Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 9, 2014 - Bremen, Germany. By Zachary Riffell.

Education is linear. At least, in the United States it is linear. At least in the United States education is linear. Understanding the German education system, including the dual track system especially, is complicated by this American understanding as Germans do not see education as a strictly linear process.

There are different levels of education in Germany to be sure, just as there are different levels in the United States. Perhaps the difference really lies in the American progression that assumes both a starting point and an ending point while the German system simply has a starting point. Individuals will eventually stop formal education at some point in Germany, but it is not an arbitrary point when the student reaches 18 years of age or grade 12 or a college degree.

When we participated in our first lecture with Prof. Dr. Michael Gessler, we reviewed the myriad components of the system. Dr. Gessler prepared a diagram that attempted to elucidate the complexities of the system here as best he could on a simple piece of paper. We saw many names and the places where programs overlap. We asked questions for clarification and felt we understood the ins and outs of the system that has evolved over hundreds of years. We were a bit naïve.

To be fair, we did not know the questions to ask because we did not know we did not understand the diagram. We were still trying to understand the system, and the society that spawned it, by drawing analogs between it and the American system. Few such analogs exist. I was unaware of this truth, and I flipped the paper over and attempted to create such a chart for American schools and found that it was quite easy.  My diagram was a straight line where some names of program overlapped. Termination points varied, but the path was mostly the same. If a student diverges from the initial path, they are now on a new path with a new termination point.

Dr. H.J. Strauch, Headmaster of the Wilhelm-Wagenfeld
Schule, and other school staff with the CWE group.
The German system does have a University where the purpose mirrors that of the Universities in the United States. Admission to the program requires participation in Gymnasium where students participate in traditional classroom instruction built around liberal education. These students do not participate in the dual track component of the German education system. This much we understood as we visited Wilhelm Wagenfeld Schule on Tuesday.

At the school we had the opportunity to sit with a group of Gymnasium students in their English class. These students were very articulate, bright students participating in the college-preparatory track of the German system. I asked two of them what they were going to do next. It was not a specific question, but after hearing their answers (and being surprised by them), I realized that I had a specific answer in mind. I expected to hear, “I am going to college to major in XXXXXX.” Instead, the young man told me he was going to go to Berufsschule in order to obtain an (and here he had to look up the word) apprenticeship.

He pointed to the nice diagram I had with me to make sure I understood where he was going next. With little to no tact, I blurted, “But isn’t that going backward?” You see, Gymnasium sits beneath University on the diagram I had in hand. Berfufsschule sits to the left of Gymnasium. Even if such a step were not backward, it was at the very least lateral.

Dual system students explaining their projects.
“No,” he replied, though the look on his face showed how confused he was with my question. “I am going here to get an apprenticeship and learn a trade.” This notion that all work is valuable and worth training is the very reason I am so fond of the dual-track system. I wanted him to know this, so I immediately said, “That’s great. Then you can go work.” Again, his face showed his confusion over my conclusions. “No, then I will go to University.” “Oh, Universitär?” I asked, pleased I knew a word (though my pronunciation made him wrinkle his face again).

Universitär, as I could see on the handy diagram, is the University of Applied Sciences (I will need to double-check this during the round-table discussion). It only made sense that he would use his apprenticeship to then pursue further studies in applied sciences. Right? “No,” he replied again.

At this point I just nodded my head and confessed I just didn’t get it. The problem is that I was looking at it from the standpoint of an American. In the United States, the certificate you receive matters. You keep pressing forward in hopes of “improving” the letters behind your name. In Germany, this kid (I use the term loosely here as he seemed to get much more about education than I do) wanted to learn how to do something. Where he learned it or what his certificate ultimately proved to be was not important. Learning a trade was not beneath him. He had intentions of going to University, but only once he had earned a trade and going to University would help him.

Growing up, I always just knew that you go to college. High school graduation was not enough. I did what was expected of me. In college I just took classes. With 6 semesters down, I went to a guidance counselor to ask what I was closest to graduating in. She told me English, so I graduated 2 semesters later with a degree in English. After graduation I built cabinets and waited tables because I didn’t know how to do anything else (and even at these I was pretty bad). Something tells me this kid, and many thousands more like him, will not have such a problem.
Zachary Riffell is Project Manager of Advanced Career at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, GA.
He is also a doctoral student in career and workforce education at the University of South Florida.