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Coming of Age – Growing Up at the Focus of Research

Childhood and youth are times of great changes and searching, phases full of tensions, risks, and opportunities. At the Institute for Applied Research on Childhood, Youth, and the Family at the University of Potsdam, researchers study all facets of these stages of life – from kindergarten quality checks to frustration at school to the driving test.

A building with a history of more than 300 years, “Zum Alten Dorfkrug” is written in large letters on its façade. For stage drivers traveling between Berlin and Hamburg, this house in Staffelde was an important coaching inn: Here they exchanged their tired horses for fresh ones, got a hot meal and – if necessary – a place to sleep for the night. In the old open-hearth kitchen, ham was smoked. But these days are long gone. Six black Friesian horses with long crests extend their necks out of the openings of their stable. They are no longer needed for mail transport.

Since 2013, the renovated rooms of the coaching inn have been used for mainly one purpose: research. The Institute for Applied Research on Childhood, Youth, and the Family at the University of Potsdam e.V. (IFK) has its offices here. “I have a certain penchant for old houses and horses,” Institute Director Prof. Dr. Dietmar Sturzbecher says with a smile. “My father was a farmer.” As a boy, he tended the animals on their farm in Vehlefanz where he grew up. But Sturzbecher did not follow in his father’s footsteps, first he became a math teacher, and then a researcher in pedagogic psychology. Now he has an office in the attic of the old coaching inn. Taking up the tradition of the house, he also offers mail coach rides – in addition to research.

The wild 1990s

After German reunification, the IFK was founded as an independent research institution. Since 1991, Sturzbecher has been its director, and since 1994 the IFK has cooperated with the University of Potsdam as an associate research institute. In the 1990s, the lives of families in the former GDR changed dramatically. “Nobody knew what would happen next,” Sturzbecher says of this period of uncertainty. The IFK wanted to reflect and provide a scientific background to this transformation, and help shape teacher training at the University of Potsdam.
But from the very beginning, youth has been the IFK’s main research focus. Not entirely voluntarily, as Sturzbecher admits. In the early 1990s, a wave of youth violence with extremist tendencies swept the country. The youth riots aroused politicians and society and provided the impulse for the first IFK youth study in 1991. “It was one of our first activities,” Sturzbecher remembers. The researchers interviewed more than 3,500 youths from the Land of Brandenburg between the ages of 12 and 22 to capture their life circumstances and get to the root of the violence. Questions included topics such as spare time activities, financial satisfaction, situation at school, as well as readiness to use violence, and extremist attitudes.

Other studies followed, and in 2018 the IFK published its eighth youth study. Thus the researchers have a wealth of data on hand which opens up insights into the worries, pains, strengths, and desires of young people in the Land of Brandenburg over the past 27 years.

Times of change

In the first years after the start of the study, extremist tendencies and the readiness to use violence were particularly high among youth. They reached a peak in 1996. “It was the time of the largest social upheaval. Three quarters of the young people had at least one parent who had to find a new job, and often retrain,” Sturzbecher explains. Many free leisure facilities for youth were closed down, families were uncertain about the future.

The consequences of such a situation are known from other parts of the world, and comparatively well researched. Besides a rising tendency to use violence, another phenomenon surfaced: “In times of economic limbo, youth cut back their educational aspirations,” Sturzbecher found. If parents are facing economic problems in spite of the fact that they are well-trained, children lack the motivation to work hard at school or go to university. “This is exactly what we found in Brandenburg, too” he explains. “Between 1993 and 1996, the share of highly motivated school students dropped significantly.” In addition, sociologists have observed that especially middle-class parents reduce support for their adolescent children in times of crisis. “Parents who are preoccupied with themselves declare their children old enough to look after themselves.”

Motivated, open-minded, and European

After 1999, the worst part of the crisis was over. Youth in Brandenburg began to regain confidence, while extremism and violence decreased. “We had a new young generation,” Sturzbecher says. Looking back on almost 30 years, the data of the youth study tell the researcher that a lot has changed at school, too: Teachers are more committed to answering their students’ questions, they are perceived as being fairer, promoting open learning, and assigning marks more transparently. Educational researchers describe these factors as “social teaching quality”. High social teaching quality results in more motivated students, and less absenteeism, too – even though overall stress at school has increased.

