There is a report in the Guardian this morning on the sorry state of primary school education in Britain. This is one of those cases where I found my culture shock at moving to the UK to be the greatest: they have a completely different idea of what schooling means, both in primary and secondary school, and it’s probably at least partly related to a University system that has so little to do with an American university that it’s not recognizable. I truly was not expecting such immense philosophical differences in the field of education, nor have I been able to be convinced since being here that the English system is a particularly effective one when it comes to true teaching and learning. It involves specialization at a very young age and lots of stressful examinations, which is one of the key points in the Guardian piece.
For background for those unfamiliar with the English system, the end of a “general” education is at age 16, as the years from 16-18 involve detailed studying of only three or four subjects, and in the area in which you will major at University. University has no “general education” element, which results in a 3-year instead of 4-year Bachelors degree. I am not questioning the qualifications of these students compared with American degrees, but the philosophy is just so different that I have a difficult time comprehending. (Perhaps one or more of my friendly British readers will provide some commentary, especially those cases where both systems have been experienced directly!)
One of the most pressing issues in all of this is the UK’s emphasis on examinations. I can honestly say that there were only a few times in my life where I had a reasonably stressful examination, all above the age of 15 or 16 and never for more than a day: the PSAT, which determines a scholarship for University, the ACT, which determines part of Uni entrance competitiveness, and the GRE for grad school admissions. We had standardized testing in the schools, but it was not stressful, at least not for me (who knows what the teachers felt!) I don’t feel as though the student body in general was particularly fussed about these exams, it merely represented a day in which we did not have our normal classes at the normal times.
My views of my American education are quite positive. The emphasis on learning instead of examining meant that we had far more of our total outcome for any subject based on projects, reports, take-home examinations where libraries could be consulted and the overall level of creative thinking was high. Exams were one small part of the picture, at all levels including high school and University. And the broader curriculum meant that I was able, as a science/math geek, to still take English literature, Russian language and literature, psychology and sociology as subjects at University level, even though technically they have nothing to do with my Engineering degree. How less broad my education would have been without that needed diversion and distraction from purely math and physics! And how better prepared I was for working in the real world, where outcomes in jobs are most certainly not evaluated by formal seated examinations!
I do not mean to cause offense by criticizing a system that is not my own. But I put this out there because I am honestly having a difficult time understanding the merits of this heavy testing schedule for children, and clearly I’m not alone–as is reflected in the Guardian piece–since the criticism for testing children so much is now reaching fever pitch. I had a casual conversation with a friend a few weeks ago in which she said that if she had kids she would have to leave the UK, as she could not subject them to this system. I had not thought of it in quite such stark terms (not having or planning on kids myself) but I could see her point, and it came back to me in reading this Guardian piece right now. It brings up broader philosophical points too: what is the role of education, and how does that role change in primary school, secondary school and University-level education? My own grandparents only went through American “8th grade” living out in the wilderness of southwestern Minnesota, although they did supplement their educations several times each later in life. It’s clear that with the passage of time, over the last 50 years especially but 100 years as well, that the importance of University education has increased, which has increased the pressure on students at younger ages to consider their competitiveness for Uni admissions. But at what point do we have to stop and say that up until the age of 18, we are still dealing with CHILDREN here, and take some of the pressures off to allow for the enjoyment of freedom that one never sees again with the commencement of one’s working days?