A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My High School

This is a description of the high school I went to in Australia, highlighting the differences between American and Australian education styles.

I went to FIS, an international school in Europe that was mostly American, and where the prevailing culture was American, through 10th grade, after which I went to Australia and finished up at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, one of the best (if not the best) high schools in Australia.

There were no girls at Melbourne Grammar. You wore a uniform (suit and tie), and called the teacher "sir".

The Australian school was mostly along British traditional lines. In Europe I had teachers who were mostly American and English, so I became familiar with the differences between the two styles.

One very big difference between the Australian teachers and American ones is that American teachers feel that a student's grade is a confidential matter, between teacher and student. Generally, in American schools, other students are shielded from a knowledge of how well a student is doing in all classes except gym, where everybody's performance is completely visible to their peers. As a result, American students typically put 10 times more effort into gym than they do into their academic subjects.

From what people who had been at the school a long time told me, Melbourne Grammar had made a cultural shift around 1950, +/- 10 years. Prior to that, the school had been ruled by jocks. I don't know how the school was run prior to that, and I had no friends from other schools, so I have no information about how other Australian schools were run.
Typically, when there were more students studying a subject than could fit into one class, there were naturally several classes taught. But the students were separated into classes by ability. So if there were three classes, there was the top set containing the brightest students, the middle set, and the bottom set, containing the slowest, and everybody knew which was which. On top of that, at the end of every term, a few students were switched between sets depending upon how well they had performed - talk about visibility of performance! I had been an honors student in math and science prior to arriving in Australia, but the school had seen Americans before, and generally they had struggled academically. So to be safe, they put me in bottom set everything. After one term, I was transferred two classes up to top set. It was immediately obvious to me that the top set students were treated with more respect by the faculty.
In American schools, it is really clear - studious students occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder, which is totally dominated by jocks. At Melbourne Grammar, it was a completely different story. Being a smart student carried with it a lot of prestige and recognition from the faculty and from the other students.

Another big difference was democracy. American schools tend to be very democratic. Any student who holds any office or authority got that way by being elected by the other students. At Melbourne Grammar that wasn't the case at all. The administration had the attitude that we were not adults, we were not ready to make these decisions for ourselves, and they would make the important decisions. There were some students who were "prefects", a word that doesn't exist in the American vocabulary. They were students appointed to authority by the administration. They wore different ties, different shirts, and presided over house meetings.

Your "house" corresponded to your dorm. About 20% of the students were boarders and their houses were the dorms they lived in. Everybody else had sort of a virtual house, where we would have weekly meetings. Intramural sports teams were all organized along house lines, each house had its own tie in the school uniform, and a student had a lifelong loyalty to his house. Any student could tell instantly what house any other student belonged to by looking at his tie. So having the prefects preside over house meetings was not an insignificant perk.

Being able to choose prefects gave the administration tremendous leverage over student society. The administration could choose students who they considered the most mature by adult values to be role models for other students. This is very different from American school, where students who would never have been very well liked by adults would often occupy the high rungs of the student social hierarchy.

In Australia, the grades went kindergarten, 1-6th grade, then I-VIth form, where VIth form corresponded to American 12th grade. Students in classes were totally segregated by age. Where in American high school you would often have students of radically different ages in the same class, in Australia there was no mixing of ages in anything but gym, and when there was mixing, older students had authority over the younger.

The school had it down to a science. Students progressed steadily through the years in maturity, and a VIth former was considered a nearly-finished product, very much at the top of the ladder.

One thing the school did to promote intellectualism among its students was the "VIth-form society". At the beginning of VIth form, a list was circulated to all of VIth form naming about 40 of the smartest students in the class, who were invited to attend VIth form society. The society consisted of a dinner every month, with wine, followed by a thought-provoking speaker, who would talk to the society and then have a question and answer session. It was a lot of fun.

The selection of students was not by any blind academic point system, it was a deliberate and arbitrary choice by the administration of which students they wanted to give recognition to, and being seen on that list was quite a distinction. Students who weren't invited were welcome to join, only a few did, and I remember one brilliant student who refused the invitation. I never understood what his problem was.

Grading of exams was done differently than in the US. In the US, 90% is usually an A, 80% is a B, 70% a C, and 60% a D. In Australia, 80% was an A, 70% was a B, 60% was a C, and 50% was D. This meant that an Australian exam would typically contain a lot more questions that really required major insight and imagination on the students part, since the teacher could afford to ask 10% questions that nobody could get and still have a lot of A's.

Teachers would re-normalize their grades. You would get a raw score, and then the teacher would look at the curve and adjust all the scores to fit a fairly standard curve. So if the students generally did pretty well on an exam and you got a raw 92%, the teacher might adjust it to 85% to reflect that it was really just a low A.
Mid-term grades were given as letters in the Greek alphabet instead of the Roman alphabet. I'm not sure what this achieved.

The school was flirting with co-education. It was highly, highly controversial with the parents. The alumni association (known as the "Old Boys") was extremely conservative and against the school changing in any way. But experimentation was starting.

I remember one thing that happened. We were studying Macbeth as part of our curriculum, and we had a filming of Roman Polanksy's Macbeth in our auditorium. They arranged to have some girls from Lauriston, a local girl's school, over to watch it with us. They reserved the front few rows for the girls, had all the boys sit down, then the bus bringing the girls arrived, and they filed in a sat down, and we all watched the movie. Then the girls got up and filed out. The boys all got up and were trying to get out of the auditorium, but the teachers were frantically blocking the doors trying to keep us in. After several minutes we finally did find a way out, to discover that the girls' bus had gotten a flat tire. So the girls wound up taking streetcars home, giving us a chance to actually talk to them. I think the faculty really didn't want that to happen, because they were afraid some unfortunate incident might happen and the whole flirtation with co-education would be pronounced a failure. The teachers, not have been brought up in a co-educational environment, were very nervous about the whole concept, even if they were for it.

My school in Europe had had an honors program where we went through 2 American math classes in one year - in 9th grade I covered geometry and algebra II in a single year, in a single class. This left me at a level where, having just finished half of 10th grade and moving forward a half year to Vth form by crossing the equator, I was just at the right level for the Australian curriculum.

Students in Australia tended to be segregated into technical students vs students in the humanities. If a student, like myself, choose to be a technical tracker, he took, in Vth and VIth form, a load of 2 math classes, physics, and chemistry, plus English, with one additional elective in Vth form. However, the pace of the math classes was much slower, so that we covered about as much material in a year in 2 math classes as we had covered in the same time in a single class in Europe, but in much more depth, where in Europe I had been complaining that the material was going by so fast we were often often on the verge of being reduced to memorizing equations we didn't really understand.

The government had a set of 3 hour exams given at the end of senior year, called Higher School Certificate, or HSC, exams. In most classes, 100% of your grade was determined by this exam. I took the American SAT's and achievement tests as well, but they were trivial compared with the Australian tests. There was no calculus in the American tests, and they were all multiple choice. The American questions were all very straightforward, while the Australian tests, particularly Pure Math and physics, had a lot of very difficult questions requiring major creativity to answer.

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