What should we stop teaching younger people?

Why we should stop acting like teachers at home.

3rd grade should ride roller-blade. My son didn't bring his. Could I please make sure he gets it until after the big break?

At an elementary school in the affluent south of Berlin, it was apparently no problem to call a working mother in the middle of Monday morning to ask for something like that. The teacher of course acted with the best of intentions to enable my child to participate. At this point I had already learned that as a migrant and a single mother I had the status of “incomplete family”. I had already added the term “raven mother” to my German vocabulary and I had also met helicopter mothers. I had learned not to bring donuts bought on the S-Bahn to school celebrations. In short, I had learned how much Berlin educational institutions rewarded a certain public display of motherhood. As Douglas & Michaels (2005) show, film, television, manuals and other media have contributed to the spread of a dominant “Mommy Myth” for decades. Douglas & Michaels argue that mothers and motherhood have been exposed to "unprecedented media surveillance" since the 1980s. Now that social media is the only way to present yourself to the world, the contributions of women and some men celebrating their success in homeschooling have taken the portrayal of perfect parenting to a new level.

Before schools were closed due to the corona pandemic, home tuition was prohibited by law in Germany. Homeschooling, founded in the 1970s as a somewhat anarchist, anti-capitalist educational reform movement, is the decision of parents not to send their children to school for various reasons, but to teach them at home (Muchmore 2008; Gaither 2017). It's becoming more and more common in the United States. Jennifer Lois's study showed that home-schooling is mostly done by mothers today. They sacrifice a lot of emotional work and time - and as a result are stressed, dissatisfied and confronted with burnouts. They discuss what to teach their children with the local education authorities and have their curricula approved. A historical tradition of home schooling in Germany is mentioned on social media today with reference to Goethe or Mozart. At that time, however, this mainly meant that private tutors taught in villas and did not have to follow a nationwide educational plan.

It's not about home schooling - it's about the social reproduction of inequalities

The thing that parents and children are currently exposed to and that poisons the daily atmosphere of many families is not homeschooling at all. It is a half-hearted attempt not to quit regular state education while the state is closing schools. That's all. In true homeschooling, parents (and their children) decide what they want to learn. What we now have is nothing more than extensive homework: work determined by teachers, mostly civil servants. They determine what the children have to do and are bound by a state-set curriculum. In doing so, they outsource the responsibility for implementation to their parents (especially for younger children). Why do they just swallow this?

The images of the multitasking parent now combining home office with home schooling, making up project after project in fields like arts, math, or physics, supposed to be the long lists of websites listing all kinds of organizations, including government organizations now guide parents and give help and ideas to carry out homeschooling. The use of the word homeschooling itself refers directly to what sociologist Sharon Hays (1996: 4) calls an ideology of “intensive motherhood”: “a gendered, gender-specific model that encourages mothers to spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money spend on raising their children. ”Hays traces this cultural construct through history; Barbara Vinken analyzes the specific German understanding of motherhood and (West) German family policy: The prevailing culture in Germany was therefore never based on the idea that full-time work and motherhood could be combined - and the word that mothers often used in my interviews, when you bring ("hand in") a toddler (or even a baby!) to a daycare center, it still reflects what she calls the West German creed:

‘... after all, they did not have the children to get rid of them straight away, but to experience and prove themselves as good mothers. This can only be achieved through a permanent physical presence of twenty-four hours in your own four walls or that of befriended mothers. Child care (...) must never be 'outsourced' '(Vinken 2007: 252)

The depth of this ideology can be seen in the current crisis of lockdown in the context of COVID-19. We live in a city that, despite all its liberal values, political murals and creative protests, stopped overnight being critical of all of them in the most important area: the social reproduction of inequalities. All of the critical activists who usually like to go to every demonstration have chosen en masse to do what the state tells them to do as soon as the state sends their children home and the teachers start, the inboxes, WhatsApp groups, chat rooms and fill mailboxes with chores. I was amazed. I carefully asked a colleague with children who writes about inequality - he said and thinks these things would increase inequality.

The impact of social class on educational outcomes and why homework is a disaster

In fact, we know that in Germany, more than in any other European country, schools do not compensate for the influence of social class and in particular cultural capital on educational outcomes, but rather reinforce it (overview: Solga & Dombrowski 2009). Homework is particularly disastrous here. Homework increases the privilege of privileged students, as their parents can draw on many resources to organize support for their children. Studies show that the lack of education has largely nothing to do with the ambitions of the parents, but very much to do with the space that family members have in their home, with the times and hours parents have to work to make ends meet the parents' language and other academic skills that they need to support; in short: with wealth (Solga & Dombrowksi 2009: 21-22). In 2013, Prof. Allmendinger, President of the WZB, called for homework to be abolished in order to reduce the existing social differences in educational outcomes. But my colleague in question did not want to turn his children into a socio-political project, so he did what the teachers said (an argument that even liberals like to use when choosing a school, as we did in our book "Creating the Unequal City" (2016)) have shown.

I asked my "most radical" academic friend. She said she brought up the topic on her WhatsApp mothers group, but others raved about how much they love "it" and how their kids love "it," so it was: she had to homeschool her son. She only did the minimum and discussed with the school why her son did not fill out all the sheets. Here's another level that well-educated parents contribute to greater inequality. As McCrory Calcaro shows in her study, teachers gave the homework of children of committed parents better grades than other children, even if they achieved the same results on tests in class. She examined how teachers deal with non-compliance with rules. Middle-class children have privileges: Not only in the sense that they can do homework at all, but that they can count on better and more effective support from their parents towards the teachers if they violate homework rules.

