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British education vs. American education

September 15, 2008

At the workplace, I find it hard not to miss subtle differences in attitude between the British-educated and the American-educated person. I consider Singapore and Malaysian-educated people as British educated as their education is derived from the British system.

I’ll try not to stereotype so I’ll use the word ‘generally’. Generally I find US-educated people to be less formal and more likely to take risks than their British educated colleagues (asking questions in a staff meeting is a risk). The way they write is also different, like how they would start and conclude their formal letters, with long and stiff salutations and all.

I recall how we were conditioned in the US system, at least the one I was in. Yes we were informal. We wore whatever we liked. We were encouraged to ask questions, even to pose a challenge to the instructor. One of my classmates brought his dog to class everyday. Another guy once showed up with his parrot. It can’t beat one of my professors who turned up in a dolphin suit one day. He had just returned from a ball game and didn’t have time to change. My physics professor would bring candy. He’d ask questions and if anyone gave an answer – whether its right or wrong – he’d throw a candy bar to him or her as a reward. And once during early autumn we had a sociololgy class out in an open field, complete with barbecue.

The syllabus was quite liberal too. Apart from the usual dry math-and-science subjects, there were fun subjects you could get credit for. I took up bowling. You could also take golf, music, drama, and a bunch of other stuff many people here would raise their eyebrows to. In fact you can’t graduate unless you take a few of these so-called ‘electives’. Maybe they wanted to make sure you don’t end up square like Spongebob. The subtle underlying point was a simple one. Be original. Be different. Be something new.

And its heartening to see the outcome of such bold craziness. MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, and a bunch of live-changing inventions. Not bad.

I’m not sure what goes on in the British system but it does appear that form and compliance is very important. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Never question authority. Tradition above all. I don’t know if its true for all British grads but its just something I observe.

I was managing talent for a brief period when I had this thought. If you want someone innovative, someone who dreams and thinks out of the box, get an American-educated dude. If you want a serious worker, someone who plays by the book, get a British educated dude. You need both types in any organization.

Yes I know people can be different individually. This is just a general pattern that I notice. I wonder if anyone else sees the same thing.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2008 12:20 pm

    Yes, I generally agree with your observations on the British system. It’s formal and very exam orientated. Unfortunately our education system have only exacerbated this emphasis by our yearly worship of straights A’s students in PMR, SPM and STPM.

    Speaking from experience, British education tends to focus greatly on exams. Take the Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) exams, for example. In the CLP exams, there are 5 papers on a strict 3 hours exam. Under such stressful conditions, one’s memory is tested more than one’s understanding. It’s not very fair too for those who can’t write fast or take the stressfulness of these exams.

    I feel the American system of CGPA is more balanced, though there might be flaws too, that I am unaware of :)

  2. September 15, 2008 2:46 pm

    ahh really. its really enlightning to read this as i wasnt really expose to different kind of people like u.. but i think there’s some truth in it .. =)

  3. September 15, 2008 9:49 pm

    The American education system inspires students to think out of the box and form their own opinion about the world. I’m privileged to have been in that system even for a short while. Unlike our current and ever changing education system (that’s another topic altogether) where it’s purely examination based and from what I’ve seen, students aren’t encourage to form their own thoughts and most of them memorize from what they’ve learned in class.

    The American education passing mark is 60 and students are encourage to excel based on that, unlike in Malaysia we based our passing marks based our many failures we have in PMR or SPM. Aren’t we spoon feeding our students enough?

  4. September 15, 2008 9:50 pm

    oopss…spelling mistake :D

    *unlike in Malaysia we base our passing marks on how many failures we have in PMR & SPM.

  5. Damien permalink*
    September 15, 2008 10:22 pm

    @avatar, the US system has exams too but its designed in such a way that flunking an exam doesn’t mean you’ll flunk the course. One of the nice things is the open book exam because it changes the challenge. Its no longer how much you can memorize but how quickly you can assemble bits of info from many sources. How’s that for mental gymnastics. :)

    @cbenc12, actually I wouldn’t have noticed it all if they didn’t ask me to help out in my HR in my last job. You learn a lot when you try new things. :)

    @dee, I notice local colleges do try to mimic the US system by going on semester and GPA system but leaving the stiff old British philosophy intact. Still, I do feel there are some good things about the British system. Memorizing is actually necessary under certain conditions. You don’t want your doctor to start looking for a reference book when diagnosing you. But memorizing for the sake of memorizing is pointless. Discouraging independent thought is even worse. It just puts a glass ceiling over an otherwise bright population.

