Sens of Community and Social Heterogeneity in Entry Classes at Reform-Oriented Secondary Schools (GemSe)

The Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the joint project “GemSe – Sense of Community and Social Heterogeneity in Entry Classes at Reform-Oriented Secondary Schools: Ethnographic Case Studies on Recognition Relationships in Individualizing Learning Cultures.” The project examines how pedagogical practices in individualized lessons produce, reproduce, and transform achievement differences, and which processes of community building accompany different individualized instructional formats.

Project Description

In this project, ethnographic data was gathered from eight entry classes at four secondary schools (two schools each in Berlin and Bremen). In addition to open and focused participatory observations, ethnographic interviews and group discussions with teachers and pupils were conducted and analyzed. Moreover, school documents were collected and analyzed. Furthermore, selected instructional sequences were videotaped and analyzed in detail.

Achievement emerged as a central dimension of difference in the school. Which achievements are required in instruction, meanwhile, depends on the degree to which teachers individualize instruction. That, in turn, varies starkly in the reform-oriented secondary schools. Sometimes single lessons were organized such that pupils could work at their own individual tempo. Here, they more often had the opportunity to work on particular assignments in groups. Yet there are also examples wherein the fixed learning groups were completely dissolved. Then the pupils all worked on different assignments and only met to discuss “community questions” – such as problems in the class or upcoming celebrations or trips.

Regard to the achievement differences showed that when instruction is more standardized, individual achievements can be better shown in instructional discussions, for example through concrete questions about the subject content being handled. The more individualized the work is in a class, the more the achievements are measured according to how work products are presented and how the path of learning is reflected by the pupils. Good achievements are attained by those students who are able to portray themselves as “competent presenters” and “organizers” of their own learning processes. It is more difficult to take account of the subject content in this case. The result is that that which counts or could count as achievement is more differentiated and takes precedence over cognitive achievement in particular.

The differing forms of individualized learning affect how instruction is configured with respect to subject and how teachers reach achievement evaluations. Schools that do not offer individualized instruction structure the school routine by subject, as is typical. Based on the instructional subject, teachers determine what will be evaluated and how this is tested. The more individualized instruction is, the less the daily routine is structured according to the instructional subjects. The teachers do not just evaluate the objective quality of work on the assignments, but also how quickly and independently the pupils work.

In what way pupils work collaboratively is partially dependent on how the learning groups are organized (homogenous or mixed grade levels), and partially on how, specifically, the individualized instruction is designed. The more individualized the instruction, the more stark the achievement differences between pupils become, particularly along the lines of “age”, “maturity”, and their belonging to a clique. These differences can frequently lead instructors to discrimination in evaluation.

Due to the educational policy boom in the concept of “heterogeneity”, teachers are particularly sensitive on this topic. Occasionally, they have hardened views of how their pupils differ and explain these differences – often problematically – as the foundation of pedagogical activity. It is important to support teachers in the softening of these hardened ideas about differences. Teachers should be encouraged to consciously reflect on whether their ideas about their pupils are connected to their beliefs about the pupils’ achievement potential. Only when such assumptions are avoided do teachers have more freedom of action. In practice, paths to convey this should be sought. Also relevant is the question of to what degree teachers in individualized instructional formats are “conveyors of information” and how pupils’ subject-specific learning can better be supported.


Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the Program "Equal opportunities and participation. Social change and support strategies".


Project Magement

Individual Projects

  • Prof. Dr. Till-Sebastian Idel und Anna Schütz (University of Bremen)
  • Prof. Dr. Kerstin Rabenstein und Julia Steinwand (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
  • Prof. Dr. Sabine Reh (BBF) und Anne Breuer (BBF)
  • Prof. Dr. Norbert Ricken und  Anna Welling (University of Bremen)

Project Details

Project type: Third-Party Funded Project
Completed Projects
07/2010 – 07/2014
Contact: Sabine Reh