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[the following article has been published in Spanish as:

Körber, Andreas (2010): “¿Competencias políticas o competencia democrática y competencia de pensar históricamente? Tendencias actuales de la educación cívica en Alemania.” In: Iber: Didáctica de las ciencias sociales, geografía e historia. 66, pp.92-104.



This article aims at giving a short overview over developments in German civic education, i.e. the academic debate and pragmatic programs. An in-depth-account over all strands of inquiry, debate and reform, cannot be aimed at for mainly two reasons: Firstly, “civic education” is a rather wide and unstructured field, which combines different academic disciplines and their didactical counterparts resp. branches, namely political sciences, economical studies, sociology resp. social sciences, the latter of which is sometimes understood as an integrated discipline also embracing legal studies” for non-specialists. Secondly, educational administration is the domain of the federal states in Germany, resulting in schools subjects and curricula as well as forms of examination varying. Thirdly, concepts and models are not merely “handed down” from academics to administration and practitioners, but the latter are constitutive actors in the debates and the development. The dividing lines between institutions and school subjects in this field run along somewhat different lines than in other countries and educational cultures.

Both main trends selected for this short overview1 can be seen as being focussed on a comparable concern: the promotion of students’ abilities in the modern, pluralist society. Their starting-points, theoretical backgrounds, relations to developments in other fields and disciplines and thus their understandings of the main common term, “competence” is quite different.

Orientation on “Outcome”: “Competencies” and “Standards”

One of the developments to be considered and therefore to be sketched here is linked to the concepts of “educational standards” and domain-specific “competencies”. Even though political competencies have not been subject of large-scale-assessments both before and within the PISA program2 (as e.g. has been the case with competencies in mathematics, modern languages and science), the general notions and concepts of these programs – namely the orientation to educational “outcome” – have also influences civic education.

When in 2000 the German sample achieved disappointing results in the international PISA-program (at least compared to the self-image of the German educational system), the standing conference of the federal secretaries of education (KMK) decided to draw consequences in form of a general re-orientation of the steering-model of education. Instead of prescribing the contents of lessons in general schools in curricula (“input-orientation”), schools were to be given more autonomy to decide on the contents, whereas the results of these lessons were to be de- and prescribed in a stricter way than before (“outcome”-orientation and standardisation). The idea was that identical (or at least comparable) “competencies” could and should be developed in lessons and courses working on different subjects. This called for a much stricter conceptualization of what the comparable “outcomes” should be. These needed to be both applicable to different situations, i.e. transferable abilities and skills, and verifiable.

Building on developments under way in other countries for several years before, namely the standardisation-trends in the USA, the development of “rubrics” for self-assessment, new possibilities of quantitative educational research using probabilistic models (mainly RASCH), and the debates around “key competencies” and “quality management” in education, a program was set up to define “models of competencies” for some of the main school subjects, namely German language and literature, mathematics, biology and modern foreign languages (cf. KMK 2004). Especially for the latter, this program could also build upon the results of the long process of international development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

One of the results of this course pushed by the KMK was that representatives of school subjects not included in this list feared that their subjects might lose rank compared to others, being “second class subjects” no longer being eligible for major exams (cf. Sachse 2005). For many such subjects (amongst them geography, history – and political studies), therefore school administrators, didactics and teachers joined in efforts to establish the main instruments of this new steering model of school administration: models of competencies.

The role model for these had been sketched by a KMK-committee (Klieme et al. 2003), referring to a definition of competencies by F. E. Weinert, since then quoted in almost every related publication. The commission had promoted it as a structured set of definitions of the main “areas” of skills and abilities as well as “motivational and volitional factors” which can be distinguished as being necessary for people to act in the respective field of knowledge and action (“domain”). With the latter term, taken from cognitive psychology, the committee dampened the orientation to established school subjects still dominant in the school administration discourse. Furthermore, it thus encouraged definitions of “competencies” focusing not mainly on the tasks and requirements in the schools themselves (“what abilities do students need to pass the next exams and succeed in higher grades?”) but rather on the requirements met by citizens and “jobholders” in modern societies. This, however, has only had little effect – especially more so, since the whole program aimed not only at the definition of competencies, but also to their standardization for different levels (or “niveaus”)3 with a main regard to an “intermediate” exam. While the Klieme-expertise outlined a program of standardisation via probabilistic methods and thus of arriving at concrete standards only after extensive empirical research, especially creating, testing, dif­fe­ren­tia­ting /”nor­malizing” sets of items for each competency, representatives of many subjects aimed at for­mulating “standards” in a rather quick way.

