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This Is What a School Day Looks Like in Other Countries

From recess-filled days to class at sunrise, school around the world sometimes looks very different than it does in the United States.

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desk with a pile of books and school supplies like pencils and stationery and world map globe, back to school college university education concept, homework classroom study
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Different ways of learning

Education isn’t the same everywhere. While you probably realize this on some level, chances are that you’ve never really thought about just how different it can be in other countries. After all, we have been immersed in the American educational system since we were barely old enough to walk and talk, and even though it’s changed a lot over the years, it’s all we know. But there is another way—lots of other ways. In fact, other countries’ approaches to education differ widely in terms of philosophy, values, and day-to-day life, and some of it might seem very, well, foreign to us. And some of it might seem pretty amazing. While experiences may vary even within an individual country, here’s a glimpse of what school looks like elsewhere in the world.

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school in Finland
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Finland: Triple the recess, hold the homework

Elementary students in Finland spend around 75 minutes at recess, compared to just 27 minutes for American children. The thinking goes: Children don’t learn if they don’t play, so they have to play—every day, even if it’s cold. Finland is internationally recognized as a model for progressive educational philosophies, and the general rule of thumb is 15 minutes of recess per hour of work. Believe it or not, students don’t even start actual academics until the equivalent of America’s second grade, and play is considered more important than homework.

Finland quickly rose up the PISA test-score chart over the past few decades, which is why American schools are now trying to emulate their methods. That said, American schools have a long way to go in terms of de-emphasizing standardized testing and preparing kids for real life. In significant contrast to American schools, Finnish students don’t take standardized tests until they graduate from high school. Teachers are also held in incredibly high regard—similar to how we view doctors in the United States. And that’s really how it should be since the right teacher truly has the power to change a child’s life.

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Philippines School Children
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The Philippines: School in shifts

There are two “shifts” of schooling in many schools in the Philippines, with one starting quite early between 6 and 7 a.m. and the other starting after lunch. As one teacher explained in an article for Connected Women magazine, she starts preparing for her day at 4 a.m. due to this double-shift schedule. The schedule is an attempt to solve the problem of overcrowding and the lack of space due to poverty in the country.

Teachers frequently have to deal with 65 children at a time, and sometimes there aren’t enough chairs or desks for everyone. “While the rich can send their children to private institutions with air conditioning and computers, rural public schools often have to make do without reliable electricity, and classes are sometimes held outside or in the stairwell,” according to Reuters. The two types of schooling are vastly different.

Marie Van Skaik is a Cincinnati mom and nurse who grew up in the Philippines and attended a somewhat rural school, in which grades 1–6 were together in one classroom. The groupings in the class were based entirely on intellect, she says, with the “smart kids” in group one and those who were “not so good at school” in group 6, with descending levels between. She says that while it worked well because you weren’t competing with people who weren’t at your level, she would have “felt dumb” if she had been placed in the lowest group.

In Van Skaik’s school, students in her class went home for lunch, which was about a five-minute walk, and enjoyed snacks packed by their mothers during recess, where they also played hopscotch and similar games. In terms of classes, some were taught in English and some in Tagalog. While most students knew English after a few years, they didn’t practice it often. She also recalls large holiday celebrations at school, including gift exchanges at Christmas and festivals and parades in the spring.

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United Kingdom School

United Kingdom: A few extra hours of shut-eye

Many American high schools are well underway before kids in the United Kingdom are even getting ready for first period. Paul Stevens-Fulbrook, who has been a high school teacher in the United Kingdom for eight years, says that schools typically begin between 8:45 and 9 a.m. One school in London even moved back to a 10 a.m. start time after research showed that students learn better later in the morning.

Once they get to school, students refer to teachers as Sir or Miss, which Stevens-Fulbrook says feels a bit odd. “Most male teachers have never been knighted by the Queen and married female teachers don’t usually go by the name ‘Miss,’ but teachers are never called by their first name because we are English,” he explains. “Therefore, we do lots of pointless things because the powers-that-be fear anything that we didn’t do in the days of the British Empire.” Formality is also a key element in many classroom settings. “Sadly, high fives, fist bumps, and one-on-one dance greetings are not prevalent in classrooms, apart from my classroom,” Stevens-Fulbook says.

In 2016, parents were upset about a difficult standardized test being administered to second graders in Britain.

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Singapore schooling
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Singapore: Major testing, major success?

Across multiple standardized test models, Singapore students have been labeled “the smartest.” The country’s traditional lecture-based learning process boasts major success, but it also has kids taking life-changing tests as early as primary school. Students have already been “tracked” into lower- and higher-achieving brackets by age 12. Movements are underway to remake the education system to de-emphasize grades and reprioritize skill-ready future employees.

According to the Ministry Singapore for Education, changes are coming: “We have been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse. The aim is to provide students with greater choice to meet their different interests and ways of learning. Being able to choose what and how they learn will encourage them to take greater ownership of their learning. We are also giving our students a more broad-based education to ensure their all-round or holistic development, in and out of the classroom.” Many American teachers dislike standardized tests, too, which is one of the things your child’s teacher wants you to know.

