Discipline and mastery: impressions of Swiss school system

Parents learn can learn a lot about an education system from the vocabulary their children bring home.  Since our arrival in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland, the results are telling.  The words bouncing around the living room are “test, oublie, revision, bavardage, arrivée tardive, heure de retenue, heure d’arrêt, redoubler…”  These are all words about discipline or performance.  Previously, in very different school systems, the words were more along the lines of “my project, the school concert, assembly, homework“.  What does this show?

In Fiji and Australia, our kids’ schools (private and public, respectively) posted their values in colour on the walls, and reminded students of these values in the speeches at assembly:  their mission was to create learners who are “inquirers, thinkers, communicators, courageous, knowledgeable, principled, caring, open-minded, balanced, reflective, and visionary“. The Swiss schools are as discrete about their mission as Swiss banks are about their clients. The school website mentions developing the competencies of each student, and includes links to the cantonal law which says in Ch. 2, Article 5.1 that the goal of school is the “instruction” of the students.  In attending a number of informational meetings in the past month with teachers and the school director, the read-between-the-lines values are quite clear:  discipline and mastery – with the bar set quite high for both.


In Fiji and Australia, the teachers and principals set the tone through frequent assemblies and speeches, speaking with pride of the school, its mission of inspiring learning, celebrating particular achievements of individual students and classes, and investing in creating a school community feel.

In contrast, in our kids’ current Swiss schools, tone-setting is largely absent.  There is barely even a sign announcing the name of one of the schools, the other has none! (See photo gallery at end of post). This isn’t cultural – our commune (municipality) and my university both succeed in setting a community feel, cultivating pride, and celebrating success at public events. Perhaps it is just the town we’ve settled in. But in conversation with other people, this situation seems widespread.  And the message of the implicit values of discipline and mastery has been quite consistent in every one of our interactions with the school.  Here are three examples.

  1. When the Director opened a new building at the beginning of the school year, his speech to the upper primary students was – according to my son – about how tough this year would be and how the disciplinary and performance standards were high. Welcome to school, kids!
  2. When the teacher of our younger son’s middle primary class spoke to the assembled parents one evening about the coming year, it was all about the content the students were learning to master. She spoke of the responsibilities of the students, and of the teacher.  The kids posted responsibilities for the teacher on the wall, and first on their list was “to give the students homework, but not too much” (there was nothing about being inspiring, or even teaching).
  3. When the Director spoke to parents of the upper primary students (“8P Harmos”, or 11 and 12 year olds) about the crucial year that they were in (because they get streamed into elite and general tracks), the presentation was all about regulations and legal frameworks (literally chapter-and-verse out of the cantonal legislation) and evaluations (tests). At that particular meeting, I raised my hand and asked politely about pedagogy – how do they motivate students to learn given all these regulations and evaluations.  The Director answered that it was a good question, that some things like grammar are never fun to learn, and that, en effet, it was an obligation to learn.  A mother then turned to me and added her critique “But, Monsieur, motivation is the role of the family.”  Great.  Motivation by obligation.

That particular meeting was perhaps the low point for us.  It was also our first meeting with our elder son’s homeroom teacher, whose personality grates.  Since then, we’ve met with teachers individually (by appointments requested formally through the student agenda, following the protocol…) and we’re slowly learning to play with the system. The school has also offered a few weeks of individual support classes to my elder son, given his weaknesses in written French, and we’re very thankful for that.

Grading scales comparisonAs far as the emphasis on mastery, compare the grading scales used in different countries.  The Swiss system (like the French) accords about half its grades to failing marks that are insufficient to pass.  The Australian and American systems have just one grade of fail.

But what is the effect of this education system?  It isn’t a surprise that my older son, in particular, doesn’t like school.  It isn’t a surprise that the traits of the Swiss national character include adjectives like conscientious, tradition-bound, rule-bound, perfectionist, precision, punctuality… Swiss kids are “disciplined” in the full Foucauldian sense of the term (Discipline and Punish).  Indeed, at my university, I get the sense that the students are… disciplined, master what they are supposed to learn quite well, but lack much outside-the-box thinking.

A great book critiquing the French education system is Peter Gumble’s On achève bien les écoliers (the English version is called They shoot school kids, don’t they?). It argues that the French system (which is particular in its own way – very meritocratic, centralised, abstract, and academic) could stand to learn a lot from other approaches, such as the Finnish. I haven’t seen an equivalent book yet for Switzerland, but many similar critiques would apply.  There are plenty of TED talks about different forms of education and the importance of encouraging grit or creativity.  Each system, of course, has its strengths and weaknesses and the ideal is perhaps somewhere in the middle.

I close with a photo gallery of school signs, ranging from old-fashioned to welcoming to an afterthought (the latter here in Switzerland).  The fourth is my favourite school slogan ever, from a rather disadvantaged school in rural South Africa close to my heart.  “We like what we do”, it says.  I wish that a little of that spirit would rub off on the schools here!


11 Responses to Discipline and mastery: impressions of Swiss school system

  1. Arthur Kull says:

    “Discipline and Mastery” certainly was also the major theme of education when I went to school in France (1949-1960). I fully understand your son’s frustrations about the change from an environment in which creative learning is valued to “instruction”, which emphasizes rote memorizing and class discipline.
    I would have expected Switzerland to be more progressive and to adapt to a learning environment that promotes independent and out-of-the-box thinking, especially since, to be successful as an individual and as a nation in these times, requires it. But, I guess, as Colin Woodard, in his book “American Nations”, makes clear, established cultures tend not to change very rapidly, and newcomers usually adapt!

