Cover photo Vivian Haddad/ Interview Susanne Gold Professor Gerald Hüther is a neurobiologist and one of the best-known brain researchers in the German-speaking world. He is the author of numerous (popular) scientific publications and chairman of the Academy for the Development of Potential.
Dear Mr Hüther, you have written and published widely on the subject of childhood and the school system: What is your main concern?
I believe that the path to a better society leads primarily through a good childhood and through a sustainable education system. And here I see some obstacles! Most of the problems we cause our children are problems that they cannot solve. For example, parents’ dissatisfaction with their own lives, with their jobs and all that we experience every day. Parents drag everything home and dump their conflicts there. For example, partnership conflicts are something that children cannot solve and yet they are often burdened with them. Unfortunately, there are many parents and couples who are not able to resolve their partnership conflicts or separate. This leaves a child with an unsolvable problem. It is particularly bad when a child has to experience being treated like an object by its parents. When a child is made the object of another person, the bond that connected it to that person is broken. This conveys that it is not supposed to be the way it is – not allowed to belong that way. At the same time, the bond is broken when the child is told what to do and what not to do.
What are the consequences of problems that cannot be solved by children?
Such problems mean a break with their own creativity, creative ability and joy of discovery. Here, obedience is demanded of the children, which makes it necessary to bravely suppress the little discoverer and creator in oneself. There is little room for coherence. In the process, the perfect will to function is so firmly anchored in the brain that in the end a person no longer has any desire to discover anything, but only does what others tell him or her.
Does this mean that the obedience demanded of children ultimately endangers the innovative power and cohesion of entire societies?
Yes. Most people already have this experience in the parental home. The greatest human injury often begins in childhood. Often, either the need for connectedness or the need for one’s own creative possibilities, i.e. for autonomy, is violated at an early age.
How do such violations affect our societies?
In our society there are many people who suppress or have learned to suppress their need for connectedness. If you ask about school, it is not central at all. In school, what was initiated in the parental home is merely continued consistently and even more violently. Many people do not notice this because they already had this experience at home. The fact that school is a place where one is made an object seems normal, almost self-evident.
What possibilities do we have – especially with regard to a new understanding of work?
There are no recommendations for action. What we can do is to awaken parents’ understanding for what children really need. This also applies to parents’ engagement with the topic of digital devices. Above all, it is important that parents deal with this topic. Against the background of digitalisation, it must be clear that digital devices are just tools, like hammers and chisels. As long as devices are used as tools and not as a means of regulating affect in order to accomplish a work, there is nothing to say against children using digital devices as well.
Can you give me an example of using a digital device as a tool?
I saw a nice example in a kindergarten in Stuttgart. There, each child was given a bean seed. This was placed on a damp cloth and a camera was installed. Every day when the children came in the morning, the progress of the bean was photographed. At the end, all the photos were put together in a time-lapse so that it made a small film. This was put on a USB stick and the children could show at home how their bean grew. This is using a digital device as a tool. Wonderful, here I have no concerns whatsoever that this will harm a child in any way, on the contrary.
Digitisation as a human tool is great, but not as a means of regulating affect, you said in our previous interview “The search for happiness in the digital age“.
Can you explain this to us in the context of child development? For example, many children today try to get missing recognition through computer games, which are often played together. In the process, the need for connectedness and self-efficacy is satisfied virtually as a substitute. As a result, these children hardly have the time, opportunity and desire in real life to learn how a need for self-design can actually be satisfied. As a result, young people increasingly lack the skills to navigate real life. At every impulse, many people today immediately turn to their digital device. Not as a tool, but primarily to quench an emotion. This is then – but only supposedly – satisfied. Suppliers of digital devices and software naturally know the mechanisms and have geared their devices to precisely these unquenched needs. One could exaggerate this and claim that in a society dependent on the consumer needs of as many as possible – in which this approach is widespread – one should be glad that the manufacturers of digital devices make sure that their products always serve new, unmet needs. Because our entire social and educational system functions mainly on the basis of unsatisfied needs and affects.
What does a sustainable school system look like to you?
