Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Some years ago, my husband, two young children and I relocated from West London to the San Francisco Bay Area. Excited (but very apprehensive) for my 7 year old son B to start second grade at his new school, we arrived nice and early on the first day. I was surprised to see the classroom door already open. Other parents were wandering freely in and out with their children, chatting casually to the teacher as though they were great friends. There was no lining up at the door and tearful prising off of children from parents. If children were reluctant to say goodbye, parents were encouraged to hang around at the back of the classroom for a while before slipping out. The whole “drop off” process at this Californian public charter school seemed so informal and flexible compared to the strict policies and routines at B’s old state primary school in London.
This relative informality was evident in many other different ways - the students were always referred to as “kids”, never children. There was a uniform (unusual for the US) but it was incredibly casual, a polo shirt and chinos with a hoodie of your choice over the top. Discipline seemed extremely lax - the kids were often interrupting their teachers, usually without being too heavily rebuked. Lessons often seemed somewhat chaotic. I knew this because parents were allowed, often even required, to get involved in assisting and even teaching some lessons themselves. The focus on English and Math, while clearly considered important, seemed less rigorous than back home. My son never mastered the cursive handwriting taught in American schools and so continued to print sloppily through Fourth Grade (and indeed beyond!). At every opportunity, the school promoted experiential learning and cross-curricular projects, as well as the development of public speaking through poster presentations. There was a lot of music and sport, and particular importance given to the teaching of playing fair and losing well during playground games. Above all, if there was a problem (no matter what kind), teachers would readily give their time to discuss it at length.
Although there was so much that we loved about this school, I couldn’t help but worry about the academic standards. However, I comforted myself by thinking that when we returned to London three years later there would be time for my son to catch up before he went through the demanding process of the “11+” entrance exams (a necessary process to attend a grammar school or independent secondary school under the UK system).
Imagine my discomfort when I realised on our triumphant return to B’s old school in the UK that my memories had been somewhat rose tinted. I bristled to find that I couldn’t speak to my children’s new teachers ahead of the first day of school, and when I realised that no one was interested in properly understanding the extent of the transition they had made and how it might impact them individually. The closed doors policy meant that I never once was able to witness a class in action but my son complained that the only subjects they studied were English and Maths and even those in such an unimaginative way - it was all endless spelling words and times tables. The discipline system was a complicated process of escalating steps that didn’t encourage any motivation for self-redemption, nor allow for grey areas or discussion. In our absence, the school had introduced a tie to the school uniform, worn by even the youngest children, which seemed absurd to me. The world was run by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg who never wore anything but a T-shirt, why were we making our 4 year olds dress like mini-bankers? And the ugly requisite black shoes! All these things that I had not questioned before, the things that seemed “necessary”, now appeared constraining, unimaginative, stuck in the past. Worst of all, everyone else around me was clearly perfectly happy with it! Obviously I was suffering from a classic case of “reverse culture shock”. Somehow, without me realising it, I had adapted so successfully to my Californian life that I had come to internalise the American values embodied in the US education system.
The UK scores highly in the cultural dimension of “individualism” as devised by the late Dutch social psychologist Hofstede, but the US can claim the title of most individualist country in the world. In American schools, learning how to express yourself is more important than correct spelling, at least in the early years, and teachers are allowed to use their personal favourite methods of teaching. American society was founded by people looking for a second chance in life and their education system embodies this deep rooted cultural belief. In exact contrast to the UK system, breadth rather than depth of learning is favoured - mistakes can be made along the way because it is believed that there is time enough to specialise and perfect later on. Well-roundedness is valued highly, as is problem solving and creative thinking. Unlike the UK there is less of a belief in the importance of a social hierarchy, so the relationships between students and teachers (and parents and teachers) is far more casual. According to Trompenaars’ model of national cultures, US culture assigns greater meaning to the present and the future than the UK, whereas the UK assigns greater meaning to the past. Those particular differences in attitude are certainly evident in the education system, where in Britain so much value is placed on long standing traditions (those ties!). In contrast, American schools focus more on the way their students are being trained to shape the future.
Our time in the US made me realise that education the world over is concerned with the process of ‘enculturating’ children by osmosis, that is socialising children into their respective cultures by reinforcing the values that are most prized in that society. As Erin Meyer explains in her excellent book The Culture Map, education systems around the world differ in whether they favour an ‘applications first’ or a ‘principles first’ method of teaching. For all their differences, American and British schools both prefer the former. This means that in a maths class, for example, you would first learn the formula and practice applying it, then learn the concept or principle behind it. On the other hand, school systems in Latin Europe, Germanic countries and Latin America prefer to use the latter method. In this approach, more time is spent focusing on the theories behind a principle and less time on the actual application of it. This actually leads to a different communication style when it comes to persuading others of your argument. From school essays to corporate power point presentations: Anglo-Saxon cultures tend to grab attention with the most important facts first, and then fill in the details later. Latin Europeans will more likely take considerable time to outline the concept first and then lead up to the main point.
Explore what “a good education” means to you
Be aware of potential differences if you are moving your children from one national school system to another (or even from one international school to another, since they all differ in the extent of their alignment to national systems). Of course, there are good schools and bad schools in every country, but how you perceive “a good education” depends on your particular cultural perspective as well as individual opinion. Be sure to reflect on your own values before looking at schools.
Seek out intercultural training as well as school-finding assistance
If you are relocating and are lucky enough to be offered intercultural training as part of your relocation package don’t hesitate to take it up, as this service can be invaluable in helping you to prepare and process your experiences - even when repatriating. School search advice/education consultancy is also hugely helpful and relieves a lot of stress from a practical perspective but an additional awareness of the cultural piece puts everything into context.
Don’t underestimate how living abroad may impact you!
And don’t forget that a stint in another country and culture may have influenced what you feel is best for your children more than you have realised!
The Culture Map - Erin Meyer
Riding the Waves of Culture - Fons Trompenaars
Cultures and Organizations – Hofstede
CleverLands by Lucy Crehan – this is the book to read if you’re interested in finding out more about different education systems around the world
FIGT (www.figt.org) - a fantastic membership organisation for expat families
Polly has an MSc in Cross-Cultural Psychology and is a certified intercultural trainer (Crossing Cultures with Competence/The Interchange Institute). She assists relocating families in her work for Parental Choice (www.parentalchoice.co.uk), an agency set up to enhance employee wellbeing.