What Americans Can Learn From European Schools

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Photo courtesy of theguardian.com

If you’re American, you’re likely monolingual, terrible at geography, and only work hard if there’s a prize to be won.  

If you ask most Europeans about their impressions of a U.S. education, they’re likely to think of theatrical hallway scenes out of Disney’s “High School Musical,” or bossy football players and cheerleaders on the prowl for nerds to stuff into lockers between classes.

While this may sound like a dated stereotype, the reality is that U.S. high schools remain anti-academic at their core, with a focus on winning, and a caste-like system in which athletes and the fashionable are at the top of the social hierarchy, and the highly intelligent are at the bottom.

A recent survey of foreign exchange students in the U.S. found that international students find American schools much less challenging than schools in their native countries. When asked to rate U.S. classes’ relative difficulty, 66.4% of respondents rated courses in the U.S. as “much easier” than in their home country. 

I’m aware it’s a stretch to compare one country to an entire continent with more than 700 million inhabitants, but there are philosophical differences that should be noted. Considering that education can vary wildly according to any given school district, I still tried to find out what the U.S. school system could learn from a European approach.

Americans rely on the prize system, Europeans hardly applaud

Jonatan Arias, a former bilingual elementary school teacher in California, raised in Spain and currently teaches in Madrid, noted differences in management styles. He was taken aback by Americans’ need for rewards starting at a young age, and found that the prize system is utilized a lot more in the U.S. than it is in Spain. 

While a reward can be used as a quick fix, Arias believes that rewards are unnecessary since a child’s natural curiosity will eventually motivate them to participate in didactic exercises in the classroom. In California, he saw that kids were constantly being rewarded with things like stickers or pencils as a tactic to get them to listen and learn.

“In the U.S., you strive to be the student of the week, the student of the month,” says Arias. “I didn’t apply this method in my classes. I remember that when my first and second-grade students would enter my class, they would say to me when they answered correctly, ´Where’s my prize? What are you going to give me? I would answer them, ´Well, I´ll give you the satisfaction of having done it well.’” 

European schools focus on nurturing a child´s intrinsic motivation so that it´s the student’s own interest at the center of their learning and not the reward, which studies have shown isn’t the best for their self-esteem in the long run. 

Patricia Abdelnour, a Venezuelan-American music teacher living in Luxembourg, told me that her elementary school-aged sons have yet to see a single star or smiley face as a reward for their efforts.

On the other hand, things seem to be changing in Spain since my seven-year-old has come home with good performance stickers on occasion. Although, when we’re at a Madrid playground, I’m usually the only U.S.-raised mom applauding and cheering the silliest of my daughter’s acrobatics alongside Spanish parents who eye their children with that subdued form of satisfaction they’re so good at.

Europe has specialized teachers for P.E. and Sex Ed, U.S. teachers wear many hats

One of the worst moments I can remember in a sexual education class was watching a teacher I knew turn beet red as he spoke about intercourse. Such is the state of awkwardness in American schools that even Time reported a case of a teacher breaking down in tears from sheer embarrassment during a sex ed class that had been forced on her. 

Luckily for these teachers, sex ed courses only occur once or twice a year at most. 

The problem is, U.S. schools don’t acknowledge that sex is a particular subject that requires several hours a year of instruction and a lot of finesse to teach effectively, not just throwing a novice like Miss Plum into the room with pictures of human genitalia behind her.  

It’s not surprising then that the pro-abstinence U.S. ranks high in studies for its annual numbers of teen births, abortions, and STDs compared to other nations like Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Germany with more liberal and specialized sex ed curriculums. A friend told me that they actually teach you how to put a condom on in the dark in the Netherlands. 

Personally, I find this approach far more interesting in comparison to the stiff and clinical style of teaching in America, which is doing more harm than good to its naturally curious youth. If you look at the teen birth rate in France, for example, it’s 22 per 1000 vs. 122.4 per 1000 in the United States.

French schools are required to provide at least two hours of sex ed for students ages 12-14, while students over 13 must attend 20 to 40 hours of sex ed workshops over a four-year-period. Biology teachers in France cover the biological aspects of development, and community specialists are invited to speak to students on more broad topics where they answer student questions. 

This lack of trained and specialized teachers for important subjects is also the case with physical education and art classes. Arias tells me that in Spain, physical education, music, and the visual arts are taught by teachers with advanced degrees, hired at schools to teach a set amount of classes per week. 

He remembers that in his California elementary school, PE was the responsibility of grade school teachers — some who weren’t in the best of shape — who had to find time to take the children out to exercise at sporadic times, and sometimes simply forgot about it.

“In Spain PE is a required course that’s not about high performance or creating the next Cristiano Ronaldo, but that includes theory and teaches you how exercise is going to improve your health,” says Arias. In general, European PE classes are far less focused on team competitions and winning than on an individual’s growth and development. 

For instance, according to the European Commission, Hungary teaches correct posture and breathing exercises, and Nordic countries teach map-making and other means of orienting oneself in a natural environment should you get lost in the woods one day

Europeans are required to study languages, Americans aren’t 

By now, we’ve all heard that speaking two or more languages makes you a better person; you’re more open-minded, culturally sensitive, and your brain works better than most monolinguals. 

European children are required to learn English as a second language, and 20 European countries also ask students to learn a second foreign language. Students in Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, and Spain, begin studying their first foreign language by the age of six, and Belgian children start learning a second language at the age of three, reports the Pew Research Center. 

Although the U.S. touts multiculturalism, most native-born Americans can only muster a ‘mi nombre es Samantha’ and a ‘merci beaucoup,’ but that’s the extent of their Spanish and French. There is no national requirement for students to learn a second language in the U.S., so, hey, why put oneself through all that grammar torture? 

As it turns out, this may be hurting a student’s future potential.  

Not only do studies show that being bilingual can help you score higher on tests and improve your globetrotting possibilities, but you´ll also cash in on your language skills. A U.S. study found that bilingual people tend to earn $3,000 per year more than monolinguals. 

I promise that if you apply any of these mind-expanding European techniques to your education, the football team captain would hate you all the more.