Didacta is the German trade fair for teachers.  Every year in February it opens it’s doors to teachers from all school types from preschool to university and beyond.  It rotates between Cologne, Stuttgart, and Hanover.  This year Cologne was the location which means that the visitor numbers are high due to the fact that a fifth of the German population lives within an hour’s drive from the site.

One thing is important to make clear at the start – Didacta is in no way related to the BETT Show in the UK.  Both put teachers front and centre of their target audience, but the two shows couldn’t be more different in tone.

books_didacta“There’s a book for that!”

I was one of those who quickly got irritated by Apple’s, “there’s an app for that” campaign, and I still couldn’t care less whether Google or Apple have however many millions of apps in their respective stores.  I’ve always prized having the right tool for the job, and that’s why I love trade fairs because they are the best place to find innovative widgets.  The problem with Didacta is that they have done an awful lot of pre-selection for you.

It’s hard to imagine just how many books there are at Didacta.  This does give the impression though that the whole of German teaching revolves around the book.  Even the digital media looks like a book.  For a country that prides itself on its inventiveness and regularly lays claim to having posted the most patents each year, Germany finds it really hard to come up with an alternative to the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against a good course book, but there is a time and a place for it, and in many parts of the world we are lucky enough to have the option of providing a more modern learning environment.  The book has served us well, but it’s time to re-evaluate its role in the classroom.  There are things that you can achieve with a book much better than by using it’s digital counterpart, but teaching has moved on and if the role of the teacher is changing to that of a facilitator and guide then the book should be changing to a supporting role rather than being front and centre.  This is not a degradation, it’s just a change in function.


The uninitiated might think at first glance that Didacta is an exhibition of travel goods.  A certain type of teacher turns up with a wheeled suitcase suitable for a three month round the world trip and proceeds to fill it with pens, colouring books and and anything else that’s free or on “special offer.”  A big hit this year was those Ikea bags (in red) provided by some exhibitor presumably for those who had left their suitcases on the tram coming to the show.

ShinpadsIs this cause and effect though?  Are bargain hunters there because of the bargains, or are the providers offering bargains because they know that the bargain hunters are there?  While both sides will claim to be acting reasonably, it still leaves the question of relevance unanswered.  Is this a good way to showcase the future of education?

On Facebook there are posts from reps complaining about the hunters and gatherers banging into their shins in their efforts to get their hands on every last offer.  It’s time that the exhibitors provided their workers with some basic health and safety equipment.  Come to think of it, shinpads would make a great bit of marketing merchandise for the visitors who are smart enough to get their samples mailed to them!

microsoft_cologneThe big players

Um, yeah… Not much to say here as they stayed at home.  The photo on the right is of Microsoft’s Cologne offices about 500 metres from the exhibition.  It’s a bit worrying that they didn’t walk across the bridge to put up a stand.  Google wasn’t there either.  Apple was consistent at least in not being there.  Some of the laptop manufacturers were represented, but mostly on very small stands.  The Lenovo stand had one thing in common with its BETT equivalent – no Chromebooks, but here they could’t even find it on their own website.  The rep assured me that I would find it though…

In fact, none of the big digital providers was there.  Can they all be wrong?  Or is it maybe that they have done their homework and see that Didacta isn’t at the cutting edge of the education sector.  This raises the question, is it Didacta or is it Germany which is lagging behind the pace?

The challenge for the publishers

What’s interesting to see is that the three biggest stands at the show belong to the three big schoolbook publishers in Germany – Klett, Westermann, and Cornelsen.  And while they talk a lot about their digital media, it’s mostly tucked away in a corner.  In almost all cases what comes up on the screen is the page in the book with clickable links to play the audio files or short videos.  This is not really very imaginative, and shows that the publishers are still very much focussed on the book rather than modern teaching ideas.  It really hasn’t struck home that learners interact differently with a teacher than with a book.  I spoke to two senior managers from different publishers about this and both politely ducked the issue.  It would be easy to get the impression that they know it’s a problem, but don’t know what to do about it.

