A Swiss Perspective

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By guest contributors Reto Simonet and Tim Aebersold

Illustration by Naomi Hawsley

For three weeks in late October and early November, a high school class from the Enge Canton School in Zürich, Switzerland visited Lowell. Nine Lowell juniors, who will be able to visit Switzerland this summer through the exchange program, hosted these guests and showed them around the school and the city.

The aim of this exchange is to strengthen the collaborative relationship between Zürich and San Francisco as sister cities, as well as provide all participants with extensive insights into a society different from their own. In turn, this will allow them to perceive the relative strengths and weaknesses of the countries they live in.

To explore this cultural exchange, we interviewed Swiss exchange student Leon Weill about his two-week experience staying in the United States. We used this opportunity to specifically ask him about the differences between the education systems of the two countries.

What were your expectations before coming to the United States? Were they met?

First of all, I expected there to be more cars than in Europe. This expectation was obviously met. There is so much traffic around here, and freeways with five lanes! I also expected everything to be bigger than in Europe, but I haven’t really found this to be the case here in San Francisco, although other parts of the country might look different.

Something that I already knew about before coming here is the size of American meals. They are ridiculously big! Other than that, I didn’t expect much to be different than in Switzerland.

What major differences between the United States and Switzerland have you noticed so far?

A major difference is that in the United States, people are interacting more openly in public. Strangers like to chat casually. It took me by surprise when a cashier asked me how I was doing for the first time. Generally, I think that openness is a great characteristic for a society to have, but sometimes people seem a bit superficial and don’t make the impression as if they are really interested in you, but rather want to please you. This is very different in Switzerland. Over there, people are more reserved when they are with people they don’t know.

Swiss exchange students and Lowellites share a meal in the Mission. Photo courtesy of Ana Vucic

In Switzerland and Europe in general, there isn’t much going on on Sundays. Shops are mostly closed and traffic or crowded streets on a Sunday are very unlikely, which is different here. Everything is open on Sundays, and the risk of being stuck in traffic has to be considered.

Something else that is remarkable is an eating culture different from ours. We always take time for our meals. When going to a restaurant, it takes us much longer because we stay after finishing the meal to talk. Here, people immediately leave after eating. A good example for this is our lunch break, which is at 12:15 p.m. and is always exactly two hours so we can take our time to eat properly and relax a bit afterwards. In contrast to Lowell, we aren’t allowed to eat in class.

I think it’s a pity that public transport is not a priority in American society. The network in San Francisco, an urban environment, is underdeveloped and the the trains are often overcrowded and too late. The fact is that in intersections, most often, cars instead of public transport vehicles have the right of way, which really represents this sentiment. As a result, traffic is less predictable than in Europe and young people are limited in their freedom of movement.

What are the biggest differences between Lowell High School and your school?

In contrast to Lowell High School, we have a different schedule for each day of the week. This has some advantages and disadvantages.

In Switzerland, you don’t have the opportunity to choose what classes to take, but instead take the same ones as everybody else and go to every class with the same people. This means that you know fewer people, but you know them better and less superficially.

Would you like to be able to choose what classes to take?

No. The school has experience and a long-term vision of what the students should learn until they graduate and know what the universities expect from their new entrants. I think sacrificing the option to choose fun classes for having a guarantee to receive a well-rounded education without gaps is well worth it. When choosing classes as a freshman, it is not possible to know what academic direction you want to head for later on in life, so you might miss choosing classes that would have been useful for you.

Resplendent in its modernity, the Enge Canton School is located in Zürich, Switzerland. Photo courtesy the Enge Canton School

Other than that, what do you think is better about American schools and what do you think is better about Swiss schools?

At Lowell, and most likely other American high schools, the students have to be more self-reliant. In my opinion, this is a very good aspect, as it trains students better in taking responsibility and staying determined. To add to that, everybody can work at his own pace. In Switzerland, on the other hand, we spend more time in school and less time doing homework for ourselves.

I also think that the student-run clubs are something we should integrate into our schools. This doesn’t just provide the opportunity to connect with people with similar interests, but also makes students learn important skills like leadership, responsibility and teamwork.

In Switzerland, and most of Europe, extracurricular activities like sports are mostly organized in clubs instead of schools, which means that they often take place far away and at inconvenient times. Because of this, the American model makes sports more accessible than the European one and allows students to be academically successful and good at sports at the same time. The downside to this is that the sports teams are performing on a very high level, which means that less ambitious people don’t have good access to exercise “just for fun.”

A negative aspect of the U.S. education system I noticed is that the focus is very much on learning details and small things instead of understanding the broader picture. Lectures most often consist of teachers rapidly talking about some aspects of a problem or situation, while making sure that everybody is able to comprehend the context of it seems to be less of a priority. In the United States, classes tend to be similar to lecturing at a university. The Swiss education system emphasizes projects, discussions and solving tasks in groups.

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To add to that, students’ intellectual input in class is less relevant here. In Switzerland, there are more discussions in class, in which students can state their own opinion and defend it if possible. Students are often reminded that sometimes the truth is not simple or clear and that there are many standpoints to view a problem, and that they always have to think critically and independently.

Because classes are smaller than in the United States and students have to take most classes for three or four years, the relationship between students and teachers is much more binding. Teachers go into individual needs and provide more help.

I also don’t like the multiple-choice tests. One gets a feeling that the education is designed to be efficient instead of valuing the work of different individuals!

What do you prefer, a daily routine of classes like here or a weekly routine with a different schedule every weekday like in Switzerland?

This most likely depends on personal preference, but I like a weekly routine more. If I chose a class I didn’t like, I would have to go there every single day! In a weekly routine, classes can sometimes last up to an hour and 30 minutes, which is great to get work done. On the other hand, a daily routine is better for learning languages, as a lot of short repetitions of hearing and talking a foreign language is better for learning than longer but fewer periods. With the same classes five times per week, the time frames for homework can be very short.

In which aspects is our school more strict and in which less strict?

At Lowell there definitely is more homework than at our school and it gets controlled frequently. Because the pace of lectures in class is high, people talk little. Weirdly enough, eating is permitted in class.