As for the area of study in question here, one of the several professional associations focusing on political education for youths and adults (GPJE) took a head start and presented a competence model of the said kind within rather short time (Detjen et al. 2004). Directly building on the said definition of “competencies” by Weinert and the outline by the Klieme-committee, it presented a structured set of abilities to be developed by political education in schools, up to the “intermediate exam”. As with most models presented in the following years, it described the areas of skills and abilities but refrained from expressly defining “niveaus” of the sketched competencies.4

For our concern in this article, it is not necessary to sketch the whole model of competencies. A short overview is given in Graph 1. For the comparison of this trend to “orientation on competencies” to the other development to be sketched below (ch. 3), it is necessary to characterise the understanding of “abilities” and “competencies”:

When in 2003 one of the German associations for civic education, the GPJE, presented their educational standards for political education, it was one of the first collections of such standards to appear after the central Klieme-Expertise5 – a speed specifically remarkable because of the fact that civic (or its variations) education as a school subject was not intended to develop such standards in the first place. Other subjects followed with some delay – especially geography, religious education and also history; in most of them, not one model was presented, but different competing ones.

The GPJE-standards presented descriptions of abilities and skills of students after grade 4, ca. 9/10 (intermediate secondary degree) and 12/13 (Abitur) resp. the end of vocational training. These abilities were sorted into three dimensions of competencies. This structure is given in Graph 1.

Graph 1: Dimensions of political competencies after Detjen et al 2004, p. 13 (Transl. A.K.)


Within these three dimensions, all of which are founded on a basis of conceptual knowledge necessary for analysis and interpretation, specific outcomes (standards) are defined for different grades, e.g. for the end of grade 4 (selection): the students can (Detjen et al. 2004, p. 19):

  • “explain function of selected public institutions on different political levels”

  • “formulate questions and opinions with regard to political events and conflicts which meet their personal interest” (political power of judgement);

  • “formulate and reason/justify political judgements to matters of politics/polity/policy and tolerate other positions”;

  • “practice the rule of majority as a democratic means of deciding, e.g. whenever consensus is not to be found within learners’ groups” (political ability to act);

  • “simulate a politically relevant situation by means of play”

  • “use books and electronic offers of information, especially those for children on the internet for class subjects” (methodical abilities).

and additionally for the “intermediate school exam” (grade 9/10):

  • “the students have command over a reflected insight into the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany, its economic and societal order and their interdependences”;

  • they have “conceptual knowledge about the commitment to fundamental rights and personal freedom as core concepts of states with democratic constitutions”;

  • they can “reflect and judge political matters (events, problems) taking into account the perspectives and expectations of people concerned and of politicians” [] (political power of judgement);

  • “form own political judgements and support them in confrontations with other positions in a fact-orientated, argumentative way” (political ability to act);

  • they are “able to reconstruct the role of media communication for the political public referring to an adequate example” (methodical abilities).

“Democratic Education”

The second development in civic education to be covered here is based on a different concept of “competence”. While the contributions discussed in the chapter before all are focusing on both the differentiation of the general aim of enabling students to participate in society into different competencies and levels, the focus of this other project is on a more general “democratic competence”. In addition, while the former complex uses a more distinct concept of “political”, focusing on the societal tasks of deriving and legitimizing mandatory and obligatory decisions, resp. reflecting on the models of procedures and legitimations in democratic societies, this second complex of initiatives employs a broader concept of “democratic competence” which embraces abilities and skills not only in the narrower field of “politics” and “polity”, but in democratic and civic societies as a whole. In a certain sense, the initiative to be shortly sketched in the following paragraphs is more of a civic education, while the former is more “political” – a differentiation which has led to both debate and second reflections about the aims of both projects.

As has been hinted before, this second trend in civic education employs a broader concept of “democracy” as the basic structure of society, not only of the political system as such. The trend has been set by a program of the joint federal/federal countries’ commission (BLK) initiated by Wolfgang Edelstein and Peter Fauser, the background of which was a negative assessment of the both psychological and political condition of youths in Germany, which can only be hinted at here by naming central problems: right winged extremism, racism and xenophobia (especially in specific milieus of underprivileged youths and with a recognizable east-west gradient), (mostly male) violence in schools connected with school climate and learning quality, widespread annoyance with and disinterest in politics.6 The program aimed at an educational answer to these problems. Therefore “Living and Learning Democracy” was meant rather a program for school development in general, addressing democracy as a goal of all education and learning democracy as a general task, than as a program for civic education in special. Youths’ distance towards politics and the resulting inability to rely on interest in classical political problems combined with a recognition of an increased abstractness and complexity of politics led to an orientation towards a democratic renewal of school in itself, focusing on individualised and cooperative methods of learning, on enabling positive learning and self-experiences, as well as experiences with “elementary democratic processes” such as “negotiating, cooperating, planning, voting, deciding etc.”; Edelstein/Fauser 2004, p. 12f). The fact that the identified tendencies stood in alarming contrast to the aims of the established civic education, which (as shown above) was and is orientated towards a participatory model of citizen, and in a way proved it unsuccessful (p. 17), has led to influences of the program’s conceptualization onto the civic education framework, especially with regard to the concepts used in it. “Democracy” in this context is much more than a form of government and a set of principles used in it – it is a quality of everyday life and of societal and public order, a “life-form” and a constitution with humane conditions and the refrain from violence as criterion of implementations (p. 18). based on this orientation towards enabling positive experiences with basic democratic processes which can be transferred to the conceptualization and recognition of “high” politics and can foster interest in and disposition for participation, “democracy” becomes as much a pedagogical as a political concept, the two realms being thoroughly interwoven.

