20 Surprising Cultural Differences in Schools Around the World

U.S. classrooms are SO different than ones around the world.

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School children around the globe gather in classrooms to learn. Though there are many similarities in how schools function and in their basic purpose, there are also many differences in the details of what a typical school day is like from one culture to the next.

As our world becomes more interconnected, it is helpful to look carefully at our differences so we can better understand each other. Here, we have collected some surprising ways in which the customs and routines in schools around the world are different from U.S. schools. Consider sharing these intercultural facts with your students to help them become more culturally aware, curious, open minded, respectful, and tolerant of others.

1. From One Classroom to the Next.

From floating classrooms in Brazil to makeshift spots in Pakistani parks, the spaces where teaching and learning occur can differ greatly depending on where you live. This Washington Post article gives a snapshot of 15 classrooms around the world.

2. Get Your Global Game on.

Have you ever chased a ball of cheese down a hill (England) or played a game similar to football on ice (Russia)? Check out this Around the World in 80 Games infographic showing many of the weird and wonderful games from different cultures. Also check out this roundup of Traditional Children’s Games from Around the World, which shows how children in Venezuela, China, and many other countries play different versions of the same games.

3. A Perfect 10.

In the United States, the grading system usually used grades of A, B, C, D, and F. So if you do really well on a test, you might get 100% or A+. By comparison, the grading system in Mexico is 1-10. No, this isn’t out of 100.  A grade of 9 or 10 is muy bien!

4. No Boys (or Girls) Allowed.

While there are some single sex schools in America, all boys and girls in Iran go to separate schools. Use this as a good discussion topic with your students. Ask your students to compare and reflect on what it might be like to be in a single-sex classroom.

5. The Most Important Meal of the Day

Breakfast cereal or eggs, you say? School children in many other cultures begin their day with foods ranging from minty spicy fish (Thailand) to a clear broth soup and a fermented vegetable dish called Kimchi (Korea). Lunch can be quite different, too. Check out this great article with pictures of school lunches from around the world.


6. The Ubiquitous 3-Ring Binder.

This one is not so common outside the U.S. and Canada. Schools in countries like Italy, Germany, and elsewhere have standard paper and binder sets with 2 or 4 rings. Go figure!

7. Thumbs Up?

If you ask your students how things are going and they give you the thumbs up, chances are that’s a pretty good sign in many countries, including the U.S., Australia, Russia, Finland, Egypt, and Israel. However, the same response in Bangladesh, Iran, or Thailand might mean a trip to the principal’s office. Find out what other hand signals are A-OK in some cultures and not so nice in others here.

8. Saddle Up Your Donkey.

Hopping on a big yellow school bus is a familiar step for schoolchildren in the U.S. that many of us take for granted. In other parts of the world, the transportation to and from school can be a bit less direct. Try riding a donkey for an hour-long journey across a desert in Brazil or walking a 30-foot high tightrope across a river in Sumatra, Indonesia. Check out these and other unusual and downright dangerous school commutes in these videos: Journeys to School and Kids Who Risk Their Lives Going to School.

9. How Much Homework?

According to this infographic, school children in Russia have the most homework per week (nearly 10 hours) and also the highest literacy rate in the world. Do you think there’s a correlation?

SOURCE: eLearning Infographics

10. From A to Zzzzz.

In Spain, the school day runs from around 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. and then starts back up after an hour-and-a-half break to go home for lunch and a siesta. The midday meal and nap is sacred to many, and though the custom is being challenged as out of step with modern ways, it endures in much of the country.

11. First Day Jitters.

The first day of school can be quite different from one culture to the next. According to this article from Kid World Citizen, everyone celebrates the beginning of school in Saudi Arabia with three days of celebrations. Teachers bring flowers and food and the days are filled with activities to help everyone become familiar with the new faces and routines.

12. An Esteemed Profession.

In Finland, all teachers are required to have a master’s degree, and only the top 10% are accepted into teaching programs, which are subsidized by the state. Fins have as much regard for the teaching profession as they do for their doctors and lawyers. They also don’t really assign much homework, but they’re still highly successful. Learn more about their habits here.

13. There’s Just No Substitute.

American teacher Trevor Huxham recounts his time teaching in Spain and the many differences he noticed in his blog, A Texan in Spain. He observes, “Unless somebody has to take an extended leave of absence (recovery from surgery, honeymoon, new baby, etc.), there aren’t any substitute teachers. Instead, other teachers fill in for their colleagues as needed during their off-periods.”

14. Shoes Optional.

Kids in New Zealand and Australia are not required to wear shoes to school. That is just one of the ways that schools down under have a looser approach to letting kids be kids.

15. How Do You LOL in Other Cultures?

If you send a French colleague a funny text, he or she may send back a quick MDR, which stands for mort de rire, or literally, to die of laughing. But your French pals might consider it rude to actually laugh or speak too loudly into a cellphone. Check out these and other cellphone etiquette rules of French students.

16. The Power of Color.

Colors can mean different things depending on cultural upbringing. Orange in Western cultures can symbolize warmth and harvest, for example, whereas in the Middle East it can mean mourning and loss. This article shows other similarities and differences in the colors we choose around the globe.

17. Uniform-ity!

In some countries, such as Mexico, Nigeria, and Malaysia, the public school children are all required to wear uniforms. In Japan there are also strict rules about hairstyles, shoes, socks, skirt length, and more. Wikipedia gives a rundown of the school uniform rules and styles in more than 40 countries. Also check out this beautiful photo essay that shows some of the spiffiest school wardrobes around!

SOURCE: Bright Side

18. Look Me in the Eye.

Your U.S. students are taught to make eye contact when speaking, and you might think that a student who avoids eye contact is hiding something. In some cultures, however, direct eye contact isn’t common. For instance in Japan, it might be inappropriate for a student to look a teacher in the eye. Here are other examples of what eye contact might mean for different cultures.

19. All in Tune.

Music classes and using songs to teach is a common thread in schools around the world. However, the approach can vary, which makes for a great area for your students to study and compare. We like the World Rhymes YouTube Channel for this. It has versions of familiar songs, such as The Wheels on the Bus and the ABC song in many languages.

20. International Geographic.

A geography lesson in most countries will confirm that there are seven continents–Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and Antarctica. In parts of the world, such as Colombia, however, students learn that there are just five continents: Eurasia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and the Americas. Click here for an explanation of how some geographers interpret the physical land masses and the cultural connections of their inhabitants.