  6. September 21, 2008 10:51 am

    Interesting read!

    Having been through both education systems (british for my primary and secondary education and American for my college and uni education) I find that I love the American way of teaching more. I find it broadens your mind more and it’s really true. Most of my american-educated friends are more open to ideas, more well-read and balanced compared to my british-educated friends, no offence to anyone, but I find some ot the local grads the worst lot! Because everything is so focused on exams and grades, the learning and questioning part of the education process is stifled and not developed.

    Having said that, I’ve seen a couple of british educated people who questions just as much as an american graduate :)… so I guess it sometimes depends on the individual :)

    The Brits seem to have trouble re-inventing their systems. They’ve lost nearly every manufacturing asset to Germany and the US in the last 2 decades. I love the country and its people but they have to look less to the past and more to the present if they wanna succeed long term.

  7. toby permalink
    October 8, 2008 9:40 pm

    The British public schools are as good as it gets imho, the traditionalist hard working stereotype is actually very productive, especially when combined with modern creative thinking and, as a bonus, inspiring teachers.

    I did A-level biology, physics, art and maths (AAAA) and a lot of the internet resources we used in AS and A2 were american university websites. Which confirms what I have often heard about the last year of A-level being equivalent to first year of ‘college’.

    I am currently choosing universities in my gap year, and would only choose somewhere like harvard or yale due to the reputation or ‘brand name’ and the super liberal atmosphere described above. While one can get a superb education in the States, American degrees are described as too broad and are seen as second rate by many companies.

    I have a friend in his final year of chinese and economics at Yale, yet he was still forced to take chemistry classes – madness!

    Having said that, where the American universities stand out is in graduate studies, where the liberal attitude combined with the enormous funding available is very successful.

    Yes, my friends who have attended public schools in the UK have said the same things and they’ve all got great jobs. You are right about A levels being the same as freshman college. I was told by some Malaysian students that the 2nd semester algebra is form 5 stuff in Malaysia!

    If education is a process then I evaluate it by looking at the end results. The British footprint in tech advancement is shrinking. Its been absent in breaking physics (except for Stephen Hawking), space technology, biotech, etc. US colleges get very little funding from the state. Most of it is private, and such funding is a function of perceived potential regardless of location. A lot of foreign money went into building the Hadron Collider in Bern for example. The Yanks are all over the place there but I hardly see any Brits.

    Good luck on your search for a US grad school. You’ll enjoy it there I’m sure. :)

  8. Jakarot permalink
    November 10, 2008 11:45 pm

    Well it seems thats it all to clear…
    the English system is > than the American curriculum..

    but say.. if the an American student takes ‘AP’ classes.
    Is he/she
    still better than the English system????

    What is an ‘AP’ class?

  9. jakarot permalink
    November 17, 2008 11:37 am

    The Advanced Placement Program is a program that offers college level courses at high schools across the United States and Canada. According to the Good Schools Guide International, it is “usually much more rigorous than the general course offerings.”

  10. jakarot permalink
    November 17, 2008 11:43 am

    Format
    The AP English Language and Composition exam consists of two sections, a one-hour multiple-choice section and a two-hour and fifteen-minute free-response section. The exam is further divided as follows:

    Section I: Multiple-Choice Section
    55 Questions – 45% of Grade

    II: Free-Response
    03 Questions – 55% of Grade

  11. jakarot permalink
    November 17, 2008 11:45 am

    I personally believe, one whom takes this course will surpass the British system…

    What do you think?

  12. jakarot permalink
    November 17, 2008 11:45 am

    In English that is…

  13. Damien permalink*
    November 17, 2008 3:22 pm

    Hi Jakarot, I think any education that opens itself to creative critique is better than one that does not. Free response questions is an opportunity for creative critique. Life does not always offer a predetermined menu of answers for people to pick as such exams would have us believe.

    The bigger point I was trying to make is that a good education includes stuff outside mere textbooks. The difference is in the very definition of education. What I like about US education is the way it encourages you to think outside the box as opposed to punishing you for being unconventional. It requires you to stand up a lot and say your piece. Show and tell, the science project, term papers, etc. You do have to memorize concepts but it lets you participate in a lot of things the British would laugh as nonsensical. I don’t see the Brits giving you extra credit for taking up a semester of bowling for example.

