Student Voices: Talking Education in the Swiss Alps

A sleepy morning starts another day of school in the Swiss Alps.

Nine students in their final semester of high school, the teacher, a visitor to the school, and me, seated around tables that make a rectangle in the room.

The teacher invited us, the visitor and me, because he knows we’re interested in how we do school. That’s the topic today. The students have watched a film about homeschooling. The teacher suggests an open discussion, an informal Socratic Seminar. We’ll see how it goes.

We start with the tried and true. Homeschooling might be good for academics but might not be so good for socializing. I can almost hear homeschoolers the world over starting to protest, but that is often the discussion, isn’t it? The either/or mentality we often get trapped in. But these students are just warming up.

A girl to the right of me suggests there should be more time outside of the classroom. Time literally outside, outside the building. Not inside “like traditional schools.” The school offers two cultural trips, one week each, during the academic year. She says these trips are great, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a weekly something or other that is outside, that is in the community. Ahhh, indeed. I think about how challenging it would be for most schools to make this adjustment. Being outside just doesn’t fit the schedule, the rules, the syllabus. You’d have to tear a few things down to make way for a new build, so to speak.

And then the student to the left of me makes the argument that students need to be given the experience to work by themselves, to do their own labs, to be in charge. She is singing my tune. She compares her experience now to what she remembers from her previous school, where students weren’t given much freedom, where the teacher was an authority figure beyond reproach.

The teacher in this class has heard students making comparisons to their previous schools before.  He picks up on this theme. “How is it different here?” A student jumps in quickly. “It’s a thousand times better.” He lists the variety of experiences that are available, he mentions the benefit of boarding school. Another student confirms that there are a number of academic choices. He mentions, however, that the international standardized curriculum, in this case the International Baccalaureate, can be limiting, too. “You have to follow the given curriculum that every student has to do.” The room gets quieter and some students nod thoughtfully.

I love how the teacher listens to the students. All three of us teachers in the room have been doing a good job of staying silent. The teacher often responds to a long comment with a “Mmmm.” This invites the students to keep the conversation going. “The system is made to keep you as a sheep,” one student comments about her school experience in her home country. She relates how mistakes, at this school, are opportunities to learn. How this school is opening up lots of possibilities. She is thinking about jobs and future choices. If I asked her, I bet she would also say that the day-to-day options are much more fluid here. A student from another European country lists the classes that aren’t offered in her country, there are new opportunities here.

We move on to assessment, or perhaps we return to the idea of learning through making mistakes. Teachers here allow students to redo work to get a better grade. Why not, after all? I imagine a teacher saying “No, you can’t redo that work, please stop learning.” I can also think of teachers that would argue that students need to learn to get things right the first time, that they need to learn discipline, yada yada in my opinion, to be frank. But there are plenty of teachers out there who think like this, and there is merit in that line of thought.

It’s so rewarding to listen to a good student discussion (and its complement, to watch teachers keep themselves out of the conversation). When we hear students voice their opinions we learn about them, from them, and with them. As I’m thinking about this, the teacher mentions a student survey from the past. Some students wanted more time to talk, probably like class today. And some wanted the teacher to talk more. 

I’m reminded of the study at MIT, if I remember correctly, in which students professed they learned more from lecture, but, in a controlled study, those same students actually learned more in groups. Perhaps a certain number of students would like the teacher to talk more to take the responsibility for learning off their own shoulders? Is lecture the easier path, one that requires less heavy lifting, and therefore preferred? Or do we have a bias for the expertise of the teacher over our peers? One of my university students once audibly groaned when I introduced a new topic by having students share in groups what they already knew, what their own experiences were. She wanted to hear it from me. 

“I wish we could vote on the books we have to read,” says one student. “If we were given a list and we could choose as a class.” Well yeah! Why not?! (Ok, I know about syllabi and teacher planning and inertia and all that.) But really, why not set up learning with more student choice? We’d have to adjust how we structure things, but we might get more motivation … and more learning. Isn’t that what we’re after? 

“How do you grade art?” Ah, that’s so nicely provocative. I would add “Why do you grade art?” A student extends my thinking with a laugh: “Then maybe you can’t grade English.” I love these students. Why do we grade English? How much is inertia, how much is supporting learning, how much is passing the buck? (“The universities want grades.”) I’m so interested here I want to jump into the conversation. The words are sticking in my throat, I feel them, I clear my throat in fact. I start bouncing my knees. But the teacher is so good at keeping himself out of this, who am I to jump in? And as I contain this feeling a student who hadn’t contributed to the conversation yet lays out a new argument. Brilliant of him. I almost stepped in and took that opportunity away. Close call. I just keep bouncing my knees, but now I’m feeling a little smug.

The conversation about art, and how you evaluate it, has gotten philosophical. We are still collectively wondering about how one grades art. We’ve talked less about the purpose of grading. It would be nice to hear more about that. Our visitor contributes for the first time. A student loses no time in disagreeing with her, followed by another student who disagrees with the disagreeing student. All very polite. Respectful. 

I’m going to end with these questions for you:

How would you grade this 45-minute conversation the students just had? Would it be appropriate to grade? There has been a lot of learning, I’m sure of it, and I bet the students and teachers would agree there has been a lot of learning. But assigning this experience a grade? What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Student Voices: Talking Education in the Swiss Alps”

  1. As a retired English instructor, I appreciate your vote for the Socratic method in the classroom. It seems to me like a halfway point between traditional teaching (teacher opens up the tops of students’ heads and pours the teachers’ knowledge into the students’ brains) and the seminar method described here. I used it for years in the classroom and found that some prep beforehand (required reading, an experiment, personal writing, small group Zoom discussion) arouses students’ desire to engage and enhances the discussion.

    it was so hard, when I started using the seminar method, to let go of the reins and let students do the talking. To control my urge to jump in at peak moments in the discussion, I would write down what I wanted to say, instead of blurting it out. I consoled myself with the thought that I could say whatever I felt was necessary at the end of the seminar. But to my chagrin, it turned out that the students inevitably had covered the ideas I was so anxious for them to imbibe. Giving students the space to discover ideas independently, rather than have the teacher spoon feed them, was one of the most humbling, eye-opening awarenesses of my teaching career.

  2. Not every experience requires a grade. Learning is incremental. How many increments did each of these students gain? Learning is process and is personal and organic. My experience is to adapt the Socratic method and emphasize the experiential aspects of the engagement.

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