Last year, I had the opportunity to study abroad on a scholarship program funded by the Department of State and the German Parliament. Before leaving the country, I tried my best to negotiate transfer-credits, so my school year in Germany would not go to waste. I was unsuccessful, and while I was unhappy with this outcome, it ended up being for the best. The foundational difference between the education systems was just too large, and I was not able to adapt quick enough to a new learning system. The differences between the American and German education systems1 have their respective advantages and disadvantages and cater to different types of learners.
A typical Gymnasium classroom looks like this:
The first difference can be found within the atmosphere of the school environment. An American high school is typically locked throughout the day, and one needs a visitor’s pass to tour the school. Students are expected to remain at school all day, which makes sense because classes are usually from around 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. A German Gymnasium (high school equivalent) reflects more of a college-learning environment. There are oftentimes multiple buildings, unlocked throughout the day, a pavilion, and student centers, which in my personal situation stood as its own building. For me, there were four possible classes a day, but most often students would only have three. This resulted in many opens throughout the week, and therefore students left the school on their bicycles constantly. Additionally, the German course schedules are set up differently. Classes on Monday are not the same as classes on Tuesday, and classes on Tuesday are not the same as Wednesday’s classes, and so forth. Students are expected to select two Leistungskurse (majors/advanced courses), which they would have 5 hours per week instead of the normal 3 hour per week class. This results in a much more student-chosen learning experience, and although American high schools offer a higher amount of variety in electives, Gymnasiums can tailor their subjects to the individual.
The testing and grading systems are the most different aspects of the two systems. In the US, grades are evaluated on an A-F and 100-0 scale. In Germany, there isn’t one alphabetical scale and one numerical scale; they are both numerical. A-F translates to 1-6 in Germany, and it is measured on a 15-1 scale (15 points would result in a 1+, while 1 point gives 6-). In Germany, the distribution of grades is much more even. 1’s are few, while 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s are abundant. 5’s and 6’s also have their fair share of students. In the US, the majority of students are in the A and B area, with some C’s, and very few D’s and F’s. This curve might be a result of the way in which tests are given. American tests are usually multiple-choice, with some short answers; German tests are not2. A typical German exam would have around three questions that would need to be answered in an essay format. The length of one such exam would be 7-12 pages. A typical question on a German biology exam, for example, could be:
Differentiate between the two metabolism procedures3, phagocytosis and pinocytosis, bearing in mind exocytosis (short explanation), and at the same time differentiating between active and passive metabolism.
If tests freak students out, in Germany there’s an opportunity to take a class mündlich, or orally, instead. This means throughout the year, the student will take no tests and will only be graded on how active they were during class, e.g. how often they raised their hand, how accurate their responses were, etc. For students that decide to take tests, there are four per year, and even for them, 50% of their grade is determined by mündlich participation. This is wholly different to the American system where tests are usually every 2-3 weeks and participation is around 5-10% of the final grade.
Clearly, the two systems pan to different forms of learners. While the more elective-open and multiple-choice American system focuses on memorization, being able to solve problems quickly, and retaining information from a wide set of subjects, the specialized German system emphasizes explanations, learning concepts holistically, and developing writing abilities. Depending on the learner, one of these systems may be preferential to the other. One thing is certain: transitioning from one to the other is no easy task.