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Science Saturday What we learn in school and why

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi teaching a class. It is thanks to the famous 18th century educational reformer that illiteracy was almost completely overcome in Switzerland by 1830


The subjects taught at Swiss schools are a reflection of society’s expectations, a pioneering national research project shows.

It also illustrates how the teaching system in schools and the allocation of resources to individual subjects have changed since 1830 in Switzerland’s three main language regions, according to a statement by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).external link

The scientists from five universities and colleges found that the school performs a fundamental social role and that what is taught is subjected to a permanent process of renegotiation.

“The knowledge system in schools is ultimately a normative standard that can only be understood in a social and historical context,” says Lucien Criblez of Zurich University and SNSF project manager.

Foreign languages

“There are, for example, no scientifically decisive findings telling us which foreign language we should learn first. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. The answer can thus only be the outcome of a negotiating process,” he says.

The scientists concluded that foreign languages were introduced as a school subject for economic reasons in the 19th century. Only many years later did foreign languages – German or French, depending whether the school was located – have a role in supporting national unity.

Language teaching initially focused on the essentials of reading and writing, with grammar and literature only being added much later.

A group of more than 20 researchers from Switzerland’s German, French and Italian language regions analysed school curricula from a select number of cantons covering a period of about 150 years.

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