The results of the current study also show: Most Brandenburg youth are optimistic about their future, grow up in diversity and freedom, and are committed Europeans. “This strong commitment to the EU surprised many researchers, including myself,” Sturzbecher says. But there is also a small bitter pill: Young people have become more susceptible to right-wing attitudes again. This is particularly true for the younger ones aged 12 to 14. For the first time, the share of those speaking up actively against violence and extremism is on the decline again. The IFK will continue its research on youth in the coming years, and new aspects that have become part of day-to-day life will be included in the study, such as rising media consumption, and cyber-bullying as a new form of violence.

Youth and Driving

“A lot remains to be done,” Sturzbecher says. This includes other fields as well: Since 1998, IFK researchers have increasingly turned towards traffic – and for a sad reason: For a long time, the Land of Brandenburg had the highest number of fatally injured young road users in Germany. At the same time, young people in Brandenburg attained exceptionally poor results on their driving tests. Brandenburg’s Ministry of Transport turned to the IFK for some expert advice.

Among the IFK’s first proposals was the development of a new chapter on “tree-lined roads” for the instructional material used at driving schools. In fact, the trees lining many roads in Brandenburg present a number of hazards to drivers: Not only do they grow near the side of the road, they also contribute to difficult light circumstances and bent surfaces. In addition, the researchers studied particularly tragic accidents and interviewed victims or those left behind. Their findings were incorporated in additional tuition material. “New drivers have a risk of death six times higher than experienced drivers,” Sturzbecher explains. “But serious accidents do not primarily result from carelessness. Today we know that new and experienced drivers monitor traffic differently. New drivers still have to learn to pick up and process important information correctly.” The researchers are using their insights to adapt teaching methods at driving schools.

In the meantime, the topic has been studied so successfully that it has become a research focus at the IFK. Also internationally, the expertise of the Institute is in demand. Its researchers cooperate closely with driving instructors and experts monitoring the work of driving schools, and have developed an evaluation system for driving tests. All driving tests data are pooled at the IFK to optimize the way new drivers are taught. And there is another reason why this has become necessary: “A substantial part of youth are unable to read and write adequately,” Sturzbecher says. Therefore, they have difficulties in passing the written examination. “Try and explain zip merging in easy language,” Sturzbecher illustrates the problem. Today, driving instructors use videos to teach the curriculum, in particular to the 15 percent of youth who are poor readers.

Stage driver honoris causa

Sturzbecher is a passionate researcher, but there is no overlooking his passion for history in his office: In one corner, there is a stage driver’s uniform tailored true to the original in the 18th century. The matching black and yellow coach is kept on the ground floor of the Institute; once it was even used in a film shooting with well-known actress Katharina Thalbach. From time to time, Sturzbecher puts on his uniform, hitches the black Friesian horses to the coach, and takes conference guests or training program participants on a coach ride round the Rhinluch fen. “To give people an impression of what travelling must have been like 300 years ago,” he explains. “It is surprisingly calming, and the passengers notice things they would never have noticed from a car.”

The Institute for Applied Research on Childhood, Youth, and the Family at the University of Potsdam e.V. (IFK) was founded in 1990. It has been an associate research institute of the University of Potsdam since 1994. In addition to the study of youth, the independent research institution deals with traffic education, the design of quality checks for kindergartens, and the in-service training of driving instructors, experts, and teachers. Besides the IFK, the former coaching inn in Staffelde also houses two spin-offs: The Institute for Prevention and Road Safety GmbH (IPV) develops a traffic perception test for new drivers, evaluates driving school training, and adapts it. Besides, the Institute organizes road safety projects for children. The Research and Innovation Center Humans-Technology-Road Traffic GmbH (FIZ-MTS) develops e-learning programs for the in-service training of technical experts.

The Researcher

Prof. Dr. Dietmar Sturzbecher studied pedagogic psychology and earned a teaching degree in mathematics and physics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He has been Director of the Institute for Applied Research on Childhood, Youth, and the Family at the University of Potsdam e.V. since 1991, and is adjunct Professor of Family, Youth, and Education Sociology at the University of Potsdam.
Mail: dietmarsturzbecherde

Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Sabine Schwarz
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde