The English explain, the Germans converse and the French train the mind. Birgit Pepin on Europe's variety of teaching methods.
Why do teachers teach the way they do? While educationists appear willing to consider what can be learned from comparing Eastern and Western perceptions of teaching and learning, few have explored the effect that different cultural traditions have on teaching in Europe.
In attempting to fill this gap I have "shadowed" 12 mathematics teachers in secondary schools in England, France and Germany. My aim was to find out whether they could teach in a country other than their own.
The three countries are generally considered to have different cultural traditions, which permeate through to schools. English education is said to be child-centred and individualistic. France is often described as one of the heartlands of encyclopaedism, with its main principles of rationality, universality and the associated principle of egalite. Germany espouses mainly humanistic views. How can teachers' classroom practices be understood in the light of these philosophies?
The research, which involved spending a fortnight with each teacher, showed that staff in all three countries used whole-class teaching to some extent but there were also important differences.
English teachers spent relatively little time explaining concepts to the entire class, whereas French and, in particular, German teachers devoted a substantial proportion of the school day to whole-class teaching.
When English teachers used whole-class teaching, they explained a concept from the front in quite a didactic way. Most English teachers (unless the lesson took the form of an "investigation") introduced and explained a concept or skill to students, gave examples on the board and then expected pupils to practise on their own or in small groups while they attended to individual pupils.
Students were divided into different achievement sets and teachers provided a different mathematical diet for each one - all strategies that derive from an individualistic approach. Situations where pupils discovered multiple solutions or investigated new solutions that required reasoning were rare and usually reserved for "investigation" lessons.
French teachers tried to pose thought-provoking problems and expected students to struggle with them. They drew together ideas from the class and the whole class discussed solutions.
French teachers, reflecting egalitarian views, expected the whole class to move forward together. Teachers tried to forge links between ideas, skills and "cognitive activities" (small investigations) on the one hand, and concepts on the other. Relatively little time was spent on routine procedures.
In France, teachers focused on developing mathematical thinking, which included exploring and understanding concepts, and mathematical reasoning. This emphasis reflects the cultural tradition of rationality, which is embodied in the notion of formation d'esprit (training of the mind).
German teachers used a more conversational style, where they tried to involve the whole class in a discussion. Often pupils' mistakes in homework or class exercises were used to check and deepen the children's understanding. Typically, a teacher brought pupils to the board and discussed their mistakes and understandings with the whole class.
In the Gymnasium (grammar school), where expectations of achievement were higher, topics were discussed in great depth. Logical thinking, the core of German humanistic traditions, was regarded as important.
The development and understanding of concepts was also considered to be essential. But the invention of new solutions or procedures was not encouraged. The lessons appeared quite formal and traditional in terms of their mathematical content, but were quite lively and conversational.
These findings clearly demonstrate that, while administrative difficulties may be overcome, there are cultural traditions which could impede the mobility of teachers to which many decision-makers in the European Union aspire.
Dr Birgit Pepin is a research fellow at the Open University. She can be contacted at the OU, School of Education, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA.