I recently returned from a trip to Germany sponsored by the Goethe Institute and Germany’s Central Agency for Schools Abroad. The focus of the trip was to learn about Germany’s vocational schools and training programs as well as to learn more about how they teach languages other than German. As with any international trip, especially one focusing on schools, there was much to learn. Here are a few lessons the U.S. school system can learn from Germany.

  • Germany’s approach to teaching languages is proactive for engaging with the rest of the world. Germans begin learning a second language (usually English) in elementary school. Often, they are learning a third or fourth language by the time they are in high school. Their school systems have embraced the critical language learning phase and begin some language immersion at the kindergarten or pre–K level.

    Vocational students working on a German lesson in a technical writing class. Photo credit by Erica Schnee.

  • Germany’s vocational schools prepare students to enter the workforce with a well-rounded foundation of skills. Germany is known for their vocational programming. Traditionally, students take classes two days a week and learn the theory of their vocational field, the language skills they’ll need to succeed in that field, as well as business skills. For the other three days a week, students earn money as apprentices in their chosen field. Historically, 90 percent of the German labor force went through the vocational program. While that has shifted in recent years, far more students still complete a vocational program versus attend a university. Additionally, today there is much more fluidity between the educational tracks and some students may attend university after completing a vocational program as well.
  • Germany embraces its role as a global partner. While visiting Berlin and Hamburg, I had the opportunity to interact with professionals in a wide range of positions from people working within the U.S. Consulate and working for German federal agencies to city education departments, school headmasters, and teachers. Every person we talked with mentioned the importance of connecting with other schools and countries as they develop policies and curriculum. Most schools we visited had partner schools in other countries, not only in name, but they were connected through projects and competitions. I was impressed with Germany’s proactive and collaborative approach to global challenges, as well as how they teach this process to students in all of their schools.
  • Germany plans for sustainability. As one walks the streets of any German city, you can’t help but notice the many ways Germans are environmentally conscious. Escalators appear broken until you approach and the sensor starts it up. Why should it run constantly when people are not using it? Your hotel room key is required to turn on the lights so that you can’t leave lights on all day wasting energy when you’re not there. Buildings display their energy usage, and even their Bundestag (national parliament) is designed to reduce energy use and rely on solar power.

Gymnasium students preparing a presentation on a German play. Photo credit by Erica Schnee.

While I embrace the continuous improvement cycle and think there are always things we can learn from others, there are also some things U.S. schools are doing well that German schools could consider exploring.

  • When I spoke with German students, they mentioned they liked the idea of electives and wished they had more choices in their schedule.
  • Schools in the United States spend a great deal of energy on the climate and culture of their buildings, which boosts students’ sense of being part of a community.
  • U.S. high schools often support students in a well-rounded manner, offering art, music, sports, and more as part of their curriculum and activities.

My most important takeaway is that we have a lot to learn from each other. Connecting individuals across borders is the best way to build a global community and share ideas to deal with global challenges and improve schools.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a global school exchange or learning program, I would encourage you to take advantage of the learning experience.

Erica Schnee is a nationally board-certified teacher who has been a high school educator for the past 22 years. She is currently an assistant principal at Bozeman High School and she teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics for the Montana Digital Academy. Erica has participated in the State Department’s Teachers for Global Classrooms program, Global Education Allies’ East Africa program and has been fortunate to visit schools around the world. She is the 2018 Montana Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @MsSchneeGov.

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