At the heart of this study mission to Europe were the visits to schools, corporations, and apprenticeship training programs. The final two days provided us with new insights in each of these areas.
After Grade 10, German students are divided into those attending Realschules and Gymnasia. The former are designed for those planning on attending apprenticeship training programs (about half of all students) the latter for those preparing for university admission. In the final days of our tour, we had an opportunity for in-depth examinations of both.
First up was the Martin Behaim Gymnasium in Nuremberg, located in the state of Bavaria, which enjoys a reputation for administering the most demanding university-admission examinations, the abitur. Asked about selectivity, assistant principal Christoph Wagner explained that the school is not permitted to select but must accept any student in the top 33% of students finishing their elementary schooling at Grade four. The school specializes in what we would think of as STEM education — mathematics, chemistry, physics, and information technology.
The school enrolls about 830 students, with plans for a new building and expansion of enrollment by 50% in the next five years. Just about all students in Germany learn English, plus another language. In Grade 7 at this school, students decide whether to focus on science and mathematics or on languages — where they begin to learn a third language. That is to say, they learn a third foreign language. In addition to their native German, they are expected to study English, and another two languages selected from Franch, Italian, Spanish, and Latin.
Then it was off to visit two classrooms — a sixth-grade class in mathematics and a tenth-grade class in chemistry. In the sixth-grade class, an effervescent young teacher was clearly master the class and admired by the students. Arranged at desks in pairs, the students collaborated to complete worksheets on fractions, with varying levels of diligence and focus, while she checked in with several to coach, praise, and joke with them. The students were eager to try out their English on visiting Americans and many answered questions about their interests and the school with a fair amount of detail. Gloria Davis made it a point to visit each pair of students.
We noticed there were only 7 or 8 girls out of a class of 25, a proportion that was reflected in the school’s overall enrollment and that the assistant headmaster ascribed to girls’ having less interest in science and math generally. We were told during our visit that the school year is about 190 days, running from 8:00-1:00 generally, although the day might run longer, until 2:30 if students enroll in additional classes. The school year is broken into manageable segments, with a shorter summer vacation that is typical in American schools and two weeks off Christmas, Easter, Passover, and one-week breaks in the Fall and Spring.
Another group visited a tenth-grade chemistry class, where the instructor Matthew Beinhofer was introducing students to offered a relatively brief lecture on chemical reactions — particularly the interactions of various substances with acids. The curriculum called for his lecture to be followed by a hands-on test of the theory in a small lab, followed by presentation and discussion of the chemical structure of the two elements interacting.
Attached to the class of about 24 students was a small laboratory at which half of the students could work at a time, with small portable bunsen burners, which Chris Cross thought might be safer than the bunsen burners older Americans remember from high school. Beinhofer acknowledged that leaving half the students in the lecture room while half worked at the experiment was a bit of a challenge. He is obviously looking forward to the new facility with a promise of a more up–to-date lab.
Meanwhile, English teacher Lukas van Doren was a font of information on German schooling generally, responding knowledgeably to questions from Chris Cross of Four Points Education and Susan Givens, now at Masconomet schools in Massachusetts, destined shortly to take over as superintendent in SAU 31 in New Market, New Hampshire.
Then it was back to the briefing room, where Christopher Wagner was joined by principal Gabriel Kuehn (and physics teachers Donath Wolfgang and Dremel Wolfgang) to respond to our more general questions. At the conclusion of the visit, Susan Enfield (Highline, Washington) put her excellent public presentations on display by providing Herr Wagner and Frau Kuehn with gift bags, including school “swag” and memorial clocks from the Roundtable.