By Katie Ayers

Teacher Training and Pedagogy in Switzerland and Surrounding Countries

When I found out I had been accepted to the 2017 Global Perspectives Program through VT, I was ecstatic. There were a number of firsts on this trip – I had never travelled overseas, never taken a train across any country boarders, never been in a place where the people don’t speak English as their first language (or pretty close to it). I had also never really thought much about the differences between Swiss and American schooling standards. When it came time to pick a topic we wanted to explore during our time abroad, I had just taken the graduate school’s pedagogy and Preparing the Future Professoriate courses and finished teaching my own Women’s Studies 1824 class, so I was thinking pretty pedagogically. I was also becoming aware of the fact that I did not feel at all prepared to teach more classes with the little pedagogical training I had received. I wanted to know if folks in other countries felt the same way I did, or if they were more prepared through the training they received. So, I chose to explore the types of pedagogical and teacher training they receive before they are released on their own classes. Turns out, it is not a whole lot more than I have gotten so far, but the way they conceive of their education pipeline for students is wholly different. In what follows, I will explain the differences in education, describe what I noted about teacher training, and wrap-up with why I think America would do well to adopt some Swiss educational traditions.

Swiss Educational System

The following is from a blog post I wrote May 25, while in Basel, Switzerland. It was called Vocational Training for (Almost) Everyone)! The post explains the Swiss educational system in more detail than I remember now:

In the past three days, our group has visited the University of Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) (both in Zurich, Swiss)), the University of Basel, the School of Arts and Design (both in Basel, Swiss), and the University of Strasbourg (in Strasbourg, France)! Holy cow, that’s a lot of universities to take in.

One of the coolest insights I’ve had so far, and one reason I’m really starting to like the Swiss system, is about the value they place of technical and vocational education. Where in America, there is a class stratification between who attends a 4-year university, a 2-year community college, and no schooling beyond a high school diploma, the same is not true in Switzerland.

Rather than automatically spend 2-4 years in college post high school whether or not they’re ready, students can opt to move into the Vocational Education system, start an apprenticeship right away. From there, the student gains hands-on job skills and can eventually earn a number of federal certificates of higher education through work and testing and eventually a federal diploma of higher education.

A look at the Swiss educational system. On the left are the vocational track pathways.

Given that many more students opt for the vocational track (see chart below), clearly it’s not seen as a second-rate option but rather just a different life course. According to the 2017 Swiss Report on Vocational Training (it’s in English):

The Swiss VPET system enables young people to enter the labour market and ensures that there are enough skilled workers and managers in the future. It has a high labour market relevance and is an integral part of the education system.

And the students are not getting an inferior education, rather they’re just starting their specialized training earlier and beginning to earn real money sooner. A Time Magazine article on the vocational system in Switzerland reports on a 19-year-old male vocational student

This spring, after he completed his three-year business training at an insurance company, the 19-year-old was hired by a telecommunications firm; his job as a customer care representative offers a starting salary of $52,000 a year, a generous annual bonus, and a four-week paid vacation – no small potatoes for the teenager who is still living at home and has no plans to move out.

What if America began valuing vocational education students on the same level as those who attend bachelor’s program? How would that change our social class stratification at all? Could it even work?

Probably not, according to the Time Magazine article. Mostly because

…the idea of ‘sorting’ high school kids into different tracks, with some going to college and others into vocational programs, is unacceptable.” The VET program such as it exists in Switzerland would require a higher degree of market and business regulations, which would (also) be overwhelmingly rejected in America.

It seems a shame really. With less debt for students and more qualified students entering the workforce, and even getting trained by the companies that hire them, the Swiss systems seems like a win-win for everyone.

Teacher Training Differences

            Perhaps because many of the universities were visited were technology-focused institutions, there did not seem to be much of an emphasis placed on a broad (what we would call) liberal arts education. There is also some truth that much of what is covered in the first two years of our university time is done in their high school years. But still it felt like there was an emphasis placed on skill-building rather than a broad base of knowledge. Much of the graduate training that happened was preparing students to become future researchers, rather than great instructors. (Although more than one professor emphasized that the most senior researchers tend to teach the youngest college students in order to inspire them early on – a change from America where any number of classes are taught by Teaching Assistants who may not know what they are doing). The one place that emphasized pedagogical training was SUPSI, University of Applied Sciences of Italian Switzerland. Unsurprisingly to me, they were also the most humanities-inclusive and interdisciplinary.

