"What's the biggest difference between German schools and American schools?"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012



{two of my German schools from my first Fulbright}



After teaching at three different schools in Germany, as well as privately tutoring individual students from nearby German towns, I feel as though I have a pretty firm grasp on the German school system. For any of you who may care, I've included some information and personal anecdotes below.

A German child's education begins Kindergarten. Don't ever call this 'school', though. It is most definitely NOT 'school'. I once asked a friend's little girl, "Was hast du heute in der Schule gemacht?" (What'd you do today at school?). She told me, ever so angrily, that she went to Kindergarten -- not school! Her mom explained to me that there was a big difference and the two should never be confused.

After Kindergarten comes the Grundschule, which is more or less Elementary School (or in northern states, 'Primary School', right?). After 4th grade, German children must make a decision: do they want to one day go to a university? Or will they pursue a trade-related profession instead? University-bound students enroll in a Gymnasium or a Gesamtschule, while those pursuing a career in a type of trade will attend a Hauptschule or a Realschule.

Now, there is a lot of controversy surrounding this system - mostly because the notion of deciding your career path at the age of 10 seems, to many people, absolutely absurd. After teaching at a Gymnasium, a Hauptschule and a Realschule, I have to say I don't agree with the system at all. There is an extremely negative stigma associated with the Hauptschule and Realschule. My Gymnasium students were prone to asking haughty questions like, "Are you teaching the 9th graders at the Hauptschule tomorrow? Have they learned to read yet?" I often got offended for my Hauptschule students because many of them tried so very hard, but at the end of the day, I felt as though some of them were living under self-fulfilled prophecies; they were students at the "dumb" school and they would never amount to anything as a result.

One of my favorite female students at the Hauptschule went on to cosmetology school and another became an office receptionist. One of my favorite male students went on to be a mechanic, and another a policeman. They were happy with their choices and I was happy for them. But I have a hard time accepting that these choices were more or less made at the end of 4th grade.

Many of the students admittedly had no control over the decision to attend a university or not; their parents decided for them based on what kind of upbringing they themselves had had. Others started at Gymnasium level, with the intention of one day attending a University, but failed to display advanced enough skills or grades and were therefore demoted to a Hauptschule or Realschule. One of my absolute favorite 5th grade Gymnasium students, a little girl named Leoni, cried the day she found she was getting downgraded to the Hauptschule. It broke my heart. Of course, it is possible to earn your way back to Gymnasium after being demoted, but in my experience teaching, never once did I see that happen.

With all of that said, there are some advantages. The students at Gymnasium level -- being surrounded by the smartest of the smart -- are motivated to excel, pushed beyond their limits. No one is merely mediocre and everyone is pretty darn brilliant as a result. The books I read in my high school AP English class, for instance? (Brave New World, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby...) My Gymnasium students read those same books. At the same age as I had. In English. When you're surrounded by only intelligence and academic apathy is kept at bay, competition is fierce and the students strive for perfection in its presence. The only question: is grouping the 'smart' together and saying "Get smarter!" worth grouping the 'dumb' together and saying, "Stay dumb!"? At the end of the day, I don't believe it is.

Feel free to add your two cents in the comment box. Also, I enjoy getting travel/culture inquiries on Formspring. If you have any questions, post them there and I will answer them. Thanks!

13 comments:

hannah debbie said...

Thanks so much for sharing! I think a lot of countries in Europe follow a similar model. Last year I had a job interviewing an old Slovakian lady as she and her husband wanted to write a memoir; she told me she chose to go to the gymnasium when she was young and that just seemed so absurd to me. Back then, I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! In many ways, I still don't. And demoting students? Ugh, that sounds awful.

myheartscontentblog.com said...

This does seem pretty harsh...if I'd continued with my career choice as a 10 year old, I would now be a snake charmer at a circus. I kid you not.

Jenni Austria Germany said...

hahahahah. yeah, i shudder to think what i would be...considering that my sisters once asked me, as a child, what i wanted to be when i grew up and i told them, "a fly".

Tranae said...

Sadly some US schools are following a model similar to this. Instead of 4th graders, they are having 8th graders select pathways for their high school plan: trade or college prep. The students that select the trade pathway have to take a year of remedial courses if they should decide to go to college.

Emerald Barnes said...

I both agree and disagree with this system. It would be better if they made you choose at age 13. You at least have a better idea of your goals by then.

Valgerður said...

Great post!! I couldn't agree more. I was shocked when I learned about the Austrian school system (same as in Germany) when I moved to Vienna. I just could not wrap my head around the fact the children need to choose at 10 years old - OR they don't even get to choose, they are just put in Hauptschule because of their parent's position in society. So sad!
I'm extremely happy that the Icelandic school system does not discriminate like that on such young children, here everybody pretty much has the same chance as the next child to succeed (even though of course it depends a lot on their parent's support etc..)

picadaisy said...

I'm quite fascinated by the German education system as well! The concept isn't unique perhaps, as a number of other countries have similar systems in place in regards to choosing a general path (for example, in Canada, there're specialized programs like AP or IB, and then the Academic stream, as well as an Applied stream, and sometimes others as well - but such choices happen in high school, and it's fairly flexible to switch). 10 seems really young for a decision of that magnitude...

ashley // chasing heartbeats said...

Oh it is so interesting to hear your take on the german school system! It has always been horrifying to me that Andreas's mother was the one who chose all the careers of her children. Andreas is an accountant, and his brother is a banker- both very "safe" jobs which were obviously a priority for her. I can definitely see the difference in Andreas's friends who went to gymnasium and Realschule as far as their level of confidence. I understand the benefits of the gymnasium, being surrounded by people who are the top of their class, but I have always felt the other schools were really unfair, especially when it is decided when you are in 4th grade!
Anyhow, that was my rant. Thank you for listening.

Erica [pocket full of chuckles] said...

that's crazy that kids have to make the decision on college after 4th grade. i feel like that's such a young age to make that sort of decision. such an interesting post :)

Taylor said...

Very insightful...hmm. Makes you think how some places in the world still exist where people are more or less born into their trade.

Antoinette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
brittany said...

this is absolutely fascinating!! i cannot imagine something like that being decided in 4th grade. and i thought 18 was too young to have to pick a career path, ha! those germans...

LightningBug said...

I am an American student doing a cultural interview research paper on an exchange student from Austria who is living in my neighborhood of Virginia. This gave me some interesting information to think about. At first glance, I thought the German educational system to be superior to the American educational system, but this has put many things in perspective for me. Thank you for this!