Interviews Katja Maike Braun

An Interview with Katja Maike Braun

Staying True to a Progressive Humanistic Pedigree

If you’re looking for a school with an innovative yet soul-nourishingly wholesome approach, Ecole d’Humanité is it. From their beautiful, village-like haven in the mountains of the Berner Oberland, the school has been educating children towards the fundamental goal of ‘becoming who you are’ for over 80 years. Founded by a progressive couple fleeing from the Nazis, the school’s unconventional methods are informed by great educational thinkers of the 20th and 21st century, and focus on offering children greater self-determination to investigate and progress on their own unique educational path. ISP talks to Katja Maike Braun, Ecole d’Humanité School Director about how the school is staying true to its progressive humanistic pedigree.

Give us an overview of your background and how you came to join the Ecole d’Humanité

I’ve been with the Ecole d’Humanité for four years now. I’m from Germany and studied in Tubingen, and I started my career as a teacher at a small boarding school where I ended up staying for 10 years. I then joined the School Administration of the French School, a newly founded community school in Tübingen, where I was part of the leadership team responsible for growing and developing the curriculum.

I came across the director position here through my membership of a progressive education association (BüZ). We came to see the school on a dark November day, and as we drove up to the campus it broke into sunlight and seemed so perfect – we ended up staying for three days and, by the time we left, I knew it was the right decision to join the school.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

That’s a tough question – when I first started my studies, I was convinced I would not become a teacher because my parents were teachers. It all clicked when I spent a year at a France school as a foreign language assistant during my studies. I discovered that it was actually a great privilege to work with young people – and it’s fun too. I decided to become a teacher and I still take great pleasure in seeing kids grow and develop in a school. It’s a wonderful journey you go through with them; by the time they leave they’re full of ideas, and they are ready and excited to continue to the next stage of their life.

Tell us a bit about the school’s ethos and vision

Our school was founded by a couple with/from a Jewish-German background: Paul und Edith Geheeb-Cassirer, who set up Ecole d’Humanité after the closure of their first school in Germany that the Nazi state took over. Along the way, our methods have been informed by other progressive educational theorists. Our whole approach is based on their very progressive humanistic ideas about the uniqueness of each child and letting every child find their own individual path. We trust in and respect our students in all their diversity, and we listen to and value their voices.

I like to think of us as the antithesis of ‘rote-and-drill’ learning. We take the individual as a whole, embrace and tune into their individuality, encourage them to find their own curiosity and joy in discovery, and create an understanding and comfort in themselves, their environment and their community.

You have a very unique approach to learning – tell us about that. How does your curriculum work?

Yes, it’s very different but we see the transformative effect it has on young people. Our students construct their own learning programs; they look at what, when and how they will study something, supported by their teachers and advisors. We want them to own their educational experience, not just be a participant. That way they become more attuned to what interests them, and more dedicated to the subjects that they feel fulfilled by.

Once classes begin, our students work together in small groups – class sizes are usually between four and eight students – to develop original problem-solving skills. We don’t give grades; we believe that this approach does not lead to happy, inquisitive individuals. Instead, our students receive very tailored and constructive feedback, and we encourage regular self-reflection on their own work.

We divide our school days between morning and afternoon learning; morning is where students have their ‘academic’ learning, while in the afternoon students can choose from a huge range of over 50 different arts, handicrafts, and sports course options. There are the usual things like rugby and basketball, but they can also do horseback riding, they can learn how to knit, they can even learn blacksmithing! The idea is that these afternoon sessions develop skills which offer lifelong benefits: creativity, precision, perseverance.

Our emphasis on closeness to nature and comfort in your environment allows our students to learn about themselves on a deeper level. For example, we do a four-day hike in autumn and a six-day hike in summer where they carry everything they need to go off into the wilderness. They’ll have the experience of jumping in a clear lake to get clean, navigating a glacier and singing together around a campfire. We’re the only school with a Safety in Adventure certification; all our teachers undertake training courses with the Swiss Alpine Club and over the last 70 years we have gradually built up an extensive knowledge of the Hasliberg area because this has been such an important part of our curriculum. The challenges the students take on here in the high Alpine region – they come back after six days and you can see how much they’ve grown as individuals.

‘Getting stuck in’ is also hugely important for our students in their school life. Experiential and practical learning that’s rooted in nature and the environment around us is a fundamental part of Ecole. For example, we have a glacier course available which combines biology, geography and sustainability, because we are in striking distance of a glacier and can see from our windows as it shrinks every year. We run a lot of awareness programs too around sustainability, like developing ways of reducing our own food waste, how to buy seasonal food and understand what is seasonal. We want students to understand the impact of our actions on the world.

What is your campus like and what benefits do students enjoy from being based in the mountains?

Our campus is very different from other schools; it’s essentially a very beautiful collection of chalets across a hillside. You can see a glacier out of the window, you’ll see the Eiger if you look one way and the Wetterhorn if you look the other. The idea of our founders was that the children should feel comfortable in their environment. But in order to feel comfortable in your environment, you’ve got to know it and you’ve got to also understand that it can be both a dangerous place and a beautiful place. I think that that’s always been with us and we’ve brought up the children here to learn to respect the mountains and take calculated risks.