Digital devices are useful for acquiring knowledge in certain areas: If I am interested in photosynthesis, for example, it would take me at most half a day to watch corresponding explanatory videos and understand everything. I don’t even need a teacher for that any more. The prerequisite is that it really interests me: Digital devices are wonderful tools for acquiring knowledge for all those students who are interested in something. All those who are not interested in anything need personal contact with a person, because that is the only way to “emotionally charge” the subject matter. This means by tying the subject of the lesson to a person whom the students like. The emotional charge gives the content a further meaning. If students are naturally interested in the subject matter, digital devices are wonderful to use. But if there is no interest – and we are now talking about those particular homes where the parents themselves have no interest in acquiring any knowledge – then it is a different story.
You mean parents who have no interest in digital technologies?
No. It is certainly not because these parents do not use digital devices. Disinterested parents often have more digital devices than others, but they only use them for affect regulation, for example to watch porn. If children are not invited, encouraged and inspired to be interested in anything, then digital devices are of no use to them. Such children need another form of emotional charging of the learning material. This is the case when instead of interest in the subject, the teacher arouses emotions.
Is the caregiver the “emotional charge of the subject matter”?
Yes, this can be observed particularly clearly in primary school, for example when maths is learned for the sake of the teacher. But there are dangers in this learning model, because in reality the child is still not interested in maths, but is primarily interested in how to please the teacher. The most unpleasant way to emotionally charge learning material happens in our schools, through rewards or punishments, by giving good or bad marks in the report cards. Here, children learn not to be enthusiastic about mathematics, music or biology and so on, but to work towards a good report card.
Do you have a recommendation for parents?
Yes – I ask all parents to check very carefully whether this is really what they want for their children. Because these children later become adults who are only interested in how they can succeed and make a career for themselves.
How do you envision (initial) education for the 21st century?
Such a system should not continue what we did in the last century. In the last century, dressage and dressage methods were probably well suited and possibly even the only way to build the industrial and machine society we come from. To do this, every student had to be made to simply obey. No thinking along, no being creative, looking for a solution together with others, also recognising mistakes and learning from mistakes, was required for this. That was not what mattered. Unfortunately, our schools have largely remained at this level and now we are releasing young people into a life that they have not learned how to live If we are lucky, they are well educated. But, if we are honest, we may even admit that our educational institutions do not prepare them for a successful life, but only for a successful professional life.
What can we do to move towards a new education system?
I think that we first have to limit the importance of our schools! It would not be so bad to finally admit openly that schools only serve one thing: To keep, to prepare for a working life and to sort out pupils. Our schools have the dimensions of a bloated elephant. One that tramples not only students, but parents and teachers as well. The only way out seems to be to deflate this elephant in order to reduce the importance that this institution has now acquired. Only its superficial function can be called an educational system.
What would be the consequence of such a “deprivation of meaning”?
If one were to do this, one would quickly realise that we need children and young people to learn for life. There is absolutely no room for this in our current system. There is hardly any time besides school: neither time to go to the fire brigade, nor to the sports club and so on. Pupils have to do homework all the time and prepare for school tasks.
What is the role of families and teachers in our system?
Families don’t get to plan a sensible family life because everything revolves around school, and teachers don’t get to ask themselves why they became teachers, because they see themselves, so to speak, as agents of the education ministry.
Do you have a concrete vision for the future?
What we are striving for – the transformation of schools – is by no means banal and simple. If I formulate this concretely as a vision of the future, then the school of the future would be a place where children acquire education for life. In this vision, school would be any place in a community where children can learn something. If, for example, a whole district sees itself as a place of learning, then children and young people could learn and see many things there. The various walks of life such as bakers, merchants, craftsmen or even undertakers could provide insight into their knowledge. A district would become a kind of “educational campus” and is, in my vision, a place where children and young people are invited to look at what is happening and experience how adults try to do wonderful work in different areas. If our children had the opportunity to learn in this way what matters in life, then that moment will probably happen when they realise that they lack knowledge. They could supplement this knowledge where the school used to be, which would now be a house of education. Students would go to this house of education and say what knowledge they lack. Competent people would work there to help pupils find the right tools, methods, techniques and templates.
What would the pupils find in such education houses?
Everything they need to acquire knowledge competently with intrinsic motivation. For this, one needs competent guides. Whether they have to be teachers, I don’t know. It may be that our teachers are trained in such a way that they have great difficulty in taking on such a task. It is quite possible that someone who was a football coach earlier in life can do it much better.