The official line seems to be one of calmness, but that might be complacency in disguise.  The pressure to change isn’t apparent.  But the more technically advanced the German classroom becomes (and it still lags a long way behind those in the UK and several other European nations) the more the publishing giants will be forced to adapt.  The clever interdisciplinary technologies and products that were on show at BETT were missing completely at Didacta and the publishers show very few signs that they are ready for this challenge.  The hungry start-ups who know how to hit well above their weight are getting ready for the future with innovative concepts that work in the modern classroom.  They aren’t just putting a clickable book on an interactive whiteboard.  That’s the real challenge for the publishers, not the coursebooks from the other big publishers.

The highlights

Volkswagen hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory recently and it has rightly kept its corporate head down on almost all issues, but here it had something good to show off.  At Autostadt, the company’s museum and exhibition centre at the headquarters in Wolfsburg, they offer mini courses for schoolchildren in a range of subjects around the car, mobility and the environment.  These not, in fact, new but some of them are now available in English which is certainly an interesting option for teachers looking for some real world experience for their class.

cnnleCNN Learn English looked very neat.  Using real videos taken from CNN content, and adding interactive subtitles and exercises, CNN and papagei.com have put together a very interesting package which could provided a useful extension to many business English courses.

While it doesn’t appear to be strong enough to be a standalone product, this is just the sort of thing that can bring a standard course to life.  The rep assured me that the videos are updated regularly, so as to take account of recent events.  All in all, a good idea.

Apps were few and far between at the show, but Quizzer from Mobile Learning Labs seemed to be well thought out.  Quizzer fits firmly into the “mobile first” category of learning applications, but that’s no bad thing – mobile learning and quick fire practice are still areas that need to be taken seriously.  There’s still a feeling that this is a fun activity that’s useful, rather than a useful activity that can also be fun.  Quizzer seems to fit the bill here.

The divide between school teaching and job requirements

The clearest signal that the focus for the secondary school section needs to change was found in the section of the show devoted to apprenticeship training and workplace education.  The exhibitors here were offering a similar standard of practical-based learning materials that could be seen at the BETT Show in the secondary sector.  This sector was probably the quietest in the show which was great for those wanting to find some really nice ideas, but was equally a sad reflection on the focus of the majority of visitors.

School teachers can get quite prickly when employers complain about school leavers not being ready for the workplace.  Suddenly the curriculum that they call “restricting” is their ally.  Phrases like, “later life is not just about work” pop up and the sound of foot dragging is intensely audible.  As always, the truth is somewhere in between – the only proviso is, that a well-rounded school leaver who hasn’t got the skills or the knowledge to get a suitable job isn’t being well served by the education system and it’s no use passing the blame around the table because the only loser is the pupil.  Didacte would be a great place to have this discussion as all sides are represented there, but the will seems to be lacking.  It’s a topic that can always be left to the next generation.  Sad.

Quo vadis, Didacta?

didacta_exitAs it stands, and despite its claims to the contrary, Didacta looks firmly anchored in the mid to latter part of the last century.  The slogans are up to date, but the content doesn’t match the packaging.  The publishers say the teachers don’t want it, and they are hamstrung by the regional governments who set the curriculum.  But how are the teachers going to find out that there’s another way unless it is showcased at events like Didacta?  If it wants to be the biggest flea market for teachers then it’s going the right way about it – it just needs to make its advertising a bit more accurate.  The reps reported that it was quieter than expected this year.  Doubtlessly the organisers will shortly be producing some very self-congratulatory statistics, but won’t hide some serious shortcomings in the whole focus of the show.  Hans Christian Andersen put it so…

“But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, “Now I must bear up to the end.” And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.

The last sentence is often overlooked in talking about of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes but it is a genuine danger for those that decide the direction that education should take.

Didacta needs to walk the talk.


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