Class sizes are very small – between four to eight students – and are held in several of the chalets’ classrooms. We have a beautiful learning centre, a library, an assembly hall, basketball field and dining facilities – if it weren’t for these you would easily mistake it for an alpine village. We don’t have traditional boarding house structures either. Our chalets house around six to twelve students each, looked after by two or three teachers. We’ve only got 120 students in total in the Swiss and our American program, so it’s a very tight-knit little community. What’s wonderful is that our students are very multicultural, and they learn very quickly how to rub along together and find common ground.

It’s not for everybody but for those people who are interested in a more holistic, outdoor, individualistic environment, it’s a wonderful place.

Are there any freedoms or specific advantages that being located in Switzerland gives you?

Switzerland offers a great freedom around education. Private schools are common here and have the scope to experiment with progressive ideas, and there is a flexibility and acceptance of homeschooling too. We know that what we are doing is very unique, so we are regulated in our Swiss school system by the Ministry of Education who come to visit our school and understand more about what we do; our American program and high school diploma is accredited by Cognia. They understand that our method has had a long history of success (over 75 years to be precise) and we enjoy that openness within the Swiss education system which allows us to continue adapting and progressing that method. It’s also great for the students to have the experience of living here. We are at the edge of the Canton of Bern, so we are close to other inner Swiss Cantons and it’s easy to visit them. Lucerne is a favourite and, if it weren’t for Coronavirus, we would take our students to the Christmas market in Brienz to experience the traditions and cultures here – something which is especially valuable to our international students. And I’ve already talked about the wonderful natural environment in the different seasons!

Is there a settling in program or how do you help students from different cultures settle in?

We have a well-established mentoring system for new students. Initially, they will have another student to guide them through the first days and make sure they find everything they need. Before Coronavirus, those students would return to the Ecole a few days early before term starts, to prepare a special program for their new buddy. The new students would then arrive a couple of days later, and the mentor would take them through their program before the rest of the student body arrived. This helps new students to feel comfortable and more familiar with the school and their environment, particularly as we have students from places as diverse as Bali, Australia, Singapore and the US.

As part of those induction days we sing and we dance. It sounds strange, but it really works and it’s completely student led. The whole school, believe it or not, folk dances. We do Israeli dances, dances from Eastern Europe, Arab dances or simply a polonaise – students connect to one another and enjoy showing off their native dances. We do a similar thing singing songs from all over the world in all sorts of languages. It’s very special when the whole school finds common humanity through singing and dancing. Despite being different, and having our own cultural backgrounds, our dances and our songs bring us together and that’s not only part of the integration process at the start but an important part of community life.

What changes have you brought to the school?

One of the things which I brought in recently was the use of Google Chromebooks. I decided that we have to move forward into this digital time further than we have before. Now every student, no matter what age, has a Chromebook. Google came to the school to train our staff and students before Coronavirus, and that has been an absolute blessing. We have a very strong tool and knowledge now, which has enabled us to teach through 10 different time zones offering tailor-made solutions for students to access one-on-one learning during the lockdown in spring 2020. My teachers did a brilliant job in reaching out to our students – some of them were teaching the same lesson three times a day, starting with the far east time zone, then European, and then American.
What are your hopes for the students who graduate from your school? What do your graduates usually go on to do?

I’m always in awe of the diversity of our students in what they choose to do. We often produce very creative people who go on to artistic study, maybe to start a band or become an artist, but we also see people going to universities around the world, as well as others choosing practical and sporting careers. It’s a real mix, but the common factor is that they truly know themselves. I’m very proud that so many of our graduates are very successful in what they choose to do. Our secret to success is our completely alternative approach; we don’t pretend to be a primer for Oxbridge or Ivy league schools, but we are sending our graduates out into the world with something completely unique. We’re not here to line children up in their uniforms; we create interesting individuals who can express themselves and understand what makes life amazing. The important thing is that we equip our students with skills for life.

How do you ensure that your students leave ready for the world?

Our idea of a future-ready individual is a critical thinker, which is really encouraged here. We also place importance on developing soft skills to be able to interact with many different people and cultures. The world is a global village now.

Fundamental to this is teaching children to become themselves and have confidence in that. Academic learning comes in to give an orientation and to help foster their own particular brand of learning, then we equip them with a skillset so they can take creative risks, practice reflective learning, communicate, survive and persevere. We deliver these elements very successfully; by the end of their school life students should know what works well for them and where they want to go.

The difficulty is that this is changing all the time. While we may not know what jobs or life will look like in ten or twenty years’ time, I believe that an ability to learn something new and understand your way of doing that will be crucial.

In terms of your personal hobbies and life outlook, how do you make the most of everything Switzerland has to offer?

I was born and raised in the Black Forest, so I feel it’s a little bit of home for me! I love skiing, hiking on beautiful winter trails, swimming in the lakes and just being outdoors is wonderful. It’s tempting sometimes when I’m sitting on my desk and see a beautiful day outside to take the gondola up to the mountain, have a cup of coffee and a break then just make up the time at the end of the day…

Find out more about Ecole d’Humanité here.

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