    The British value tradition highly. They love uniforms, rules and convention. They’ve had a rich past but unfortunately they’re now struggling to compete. I have a feeling education has a lot to do with it.

  14. jakarot permalink
    November 18, 2008 2:49 am

    I’ve been in the british system for 6 years…
    I know what its like, although i can’t chose/decide
    which system is >

    I know the British does ?

    thanks for time =)

    I’m not sure how similar is the imported US system compared to the real thing in the US. You can import textbooks and syllabus but I doubt you can import attitudes.

    Anyway, good luck in your search.

  15. jakarot permalink
    November 19, 2008 2:38 am

    thanks …

  16. Rohail permalink
    December 22, 2008 1:13 am

    I have been associated with the British educational system for the last 14 years. I know it is quite tough but it is also more focused than the American educational system which, in turn, makes it more practical.

  17. Felicity permalink
    February 10, 2009 2:59 am

    I grew up in Britain, did O and A levels there in the 80s and then came to a “public Ivy” university in the States. My kids are now growing up in the Amercan system. I want to say that being released from Britain and entering a U.S. university was like having my brain taken out of a matchbox. Suddenly I was in a classroom being allowed, nay encouraged, to think, discuss argue even in first-year classes. Public speaking was mandatory as were presentations, paper/undergraduate thesis defenses and the four-year undergraduate program requires all students to be well-rounded even though they specialize in their “major” the last two years and, of course, in graduate school. I don’t see how Britain can compete in the creative and scientific fields with rote learning up through undergraduate school. British students live in fear of not knowing the “right answer” for exams and fear is no way to create brilliant minds.

    Just a hunch but could it be because the US and UK have different intents on education. The US may be pushing education as a process that helps you engage with society and perhaps life enrichment (why else would they give credit hours for learning golf and bowling?) while in the UK, its simply a process for you to get a job.

  18. February 19, 2009 8:15 am

    As someone who is currently studying her A Levels at a British grammar school, I can’t say that I agree with much of what has been said above. I think people are quick to disparage the British system of education, but the fact that the second year of A Levels is equal to the first year of College in America must surely be an indication that we’re doing something right?

    I know for a fact that many British universities refuse to take American students unless they’ve either done A Levels or have completed a foundation year/course in their chose subject, because the American High School qualifications are so unreliable. I have some friends in American High Schools and from what they tell me it appears that the focus is too broad, there’s too much freedom and not enough structure, the subjects studied can be very obscure and there’s not enough incentive to do well in exams. All of which make me feel that, whilst the British system is by no means perfect, nor is it irreparably flawed.

    I see where you’re coming from. If we can know a tree by its fruit, the fact that the US and Europe are in the sorry state they’re in today says a lot about the inadequacies of both systems.

  19. March 10, 2009 6:31 pm

    education depends on the individual, but i would vouch for british education for my kids any day. i think the brits are disciplined though i frown on their strict and overstretched way of life. i would want my kids to have holidays in the US but definately have a UK education. i have had a little of both so i know what i am talking about.

  20. Nanny105 permalink
    April 29, 2009 12:17 pm

    It’s funny… you guys are simply comparing the ‘general’ curriculum of the american syllabus. you fail to understand that there are a fourth of students in ‘Les Etats Unis’ who are taking a higher curriculum classes… based on AP classes and Honor classes

    taking an AP class and successfully passing the test gives you college credits. therefore equaling the British… and,
    unlike taking Physics for 4 years… you take it once
    (American syllabus) and its worth one year of taking college physics
    making it harder than the british syllabus…
    One can take AP Physics in their 10 year

    p.s. I’m not an american student more of a teacher who has done her A/L in Britain… Manchester

    And damien
    Do a bit of research regarding AP classes and THE AMERICAN CURRICULUM

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Placement_Program

    It’s easy…

    Thanks for the info Ms. Nanny, I’ll look it up. :)

  21. December 8, 2009 4:28 pm

    hey there, i know this is a really old blog. pardon me but i am currently contemplating taking MA in linguistics and literature and wants to know which has the better education system: british or americans, hence the visit here. i hope you don’t mind.

    oh well, judging from your article and the exchange of comments here, i guess i know where am going.

    thanks for sharing this.

    anyeong from south korea ^^

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