Business ABC’s: Education
Education (noun): The process of teaching or learning, especially in a school or college, or the knowledge that you get from this. (dictionary.cambridge.org)
Here we are again…if it’s Friday, it must be „The ABC’s of Business“, this time sponsored by the letter „e“. E as in education. Education as in, the bedrock of what we bring with us into our professional lives after anywhere from 10-20+ years of hitting the books (and the snooze button on early morning alarms) and willing our eyes to stay open during lectures or lessons on topics whose relevance may or may not have anything to do with our future professional moving and shaking.
Education is a very broad topic that can credibly go in thousands of directions, so for the purpose of the party I’m throwing here on this post, we’re going to narrow it down to key features and differences between German and American education structures and philosophies, and how these differences resonate in the workplace. I’ve covered this topic before, and I’ll do my best to shift the emphasis, but the influence of education on business culture is so far-reaching and relevant that the topic does merit the occasional encore treatment.
Pre-K and Kindergarten: This is the time in a German child’s life that is reverently reserved for learning through play. Beyond exploring some very basic school-ish topics like the alphabet, writing your name, and numbers, German children are busy doing a whole lotta make-believing, hide-and-seeking and fort-building („Fortbildung“, i.e. „continuing education“, comes later, har har). Don’t even think about introducing homework. Although preschool children will be read to, there is no major emphasis on learning to read until children reach the first grade.
What WILL be emphasized is independent problem-solving, by giving tots an opportunity to try to work out conflicts with the bare minimum of adult input (physical aggression is quickly nipped in the bud, of course). It’s pretty impressive, and after being reminded a time or two to remain in an attentive observer role when my youngins got in mild tangles with their fellow tots, I learned to appreciate that it’s never too early to learn how to handle conflict, as this is truly a skill that needs long-term practice, refining and self awareness. This early training echos into adulthood in the professional setting; my observation is that Germans are exceptionally skilled at analyzing the elements of a conflict and taking the concrete (and often banal) steps to alleviate the source of the problem.
Grade School: The thread of childhood independence continues. By the second half of first grade, many children are walking in groups sans adults to school. Contributing to this, of course, are variables such as more sidewalks, shorter distances, smaller streets and a more consistently observed (and strictly enforced) crosswalk rules. Even kids who live „in the boonies“ likely have a neighborhood school to walk to.
Likewise, although parents are invited to be involved in official PTA-like groups, parental intervention in day-to-day classwork or the details of class management is increasingly discouraged with each passing grade. Channels for genuine parental concerns exist, of course, but „helicopter parenting“ as a broad rule has not reached the levels it has in the USA. It is telling that the term here is often referred to in its untranslated English form.
After the second grade, school pupils get their first taste of performance evaluation in the form of grades. This kicks off a years-long dose of reality in the form of—and again anecdotally speaking—face value grades. By face value I mean grades that are far less likely to be weighted, inflated or otherwise relativized (with the exception of kids with special learning needs, a topic meriting a post unto itself at a later time). A „C“ on a German report card is not as deflating as on its American counterpart. Effusive expressions of praise are rare in Germany; a simple „gut!“ does the ego-boosting trick here. „Sehr gut!“ is a prolonged standing O.
No surprises, then, that the superlative-expressed praise that is so intrinsic to motivation among Americans in the workplace feels so unusual—and in fact sometimes even disingenuous—among German professional counterparts.
Having said all that, the ethos behind the (roughly translated) German expression „If I haven’t said anything, consider yourself praised “ is regarded by many German folks as over-the-top stingy. Work that goes over and above the call of normal duty warrants some warm fuzzies in both countries. I’m still working on a German equivalent for „awesome!“
Secondary school: By now, German school kids are divided along various paths. One path will lead to a solid general education as well as job training in fields such as the trades, office administration and technology. Another path prepares kids for university-level education (even at the university level, there are distinctive types of institutes). In contrast, American middle and high schoolers stay under one roof, though they are offered varying levels of required topics and have an often overwhelming selection of elective classes to choose from.
This German penchant for compartmentalization and specialization echoes strongly later on in the workplace, where job descriptions, tasks and titles are much more standardized and concretely defined. Within the various roles and tasks, there is generally quite a lot of freedom for independent decision making and job execution. You are the expert, after all. No helicopter-“managering“ here—that gets snuffed out early and decisively in the school years, let’s not forget. This is important for Americans to understand, as from the outside looking in these stricter distinctions often come across as restrictive and creativity-stifling. It is counter-intuitive to realize that the effect is often (though not always) the opposite.
Well, would you look at that. I hit my word limit before picking up our high school diploma! Post-secondary education (and its effects on the workplace), alas, will have to be the topic of another post, though in the meantime feel free to revisit an earlier one about apprenticeships. And do add to the conversation from either the German or American perspective…my anecdotal observations are but a grain of sand on the beach of cultural differences! (Okay, that was weird. I’ll do anything to summon the beach, especially as we hurtle towards Fall and cooler temperatures). Either leave a comment or contact me.