Schools of Tomorrow but Rooted in Society – an Interview with Silvia Fehrmann of Berlin’s HKW

The Schools of Tomorrow kick-off conference was organised by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, May 4-6, 2017. Its aim was to promote discussion on “How schools today can become places where a desirable society is built”. Silvia Fehrmann was the curator and this interview took place two days after the conference, on May 8 2017.

At times it seems that discussion of education focuses on visions of dramatically innovative futures at the expense of the present. Often accompanying that is a tendency to see salvation through technology, a linking of schooling to economic growth and a narrowing of what education is and what it is for. Taking its lead from the work of John Dewey, this conference was very different and probably the most inspiring and useful I’ve attended – the involvement of practitioners and theorists; students and teachers; talks, workshops and discussions but most of all its orientation to possible democratic futures that hadn’t already been prescribed and were therefore open.

The main conference site is here and links to the audio and video of talks here.



One of the things I found really interesting about the conference was its openness – to the future, to events, to the past – and many of the speakers explored that. Can you tell me a little about your planning for it? I know you had been to the conference in Cambridge on Dewey, did you already have an idea then about how you would take this HKW conference forward, but keep it open?

Schools of Tomorrow BookThe Deweys’ Schools of To-morrow (1915) gave me the framework to work on a series of ideas which I’ve been obsessed with for a long time: How does digitalisation affect our learning and thinking? Obsession number 1! Number 2 is how to recover an idea that had been very important to German culture in the 1960s and 70s but that has been lost in neoliberal social transformations – namely that schools are more successful if they are engaged with the society they belong to.

From a biographical point of view – speaking about schools always brings in biography – I went to school in Argentina during the dictatorship. It was a bilingual school combining the progressive German curriculum of the late 1970s, early 1980s with the one designed by the ultra-reactionary dictatorship. Yet, dissident intellectuals were hiding in my school. It was a weird situation that gave me a mediated understanding of the German system. My other obsession relates to this.

When working with schools through HKW, we realised that kids were very much concerned with what’s happening out there, in the world, yet it is difficult for schools to relate to that. And then migration during the summer of 2015 happened, and you could see that children and youngsters were extremely sensitive to refugees’ situation. In HKW school projects we had been working on issues of migration, digitalisation, and gentrification . Through reading Dewey again, I realised his approach exploring how schools were coping with industrialisation, with migration and with urbanisation around 1915 could be the perfect framework with which to reconsider issues 100 years later.


So that helped to keep things open but also provided a thread to keep things focussed?

Yes, as a narrative and as a method. We loosely took up Dewey’s idea of looking at experimental projects that work and that’s how and why we brought together experts in several fields. But we also already had very good experiences in creating constellations of participants that do not usually come together – for example, people who are involved in architecture but not in digitisation or civic education. And we brought together people from those fields in new constellations, making for something new.


And practitioners as well as academics.

Yes, people from very different fields of activity – that’s something we do at HKW in different projects. This procedure is HKW-style and Dewey is the narrative that I found to develop certain kinds of discussion. So, learning by doing, project-based learning, community-based learning – many of these things have been taken up by Californian tech giants too. If you see Google’s rhetorics, you could easily provide a Deweyan reading of that. You could. The difference is that he connects and roots the educational endeavour in an idea of democracy. And there you come again to this obsession: how did we lose the idea of schools as rooted in society? How could we recover the promise that used to be central to progressive education: that schools actually do shape the future if they engage with their communities in way that creates real change, not the one invoked by marketing rhetorics?
That porousness, the openness, the bridging of communication between school and society – these were ideas that really came across in the conference, philosophically, but they’re also around us, here and now in a city like Berlin. Are these ideas shared at a policy and political level? The necessity of re-thinking what it means to “do” urban education in Berlin?

Well, these kinds of concern are shared in the fields of art and cultural education which is fairly well-funded in Berlin as part of the city’s cultural administration. There is a field of practitioners that share these ideas and they are active in practice and connected to the projects going on in fields of art education or research-based visual arts strategies. Yet, these discussions can be peripheral to what is happening in schools. Although there are schools in Berlin that do cooperate with these programmes, there is a lack of reflection on what this entails for pedagogic practice. I wanted to create that link, to reflect on praxis because a lot of things are happening but they’re not always put into perspective.


So the conference served as a social and physical space to open up an opportunity to be in some way.

Yes, although it’s not a fair of projects but a constellation of actors, partners.


And a moving constellation? Several times during the conference you said, “Afterwards…” Again, that sense of permeability, of the ideas discussed here moving forward in time and in other ways, of things happening afterwards. It’s something that perhaps relates to what Luís Armando Gandin [links to audio, in Eng, in DE] said, “Neoliberalism obliterates memory” and that therefore there’s a role and a responsibility for documentation. I thought that was interesting – documenting presumably not as in putting things in boxes and leaving them there, but as a way to keep this constellation moving and going.

