Spotlight on Ukraine 5

Education Across Borders: Ukrainian Refugees’ Perceptions of German Schools

by Helen Pidgorna 22/03/2024

Over 218,000 Ukrainian refugee children are enrolled in German schools. Parents’ perceptions of the main changes in their children’s schooling relate to a shift from teacher-centred education in Ukraine to learner-centred education in Germany. This trend matches the aim of a major school reform in Ukraine.

Welcome class for pupils who have fled from Ukraine at a primary school in Germany. IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

On 24 February 2024, the world marked two years of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which invasion has led to millions of Ukrainians being displaced from their homes. For families with school-age children, fleeing the war and crossing borders has also meant moving from one education system to another and, hence, having to navigate new school environments and ways of learning. As of February 2024, over 265,000 Ukrainian children of primary- or secondary-school age were registered for temporary protection in Germany, more than 218,000 of whom were enrolled in German schools.

As part of an ongoing study into the educational experiences of Ukrainian refugees with secondary school–age children in Germany, I conducted interviews with parents and students to explore their perceptions of German schools and the changes in the educational trajectories caused by the war and migration. The initial findings from 18 interviews across the country reveal that the main change in children’s schooling, as described by their parents, relates to a switch from teacher-centred education in Ukraine to learner-centred education in Germany.

From teacher authority to student responsibility

Learner-centred education encompasses teaching methods that shift the focus of instruction from teachers onto students and put the responsibility for learning into students’ hands to cultivate autonomous and independent learners. Students’ interests take centre stage, and teachers’ main task is not to transmit knowledge but to enable students’ active learning.

Seventeen-year-old Bohdana from Kharkiv, who has been attending a German school for almost two years, compared her new learning experiences with those in Ukraine:

[In Ukraine], I was taught not to think for myself but to look for what I would perceive as right. I was afraid to say or do anything wrong. I was afraid to initiate a discussion because it was perceived as arguing. If your opinion did not coincide with the teacher’s, it would affect your grades and the teacher’s attitude in general. Here [in Germany], my grades are entirely my responsibility. If I don’t raise my hand in class, I won’t be asked and I won’t be graded […] My Ukrainian education revolved around the teacher’s authority, which was often built on the [students’] fear of consequences.

What Bohdana described as education revolving around the teacher’s authority includes not only the transmission of knowledge but also education in a broader sense of students’ socialisation and subjectification. Socialisation describes the way in which students become part of, and identify with, existing social, cultural, and political practices. Subjectification refers to the way students act on their own initiative and with responsibility.

Olesia, the mother of a 14-year-old student from Kherson oblast, said, ‘Here [in Germany], teachers explain without raising their voice, [they] don’t tell you to leave the classroom, children wear the clothes they feel comfortable in, teachers never comment on the way you are dressed. If you get a bad grade, the teacher will not announce it publicly, and if you are not ready for class, you will not be shamed in front of everyone.’ Similar accounts were frequent among the interviewees and were especially striking among the parents of students with special needs.

More practical and in-depth learning

Another aspect of learner-centred education is the relevance and applicability of the curriculum to the real world, which is a pre-requisite to students’ active learning. This approach becomes possible if the teacher has the flexibility to plan classroom activities and the curriculum is regarded not as an action plan to be followed but as a proposal that sets out essential principles and features of classroom interaction. Yevheniia from Kyiv reflected on her 16-year-old daughter’s learning:

[My daughter] is taking a course in politics. The war in Israel [and Gaza] began, and they are discussing it. I don’t know if they could ever do it at our Ukrainian school. [In Ukraine,] if in history you are supposed to study a specific period, no one will change that. If the syllabus says Egypt, you will be learning about Egypt no matter what. No one will suggest discussing anything different […] And in language classes, [in Ukraine] she learned things like word stress, prefixes, and suffixes, while here they learn how to give a public speech or write a report. That is what you will need in life.

Parents described the Ukrainian school curriculum as denser and harder to understand than the German curriculum. Some parents, like Iryna, a mother of two children aged 11 and 13 and a teacher from Donetsk, view this as an advantage, especially in subjects like mathematics. Parents like her ensure their children follow the Ukrainian curriculum, either by completing regular assignments for Ukrainian schools in which they continue to be enrolled, through informal learning online, or with the help of a Ukrainian tutor. Iryna explained, ‘It is a very low level [in Germany]. In mathematics the difference is huge […] If they study angles, they just measure them, they don’t solve problems to calculate them […] [In Ukraine,] the curriculum is broader and there is more knowledge.’

Other parents, however, disagreed that more knowledge is better. According to Svitlana, the mother of a 15-year-old from Kyiv, ‘You learn a lot [in Ukraine] but only superficially. In literature, for example, they squeeze in 20 novels per year and race through. Here [in Germany], they take one and, for about half a year, just read and discuss it. So, there is more in-depth learning here.’

Pupils on the ruins of a school in Chernihiv: Every seventh school in Ukraine has been bombed since 24 February 2022.

The New Ukrainian School reform

The New Ukrainian School (NUS) reform, which Ukraine launched in 2016, aimed to turn all schools into safe spaces where students are taught to think critically, can freely voice their opinions, and gain not only knowledge but also the ability to apply it to the real world. These goals coincide with what Ukrainian refugee families in Germany perceive as the main differences between the two education systems. The NUS reform had only reached the lower years of secondary schools by the start of the full-scale war and had previously been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and other implementation challenges.

Since 24 February 2022, over 3,700 educational institutions in Ukraine have been damaged and more than 360 destroyed. Organisations like savED are working to rebuild schools and restore Ukrainian children’s access to education, with an understanding that education reforms must continue. Ukrainian families’ experiences of learner-centred classrooms abroad, as in Germany, are also likely to play their part in Ukrainian schools moving further away from authoritarian teaching practices.

Helen Pidgorna is a social scientist and fellow at the Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.