I explained my infatuation with them, and (I will highlight) the information about the teaching training they require, in a May 30 blog post entitled Dear SUPSI – I Love You:

Dear SUPSI,

I love you. It’s true.

You, the University of Applied Sciences of Italian Switzerland, have stolen my heart.

And it all started with this hands-on computer programming board.

This thing – the computer programming folks wrote the program, the engineers designed and built it, and it could potentially be given to the elementary education students to use with the little children.

Instead of staring at a screen, mashing mouse buttons and being still, little ones can play with a circuit board that forces the children to place shapes on the board correctly to create a path that when finished leads to a fun outcome.

Also, this solar panel project.

Most of the panels look like what we expect, but (and it’s hard to see) if you look to the very left there are some beautifully designed panels. Combining solar panel engineering with architectural and art design to create an aesthetically pleasing panel typical homeowners will want to buy? What a novel concept!

True interdisciplinarity at its finest.

So often in the US, and in some of the universities we’ve visited on our trip, interdisciplinary teaching and learning means sharing a classroom space with folks from other departments learning about a similar subject for a few weeks. Ideally, folks learn from each other in ways not possible when they’re only with other students in their discipline. More often, it feels to me like the different disciplines just talk past each other.

Another thing I love about you SUPSI? Your focus on application of the skills the students learn right from the beginning of their BA degrees. Many of your instructors are still working in their own fields and then spend part of their time teaching their trade to the students at SUPSI.

Best of all?? Your instructors must have pedagogy training!!! And it has to be done within the first three years of being hired. So not only do your instructors have real-world experience, but they also learn best teaching practices and about the theory of teaching to better serve your students!!!

The BA is three years, and in each of the 6 semesters your students are working on real-world projects with folks from different fields (majors) working on the same project. There are no academic silos here; rather, students work together to create solutions not possible without input from other areas.

Last thing and then I’m done – I love the different BA degrees which You consider “applied” – including non-traditional ones like visual communication, social work, music and theater, and primary and high school teaching, along with degrees in things like civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, computer science that most people associate with “applied science.”

Including those first degrees in an “applied science” university elevates their status in ways I don’t think we do in the US. No more parents asking their children “what are you going to do with a degree in theater or music or art?” Instead, because you have an eye always on the practical application of skills outside the university, and your students work with teachers who have spent time in the profession, students are prepared to leave the university with a job in hand.

And for most students, that’s the case. Over 95 percent of your students are employed in their field within a year of graduation.

So yes, dear SUPSI, I love you. I graduate in 2019. Please love me back.

And hire me.

Adopting a Swiss Way of Doing Education

Overall, I think there is some real value in the way the Swiss do education. While a lot of the teacher training and focus on research is similar to America, the differences in who teaches which classes, and the focus on applied skills I think could be successfully imported here. If instructors and new professors are not going to get much pedagogical training, it seems to me it would be better to let them teach the higher-level courses while the more senior professors (who have figured out what works for them through trial and error) can teach and inspire the new students. This would also allow the junior professors to focus on their research (perhaps bringing it into the classes they teach) while gaining practice at explaining their research and working with more senior students who might need less guidance.

I also really like the idea that people working in their fields of practice who then want to teach at a university level have to take pedagogy courses within the first three years of being hired. This has the dual benefit of providing students the option to learn from someone who has been doing the work they aspire to do, but also forces the practitioners to learn best practices for teaching the skills they have already mastered.

Lastly, I would love to import to the US is the value on those applied skills. Often the students in Switzerland gain skills through apprenticeship programs at what might be considered community colleges in the US, and yet none of the stigma exists around those programs. As the Time magazine article in the first blog above attests, people in Switzerland see learning while working as a smart investment, whereas I think often people in the US see community college as a step in the right direction, but it is not valued as an end goal in the same way that attending a four-year university is, and I wish that was not the case.