail.

“This builds the confidence of students who tend to struggle in the classroom,” she said. “Also, it works to help instill a trade in students who may not continue with further formal education.”

The goal of these schools is to integrate the students in mainstream schools by teaching them skills and coping mechanisms for their disabilities, according to Silvernail. By seventh or eighth grade, the parents and educators decide on if the students can be integrated into the mainstream schools.

Silvernail was surprised by the effectiveness of the Waldorf education style.

“I had imagined that Waldorf schools would be artsy and non-disciplined,” she said. “Yet seeing the freedoms the students had to excel through the arts while still mastering the common skills was refreshing.”

Silvernail said she saw students learning discipline, mathematical and science skills in agriculture class. They learned math, patience and determination in woodshop. And in sculpture class, they read myths and integrated these texts into their work.

She said she is now able to take what she learned and integrate it into both her research and teaching style. In her classroom, she is allowing her students to have more control of the lessons by having them write the class syllabus.

“In Germany, teachers placed more trust in their students,” Silvernail said. “This will make my students hold themselves to a higher standard, which will help them want to try harder and build their confidence.”

  • Ashley Silvernail

    Ashley Silvernail is a College of Education graduate student and a sixth-grade language-arts teacher in Baltimore. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 17, 2014