Saturday, April 28, 2007

Teaching in Europe and Elsewhere

Enseigner en Europe et ailleurs.
That was the title of the worskshop I attended last week in Mont de Marsan, a town in the department of Les Landes to the south of us. I was one of two teachers invited to speak to a group of about 25 teachers on the subject of the different school systems. The other was a German woman who, like me, is completing an exchange in France though not with Fulbright. The keynote presentation in the morning was given by a Mr. Cassou, a mathematics teacher, who shared with us a graph heavy powerpoint presentation on the major models of European school systems.
Cassou organizes Western European school systems into four categories. The bell weather countries for each category are: Sweden, England, Germany, and Spain. Since his audience was French (excepting me and the German lady, of course) he tended to couch his remarks in reference to French practices which afforded me a very interesting perspective into how the French educational professionals themselves are engaging the subject of comparative educational practices and reforms.
Before I get into specifics, I think it's important to underscore the extent to which the French (and I presume other EU countries) are invested in developing a European perspective. The phenomenon of the EU seems to have triggered a vigorous exchange, not only of goods and labor, but of ideas and perspectives. While individual countries remain attached to their own particular institutions and/or traditions, they are unable to ignore the examples or the data coming from their neighbor countries. The EU has made it possible for member countries to begin to compare and contrast their practices in ways that avoid the apples and oranges problem. More and more, you see practices and policies framed in a context of what has been tried where, what has worked here but not there, and why. This does not mean that national identities and national institutions are disappearing necessarily but there is clearly a dynamic at work here that is subjecting practices to a different kind of scrutiny.
The biggest surprise of the morning for me was learning about Sweden. Try a few of these facts on for size...
  • Swedish high schools are locally controlled
  • There is no national curriculum nor are there any national exit exams.
  • Emphasis is placed on Swedish, Mathematics, and English.
  • The core themes animating Swedish schools are, civic responsibility, technology, and interdisciplinary studies.
  • Compulsory education goes to age 16.
  • School days are short, ending in the early afternoon at which point students participate in cultural activities such as sports and arts.
  • All students receive the same diploma.
  • Diplomas are acquired by earning credits for individual courses.
  • Credits are a function of time and competence.
  • No grades are issued up to the age 16.
  • Evaluations are individualized and descriptive and they are accompanied one of the following three characterizations: acceptable, very good, excellent.
One of things that distinguishes the Swedish system from the French system is that in Sweden there is no "redoublement", which is the practice of forcing students to repeat an entire year's worth of studies - think of redoublement as the nucleur version of failure. In Sweden (as in the U.S) you pass or fail individual courses.
At the age of 16, students select from 15 different orientations for further studies and might not surprise you to learn that the work of John Dewey is influential in Sweden.
As always, one must be wary of making comparisons without taking into account the cultural context in which these school systems are situated. Everyone here in France seems to accept the proposition that the school day here is too long, or at least too repetitive. But the issue of the school day is not just an educational issue. It is a social issue insofar as it also impacts such things as child care. A very high percentage of mothers work full time in France. The current design of the school day is instrumental in facilitating this arrangement. Therefore, any change in the length of the school day, no matter how sound it might be pedagogically or developmentally for the children has to be weighed against other social considerations as well.
The other three systems interested me less perhaps they resembled more or less the one I'm currently working in, especially Spain and Germany. England's system is perhaps noteworthy for having made a massive change in the direction of centralized planning and national curriculum at the same time it is embroiled in controversies about evaluating schools and engaging private entities in designing national exams and even sometimes in taking over failing schools. Another English quirk is the existence of a parallel and extremely exclusive and expensive system of private schools which in many ways seems beyond the purview of national governance.
It so happened that at the school where this workshop took place there was an American girl doing an exchange. She was 19, her French was good. She spoke to the teachers about her experience. When they asked her about her impressions of school in France she focused on the very two things I would have expected...the rigor and the lack of variety or elective offerings. It was serendipitous, her appearance, since I had planned on saying a few things about the student perspective on life in the high school.
I talked about the life of an American teacher, the phenomenon of multiple certifications, the frequency of extra-curricular assignments, the problem of burn-out, the involvement of parents and the relationship with students. I also talked about the diploma as a symbol of socialization as much as scolarisation.
When my German colleague spoke she prefaced her comments by saying how much she loved living in France and how difficult it had been to secure a French exchange partner. Apparently there about ten German candidates for every one French candidate. Then she began speaking about teaching here. She characterized the practices she found in France as "magistrale" which is to say, didactic and primarily lecture, drill and practice. She noted a lack of group work or of oral participation. By contrast, she suggested that pedagogical practices in Germany were mandated to be varied and diverse. I watched the room as she made these comments. People seemed to hear them in respectful silence though I couldn't help but wonder if they felt a bit defensive about her comments. I'm not sure how many opportunities she has had to observe French teachers in action so as to make such observations...they are plausible perhaps but not the whole story, I don't think.
One last anecdote... during a lunch break yesterday I spoke to Jean who teaches German and by all accounts is one of the very best teachers at our high school in Andernos. I asked him if he had ever done an exchange in Germany. He shook his head and said, "I wouldn't do an exchange in Germany."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Two reasons. First, the students there are unbelievable...out of control, they don't listen, they do whatever they like. Second, teachers there spend 25 hours per week in class. Here I have 13 hours a week. An exchange makes no sense to me."
When you put it like that, I guess it doesn't to me either.


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