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United Arab Emirates School
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United Arab Emirates: Segregation by gender

Every country carries varying expectations for teacher/student relationships. Illinois native Allen Kenneth Schaidle is currently a faculty member at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and the former Director of Student Services at the American University of Iraq. He says that many schools are segregated by gender and that social norms for how a male teacher is allowed to interact with a female student are “quite rigid.” A casual relationship is not seen as culturally appropriate in Islamic countries, so there tends to be a more formal and professional relationship between teachers and students. While the segregation may seem shocking, women still aren’t fully equal to men in many ways in the United States.

When it comes to career paths, parents tend to encourage things like law, business, medicine, and engineering over the arts, humanities, and teaching. Maybe that isn’t all that different from some parents in the States, but there is a different expectation in terms of how children follow those directives. “Therefore, learning how to encourage students to follow their passions while also being respectful to the parents’ expectations is a difficult situation,” Schaidle says.

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Iraq school classroom

Iraq: Learning in a conflict zone

Schaidle also spent time in Iraq at a university in Iraqi Kurdistan, which included a student population of Iraqis, Kurds, Yazidis, refugees from Afghanistan and Syria, and a few Kurdish-Americans. He remembers change, not stability, characterizing the country as a whole, which he says “sadly trickles down into the country’s educational institutions, especially within the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan.” Tensions impacted the educational environment as well.

“Cultural dynamics between the populations can be completely foreign to outsiders, and nothing comparable to social-group relations in the United States,” explains Schaidle. “For example, when the Kurdish Regional Government would push back against the Iraqi government, students would fight among each other along their cultural or ethnic allegiances.” In addition, students often had to take breaks to “step into the fray,” which is common for students in conflict zones. Sometimes they would leave temporarily or permanently to join Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. This dynamic is one that he said was “uplifted” by Kurdish society, so educators had to be sensitive to these changes. Young people around the world face challenges that many Americans can’t even imagine.

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thailand school

Thailand: A mandatory haircut

In Thailand, schools are happy, friendly places, with smiles and laughter, according to Oliver Crocco, an assistant professor of Leadership and Human Resource Development at Louisiana State University who previously taught at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He says that the main differences between Thai and U.S. schools reflect the countries’ collectivist versus individualist cultures. In Thailand, for example, students typically sit at desks with other students, rather than individually, and group learning is “productive and effective.”

Surprisingly, students may often be on their phones or even answer phones in class, and there is also a lot of talking while class is in session. While Crocco says it may appear disorderly or chaotic to Americans, this works in Thailand. And this behavior shouldn’t be confused with disrespect, as the country holds the teachers in very high esteem. There’s even a special ceremony for teachers on a national holiday called Wai Khru, when students prostrate themselves before their teachers and provide them with flowers, in alignment with the hierarchical culture there.

Another notable difference is that students do not wear shoes in the classroom, and even some hallways, and there is a uniform in most schools. “In places like Chiang Mai, the governor also asked that all students wear traditional Northern Thai clothes on Fridays,” Crocco says. “Boys are required to have certain haircuts. In the morning before school at the beginning of the year, you can hear teachers shaving boys’ heads who don’t meet the requirements.”

Plus, in stark contrast to most American schools, sports are less of an ongoing daily occurrence in high schools. Instead, there are specific days in which schools compete in a variety of events, with little training ahead of time.

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India school classroom
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India: Lectures, respect, and overpopulation

Anupriya Basu knows the Indian classroom well. Though she is currently a writer at Expert Insurance Reviews who lives in Canada, she attended school in India from kindergarten through college. She says that in India, lectures are the norm. “Most teachers maintain a certain distance from the students, and the communication between them is mostly about the coursework,” she explains. “In classes, the lectures are steered by the professors, and there’s little room for discussion or raising questions. Culturally, Indians tend to respect their elders a lot, and it’s frowned upon when a student cross-questions a professor.”

And while American students may think that high school is a grind, they might have a new perspective after hearing how things are in India. “The days are jam-packed with classes, and students are expected to cope with sitting in classes without many breaks,” says Basu. Furthermore, students don’t typically explore elective classes outside of their main coursework, to ensure they are focused and ready for their specific job market.

That said, education in India can vary greatly. While the country has the fastest-growing major economy, it is still developing, and it has the largest number of poor people in the world next to Nigeria. According to World Education News + Reviews, the country has high teacher-to-student ratios as well as high dropout rates. While progress is being made, the system is stressed by the country’s current “youth bulge.” There are currently 600 million young people in the country under the age of 25, 28 percent of whom are 14 or younger, and 30 babies are born every minute. By the way, these are the 20 largest cities in the world in terms of population—and three of them are in India.

Alex Frost
Alexandra Frost is a freelance writer and journalism teacher who covers parenting, health, relationships, communications, business, education and more for Reader's Digest and other publications. Her work has been featured in Glamour, Parents, Healthline, Today's Parent, Women's Health and We Are Teachers. Alex has a master's in education and a bachelor's in journalism/communication from Miami University, and she resides in Cincinnati with her three sons under age 5. See more of her work at Alexandra-Frost.com.