12 years of school and still no smarter? – What I took away from the subjects

Reading time: 10 minutes

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LIFE STORIES Will I need polynomial division in my later life? You won’t. Unless you study mathematics or become an architect or … The list of subjects you won’t need in the future seems much longer than the list of knowledge that is actually used in everyday life. No wonder that the motivation to learn decreases exponentially over the years. Why I still look back positively on the knowledge imparted to me, you can find out when you read on.

I could now hold a page-long discussion here about the weaknesses of our school system and call on all students in Germany to finally stand up and change something (there are enough reasons to do so, so – if this is your point of view – don’t let me stop you). But rather, I would like to focus today on the positive things that I personally took away from the individual subjects. In this way, I hope to motivate you to see the school material from a different perspective.

Tip: Not everything was pointless. You can read about the balance of my upper school and the added value of learning here.


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Maths is everywhere. (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-12591-0003,_Ingenieur_am_Reissbrett_zeichnend.jpg)

Opinions are divided about mathematics. While for some students there is nothing better than solving mathematical problems, the subject is still very difficult for the majority. But that doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve enjoyed maths from the start and used to get upset when someone said, “One thing I’ve learned in maths is that if it goes too easy, it’s definitely wrong.” Such sayings are simply wrong. Maths follows clear logical ways of thinking and with a little interest and a few tricks, it opens its gates for every student.

More than that, maths has been proven to help shape your thinking, encourages discipline and analysis of (even non-mathematical) problems. For me, there was nothing more exciting than a previously unknown problem in maths class. Then I went through all the solutions I knew in my head, combined them in a new way and was incredibly happy when I managed to do the task without any help.

And believe it or not, maths is also something we encounter in everyday life. Of course, you won’t have to calculate a cross product while cooking to cut the vegetables at a 90° angle or use substitution to calculate the zeros of a line drawn by your little cousin. But you could calculate the optimal bed size for your grandpa’s garden using an extremal problem.

Admittedly, this example is not really suitable for everyday use for most people. But there are much simpler situations. For example, you should know what a 50% discount on already reduced trousers means. Or you should be able to use the rule of three when you cook a dish for 6 people with a recipe for 4 people. Or you can increase your chances of winning at the next card game with simple probability calculation … You see: Whether we like it or not, we are confronted with mathematics every single day.


English in Daily Communication - UTGÅTT - Internasjonal engelsk (LK06) -  NDLA

When I look at some posts on social media, I doubt whether some people have even heard of grammar.  Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against anyone who uses the German language “a little differently”, but sometimes I ask myself: Has nothing at all stuck from the German lessons in the lower classes? And then I think to myself: Maybe we should have spent more time practising grammar rules than reading some baroque story by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen.

I still ask myself today: Did the writer 200 years ago really want to express with this onomatopoeia exactly what we are supposed to interpret into it today in the classroom? Or is it just a coincidence that he uses the word “hiss” at exactly this point? When it comes to interpreting texts of all kinds, to be honest, at first glance I too lack an understanding of how we can need such things in later life. Especially when at some point the English teacher also demands a linguistic interpretation of the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

But if one believes the State Institute for School Quality and Educational Research in Munich, the subjects of German or English are primarily about “expanding, differentiating and deepening the students’ linguistic competence […] In addition, German lessons lead to critical faculties and self-reflection. It helps the learners to develop imagination and to solve problems creatively”. (Source: https://www.lehrplanplus.bayern.de/fachprofil/textabsatz/44406).

Well, you really do get creative with some poetry interpretations. I remember the fun I had with my best friend when she explained to me that the accumulation of feminine cadences in this poem might reflect a bit of women’s emancipation.  Sounds stupid, but it was admitted as a possible interpretation. And the aspect of linguistic competence also makes sense. Looking back, it was German lessons that taught me the basics of argumentation and terms of more elevated language. This not only improved my ability to express myself, but also extremely expanded my vocabulary.

Natural sciences

Riesenmammutbäume im Yosemite Kostenloses Stock Bild - Public Domain  Pictures
Fascinating redwoods

In the natural sciences, it is above all certain terms that have stuck in my memory. “photosynthesis” and “chlorophyll” are among them in biology, as are “DNA” and “RNA” or “homo sapiens neanderthalensis” and “homo sapiens sapiens“. Unfortunately, I dropped out of biology in the 10th grade and could only tell you the basics about the background of these technical terms. Nevertheless, I believe that I have acquired quite extensive general knowledge through years of biology lessons, which I can always recall in everyday life.

