Saturday, October 27, 2012

Now for something slightly different

It's been a fairly quiet, normal sort of week for me. I went back to school on Thursday and don't plan on any more surprise week-long vacations - rest is good, but I find that too much rest is just boring. I like to have something to do that feels worth doing.

In about an hour I'm headed to a tiny town in Germany called Mörstadt, where my great-grandmother was born and her extended family still lives, to visit my cousins. I seem to be related to three-quarters of the town, based on a ten-minute tour that included explaining my relationship to nearly everyone buried in the little cemetery. It feels odd to me to call everyone I come across "cousin," but so this visit will go. Several of my cousins of varying degrees grow grapes and make wine, and I wonder if I might be able to see the winery.

In talking to my friend J about education reform last night, I realized that the German education system remains a mystery to most non-Germans (including me). Keep in mind I'm no expert on this, and please correct me if I say anything wrong.

Like in the States, German school children begin their education between the ages of 5 and 6 in a primary school, called Grundschule. At age 10, they can go into one of two tracks: Realschule or Gymnasium. Actually there are more than two options, but every state in Germany has a different system and the systems are changing, so we'll stick to the two I know best from my own state. When a student finishes Grundschule, their previous work, grades, and parental preferences dictate if they go into a Realschule or Gymnasium. Realschule goes until 10th grade, after which a student goes into an apprenticeship situation based on their abilities. For example, a student who is good at math may go into an apprenticeship to be an accountant, with part of their time spent at school and part of their time spent in training at a company that uses accountants. Realschule students don't usually go to university.

Gymnasium, where I work, goes until 12th or 13th grade, after which the students take a large exit exam (Abitur), much like England's system. This exam is not, so far as I can tell, like the SAT or ACT in the States. Gymnasium students often do go to university and become things like lawyers, doctors, and teachers. Teachers in Germany are well-trained (6 or 7 years of training) and well-paid, making education a desirable profession.

An interesting thing I've noted when talking with my students is the lack of American Dream "what I want to be when I grow up" ideas. Even my 10th and 12th grade students, who are about the same age or a little older than their US counterparts, usually answered my question about their preferred employment by saying that they would know what field they would study after they took the Abitur exam and got their scores back. Of course I can't generalize to all of Germany or all German students, but the German system doesn't seem to put the same sort of emphasis on "doing whatever you want to do!" or "following your passion" - certainly some people seem to enjoy their jobs, but many others view a job as something you do to live and enjoy their lives after work. The German education system sorts students by capability and provides them training in a field in which they excel, but the students' own passions don't seem to be a big part of it. On the one hand, unemployment is very low in Germany. The government will ensure that you have a job that supports you, even if it's not a job you particularly like. On the other hand, I don't hear my students super excited about what the future has in store for them. This isn't unique to Germany - anyone who's talked with American 16-year-olds can report a similar vibe - but it does seem more pronounced here.

Like so many of the differences between the States and Europe, it seems to boil down to the realization that both systems work. Both systems also need reformation, however, and I wonder what we might borrow from one another in the future.

Thoughts? Questions? Proclamations? Creeds?

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