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PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS all refer to studies that measure how pupils in one country perform as compared with those in other countries. The best-known is the PISA study conducted by the OECD; it tests 15-year-olds in reading literacy, mathematics and the natural sciences. Everyone in Germany is familiar with PISA because the results of the first study in the year 2000 came as quite a shock to many people: in an international comparison, pupils at German schools had scored below-average. Politicians responsible for education were alarmed and parents perturbed. After all, education plays a key role in how our future will turn out – determining not only our individual life opportunities but also the wellbeing of society as a whole.
The PISA shock
The shock had an impact. Steps were undertaken to implement school reforms. For example, Germany’s federal states agreed for the first time on common educational standards for German, mathematics, foreign languages and the natural sciences. They established a dedicated institute in 2004 – the Institute for Educational Quality Improvement (IQB) – and set VERA in motion. In the same way that PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS conduct international assessments, VERA has been testing the performance of pupils in Germany since 2004. It is not based solely on random samples, however: these days, all pupils in years three and eight take part in VERA. Each year, this empirical study determines the extent to which pupils have reached the required learning level as laid down in Germany’s educational standards.
One of the challenges for education systems is that they have to adapt to changes in society, however. Such as the fact that school classes are far from homogeneous: pupils have different home languages and come from different family backgrounds – some well-off or highly educated, while others are less well-off or not so well educated. In terms of equal opportunities in the classroom, German schools did not score well in the first PISA test: pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds performed noticeably less well than their classmates from better-off families.
Language is the key
One key to explaining these differences in achievement is language. It appears that many pupils find it difficult to follow the higher-level, more academic language frequently used in the classroom – not only in German or foreign language lessons, but also in mathematics. "We have a lot of empirical evidence that students with low language proficiency are less successful in mathematics than their more language-proficient peers", says Professor Susanne Prediger, a professor of mathematics education at the Institute for Development and Research in Mathematics Education (IEEM) at TU Dortmund University. As she adds, however, this affects not only pupils with a native language other than German, but also those who speak solely German.
Multilingualism – an obstacle to or engine for learning?
Multilingualism is an important topic in empirical education research. On the one hand, it is one of the reasons why pupils are disadvantaged at school. On the other there are indications that it is precisely those who speak several languages who often find learning easy. This is why a long-term study is being carried out at Universität Hamburg to investigate the conditions under which this can work. To this end, the educational researchers are spending three school years monitoring pupils in years 7 and 9 who have German, Russian or Turkish as their mother tongue.
The Hamburg research project is part of the Research Cluster on Language Education and Multilingualism. Numerous universities and research institutes have teamed up to study multilingualism throughout education – at nursery, school, in vocational training and at university. Many of the research projects are supported by the Empirical Education Research Framework Programme (only in German) of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Alongside studies of educational equality and of dealing with diversity in education, the BMBF also funds research on the use and design of technological and digital developments in education.
Core competencies for the next generation
"iSearch", a Max Planck research group in Berlin, explores an additional aspect of education research. The researchers are keen to find out how children actively seek information and which strategies they use to test their hypotheses about the world. Combining methods and theories from different fields, including cognitive psychology, information theory and philosophy, one of their goals is to develop a specific approach to classroom learning. The idea is to help pupils apply active learning strategies and verify their own theories – both of these being core competencies in the knowledge-based society of tomorrow.
Research Cluster on Language Education and Multilingualism
The Research Cluster on Language Education and Multilingualism encompasses ten research projects at different German universities. The projects explore multilingual abilities in children and young adults and study the development of multilingualism in educational institutions and non-formal learning situations. One of the research goals is to identify which language learning biographies and learning settings have a positive or negative impact on the successful development of multilingualism.www.kombi-hamburg.de