Editor’s Note: Welcome to a special series from the Sutterlin Family. This month, the family continues the account of their experience hosting a German high school exchange student. Enjoy!
The education systems of America and Germany are very different. The biggest difference I think is that German students can’t choose their schedule until 11th grade. My American school schedule has fewer classes that occur daily and are separated by semesters, which makes for shorter spans of time to learn a topic. Germany has more classes that are stretched out over multiple years and students can’t choose different options of which classes to take. This way, students continue learning connected material for longer periods of time. Because of this pattern, it feels like students in Germany are all on the same knowledge level.
In my American school, kids have more choice in how and when they take courses so it feels like there are lots of different ability levels in a school. In contrast, Germany has different schools for different kinds of students. We have schools with a graduation after 9th grade (Hauptschulabschluss), schools with a graduation after 10th grade (Mittlere Reife) and schools with the high school graduation after 12th grade (Abitur). To attend university, students have to attend “Abitur,” but the “Mittlere Reife” is a very common graduation with which you can do in-service training in a company, a widespread way of learning a profession. Because of that division, teaching is easier because most kids in the same school have a similar ability and direction.
The American school system gives the students more opportunity to learn social skills while German schools are more concentrated on academic skills. American teachers are very nice and helpful; I haven’t met a harsh teacher yet, but I think that in some classes it would help students to be more disciplined. There are lots of consequences for dress codes and behavior violations, but there is not as much pressure on kids not doing their work or participating in class. There are a lot more second chances, and people seem more focused on grades or passing than on what they learn. The attitude of what school means feels very different.
From Walt Sutterlin
A few weeks into the school year, Sophie mentioned to us that she was bored, knew a lot of the content and didn’t feel challenged. She was worried that perhaps she’d fall behind upon returning home. She even went so far as to request a friend from home to send classwork that she could use. We expected a different kind of student, seeing as Sophie was older than our kids, but we were pleasantly surprised at the different disposition toward learning she had developed through her own educational experience.
Walking through Target one night, I asked how Sophie’s day had been. The story she told sounded somewhat like this, “Yesterday we had to take a multiple choice test that was pretty easy because you can recognize which answer is right. Still a lot of people failed it, so we had to correct it together. This felt like a waste of time because instead of us sitting together and talking about what we learned or didn’t understand, the teacher read the correct answer and we had to mark it differently. I’m not sure what we learn from doing this.”
Sophie had no way of knowing how her feelings were music to my ears and knives to my heart. In just a few sentences, she confirmed what Iﾕve been working to change as an educator, not only in educational practice, but also in the dispositions we create in our children about learning. Without implicating a person, she identified practices and behaviors from her American classroom that clearly didnﾕt support the type of learning weﾕd like to think is widespread. She also provided me proof, in one example, that adolescents are fully capable of being expected and asked to think, pursue dialogue, and create understanding. Being able to compare and talk through Sophieﾕs experience of education has helped me further advocate for an education system that expects and develops this type of learning.