Because these mothers are always ready to help, get involved in parenting and take time out for parents' evening, they often have good and personal relationships with teachers - and their children receive fewer penalties for late, forgotten or simply overlooked homework than children from families with lower social status. The teachers assessed the reasons for not doing homework of children of lower social status on the basis of just a few criteria, and simply assumed that "this is just not important to them". Since almost the same skills can be treated very differently in the German education system, this principle should also be the case here (overview: Solga & Dombrowksi 2009: 13). After all, only the German vocabulary has this word "educationally distant" (and if you ask this famous search engine, it will tell you it would mean: "not interested in education", something it definitely does not mean (Blokland & Serbedzija 2018)) .

Take a Corona vacation from homework

The roller blade incident was years ago, but I remembered it. To be able to take this call myself at the time was the result of privileges. While working in a poor inner-city neighborhood in the United States, I saw Timika, the mother of an 8-year-old with learning difficulties, hear from the school that the school had to report her to child protection services if she missed another meeting with the teachers. Still, the school scheduled the meetings during times when Timika was working on her shift at Dunkin Donuts. Timika did not get free for these meetings. Fearing that the school would believe that her child's interest was not the number one priority, she asked a member of staff to take care of her shift - he would not show up and Timika lost her job. I have reconsidered such mechanisms in the past few weeks when we were asked to teach at home. Timika made me sensitive to the huge discrepancy between school expectations, practice in helping children with care and schoolwork, and publicly exhibited motherhood. Since then we have interviewed 130 Berlin mothers. While we still have to systematically analyze these interviews, the bigger picture shows women who are forced to perform motherhood according to the standards of others: other mothers, daycare and school.

Intense parenting was a luxury Timika couldn't afford. It is mistakenly viewed as something that parents who simply cannot do it in practice can, do not want. The expectations of the school, the support of the children with their homework and the public display of maternal achievements are three factors that increase inequality in school situations - even before COVID19. The effect will be very different and will have a detrimental effect on those people in our city who are already most marginalized. In Belgium, where school strikes made it impossible to go to school for a few months, children who went through the strike were more likely to stay behind, write poorer grades and, it is believed, would earn less money even later in life than children who simply went through school . The schools in Berlin are equipped very differently for distance learning. In many cases, teachers are left to their own devices and have to figure out how best to do it. Predicting truths is the realm of virologists or those with glass balls. As sociologists, we know that any intended behavior has real unintended consequences. That's why we don't like to make predictions. But let me predict: This extensive homework situation - not COVID19 itself - will exacerbate existing inequalities in educational outcomes between different districts and between individual children. The privileged will emerge from this even more privileged. At the moment we are actively reinforcing this inequality, which is already disproportionately large compared to other European countries, by nodding our head uncritically and doing what we are told: extensive homework.

We must therefore move in the direction of a Corona vacation for elementary schools, relieve parents of the obligation to teach children and an appropriate one for all children living in poverty Help in life both online and offline, “through the window” (as has now also been suggested, rather late).

The middle class could show solidarity by holding back. If they stay in their relatively large apartments and houses, if they ride around on their expensive bicycles with baby carriers, if they make sure that their toddlers wear helmets on their balance bikes, and if they eat vegetarian food to stay healthy, then they know all about discipline and reluctance. So it is time to hold back on replacing our children's teachers. If you can't hold back because you have to define yourself through your motherhood project and believe that your children's minds will never return to normal if they play computer games every day, do proper homeschooling instead. Let your children learn what they want so they don't get bored. Bake donuts, learn bird calls, build a ship from the box your new patio furniture came in. Just stop doing this extensive homework.


Prof. Dr. Talja Blokland is Professor of Urban and Regional Sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin


Translated from the English by Sebastian Finsel, editors: Talja Blokland and Martin Pfafferott



Blokland et al. (2016) Creating the Unequal City: The Exclusionary Consequences of Everyday Routines in Berlin. Farnam: Ashgate

Blokland, Talja & Serbedzija, Vojin (2018) Being used to is not normal. Everyday youth in two Kreuzberg neighborhoods. Berlin: Logos.

Calarco, Jessica M. (2020): Avoiding Us versus Them: How Schools ’Dependence on Privileged“ Helicopter ”Parents Influences Enforcement of Rules. In American Sociological Review 66 (2), 000312242090579. DOI: 10.1177 / 0003122420905793, accessed 03.04.2020

Douglas, S.J. & M.W. Michaels (2004) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motehrhood and how it has Undermined all Women. New York: Free Press


Gaither, Milton, M. (2008). Homeschool: An American history. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Hays, Sharon (1996) The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Lois, Jennifer (2010) "The temporal emotion work of motherhood: Homeschoolers’ strategies for managing time shortage. " Gender & Society 24, no.4 (2010): 421-446.

Solga / Dombrowski (2009) Social inequality in school and extracurricular education. http://www.forschungsnetzwerk.at/downloadpub/solga_dombrowski_2009_p_arbp_171.pdf

Vinken, B. (2007) The German Mother: The Long Shadow of a Myth. Frankfurt am Main: Fisher.