A Different Approach to Learning

I thought it would be interesting to delve into the school system in Austria, because it differs greatly from its U.S. counterpart. Here there is elementary school from age 6-10, and then at age 10 there comes a big decision that will impact the rest of the child’s life—to go onto the harder middle school and college preparatory high school and then university, or to go to the “easier” tracked middle school which will lead to a vocational high school, and not the university. The children are tracked at this early age into these two groups of higher performing and not as high performing students. At such an early age, it is primarily up to the parents to make the decision on which track to pursue, and typically adheres to the social standards of higher and lower class divides. There is debate over the equality (or lack thereof) of this system in terms of social mobility and equal education. The students who go to gymnasium are in school for a longer time, and proceed to the public university system, which is also nearly free. (Some pay very little, around 60 euros for a class, while others who do not work and come from lower income families receive monetary support from the government.) The majority of schools of all levels are public, and while private schools do exist they are not as common. I was speaking to a local Austrian about the differences between private and public universities, and she told me private universities were typically considered less prestigious than the public, unless it was for a specific type of study that the public university did not offer. In university, classes tend to me a little more lecture based and less discussion base, although from what I know that is the general tendency of Europe broadly. While I do not take classes at the University of Vienna, my classes are taught by Austrians and one Hungarian professor, and they are definitely more lecture based.

The main entrance to the University of Vienna, on the Ringstrasse.

The main entrance to the University of Vienna, on the Ringstrasse.

As far as the more social side of learning, according to two American friends here I interviewed who teach English in public schools, there are generally fewer restrictions in the schools. There are not the same rules we have in the U.S. forbidding teachers to touch students, that is alright, and kids can bring up a range of topics they normally couldn’t in the U.S.—sex, religion, etc. It is also easier to become a teacher here than in the U.S.; it requires less training. Younger students however are very respectful of their teachers. Students, especially in the lower grades stand up whenever the teacher enters the room. Apparently this habit tends to slowly degrade over time as students get older. Also, interestingly in some schools everyone takes off their shoes and wears slippers inside. I find both of these habits—standing up for teachers and wearing slippers– show respect for the school’s faculty and physical campus, and perhaps education more broadly.

The classes in middle school and above also tend to be smaller, my friend guessed at 6-13 students. These smaller class sizes allow for more field trips—my Austrian R.A. for example went on a fieldtrip to Prague with her class and learned about Kafka there. This smaller sized class stays in the same room each day, while the teachers move around from room to room. Students can stay with the same group of classmates all day, and even for multiple years in a row. Cheating is less of a hyped-up phenomenon as it is in the U.S. Austrians have explained to me how strange they find the U.S. culture of anti-cheating, taken to the extent of putting boxes or books around a desk to block away straying eyes.

Different parts of the university are scattered around the city in the vicinity of the University. Pictured here is a sign for the Postgraduate Study for Human Rights, whose office shares the building with apartments and other small businesses.

Different parts of the university are scattered around the city in the vicinity of the University. Pictured here is a sign for the Postgraduate Study for Human Rights, where I intern. Its offices share the building with apartments and small businesses.

Two Austrian friends explained that here what we would consider cheating, such a copying off another’s test is not here really labeled as such. Instead, students are quite willing to move their papers so more visible to those behind them, because they know the person in front of them would do the same if they needed it. They described school as a very collaborative environment of students working together.

Some of these different aspects perhaps seem strange—at first I adversely reacted to the acceptance of copying as well as deciding children’s future so early. But when one of my local friends began pointing out the positive aspects I saw of course there is no one-sided right or wrong. Collaboration and solidarity among students is indeed a success to treasure—especially when I compare this to some of the over-the-top competitive environments in some colleges in the U.S., where students actively work against one another to earn the upper hand on the curve. And while it seems early and intense to decide a child’s future at an early age, the school systems do benefit by being much more specialized in the advanced track. And on the other side, school systems do not have to pigeon-hole students into a one-track definition of success, with graduating from university the only end of the road. In the U.S. school system success is typically defined as getting into the best-ranked college and then going on to a similar high-caliber job from there. This stressful funneling of students towards one path certainly does not benefit all. Those who do not want that path can pursue an equally valid option, to become trained in a skilled technical vocation whose jobs are just as necessary. Undoubtedly both the U.S. and Austria’s school systems have flaws, but their different approaches illuminate or at least raises the question of what should be desired from education, and what is important.

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