Is Schooling Around the World the Same? Classroom photos from France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Sweden and India

Do schools around the world show the same basic patterns of organization and instruction found in US schools and classrooms over the past 100 years? Larry Cuban explored this question in a series of speculative blog posts over the past few months. Cuban acknowledged the limitations of his unsystematic review of classroom photos he found on the internet, but Cuban’s reflections also serve as another opportunity to continue conversations about what has and hasn’t changed in schooling over time and across contexts. To that end, in this week’s post, Thomas Hatch pulls together some of Cuban’s observations and photos.

To what extent does the prevailing organization of the age-graded school and dominant teacher-centered way of instruction found in many U.S. public schools characterize schools and classrooms in other countries? Larry Cuban asked this question in a series of seven blog posts that began with Schooling in the U.S. and around the World (Part 1). He posed this question as one means of challenging his own observation of these patterns in the US, wondering, “perhaps I am incorrect because there are other ways to organize classrooms and teach elsewhere in the world of which I am ignorant. This latter possibility of my being unaware of other patterns in organizing schools and teaching approaches in other nations is one I want to explore. I may be incorrect in claiming these historic patterns of schooling and teaching in the U.S. are present in other nations.”

Subsequent posts then went on to describe the basic organization of education in France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Sweden, and India and a non-representative scan of online pictures of classrooms in each system. Cuban also shared responses from readers who had experience in schools in Russia, Japan, and France (Chemistry Lesson in Russian Secondary School (Mary Sue Burns); Japanese Classrooms: From Chaos to Complete Control (Mary DeVries); Teaching in a French School (Renee Z. Wang)

Cuban’s posts show photos with common images of students sitting in rows facing the front of a classroom:

Clockwise from top left: Sweden; Uttar Pradesh, India; Preschool in Japan (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama); 1st grade in Russia; secondary school classroom in Germany; Second grade classroom in France

Some of those posts also show photos that feature both the same classroom organization that dominated US classrooms throughout the 20th Century and the display or use of new technologies invented at the beginning of the 21st Century:

Schoolchildren listen to a teacher showing how to use “GraphoLearn”, an application on a digital tablet, to learn to read, in a primary school in Marseille, France & classroom use of technology used in a pilot project in India

Along with the pictures of students in sitting in rows around the world, an occasional picture shows students and teachers seated in a circle:

Sweden; India; Japan; Germany (Gordon Welters for The New York Times)

While acknowledging the short-comings of his approach and inviting readers to challenge his generalizations, Cuban concluded “…similarities are obvious:

  • Every nation compels parents to send their sons and daughters to school up to a decade or more.
  • Every one pays the costs for schooling either directly or indirectly.
  • Every one is age-graded.
  • Every one publishes national (or state) curriculum standards for each elementary and secondary school subject.
  • Every one tests student performance in elementary and secondary school subjects.
  • Every one has at least one teacher for each classroom.

Some are national (or federal) systems and some are state-operated with the federal government and states splitting funding and supervisory responsibilities. All of these nations and their states set curriculum standards for each subject and administer tests to determine if schools and students are meeting those standards.

Some nations have centralized systems (e.g., France, Russia, Italy, Japan) where ministry officials make decisions for schools and some are decentralized (e.g., Canada, U.S. Norway) with states and local districts having a moderate degree of discretion to alter what national authorities require. Whether centralized or decentralized, individual schools in every nation have some autonomy in adapting national or state curriculum when organizing for instruction. Need I add that once they close their classroom doors, teachers also exercise discretion in teaching the lesson they planned for the students in front of them that day.

What needs to be stressed that these commonalities among nations in establishing and operating systems of schooling over the past century exist side-by-side with inevitable within-nation variations between rural and urban and wealthy and poor schools that exist. Both commonalities and variations influence the schooling and teaching that occurs daily.”

For Cuban’s full posts see:

Schooling in the U.S. and around the World (Part 1)

Schooling around the World (Part 2)

Schooling around the World (Part 3)

Schooling around the World (Part 4)

Schooling around the World (Part 5)

Schooling around the World (Part 6)

Schooling around the World (Part 7)

Chemistry Lesson in Russian Secondary School (Mary Sue Burns)

Japanese Classrooms: From Chaos to Complete Control (Mary DeVries)

Teaching in a French School (Renee Z. Wang)

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