Photo by Heiner

In the past, I’ve praised the Swiss school system, and there is much to admire. The Kindergarten concept is world-class, and every child should be so lucky as to attend a Swiss-style kindergarten.

In Swiss Kindergarten, children focus on social skills. There’s no attempt to teach the alphabet or how to do math. They play with hammers, go to the forest, play in sand, and roast hot dogs over open fires. It’s brilliant.

They start learning to read in first grade, and by the end of the school year, my son was reading at grade level in German and above grade level in English, even though we’d never attempted to teach him to read in English. German is all phonetic (except for a few borrowed French and English words), while English (as you all know) is a disaster. Nevertheless, the two years of “playing” in Kindergarten didn’t hurt his ability to read.

All of this flexibility goes away as the children get older, and the rigidity of Swiss culture comes into play.

As an American, I’m a massive fan of flexibility. I’m a huge fan of separating what is important from what is not important. The Swiss are not. All rules are equal. For instance, my son once got top scores on the content of a presentation but received an overall bad grade because the corners of his posterboard were not perfectly flat. A discussion with the teacher resulted in her saying, “but the corners weren’t flat” and me saying, “but his content is the important part,” lather, rinse, repeat. It was more fun because the conversation was in German, so it’s entirely possible that I was saying something more like, “you miserable wench, don’t you know what is important?” I can’t remember.

Another situation arose in school, where he was struggling. I went to observe the classroom and found him in the very back row, facing the wall. He had to turn around his chair to face the front. I asked the teacher to move him, pointing out that perhaps he wouldn’t struggle quite so much if he were facing the blackboard. She refused. Her reason? It was October, and she wasn’t rearranging the classroom until January. The school principal backed her up. There was no possibility that they could rearrange before the planned date.

I hired a lawyer. (See, I’m an American.) She moved him two days later, and the school filed a report with child protective services. Fortunately, I had photos of where he was sitting, and the social worker was rational. That was his last year in the public schools.

As I told this story to a friend, also an American/Brit (dual passport), she had a similar problem with her son–except hers was talking too much in class. The teacher asked for suggestions, and she said, “move him closer to your desk, and away from the other children.” The teacher refused, citing the fact that it wasn’t time to rearrange the classroom.

It’s not just the schools that are surprisingly rigid.

A friend got detained for shoplifting and charged 100 francs. Reasonable enough if she had been shoplifting. However, what happened was that her two-year-old had snatched a stuffed animal from a shelf. The two-year-old was sitting in a stroller, and her mom had a shopping basket balanced on top of the stroller. The cashier saw the stuffed animal while my friend didn’t. Instead of doing the rational thing and saying, “did you see your child has a toy?” the cashier waited until my friend stepped out of the store and called security.

Her option was to pay a 100 franc fine (the franc and the dollar are roughly equal), or the store would call the police. Not wanting to mess up her immigration status, she paid the fine. The store’s position? The child shoplifted. They didn’t care that the child was two and the mother didn’t have any idea.

In the news, there’s been another example of rigidity. An eight-year-old was arrested for attempting to use counterfeit.

You read that correctly. He was eight. Here’s the New York Times account. (If you read German or like Google translate, here’s the local account.)

When an 8-year-old boy walked into a village supermarket in northern Switzerland last month and tried to pay with a fake €50 bill, it seemed like mere childhood mischief.

The bill, with large Chinese lettering on it, was clearly toy money. The cashier immediately spotted it and threatened to call the police as the boy, along with a friend, left the store to meet his 10-year-old brother who was waiting outside.

It could have ended there. But after a police officer launched an investigation into the boy, took his mug shot and filed a report on the incident, it will now be on police records until at least 2025.

Fortunately, people were upset, and the store chain was forced into a non-apology where they said a different outcome would have been desirable. Yeah, your employee called the police on an eight-year-old.

The Canton maintained that the police acted appropriately.

While rigidity gets you world-class watchmaking and expert engineering, if it’s not balanced with common sense, you get an arrested child, with the store clerk, police, and public officials all concurring that this should be addressed legally.

