Teaching Education through Culture

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
Nelson Mandela

The topic of Education is quite recurrent in many exams like the University Entry Exam, IELTS, First Certificate in English (FCE), or the Official Language School Exam. So, I found pretty necessary to introduce a few concepts about American and British school systems, some vocabulary, collocations and idioms to be able to tackle some reading comprehension tasks, for instance. This lesson is aimed at this level (B1-B2)


Ask your students about the following:

What do you know about school systems and curricula around the world?

What kind of extra-curricular activities have you done during your school life?

What kind of problems did you face at school? Bullying, etc.

Is education evolving at the same time as the society?

Let them discuss that in pairs. Once they have finished, get some students to summarise their ideas to the rest of the class.

Finally, project the following video: Thank a teacher today

Discuss with your students what makes a teacher a great one.

2.Comparison of two school systems

For increasing numbers of people in Britain and America, education no longer means just compulsory schooling. Early learning and pre-school education are now considered essential for building a foundation for future learning, and most people continue studying beyond school-leaving age. These are the following main points to take into account.

UK: Compulsory educational stages: compulsory between the ages of 5 to 16 except in Northern Ireland, 4 to 16.

Different educational stages:

· Nursery school: 3 to 5 years old.

· Primary school: 5 to 11 years old (at the end they take the SATS – Standard Assessment Test).

· Secondary School: 11 to 16 years old (at 16, they take GCSE – General Certificate of Secondary Education).

· 6th Form: 16 to 18 years old (at 18, they take the A Levels Exams).

· University: 18 to 21 years old.

Types of Schools: Comprehensive schools, grammar schools, public schools, boarding schools.

Types of curricula: National Curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, general rules in Scotland.

Administration: Most schools are controlled by local education authorities (LEAs), but some receive funds from central government sources.

US: Compulsory educational stages: compulsory between the ages of 6 to 16.

Different educational stages:

Pre-school: 3 to 5 years old.

Kindergarten: 5 to 6 years old.

Elementary school: 6 to 11 years.

Junior High School: 12 to 14 years.

Senior High School: 14 to 18 years (at 18, they take the SATs -Standard Aptitude Tests).

University College: 18 to 21 years.

Types of schools: Public schools, private schools.

Types of curricula: In the United States there is no equivalent to the British National Curriculum and the educational system varies considerably across states.

Administration: Public schools are funded and administered locally, and, therefore, there is often a significant difference in the quality of education students receive depending on the area where they live.

Interesting Facts

In the US, every Monday morning, students have to stand up to salute the flag while the National Anthem is played and afterwards have to say the Pledge of Allegiance (ritual by which, US students swear their loyalty to the American flag and constitution. Founded in 1534, Cambridge University Press is the world’s oldest printing and publishing house, and the second largest university press in the world.


3.Concepts to keep in mind:

Ask your students to define the following concepts.

National Curriculum: general guidelines, mainly regarding subjects to study and exams, followed by the educational centres of a country.

Comprehensive school: state schools of the UK that admit pupils without reference to ability.

Grammar school: public schools of the UK, which select students according to their academic skills.

Public school: private schools of the UK that are extremely prestigious, expensive and exclusive.

Boarding school: schools where students live in shared rooms or dormitories on the school campus University tuition fees: a charge made by the administering of a course or an examination.

To introduce universities studies in both countries, it would be preferable to give some input about cultural background. For example, in the United States, many universities are built on campuses, away from urban centres. Campuses are like little towns with their facilities and students can earn extra money working on campus. During their university years, British tend to go to a university in a different city from the one they live in, flaring flats with other students or residing in students’ halls of residence. However, this trend is now changing with the increasing of the university tuition fees and the cost of accommodation. Prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, or Harvard and Princetown in the US are very selective, admitting only students of very high academic ability. A degree from one of these universities can open doors to the increasingly competitive job market. Traditionally in America and the UK, students have to take out loans to pay their university fees and living expenses. The result is that people are often in debt when they are in their thirties. This has had a significant influence on the kind of subjects students study; their priority is often a well-paid job.