This has proved both valuable for bridging the gap between students’ “life world” and everyday experiences (and challenges) on the one and “politics” on the other hand, but also has led to an inflationary usage of “political” concepts and thus the peril of blurring conceptional understanding. For example, initiatives and programs aiming at strengthening “human rights”, i.e. the understanding of their necessity and importance as well as enabling students to respect them (i.e. their fellow-citizens’) in their everyday life are on the one hand necessary. On the other hand they might blur the understanding that “human rights” in the narrow (not: proper) sense protect the individual against the collective’s (mainly the state’s) transgressions. In German political theory, there is, however, no recognition of a direct “horizontal effect” of basic and human rights.

If doing so in projects leads to reflections on the necessity to a) indirectly securing humans rights also in the “horizontal” (citizen-to-citizen) relationship or b) changes in the said political theory, these programs promote the conceptual understanding of students. If, however, they restrict themselves to social learning, fostering students’ ideas to behave “civic” (in the sense of ‘tolerant’ and ‘actively communicative’) to each other (and especially other groups), they are valuable, but tend to undermine the political understanding of the special nature of “human rights”.

“Democracy competence” in the understanding of this second project-complex is much more as a combination of “political competencies” in that it stresses the necessary , not solely cognitive, insight of students that democracy is not a given structure for governing only to be acted within, but also constitutes a way for organising a society and a way of living,7 which needs to be upheld and strengthened in everyday life. In this sence, the singular of “democratic competence” is significant against the plural of “competencies” in the former complex. The specificity of political vs. societal competenc(i)e(s) is, however, subject of reflection and debate.

One more point should be considered. While the former, PISA-driven, complex uses a concept of “competencies” which has been informed and influenced by a debate around “key qualifications”, it carries along a connotation of the term as qualifications to be triggered/called upon by others. This notion partly stems from the use of this concept of “competencies” in advanced training in economical settings. There, sometimes at least, “competencies” are conceived of as part of “human resources” to be developed, but to be called upon by the employer. The other root of this connotation has already been mentioned: it is the understanding that “competencies” describe abilities and skills needed in school. Both factors contribute to an understanding of “competencies” as abilities and skills, but without the aspect of responsibility for their being called upon. “competence” in the full sense, however, does also embrace the notion that the holder of a specific skill needs to be the one finally deciding on whether to use it or not – competency as responsibility. In other words: Fostering and enhancing “competencies” must also embrace the idea of strengthening the subjectivity of the learner, his (or her) individuality in acting and reflecting upon actions and results. In this view, orientation towards competencies can be seen as another step of a subject- or learner-orientated pedagogy.

This notion of responsibility for one’s own actions (and omissions), for leveraging abilities and skills, is stronger connotated in the second project of “democracy competence”, along with the already mentioned responsibility for promoting democracy as a form of living together.

Andreas Petrik to some extent bridges the differences between the two sketched positions. Making use of concepts of teaching developed in the 1950s and 1960s in German, he developed a concept of civic education which is both far from being focused on institutional and formal democratic knowledge in stressing democratic competence and responsibility, and from being unpolitical, avoiding the dissolution of the realm of “Politik” into mere social behaviour. Based on the tradition of exemplaric situational tasks as well as on scenario techniques, he developed a complex “Lehrkunststück”8 addressing both democratic competence insights into political concepts and political attitudes called the “village founding” (Petrik 2007).

Separate or Integrated Subjects?

