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Crabs, Ballads, and Life Lessons (How Schools Fail 2)

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?


Lorraine Seal said…
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Lorraine Seal said…

This beautifully written reflection on education bringS to mind what my husband and I have seen as deficit in Irish education. Of course, my comments can only be anecdotal and second hand because I have no children nor have I done any research into this. But there seems to be the same emphasis on acquiring knowledge in order to pass examinations in order to earn desired places in the university system at the expense of learning to think independently or creatively.

I think of the daughter of friends of ours, a very bright and hardworking young woman who earned a place at Trinity College Dublin in one of its most competitive and rigorous programs. She is a delightful person, bubbly and outgoing. But we noticed, for all her educational achievements, a lack of introspection and curiosity about the way the world works or, indeed, what motivates people to think and behave as they do. Naturally these qualities arise from an individual’s temperament, and she has many other gifts, but an educational approach that encourages research and critical thinking would nurture some intellectual curiosity, I’d think.

The other thing we noticed was the emphasis put on degrees and certificates in the Irish workplace. Work history and individual accomplishment seemed to mean little; what employment specialists – the gatekeepers – wanted to see were evidences of specialised education. This is a more recent phenomenon, and it may seem a leap from the points you make. I bring it up, however, because it seems an extension of an educational system that encourages rote mastery of a set of facts, leading to a test to establish knowledge successfully retrieved, proving competence that will be evidenced by a diploma.

I don’t mean to devalue degrees and certifications; however, they tell only part of the story. I come from a generation of students who, in our day, went to universities to learn more about the world and ourselves than could be expressed by our degrees. The kind of skills you mention – problem solving, dealing with conflict, team work – are not demonstrable through diplomas but through experience. Yet the Irish approach to education – possibly the Austrian one as well – seems to downplay these qualities in favour of what can be more readily measured.

It seems to me that the single-most important thing I learned in college, and fortunately this was in the first class of the first quarter of my first year at UCLA, was that through trying to marshal inchoate ideas and images into disciplined and grammatical sentences one can come to know what one thinks and whether it makes sense. Perhaps that’s what we should look for in a good education, assuming it is coupled with a grounding in facts.

Thanks for continuing an interesting conversation.

Lorraine -

As always, thank you for your comment and especially for sharing your insight into the Irish education system which definitely sounds like Austria.

Unfortunately some of the more preppy private US high schools seem to be going in the same direction (I call it backward). According to the documentary Race to Nowhere they are beginning to focus on teaching what can be tested and measured at the expense of critical thinking skills (

The L.A. screening of Race to Nowhere which I attended was facilitated by a lady who teaches at a local college. She mentioned that high school graduates now come in with perfect test scores but are looking to be hand held and mouth fed by college professors in a way that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.

I know for my daughter, if there is one thing I want her to be by the time she moves on to college it is independent. That of course, as fellow blogger Debi would say, starts with the family.

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