The End of Traditional Education: Brain Researcher Gerald Hüther Calls for Reform

Gerald Hüther in conversation

Star brain researcher: “School as we know it today has had its day”

Updated today, September 9, 2023 | 14:20

Gerald Hüther is one of the leading brain and learning researchers in Germany. Even before the Corona crisis, he warned with drastic words: If we do not reform our education system, we will produce a generation of dissatisfied and hopeless individuals.

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Parents always want the best for their children: the best daycare, the best school, the best university, the best job. Always linked to the desire to create the conditions that, according to social consensus, promise a carefree and happy life. Privately and professionally.

But we have been falling into a trap for several years, says brain researcher and professor of neurobiology Gerald Hüther in an interview with FOCUS online. “We are overloading the school with expectations that it does not meet, or even cannot meet at all. We have blown her up from a mouse into a huge elephant that is trampling students, parents and teachers.”

What does Hüther mean by that? “We consider school to be the place where children are taught everything they will need for a successful life later and therefore attribute immense importance to it. School in its current form does not teach any of the skills that will be needed in the changed world of tomorrow.” Digitalization and globalization have permanently changed the environment in which we live, work, communicate, and act as a society and as individuals – so quickly and clearer than ever before. It is obvious that this transformation process will not come to a standstill in the foreseeable future, but will, on the contrary, accelerate even further in the future.

“The world our schools were designed for no longer exists.”

But instead of taking a closer look and following up on the changes, the vast majority of people reassure themselves, argues Hüther – by convincing themselves that it wasn’t all that bad and that it would fix itself. “And if not, it should be corrected by those who are responsible for it.”

In his current book, Hüther explains the consequences of this from his point of view, in quite drastic terms: “The world for which our schools were made no longer exists,” he writes. Schools still teach basic skills such as arithmetic, writing, reading, literature and biology, which children and young people continue to need in their professional and adult lives. Anyone who acquires a lot of specialist knowledge and skills can often continue to use this profitably and become particularly successful. “But what adolescents learn in the ‘educational institutions’ we have created is not enough for a happy life.”

About Gerald Hüther

Gerald Hüther, born in 1951, is a professor of neurobiology and is one of the most renowned and well-known brain researchers in the Republic. He sees himself as a “bridge builder” between scientific knowledge and social practice. He writes about his vision of a better education system in his current book.

The modes common in schools also made children objects of external expectations and goals, of instruction and evaluation, very early in their development. “In doing so, we usually deprive children of any joy in learning and shaping the world together, which is actually given to them naturally from birth. We force them to suppress their intrinsic creative joy until it atrophies.”

Working by the book no longer works

Hüther criticizes this sharply: “That is the opposite of education. Because whoever loses this joy is lost in the new world. He only works because he wants to achieve or achieve something with what he does. Recognition, for example, especially in the form of appropriate remuneration. Or a career advancement.” You do your job according to the rules, you could say. Not less, but also not more.

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#Education For Future: Education for a successful life by G. Hüther, Goldmann-Verlag, 320 pages, 22 euros

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In principle, this is completely fine, says Hüther. But this type of work has a crucial disadvantage, he warns: “It is so precisely defined, so easy to describe and carry out that not only any other person with similar qualifications can do it, but also an automaton or robot.”

This applies to all professional sectors: “Nurses, gardeners, even doctors, teachers or judges who simply do their job and complete their respective tasks as required of them. In the future, they will all be easily replaceable by such machines.” The brain researcher predicts that self-driving cars and Japanese care robots are just the beginning of an unstoppable development.

“And not because they will work cheaper, but rather more efficiently and reliably. They don’t need sleep or vacation, they don’t get tired, they don’t make mistakes, and they are in every respect more productive than living ‘workers’ who take on these jobs for wages or other rewards.” What will therefore matter to a much greater extent in the future is that so-called executive frontal brain functions, explains Hüther.

These included skills such as:

  • Action planning
  • impulse control
  • Frustrationstoleranz
  • Sense of responsibility
  • Empathy
  • Self-reflection ability
  • Openness to new experiences and relationships

“How are you going to teach this at school and also give grades for it?” he asks. If you think this thought through to the end, in the neuro professor’s opinion, in the future there will only be jobs for people who enjoy their work, who think innovatively and outside of predetermined patterns – and that is exactly why they make the difference to algorithm-driven robots.

Many companies are already desperately looking for employees who do not primarily impress with the best university grades and specialist knowledge, but rather through personal commitment, who are willing to get involved, think for themselves, look for solutions together with others and want to take on responsibility. “But how can someone who has already lost their interest in learning in kindergarten, or at least in school, be able to enjoy working later on?” asks Hüther.

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“We need an educational campus in every city”

She sees the vision that the 69-year-old proposes for the school of the future as just one of many equally important links in the educational chain that gradually introduce children to the challenges of the work and private world. “We need an educational campus in every city where the school takes on the tasks for which it was designed. But there is also a need for craft businesses. Start-ups, sports clubs, civil society actors who all stand behind what they do and radiate energy and passion,” demands the neurobiologist. “From them, children really learn what they need to live a happy life.”

He knows that this cannot be implemented straight away. But every couple of parents, every teacher and education professional can start today to no longer just try to do justice to the plans and specifications of the education ministries, but also to the child who is entrusted to them.

“We need to establish partnerships between practitioners and young people. We have to stop seeing children as objects in an unchangeable system, but rather put them back in a position to actually be able to deal with the individual freedom given to them by the free-democratic basic order in Germany.”

In the first step, Hüther advocates a debate about the education system in this country. School in the traditional sense has no longer served as a preparation for life. “And that’s exactly why it’s high time for parents to understand that the education they want for their child doesn’t take place in the institutions where they send their child every day.”

A notice: This post was first published on May 15, 2020 appeared.

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