Back in the 1960s history as a school subject was challenged in its status (Schreiber 2005) and claim to provide the main part of civic education and the relation especially of historical and political education has been under debate. Can history, political education and geography be integrated as parts of a general “civic education” or are they different disciplines which need to for different subjects? The result of the following series of reflections on this subject (Hedke/v.Reeken 2004) was a differentiation of the two subjects (and disciplines) not by the subjects covered, but by the modes of reflection: while history addresses events and structures under the aspect of temporal orientation, political education does so under the aspect of procedures for finding and legitimizing binding decisions (Lange 2004). Throughout the last 40 years, both separate and integrated school subjects have been formed in different school types and federal states – with a trend to separation in Gymnasium. Recent reforms have, however, again installed integrated forms and are still doing so.9 In the light of the theoretical discussion (Hedke/v.Reeken 2004, Lange 2004, 2006, Körber 2004, 2006) and of the orientation to competencies, this should not lead to a conceptualisation of the integrated subjects to be just parts of a general integrated subjects, but to an understanding of each providing a specific set of competencies for students needed by citizens to participate in a complex society in which problems are not separated but integrated. Thus, each subject can and must be understood as a specific “domain”, ad the school subjects as a form of integration, not conflation and agglutination. A consequence of this is that in teacher education, the different identities of the disciplines need to be stressed and marked as well as the competence of the teachers to integrate, while any plan to form generalized “civics teachers” is to be considered problematic. History teaching, e.g. can thus be understood as the elaboration of students’ abilities to do their own historical thinking both in terms of synthesis and of analysis of narratives prevailing in their society’s dealing with history. “History” as a subject does not only cover the past of current problems to be addressed, but addresses the skills and concepts needed in order to participate in a society where historical orientation is under constant debate.


As a conclusion, it can be noted that both in the broader field of social science education and in history education the idea of “competencies” is central within the last years. Even though the understanding of “competence” resp. “competencies” is different across approaches, the notion that teaching is neither centered around the “transmission” of declarative resp. propositional “knowledge”to children nor around a fundamentally pedagogical but not disciplinary “education”, but rather about enabling learners to develop their domain-specific skills and abilities as well as their understanding of and approach to current tasks of orientation, decision-making and debating, seems to be common.


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1There are of course lots of different initiatives and areas of research in the field, which cannot be wholly covered here. E.g. concepts like “service learning” e.g. have been introduced into the German debate (cf. esp. the contributions of Anne Sliwka).

2An exemption is the participation of Germany in the IEA 1999 “civic education” study. Furthermore, some minor-scale projects in this direction to exist, e.g. on competency-development on the subject of European politics.

3The latter characteristic deserves a short by-way of reflection: To refrain from defining specific levels of competencies or at least a parameter by which to distinguish such levels is problematic with a view to teaching, since it leaves open the crucial question of the direction in which competencies (skills and abilities) can and need to be developed. A number of contributions to the debate give no hints whatsoever in their phrasing of competencies as to the levels aimed at: The same wording can be used for describing the abilities needed by a professional. On the other hand, differenciations of levels do have to make sure that they do not merely present additional skills and abilities as higher levels, but elaborated versions of the same competencies in order to direct cumulative learning. Furthermore, it should be noted that “competencies” do not embrace “case knowledge”, i.e. declarative resp. propositional forms of knowledge pertaining to individual situations, cases etc. They rather need to be abstract in a way allowing their holder to apply them to different situations (transfer). Therefore, knowledge formulated within models of competencies needs to be conceptual and categorial knowledge, such as concepts, scripts, principles etc. This, however, does not mean that such specific case knowledge does not hold a place in the new model of organizing learning. It rather should be noted that the two kinds of knowledge need to be presented in different instruments: competency-models and (core-)curricula.

4Needless to say that lots of the resulting texts called “educational standards” did not meet the “standards” set by the Klieme-expertise by far. In some cases, as for history, the main drafts contained little more than classical definitions of subjects to be covered, thus conserving the “input-orientation” within a framework which only used the terminology, not the concepts of the new logic. Other efforts, like our own for history (Schreiber/Körber et al. 2006; Körber/Schreiber/Schöner 2007) refrain from defining “standards” while expressly taking up the concept of “competencies.” This model is so far the first one (at least for history) which expressly elaborates a parameter for differentiating levels (“niveaus”) of the competencies it defines.

5To be noted: the role model for such collections of “educational standards” collecting not content- but performance-standards, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) had been developed under the auspices of the Council of Europe, had been in development for many years.

6The German term “Politikverdrossenheit” carries a stronger notion of disinterest, annoyance and rejection politics/polity/policies. Cf. Edelstein/Fauser 2001, pp. 6-12.

7The trias (“Herrschaftsform”, “Gesellschaftsform”, “Lebensform”) is formulated by Himmelmann 2004. Democracy as a form of life has been subject of political thought in Germany since at least the 1950s. Cf. e.g. Friedrich 1959; Kirchschläger 1974; Hamm-Brücher 2001.

8Petrik 2004 uses the term “Art-of-Teaching”. The German term “Lehrkunststück” combines the notion of exemplaric learning with a notion of “legerdemain” and teaching being an art. In the works of Martin Wagenschein, “Lehrkunststücke” are teaching arrangements and quests which enable students to detect or discover basic and pathbreaking insights of mankind themselves by solving prepared tasks. The concept has been re-vitalized by Hans Christoph Berg 2004).

9In Hamburg “PGW” (politics, society, economy) in Gymnasium and “civic education” (Gesellschaftskunde” in the new Primary and Urban Quarter Schools (Primarschule, Stadtteilschule), the latter including history and geography.