Ask your students to think about university life in Britain and the States and how may the students feel. They can rely on what they have seen in movies, TV shows, etc. A suggested answer would be the following:

‘In the US universities tend to be of the campus style, students may feel a strong sense of identity with the University through the support of its sports teams, for instance. Because the universities are private, and fees are high, facilities tend to be excellent. Universities mostly have good libraries and concert halls and their newspapers, radio or TV stations, often run by students themselves. Most universities services are student run, and so students can usually find part-time employment quickly. Most students live in dormitories and occasionally in shared houses. A classic and much-disputed feature of American universities are fraternity and sorority houses, which often have an air of elitism and have bizarre and frequently painful induction procedures. In the UK, the most prestigious universities tend to form an integral part of the city centre. Social life is centred around student unions which also serve as venues for pop concerts and night clubs. Students live in either hall of residence or shared flats. Facilities are less luxurious than in the United States though again newspapers and radio stations are relatively common. Students generally identify less with their university than in the US’.

In the second session you can write the following sentence on the whiteboard:

quote learn

 ‘Tell me and I forget / Teach me, and I remember / Involve me and I learn’ (Benjamin Franklin)
Discuss the quote with your students and ask them to give some examples.

Food for thought: Another Brick in the Wall (video clip by Pink Floyd)

Schools have been called many things, from a social laboratory to a factory. But it is also a battleground in which the views and ideas of government, education experts, teachers and students are often in conflict. The issues are many, varying from the representation and respect of ethnic and religious minorities to diametrically opposed teaching methodologies, from the right to self- expression and freedom of thought to the need for order and discipline. Considering the central role school plays in our education and personal development it should be a place that opens up to new fields of knowledge and experience. But could it be also a tool for manipulation? Project the famous video clip, Another Brick in the Wall by the British band Pink Floyd. Study the song lines with them. Ask them what they think about the meaning of the phrase ‘another brick in the wall’, enhance criticism and the autonomy of thought. Let them speak about rules, discipline, metaphors shown in the clip. The answer is wide open but just to give an example, it could be like this: ‘The idea of the brick may suggest that student can feel as interchangeable pieces of a machine characterised by excessive discipline, uniformity and anonymity. The wall can represent a barrier to open- ness, a form of prison or enclosure designed to keep minds equally closed and limited in their horizons’.

It would be fascinating to get your students think about other sound walls that separate people (Gaza, Berlin, etc.).



As some school systems, The English language has got some rigid structure that cannot be changed even though some words have got synonyms. In fact, collocations, are a familiar grouping of words that habitually appear together by conveying a meaning. Here’s some collocations related to Education and learning situations:

Write them on the board and ask different students to write an example for each of them.

Make a mistake – progress: Despite making some mistakes, you’re making great progress in Maths!

Get marks (good / bad): I got pretty bad marks this term, I should have studied more! 

Get a degree: I got a degree in French Studies.

Do a course: I’m doing a course on creative writing

Do a subject (Art, History, etc.): I’m doing History and Geography

Do a research: I’ve done a research in Compared Literatures.

Go to class: I go to yoga class every Tuesday. Go to lectures: I love going to Mr. Smith lectures, they are fascinating.


Idioms are very useful to show your fluency in English. The best way to memorise them is to picture them. Encourage your student to create flashcards with the phrase, the example and an image that will help them to remember it. For example, ‘learn by heart’ and a heart, ‘hit the books’ and a boxing glove, etc. There are many idioms related to Learning and Education:

· Practice makes perfect: Keep drawing drafts of graphic design assignment, practice will make it perfect.

· To learn by doing: I need to practice Maths with more exercises, I must learn by doing. 

· To learn by heart: Irregular Verbs are a list that you must learn by heart.

· To pick up: I don’t know any grammar rule, I picked up my Italian from the streets. 

· To be a straight A student: Martina is such a straight-A student, she studies hard and have excellent results.

· Couch potato: My brother does nothing all day long, he’s such a couch potato.

