Keeping It Real… Swiss Style

When I was in sixth grade, my family spent one year in Switzerland, which is where my parents come from and where my extended family still lives today. I went to a typical secondary school that year, and it gave me a student’s view of a very different educational system from that in the U.S.

The most striking difference was that we had a half-day of school on Saturday!

To my American childhood sensibilities, this was sheer blasphemy. In those pre-cable, pre-Internet years, Saturday mornings were the cartoon mecca, after which we’d play soccer or football. Mandatory school during this most hallowed part of the week bordered on cruel and unusual punishment. (Fortunately, I hear from my cousins that Switzerland has since ended this barbaric practice. :-))

But there were other striking differences as well.

Each class of about 25 students stayed together in their homeroom for most of their courses (other than sciences, art, shop, and PE), while teachers moved from room to room. On top of that, there was a weekly schedule (rather than a daily schedule) in which different courses met for different numbers of hours per week, and the start and end times of school varied substantially depending on the day of the week.

Other than additional foreign languages (beyond the required French), there were no electives and no need for students to make elective choices because all students took all academic and nonacademic courses, unlike American students—such as my daughter, who has to choose each year between music, art, or a foreign language.

In my year of Swiss education, I took German 5 hours per week, French and math 4 hours per week, other academic subjects such as history, geography, biology, chemistry, and physics anywhere from 1 to 3 hours per week, and many other subjects such as art, music, shop, PE, and religion for either 1 or 2 hours per week. What a striking difference between the U.S. practice of separating the sciences into separate, sequential, 1-year courses, and the Swiss practice of including each discipline for a couple of hours per week throughout the entire 5 years of secondary schooling.

When I reflect on the residue of my learning during that year, it’s the quality of some of the learning activities we did that I remember most vividly, and what they all share in common is that they required us to work with real materials and the real world.

Here are a few examples:

  • We had to pick some outdoor location, mark off a 10 m-by-10 m square with string, and then create a scale drawing of all the flora in that square. I remember picking a spot in a nearby forest, then realizing that there were so many different layers—bushes and plants at ground level, crowns of trees above them—that I used tracing paper for the trees. The best part of this memory is that I don’t even remember which class it was for.
  • In shop, we took local topographic maps with contour lines and cut out pieces of cardboard after tracing each contour line. We then glued the various cardboard “slices” together to create a 3-dimensional model of the topographic map. Not only did this create a deep understanding of the relationship between the 2-dimensional map and 3-dimensional model, but since they represented local places, we were excited to see how they connected to our real-world experiences with those places.
  • When working with fractions in math, we had to cut out circle wedges to represent equivalent fractions and to convert fractions to a common denominator for addition or subtraction. Then we had to glue them into our little fraction notebook (similar to the composition notebooks in the U.S., but with graph paper grids) along with the symbolic representations. While visual approaches are used in U.S. textbooks, no book was used in Switzerland at all. We had to cut, glue, and create our own examples.
  • I also did straightedge and compass constructions in Switzerland. While incredibly fundamental to understanding geometric relationships, this is something I never did in my schooling in the U.S.

These are the types of learning experiences emphasized in the Standards for Mathematical Practice in the Common Core State Standards, and it makes me realize that powerful and engaging activities are not something new, but old practices that are undervalued in today’s assessment-addicted public policy arena.

The development of the Common Core standards started with international comparisons of education systems, and there’s still much to be gained from comparing and contrasting the basic assumptions of different national models of education. I’d love to hear about other experiences people have had with education systems outside of the U.S.

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