It’s the same with chemistry. It was a great feeling to finally be able to understand the processes in our nitrogen plants in Piesteritz. Or to look into the kitchen and know that vinegar essence consists of 25% acetic acid and household vinegar only of 5% acetic acid. Or to be able to explain the meaning of 2,4-dichlorobenzyl alcohol on the packet of my throat lozenges and to be aware that “alcohols” in the chemical sense are a group of substances and not a stimulant.

And I mean, isn’t it exciting to know, at least to some extent, how wonderful and complex life and nature in general are? Just the other day I heard on TV that the tallest trees in the world at the moment, the North American redwoods, can grow over 100 m high; but not higher than 110 m, because then the water can no longer be transported to the leaves due to gravity.

The same applies to the growth of mountains. Have you never asked yourselves why there are no mountains over 9 km high? Because the rock below the surface can no longer withstand the pressure from the enormous mass of the mountains and inevitably liquefies. On Mars, the force of gravity is completely different, which is why you find Olympus Mons there with a height of over 26 km …

You see, I could talk for hours about the most wonderful phenomena in this universe, swinging from biology to physics, then to geography and back again to astrophysics. It was school that made me aware of these connections and sparked my interest. And even if science isn’t your thing, you can’t tell me that you didn’t find any of the facts taught at school interesting and wanted to know more about them.

Social Sciences

File:Cold war europe military alliances map de.png - Wikimedia Commons - Heard about that in school?
Divided Europe. Ever heard about the Cold War? (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cold_

For me, it was clear from the start that I would not write a history A-level. Not because I was too bad at it (in fact, I had often been able to score points in class with my knowledge of history), but because it was simply too much subject matter for me. Too much learning for too one-sided topics. Of course, as a German student you should know something about the Third Reich and the Cold War and also be able to draw parallels to today’s developments. After all, the main purpose of dealing with the past is to learn from history and do better in the present.

But why has everything always been about Europe (or the US)? Europeans have managed to put themselves at the centre and dominate the world often enough in the last centuries. Why didn’t we learn something about Maori war culture for once? In the meantime, I had read many historical novels about New Zealand and was more than fascinated by this people. And whenever I asked myself such questions and started to research history topics on my own, I noticed that the history lessons had done something to me after all. I went through the world more attentively and was happy every time I recognised historical connections.

But it is not only the historical contexts that, in my opinion today, belong to a good general knowledge. How can one go through the world without being aware of the social, political and cultural diversity on this earth? How can one lead a “good life” without knowing basic moral principles and drawing on them in everyday life? The topics in subjects like social studies, geography or ethics may sometimes seem superfluous at first glance, but in some cases they have opened my eyes to our society in a certain way.

Music, art, sports and co.

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Already interpreted a painting today? Here: “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.

It is more difficult to see the added value in the sports lessons. I have always associated sport with the long distances to the sports halls. When we were unlucky and the gym 5 minutes away was not free, we had to walk 20 minutes to the police gym with our satchels and sports bags during the lunch break and were already completely out of breath when we arrived. This was not always pleasant, especially for bus children like me. One term, a friend and I even had to organise a 3 km walk to the Elbturnhalle … So in that respect, these “lessons” improved my ability to plan my time.

Apart from the long distances, however, I mostly enjoyed the sports lessons. I’m not unathletic and I was always able to challenge myself in various exercises. Although it was difficult for me not to end up alone in partner or group exercises, this meant that even I, a rather socially shy person, inevitably had to seek closer contact with my classmates (which definitely boosted my self-confidence).

I dropped art after grade 10 and opted for music. I don’t regret my decision. After 2 years of crash course in music theory, I too now finally know the principles of notation, which I had not learned before. Some of our excursions into music history were very interesting and gave me a new perspective on the beginnings of jazz and the silent films of the late 19th century.

Meanwhile, I could have done without the interpretation of art songs, while the vocal pieces we rehearsed in four voices as a class were some of the best lessons of the upper school. The self-written hit song “Life dances tango”, for which I was allowed to write the lyrics, also remains unforgotten.

I don’t want to judge at this point how important all of the above will be for my later life. The fact is, music and sports more than enriched my school day, and art in the lower classes also provided many a distraction in the stressful school day. In retrospect, I wouldn’t want to do without any school subject, even if – admittedly – a subject on insurance and tax returns would certainly have been more tangible for the future.

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Awaiting the future.

Curious about what the future has brought me? Find out here what exciting things happened to me during my first week at university.

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