Between us Education

Season of surprises

How a first-person experience helps drop our assumptions

In a space where we are constantly ambushed by images, opinions and “altered facts,” travelling can become a route through which we experience reality. Often, we weave our stories and conclusions based on borrowed opinions. The one year I spent in a small town in America helped me revisit those perceptions and experience the delight of seeing things as they were.

We carried with us our own baggage of assumptions to the U.S. We had heard that the American school system was “easier” than the system in India. We had been repeatedly told that the standard of mathematics would be lower and there would be no competitive pressure to perform. We assumed that we would have to help our son navigate through episodes of racism and bullying. The idea that the rules would be more relaxed and parents would be more liberal in their interaction with children was deeply entrenched in our minds. Having been exposed to a steady diet of American culture through movies and television, we had imbibed certain assumptions without even realising, and, often, subtly created theories to support our beliefs!

Independent learning

A year in America both challenged and validated our notions. The system appeared deceptively simpler. The textbooks were online, locker systems removed the overburdened school bag and the syllabus and expectations were communicated clearly. The methodology focused on projects, continuous research-based assignments and presentations. It did not rely on regurgitation of facts, “copying notes” or reproducing prepared answers.

However, we soon realised that this required a different skill set. Students were being trained to become independent learners and they had to learn the concepts and apply them in various contexts. This was quite challenging as it demanded constant engagement with the material. The system appeared “easy” as it always provided ample support and teachers were always available for consultation. The challenge was to motivate oneself in an environment where “spoon-feeding” was reduced to a minimum.

Sweeping notions that the American system was homogeneous and standardised were completely false. The difference between the public schools in our area and the one twenty minutes away was really stark. This particular suburb was populated by scientists and researchers and there was a strong emphasis on mathematics. The school participated and hosted academic olympiads and organised field trips to museums to broaden students’ experience.

Students were generally competitive about their grades, reworked assignments to get better marks and aspired to enter Ivy League institutions like Harvard. This gave rise to a culture where grades mattered, parents hired tutors and most students had rigidly-scheduled timetables, juggling piano classes and sport tournaments with academic work. The public schools, on the other hand, had fewer facilities and funding, the level of maths was lower and the main concern was to keep the student in school.

Social surprises

Socially, there were many delightful surprises. Our son experienced no bullying or racism and conflicts between students were no different from the fights in classrooms and playgrounds here. The school constantly held awareness programmes and students were encouraged to visit the counselling department to resolve their concerns.

However, there was a formality in the way students interacted, and, often, our son would share that he found friendships more real, open and natural back home. There are observations by educationists that the American school system tended to mollycoddle students emotionally, which stops them from becoming self-reliant in solving their own conflicts.

Strengths in both

We learnt to appreciate the strengths of the American education system, the intrinsic value it gives to individual and the emphasis on being independent learners. The highly organised school system gives both students and parents clarity on the methodology. The emphasis on presenting work with quality and motivating students to be creative problem solvers is commendable.

We also started seeing the value of our system. Considering the fabric of diversity and the burgeoning population, our ability to provide a foundation to adapt, speak multiple languages, and resilience in handling day-to-day changes are assets that help students do well in systems alien to their own. There is much to learn from one another.

We have brought back many memories and a lighter load of judgments and opinions! The kindness of strangers, people who opened their hearts and homes and learning to live through the beauty and storm of the seasons, have only humbled and made us realise that the world is what we make of it.

However clichéd it sounds, there was one insight we gained. Human nature, whether in a small town in America or a bustling metropolis in India, is in essence the same!

Enjoy your own travels of discovery!

The author has worked as a special educator in various settings. Share your thoughts and ideas at

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:20:15 PM |

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