What American Schools Can Learn from Germany

I recently returned from a trip to Germany sponsored by the Goethe Institute and Germany’s Central Agency for Schools Abroad. The focus of the trip was to learn about Germany’s vocational schools and training programs as well as to learn more about how they teach languages other than German. As with any international trip, especially one focusing on schools, there was much to learn. Here are a few lessons the U.S. school system can learn from Germany.

  • Germany’s approach to teaching languages is proactive for engaging with the rest of the world. Germans begin learning a second language (usually English) in elementary school. Often, they are learning a third or fourth language by the time they are in high school. Their school systems have embraced the critical language learning phase and begin some language immersion at the kindergarten or pre–K level.

    Vocational students working on a German lesson in a technical writing class. Photo credit by Erica Schnee.

  • Germany’s vocational schools prepare students to enter the workforce with a well-rounded foundation of skills. Germany is known for their vocational programming. Traditionally, students take classes two days a week and learn the theory of their vocational field, the language skills they’ll need to succeed in that field, as well as business skills. For the other three days a week, students earn money as apprentices in their chosen field. Historically, 90 percent of the German labor force went through the vocational program. While that has shifted in recent years, far more students still complete a vocational program versus attend a university. Additionally, today there is much more fluidity between the educational tracks and some students may attend university after completing a vocational program as well.
  • Germany embraces its role as a global partner. While visiting Berlin and Hamburg, I had the opportunity to interact with professionals in a wide range of positions from people working within the U.S. Consulate and working for German federal agencies to city education departments, school headmasters, and teachers. Every person we talked with mentioned the importance of connecting with other schools and countries as they develop policies and curriculum. Most schools we visited had partner schools in other countries, not only in name, but they were connected through projects and competitions. I was impressed with Germany’s proactive and collaborative approach to global challenges, as well as how they teach this process to students in all of their schools.
  • Germany plans for sustainability. As one walks the streets of any German city, you can’t help but notice the many ways Germans are environmentally conscious. Escalators appear broken until you approach and the sensor starts it up. Why should it run constantly when people are not using it? Your hotel room key is required to turn on the lights so that you can’t leave lights on all day wasting energy when you’re not there. Buildings display their energy usage, and even their Bundestag (national parliament) is designed to reduce energy use and rely on solar power.

Gymnasium students preparing a presentation on a German play. Photo credit by Erica Schnee.

While I embrace the continuous improvement cycle and think there are always things we can learn from others, there are also some things U.S. schools are doing well that German schools could consider exploring.

  • When I spoke with German students, they mentioned they liked the idea of electives and wished they had more choices in their schedule.
  • Schools in the United States spend a great deal of energy on the climate and culture of their buildings, which boosts students’ sense of being part of a community.
  • U.S. high schools often support students in a well-rounded manner, offering art, music, sports, and more as part of their curriculum and activities.

My most important takeaway is that we have a lot to learn from each other. Connecting individuals across borders is the best way to build a global community and share ideas to deal with global challenges and improve schools.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a global school exchange or learning program, I would encourage you to take advantage of the learning experience.

Erica Schnee is a nationally board-certified teacher who has been a high school educator for the past 22 years. She is currently an assistant principal at Bozeman High School and she teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics for the Montana Digital Academy. Erica has participated in the State Department’s Teachers for Global Classrooms program, Global Education Allies’ East Africa program and has been fortunate to visit schools around the world. She is the 2018 Montana Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @MsSchneeGov.


  • Aprylle Desrosiers says:

    My son lives in Germany, is married to a German wife, and his children are German/American. I travel frequently to visit and am very impressed with their educational system. Thank you for such a nice over view of the German educational system. I have often wished that we provided more in the career exploration and learning/interning outside the walls of our schools.

  • Amy Kochel says:

    I want to start with I NEVER post on social media and am somewhat afraid to do this. It would’ve been nice to recognize that German teachers in the US have been pointing out and teaching this to all of our students since the 1960’s. It’s disappointing that it takes an administration title to validate it. Meanwhile German teacher Fulbright exchanges have disappeared due to lack of funding for at least 10? years. Many of us CHOOSE to stay in the trenches/classroom. Nothing against the author in particular, it’s politics, but for real info on this follow AATG OR Goetheinstitut.

  • Kristy Custer says:

    Hi, Erica,

    I am very interested in the German Apprenticeship programs. Is there a possibility to attend one of the trips?

    Informative article!


  • Nicole Schmatolla says:

    I actually grew up in Germany and attended German schools through 7th grade. I then moved to Texas with my mother and step-father, skipped one grade, and had already maximized on so many other high school credits that the only reason I was not advanced past 9th grade was that I did not speak English (which I learned without ESOL, due to pure necessity through total immersion) . I went on to become an English teacher, and have continuously taught in Florida since 1987. In Germany, I had what we in the USA call “electives,” as they were built into schedules, electives such as art, choir, religion/ethics, along with plenty of diverse courses in the social and other sciences. The students there do not understand that they have the same elective courses as US schools because they are expected to have a full and diverse knowledge base and do not participate in the building of their schedules. But the emphasis on core courses there is so much more important in terms of a global society. In Texas, my skills in math and the social studies diminished; because German schools believe in integration of different maths and social studies, there is faster advancement in terms of curriculum and skills levels, and I got lost by the fragmentation. This slip in the learning challenge naturally affected some areas in sciences as well. And I would like to mention that I have been exposed through personal learning and teaching experience as well as attendance at conferences to schools in various states and Germany (I conduct direct cultural exchanges with a partner School even currently). The point about school climate, which sounds like school spirit, that may be true. But the other two, more important points are erroneous in interpretation. American schools, with some specialized exceptions, have lagged behind German schools for the last 40 years of my life.

  • Giulia says:

    Since my first contact with Germany (I took part in a student exchange program), I came back like 10 or 20 times. Many vacantions and roadtrips, sometimes I have the feeling that I’ve seen more of Germany than most of the German’s xD But in the end, no matter which city I visited, my heart always have been and always will be with Berlin! So last year I finally made the last step and move to Berlin! (yay) And enrolled a few days later at the speakeasy language school (amazing school, will always recommened). I met my boyfriend in summer last year and finally in december last year, I passed my telc C1 exam 🙂 And then..a few weeks ago the last and most happiest news became real: I’m going to be a mom :3 And reading your blog post, about the German education system (to wrap up my wall of text :P) and it’s benefits I’m really happy and confident that my decision was the best decision I made in my entire life 🙂 Anyway as I said this wraps my personal little journey up and I’m on way for more informations about German education and kindergartens 🙂 Definitely going to save your site for later visits, as I hope for a response 🙂 Anyway hope you did well and to read from you…

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