School is school, right?

School is different in America. I had assumed that school was school, whatever your country, but the structure of education here isn’t just a little bit different: it’s a completely new paradigm. It’s taken a couple of years to get to grips with the way it happens here.

Gabriella's working on an essay

Gabriella’s working on an essay

Students in America have very little say in the classes they take up to the age of 16. They do what the school dictates. That’s weird from a European point of view, but isn’t as odd as it sounds, because there aren’t many subjects. Instead of nine, ten or eleven subjects, all students study just five!!! Those are referred to as the core subjects, and they are English, History, Science, Maths and a language (Spanish, in Gabriella’s case). That’s it. But it’s not the whole story.

Here are the major contrasts between American and British school systems, showing how you can halve the number of subjects taught, yet still cover the same ground.

The English class in America covers both English Language and English Literature.

There’s no such thing as a Geography class, because Geography is absorbed into other subjects; to simplify it just a teeny bit, the geological aspects of Geography are taught in Science, and the topographical are taught in History (thus providing context for historical events).

While all three separate sciences are taught in parallel in Britain, in America they’re taught one at a time, in series. In most schools, Biology is taught in the first of four years, followed by Chemistry in the second, and Physics in the third. By the end of three years, all students have learnt the same basic science as European kids.

The difference that shocked me the most about education in America is that students at the majority of the schools have just one language in their timetables. I learnt four at school: French, German, Latin and Ancient Greek. Admittedly, I learnt more languages than the average because I enjoyed them, but it’s not uncommon for European kids to learn more than one foreign language. I suppose it’s because in Europe, you have to. You’re surrounded by languages. America is vast, and its primary language is English. When does a non-immigrant American ever have to know a second language?

Max is trying to stare some unintelligible geometry into submission

Max is trying to stare some unintelligible geometry into submission

The one subject that first year high schoolers can choose for themselves is an Art elective. “Art” is a word that means many things here – not just visual art, but theatre and music too. In her first year, Gabriella chose to join the choir as her elective. Choirs and orchestras in American schools don’t meet at lunchtime or after school, as in Britain, but have designated class time. So does the theatre production. These classes have grades too. That makes it impossible to join the choir and the orchestra and have a part in the play (I’m not sure what I’d have done if I’d had to make that choice), but it does mean that the ensembles have sufficient time to become really proficient.

The differences between the European and American education systems are enormous, but it seems to me that kids at equivalent schools in the two countries know roughly the same content at the end of their high school education, regardless of the method of getting there.

Which is better? Well, that’s a subject for another post.

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About Natalie Gotts

I've been a management consultant, a nutritional therapist, a Journey practitioner and a mother. I've sold ostriches in China and personal safety devices in Hong Kong. Whatever I've done, and wherever I've been, I've written about it.
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One Response to School is school, right?

  1. Pingback: Top of the class | Family Gotts USA Adventure

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