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Monday, October 6, 2014

The Austrian School System and Culture

Hello from Vienna, Austria! I have spent the last two Mondays as an English teacher in a second grade classroom at the Offene Volksschule Märzstraße. This is a public elementary school in the 14th district of Vienna. My class consists of 22 Austrian students, most of whom speak very little English. Conveniently I know very little German, so it has been an adventure learning to find a middle ground in which to teach and communicate with my students.

I am lucky enough to be participating in a course alongside my practicum. This course is taught by a woman named Heidi, who taught in the Austrian school system for 30 years and who has become an Austrian mom to all of us participating in the practicum experience. Before we started at our placements, we learned about the Austrian school system and cultural differences in the schools. One of the major differences is that the Austrians are very open. Students (particularly secondary students) will ask you very personal questions that would seem highly inappropriate in an American classroom, and teachers are allowed to answer them honestly and openly. Additionally, grades are announced to the class so that all students know what grades other students received. One other difference we talked about is the open frame curriculum. Teachers have a broad frame of topics the students need to have mastered by the end of the year, but they can go about accomplishing those goals however they please. This means that is a lesson does not go the way it was planned Austrian teachers go with the flow and let the course change paths as long as in the end the students are learning the material. In someways I see similarities in this in the American school system. But overall, I feel like at home teachers feel pressured to stick to a schedule and that they are always falling behind what they are supposed to be doing or teaching if a day of class does not go as planned. Lastly, a cultural difference that I found very interesting was the idea that cheating is not entirely frowned upon. If a teacher catches you, you will be penalized. But, teachers accept that students will inevitably cheat and see it as teamwork and helping out someone who you know is not as strong in one subject as you are. This mentality is far different then the attitude towards cheating in the United States.

The first thing that stood out to me when I observed the Austrian classroom was the effect of Austrian culture on the culture of the classroom.The Austrians are very neat and clean people (as reflected in Vienna's always clean and well organized streets and public transportation). This came through first thing when I saw the organization of the classroom. Students come in and first thing change into different shoes for the school day (mostly crocs and birkenstocks). Then they each have a place to hang their jacket in a cubby. The two person desks are organized in rows. Each student has a hook next to their desk to hang their backpack. I think this is an awesome idea and makes access to backpacks much easier then if they were in a cubby. At each desk the student has a big place mat they brought in from home. This is great for when they have art and then each student is responsible for cleaning off their own mat using a sponge from the sink and little brushes they have to sweep away dust. This brings me to the difference I noticed the most in the classroom. In Austria there is a lot of trust and responsibility given to the people. For example, the public transportation system is very convenient and well run. But it is run on the  honor system. So you do not need to scan a ticket every time you go in the underground. They just expect you to be truthful and buy a ticket and not just ride for free. While they do make checks for tickets every once and a while when you get off the train, there is a huge amount of trust and responsibility given to the people. This attitude is reflected in the classroom. Students are very independent. Teachers do not do as much disciplining as they do in the United States, so students can get a little more rowdy or physical with each other. But, because the students are given the freedom to act as they want, they respect when it is time to stop and they respond very well when teachers do discipline students. Boundaries are set and are left to be respected rather then constantly reinforced, and students react well to this culture. Lastly, Vienna is and has always been centered around the arts. This value for the arts shines through in the school system. Each student has an art box with their individual supplies in the classroom. They frequently have art lessons and sing everyday in the classroom. This emphasis on the arts is an area in which I can see that American schools would like to have the same enthusiasm, but frequently lack the funding and support.
So far I have been loving my experience in the classroom and seeing the affect on culture on the schools and the differences between American and Austrian school culture. I am excited to continue to get to know my students, my CT, and my school! Auf Wiedersehen!


  1. Hi Lauren!

    Your course sounds really helpful and interesting! I would love to have something like it! It would be great to learn more about the country's schools in general. It sounds like you are with other student teachers, is that right? Are they in the same school as you and do you have to work together at all? Also, you said the teachers have a broad frame of topics to teach from. Do they teach the same subjects that we are used to in the US (math, reading, writing, science, etc.) or how do they differ? Cannot wait to hear more about your experience!


  2. Lauren! Your blog about the Austrian school system is so fascinating to me. That's really cool that you had a course to go along with your practicum experience to prepare you, and it sounds like it did just that. You're really fortunate to have had that opportunity! It must be really interesting to be in a class that is so open, especially coming from America where we are so private about grades and personal lives, etc. I really like the idea of the open frame curriculum because it gives some leniency to the teachers. Compared to America's strict curriculums, which do you prefer? And have you come across any challenges due to the language barrier? Sounds like you're having a great time. Enjoy!

  3. Hi Lauren,
    Wow it sounds like you are having an incredible time in Austria! I agree with the others, the course that you are taking is so fascinating to me and I'm very jealous of it. I am currently in a Spanish school and I feel like I can never get a straight answer of what the school system is aside from what I see in my teaching experiences.
    The concept of cheating in your school seems so different to me. I'm wondering if you agreed with the fact that cheating is like "teamwork" or not? To me, in the United States cheating is not only frowned upon but it leads to very serious consequences. I feel like cheating can be an opportunity to learn from your peers, but do you think it would be better to have individual exams and then group exams? Do you feel like the students take advantage of other students who know more than them? Like I said this is very interesting to me and I'm just wondering how it works.
    Also, the open curriculum that you wrote about seems like it probably takes a lot of adjustment. On the one hand, it gives teachers more of an opportunity to teach how they want to teach, and on the other it probably makes it difficult for teachers to have a realistic way to measure how close they are to reaching their goals. Do teachers talk to each other a lot and try to stick to a similar time table or do they really all do it on their own?
    Anyway, I hope you continue to have a great time!


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