    To be perfectly honest, I was not a good student in France; just made it….

    The question is, of course, whether the experience will have negative consequences on your son’s future. Maybe, maybe not! It’s difficult to say. The only thing I know for sure is that, for me, rote learning didn’t teach me the logic of many of the things I was supposed to master, and I am always impressed by my American counterparts, even in rural Idaho, who do understand the principles of mathematics and philosophy that my schooling, in a soit-disant superior intellectual environment, wasn’t able to convey!

    Despite all the shortcomings in educational performance, my life has, so far, been a wonderful ride…and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

  2. A fascinating comparison indeed. It is always appealing to think that there is that golden middle between discipline and mastery, and creativity and exploration. Let’s hope the discipline and mastery that your sons gain from their schooling can serve as the foundation for future creativity and exploration. But I agree with you about your favourite school slogan. It is my all-time favourite too.

    • ThomasBach says:

      Not strictly a school slogan, but still my my favorite, comes from a departing associate professor during her farewell impromptu address: “How much bloody excellence can we tolerate?”

  3. dave mercer says:

    Don’t despair, there is always the possibility of self-education ! Truancy played a major role in Sir Fred Hoyle’s early educational experience but it didn’t do him much harm in the long run. There are also Steiner and Montessori schools in Switzerland and, for all I know, a plethora of álternative’ community schools.

    Cheers, Dave Mercer

  4. Hi Dave, not many alternatives once you pass the pre-school stage, unless you are willing to fork out 25k per year minimum for the private (english-language) international schools… I was perhaps overly negative in the post, but the contrast and culture shock has been rather striking. Best wishes!

    • dave mercer says:

      I wonder how a Swiss school would react to something like this…Check out the recent, “Ravenswood captain’s speech hits out at school’s expectations of perfection” . A brave lass defying the corporate spin and censorship at an elite Australian school.

  5. Arthur Kull says:

    In my Men’s Book Club,we read an interesting book last year comparing American schools with some of the world’s best (according to the PISA test scores): “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amana Ripley. Interesting read about Finland, South Korea, and Poland with some surprising answers!

  6. I attended another ‘ideal type’ – a British ‘discipline and mastery’ boarding school (as a non-boarder). I hated most things about it and was ‘flamed’ on the alumni listserv when I said so – the British boys’ schools go in for stiff upper lip, sports (especially if you were no good academically), and social behaviour and growth was largely unaddressed. I came in with good grades at age 8 but I achieved very little and did poorly – I am probably the only geography professor who got an E (a near-fail) for geography A- level at age 17 and was rejected for university ( retaken privately – I got an A). So here in Oz our tendency has been to seek out a totally different experience .
    State schools pretty good but underfunded . Primary school for our son was an amazing community experience. Teaching was generally good but done on the cheap (blame state government). Mixed age classrooms so that helping others is learned and practiced. Parents who had the time also helped teach at the school (reading practice for example for the learners) , accompanied staff on field trips and camps, organized the year 6 leaving party, consistently raised over $100,000 a year at the fete (government would not give us money for many things, like enough computers and books) , and the parents’ council had some real power. Compulsory government testing of students was resisted by the school as *official* policy. Try that in France- school would have been closed down because it would be impossible to ‘stream’ people up into high schools !
    However in high school where things get more serious and there are teenagers, most Australia schools I know have far less pushing on discipline and mastery – mastery is left to the student. My son studies useful things like food technology and textiles as well as the conventional hard and soft sciences. Because we have a bright child, he could do with more encouragement to master harder material I think in high school – but that is just us. Again with not much money, such schools achieve a great deal. More than my private British boarding school, from which I am still recovering.
    Sounds like Switzerland has a few parallels, but your canton sounds like France, which has a system that most anglophones like me think is dispiriting, rule-driven, much too limiting, and designed to perpetuate a false sense of national(ist) identity and support for the large and strong state (rather than anarchic free thinkers ). But maybe all that is ‘le non-dit’.

    • Spot on as ever, Simon. There appear to be quite some cantonal differences in the attitudes of the school systems here, with Vaud more rigid than Geneva or Bern for instance. And now that our kids have been “disciplined” into the system, they’re doing just fine….

  7. Rasmus Valanko says:

    During an impromptu history lesson with a Vaud local I learnt something very interesting about the system and culture. One has to remember that the Swiss (as a whole) tend to change very slowly and so history has a disproportionate effect. Vaud used to be the agrarian bread basket for their Bernese masters (protectors), and hence education was purposefully designed to only meet the minimal needs of your average child that was supposed to primarily be picking apples, grapes and generally moving towards a peasant existance. This system actively discouraged moves towards any higher education given that this might upser the availability of peasants for manual labour. Vaud has now come a very long way from this heritage, but it is not hard to see some of the remenants of history in our childrens’ classes.

    • Arthur Kull says:

      Very interesting…that sounds very familiar as we have the same situation here in Idaho, a state with an agricultural, logging and mining background.

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