Fellow blogger Lorraine Seal's comment on my last post, How Schools Fail: Lost Kids and a "Race to Nowhere", inspired me to add a new post instead of a reply.
It is true: the level of secondary education is higher in Austria than in the US - but only in the fields of encyclopedic knowledge and language instruction. As described earlier, in Schools and License Plates, Austrian schools show strong deficits in the teaching of critical thinking, team work, presentation, and creativity. Unfortunately these are qualities which are needed later on in the work place.
Austrian schooling sees the renaissance man as its ideal. This sounds good. Is it practical? In this day and age? With Wikipedia and google? Our daughter spent two years at an AHS in Vienna (a school which covers the US grades five thru twelve) and we got to see first hand that for this type of school neither the teaching methods nor the content have changed since I graduated from an AHS in Innsbruck in 1980: frontal instruction, six or seven hours of lecturing a day, more hours of homework plus lots of memorizing for tests and exams. (When I mentioned this stagnancy to my parents they laughed and told me that I was only voicing the concerns they shared as young parents decades earlier: my father who was born before WWII was taught the same content as I and my daughter, and by the same methods...)
An Austrian AHS teaches every little detail for the anatomy of the crab (segments and legs, their different uses and names) and it expects students to memorize the details. Add to the crab Alexander the Great's battles (every single one, years included!), the long list of dukes and emperors in the houses of Babenberg and Hapsburg, poems and ballads by Schiller, Goethe, Fontane, and Heine (some of which have two dozen eight or ten line stanzas) and and and, all for memorization.
Alexander the Great's life is fascinating, crabs are wonderful little creatures, and the German writers of the 18th and 19th century wrote some pretty exciting ballads. But which part of all this knowledge stays with a child if the knowledge is not acquired through independent research but via teacher's dictate? In our daughter's two school years in Vienna the instances where an instructor encouraged students to do some research of their own and present it to the class were rare and usually reserved for occasions where children needed extra credit to get their grades up a notch. Here, in L.A., where our daughter attends a low profile private school (K thru eight) such work is an integrative part of the curriculum.
This said, there is one area where Austrian schools excel: foreign languages. While Austrian children usually can carry on a conversation in English by the time they are 14 their peers in L.A. have almost no Spanish proficiency. The main reason for this discrepancy is obvious: in Europe many cultures coexist in a small space and many different languages are spoken. How would people communicate if they didn't make an effort to learn a common language? Another reason is the renaissance man ideal: how universal would a person's education be if he or she didn't know a foreign language (and some Latin)?
Again I long for the middle ground: a school where students are encouraged to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, team workers; where they learn that Alexander the Great was the first person to conquer the whole known world and an idol to later leaders but do not get lost in the memorization of battle dates; where at least one foreign language is drilled into them (memorization definitely has its place here!); where they learn to love German ballads (or their English language equivalent) because they are dramatic and deal with human conflict and errors, with hubris and humility, with the lessons life teaches and has taught since long before schools were invented. Hard to find, I'm sure. But why?