Tag Archives: School Organization

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)

Schooling around the World (from Larry Cuban)

This week, IEN reposts part 2 of a series of blog posts in which Larry Cuban reflects on the endurance of “two dominant patterns of organizing schools and teaching lessons” in the US: the age-graded school and “teacher-centered instruction.” In part 2, Cuban begins exploring whether the patterns he has seen in the US appear in other countries, in this case France. The original post appeared on Larry Cuban’s Blog on May 7th.

In Part 1, I asked the question whether or not the ways that U.S. schools have organized (i.e., the age-graded school) and the dominant ways that teachers teach in American classrooms (i.e., teacher-centered instruction) are unique to the U.S. So in a series of posts over the next few weeks, I will sample how different nations organize their systems of schooling and offer photos of classrooms and descriptions of lessons to see how actual students and teachers appear. 

The organization of schools in other countries and photos of lessons suggest a strong similarity to the U.S.’s age-graded structures and classroom organization. While diagrams of a nation’s schools are helpful to readers in getting a sense of how each country organizes their public schools and while snapshots do convey how classroom furniture is arrayed, the importance of wall clocks, and national flags, neither charts nor photos tell viewers the ways these teachers teach multiple lessons thereby revealing patterns in teaching. Finally, snapshots fail to show student learning since they capture a mere instant of what a class is doing. So charts and photos can inform but they have definite limits.

Another shortcoming to relying upon photos is that I may have used non-representative samples of a nation’s classrooms, given that I pulled photos from the Internet. But those photos are all I have at the moment. I do invite readers to offer other photos and text that challenge the generalizations I make about school structures, given the limited evidence I offer. 

In this post, I will focus on one country–France–and offer photos of “typical” public school classrooms over the past few years including the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

France has a centralized system of schooling for its 13 million students. A Ministry of Education establishes the curriculum for all levels of schooling and allocates both staff and funds to the 31 regions or academies headed by a rectuerresponsible to the national Ministry of Education. 

The historically high degree of uniformity in curriculum and instruction has lessened in recent years as the Ministry of Education has delegated to local regions, curricular discretion. Moreover, local variation in schooling and classroom lessons–Brittany in the northeast of France and Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea–Inescapably exists. 

In France, education is compulsory for children between the ages of three and 16 and consists of four levels:

Students are required to attend school from age six to sixteen. All schooling between kindergarten and university is free except for private schools where parents pay fees. Seventeen percent of French children attend private schools.

Schools open in September and end in June with two weeks of vacation every few months. Also, most French schools are open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesdays are often a half-day. The school day usually runs from eight AM to four PM. French students usually have over an hour for lunch and many go home to eat. 

Class sizes in public schools vary. For instance, in primary grades, one teacher and a teaching assistant typically will be in charge of 25 children; in secondary school, teachers commonly have 30 or more students.

Even with these similar features, there are differences in schooling across France (e.g., urban/rural, small/large schools, heavily immigrant/mostly middle and upper middle class, public/private). Thus, what some authorities call a “typical” lesson may simply be what they believe (or want to believe) is a common instance of classroom teaching. Readers should keep that in mind.

Here are a few photos of “typical” elementary and secondary classrooms in France. 

Second grade classroom
Secondary school classroom
During pandemic, students wearing protective masks sit in a classroom in a middle school in Bron, France (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)
Arabic-language students at the Claude Monet high school in Paris. Here, the teacher opens the lesson by using LinkedIn to show students how many jobs are open to them if they speak Arabic.Credit…Sara Farid for The New York Times
Some 12 million French children returned to school for the first day of the new academic year on September 2, 2021. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP
High School classroom Paris France
A classroom in Nice, southern France. (File photo/September 2020) © Reuters/Eric Gaillard
Students listen the teacher during the first day of school for the 2021-2022 year at Gounod Lavoisier’primary school, Lille, northern France, Thursday, Sept.2 2021. 
A teacher uses an interactive whiteboard in a classroom at Germaine Tillion primary school, on September 4, 2012 at the start of the new school year in Lyon, eastern France (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images).
Schoolchildren listen to a teacher showing how to use “GraphoLearn”, an application on a digital tablet, to learn to read, in a primary school on January 8, 2018 in Marseille, southern France. (Photo credit should read BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP via Getty Images)