That’s also something we’re doing now with the “100 Years of Now” project – to reconnect with alternative practices from the past to allow us to imagine alternative futures – precisely against this obliteration of speculative imagination which has so strongly impacted all levels of society. We did a great project that might be of interest called Wohnungsfrage, the title of a text by Friedrich Engels translated as The Housing Question. And within the framework of the “100 Years of Now” project, we brought together practitioners, activists and social theorists to conceive of housing solutions for new programmes: for new students; for refugees; for artists; for elderly people. It’s an approach that was very much informed by the tradition of social housing in Berlin. So Berlin is perfect to activate a very complex archive of experiences.


That’s interesting, activating an archive of experiences… they’re there, available…

There’s the historical avantgardes, there’s the GDR which has its own lines of tradition, there’s the diasporas, exiles, the post-war West Berlin experiments…


And to think about physical schools for a moment. There’s no immediate plans for school-building? I wondered if this conference was intended in some way to assist the discussion of school-building?

We would love to get into discussions with the officials dealing with the development of schools in Berlin There is a project to build 50 new schools here. Berlin had a masterplan in the 90s/early 00s that predicted static population levels or even de-growth and the opposite happened. And the population that has come to Berlin tends to have a high birth rate; there’s a need for a lot of new schools. Let’s hope that this unique opportunity will be taken creatively in order to draw from the city’s creativity.


And is school-planning something that tends to be quite centralised within the city administration? It’s a city rather than federal issue?

Yes. But maybe this is an issue that will open up, with other voices involved.


This is interesting too. People were talking about space – in pedagogic terms, in terms of democracy, but less so in architectural terms. And of course in a way that makes sense in that you want the freedom to not be constrained about today’s ideas of school architecture, to take a broader view: you need the philosophical framework in place beforehand, one that’s based on values. I found that interesting.

So, I would love to develop this. Afterwards we will continue working on the issues raised by the conference in schools based in Berlin and elsewhere. We have made very good experiences by inviting different schools to work on a common subject together with artists, geographers, activists. For instance, some years ago, we did a project where kids explored and researched the built ideologies of schools in East and West Berlin.



They reflected on the history of 30, 40 years ago even if this wasn’t something that they’d experienced personally and lots of very interesting things appeared from these six projects, three in the ex-East, three in the ex-West Berlin.

The Federal President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Elke Büdenbender, students from 12 locations of the State Europe School Berlin, and representatives of “Jugend hackt”, Bellevue Palace. Photo: HKW / Stephanie Pilick

We always work with schools on shared concerns and then produce something together. “Schools of Tomorrow” is inviting schools to develop projects with teachers, students, artists and architects and I hope to have partners interested in thinking about space. I would love to work people on those lines but of course it depends on partners and if they feel that this is an issue for them.


It’s really interesting. School-building happens for all kinds of reasons. To boost the economy as a way of averting crisis as in Australia recently…

Now we have a situation where Germany is in a strong financial position so money is poured into areas but without the creativity and the sense of emergency that previous generations had when they started reforms. I think there’s a need to understand that we have a unique opportunity at this moment to re-think certain aspects of education.


Your foresight and pre-empting of that is pretty unique. My mentioning Australia is that they seem to be focusing on educational philosophies and practices in relation to design after a large school-building programme. Politicians need impact; systems need careful appraisal and feedback, a slow kind of progressivism – and values. England’s Building Schools for the Future programme had big ideas, some more tenuous than others, but when they came to be operationalised, they were often communicated through technical and technicist visions of improving learning. The situation now is even weaker, for different reasons. Regardless, none of these had the clear focus on values that we’ve heard here.  In that sense what you’ve done is, I think, extraordinary.

In Germany they have to do competitions for each and every school and these are highly regulated. I think right now there’s a lot of work on defining the spatial requirements, the square meterage and so forth. There is a very strong tradition in Germany relating to schools but building has remained static for years so again the power and importance of memory returns.

Catherine Burke, Presenter on the “Connecting with the Past” presentation with Håkan Forsell and Luis Armando Gandin. Photo: Helmut Rheingans

It would be great to connect with the work that Cathy [Burke, link to audio in Eng, in DE] did in Cambridge, to connect young people with the development of schools, to relate their feedback to how schools might look. There is also an interesting project in Berlin to try to revamp, to hack existing school architecture that also relates to participatory approaches so that would be another way. In the end, it’s what you do with these spaces. I love what Keri Facer [link to video in Eng] said – “to make the world while learning”.



Keri Facer presenting a keynote lecture, “Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change”, HKW, 2017. Photo: HKW / David Gauffin



This was a kick-off conference so activities continue, including the It’s Our School! Ideas Competition run jointly by HKW and Die Zeit and asks students to schools they would like for the future. The competition runs until January 31, 2018. The 16 experimental school projects engaging artists, activists and teachers as well as results of the competition for ideas will be presented at HKW on June 13 and 14, 2018.

HKW have made the video and audio of talks and discussion from the conference available here and include many people not mentioned in the above interview.



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