· A night owl: My friend Ana starts studying late at 10 p.m, she is a night owl.

· To hit the books: I have an important exam next week, I must hit the books now.

Education under the Apartheid

Due the recent death of Nelson Mandela, I’ve introduced the issue of the education under the Apartheid and the influence of Nelson Mandela in modern South Africa and how Education can determine and segregate society.

Project the map of South Africa on the white board and ask your student what do they know about South Africa besides the World Cup of Football and Vuvuzelas… Write Apartheid on the board, analyse the word, what is inside Apartheid? Apart, what do they think it means? Leave aside, separate, segregate, divide.

Introduce some historical dates:

· 1814. The British acquire South Africa from the Dutch.

· 1899-1902. After a war between Dutch settlers and British, the Victorian Empire wins. · 1948: The Boers (white descendants of Dutch colonists) impose ‘Apartheid’, a system of racial segregation based on the pol- icy of ‘divide and rule’. Segregated from the Whites, the non-White majority population were further divided along ethnic lines into a high number of groups so that they were no longer able to question the authority of the government. Black South Africans were removed to poor residential areas. Discrimination began at school, where they received an inferior education. White children meanwhile received a colonial education designed to convince them of their racial superiority.

· 1994: End of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela elected president.

Project the following text on the white board and read:

“The Bantu Education Act (No. 47) of 1953 widened the gaps in educational opportu- nities for different racial groups. Two of the architects of Bantu education, Dr. W.M. Eiselen and Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, had studied in Germany and had adopted many elements of National Socialist (Nazi) philosophy. The concept of racial “purity,” in particular, provided a rationalisation for keeping black education inferior. Verwoerd, then minister of native affairs, said black Africans “should be educated for their opportunities in life,” and that there was no place for them “above the level of certain forms of labour.” The government also tightened its control over religious high schools by eliminating almost all financial aid, forcing many churches to sell their schools to the government or close them entirely.

Christian National Education supported the NP program of apartheid by calling on educators to reinforce cultural diversity and to rely on “mother-tongue” instruc- tion in the first years of primary school. This philosophy also espoused the idea that a person’s social responsibilities and political opportunities are defined, in large part, by that person’s ethnic identity. The government also gave strong management control to the school boards, who were elected by the parents in each district. Official attitudes toward African education were paternalistic, based on trusteeship and segregation. Black education was not supposed to drain government resources away from white education. The number of schools for blacks increased during the 1960s, but their curriculum was designed to prepare children for low-paid jobs. The government spending on black education slipped to one-tenth of spending on whites in the 1970s. Black schools had inferior facilities, teachers, and textbooks”. So, what was the problem under the Apartheid and what is one of the main concerns for contemporary South Africa? One of the most urgent issues is the renewal of the country’s education system since it is rooted in Apartheid and it’s one of the causes for the inequality between Black and Whites. Actually, the big issue nowadays is how to teach young South Africans about the history of the country in a way that it won’t inspire any hate towards Whites. But the sad fact is that many top jobs in South Africa are still held by Whites while South African schoolchildren are losing interest in history and think that the Apartheid happened in a distant past. There is still much inequality and inter-tribal conflict in the country, and it will take many years to reverse the disastrous effects of Apartheid. But the question remains: Could it happen again?

For any follow-up, there is a very interesting documentary by the BBC about Mandela on youtube.com. also a biopic has just been premiered in cinemas all around the world. Finally, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus shows the post-Apartheid government through the national rugby team. About the influence of education on ideologies, the German film Die Welle is very repre- sentative of the fact that intolerance can happen despite being taught about previous mistakes like nazism.


Marsland,B .2009. Lessons from Nothing. Cambridge: CUP

Scrivener, J. 2005. Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan Education

Spratt, M; Pulverness, A. &Williams, M.2011. The TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test) Course. Cambridge: CUP

Thomson,G; Maglioni, S. 2005. Lifelike, Multicultural experiences in the English Speaking World. Black Cat: Vicens Vives.


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