I appreciate the order that keeps public transportation running on time. I appreciate that I can ride a cable car without fear of it falling to the earth. I don’t appreciate the lack of flexibility in daily life.

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23 thoughts on “Swiss Sunday: Rigidity

  1. My son went to a 1st grade (public school) where all they did all day was play, send letters through the “post office,” raised ducks, grew plants, put on skits, did “music” and such. He ended up with a PhD in microbiology.

    My daughter went to a 1st grade (public school, different city) with lots and lots of seatwork, learning development, homework, and all that academic stuff. She ended up with … well, let’s just say she ended up.

    Cause and effect? I couldn’t prove it, but I really think so.

  2. Your statement “I hired a lawyer see I’m an American is offensive. I’m surprised and disappointed.

      1. I’m super curious about what grounds the school had for the call to CPS? Seems like retaliation, but clearly I come from an American POV.

          1. Because we were preventing him from receiving an education by objecting to the teacher’s bad behavior.

            As I said, the social worker was reasonable and it wasn’t a nightmare like I’ve heard in the US. She ultimately was helpful in finding him a good private school.

  3. “Your statement “I hired a lawyer see I’m an American is offensive. I’m surprised and disappointed.”

    Why is it offensive?

  4. Sounds like both sides assumed/had different opinions of methods/techniques of how learning/teaching is accomplished. Yeah, I would have been upset to see my child facing the back of the room but the teacher claiming that they weren’t learning, plus changing the room around wasn’t possible. From the description, I gather this wasn’t detailed in the school system site as to the seating arrangements in the classrooms.
    Even though I never stayed in the education path after both receiving degrees and certifications by both the state and the local city (two entities), I never forgot the basics of getting a person to learn, which is adapting the program to the learner not assuming everyone learns the same. I found that teachers today, except for the true rare teacher, present the information and expect every single student to learn and patiently wait for the next topic. Does that sound anything like a child? Younger children are naturally inquisitive and also quick to lose interest when something else gets their attention. Forcing structure activities on a child’s mind before they can control their attention level will stunt their creative thinking.
    But the only effective way to create a better learning experience for children is a reframing of the methods of teaching for all students regardless of backgrounds, plus more parental involvement directly with both their children and the teachers. Schools are not a daycare center for parents to excuse no interaction.
    As for American overreaction, it comes from the freedom right now present in the USA, to express an opinion.

  5. I remember when I lived in Germany a year after college. At one point I was driving with my (then) German girlfriend on a two-lane rural road that widened briefly to add a short left-turn lane preceded by a zebra-striped gore. I wanted to go left, but the turn lane was full with a couple of cars. However if I used the zebra, I wouldn’t block traffic, so I slid in.

    I thought my girlfriend was gonna have a stroke. I’m glad my German wasn’t that good, because I’m pretty sure I got more of a scolding than if I’d said I wanted to start dating her older sister too.


    1. There’s undoubtedly some of that. There is a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in a lot of people here, but there reality is, if we leave, their entire country will collapse.

  6. Some of you may remember something that happened in Saudi Arabia 10-25(?) years ago. In Saudi Arabia, girls and women must wear face coverings in public. A fire broke out at a girls school and, because the girls were not wearing their face coverings, the male firefighters would not carry them out of the burning building. Some or many girls died. I blame that on the rigidity of that culture.

    1. So small correction: it wasn’t because the girls were lacking face coverings, it was because they were lacking their hair coverings and outer garments.

      Which is almost worse.

  7. Yes, in America, those arbitrary and rigid responses would only occur if one were Black.

  8. Another thing I am curious about is why was his chair not facing the blackboard in the first place? I realize that there may be more to it than I know but not having a student’s desk face the board does not make sense to me. I admit that I may be overly American 1970s to 1980s-centric.

    1. She had a bunch of students facing backwards, but he was the only one by himself in the corner facing backwards.

      I have no idea what her logic was.

      She also taught by saying, “Open your math book to Page X and do problems 1-25. Ask me if you have questions.” and then sat down.

      A bunch of girls went up to her and she spent the next hour giggling and teaching the girls how to do the math problems. The boys all stayed at their desks and had to figure it out on their own.

      There were A LOT more problems than just the desk.

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