German elementary schools

Deutsche Welle – Do you know your Gymnasium from your Gesamtschule? The German school system is certainly complicated. For this week’s Meet the Germans, Rachel heads back to the classroom to get to grips with the different types of schools and to find out what kids like about going to school in Germany.

Rachel moved from the UK to Germany in 2016. As a relative newcomer she casts a fresh eye over German clichés and shares her experiences of settling into German life. Every two weeks she explores a new topic – from German books to German-Turkish culture or Germany’s obsession with cars. This week: German schools and the education system.

An American in Berlin

German Feedback

“I started working for a German company a few years ago and was immediately excited to find that they had a culture of frequent feedback.

As the weeks went on, the feedback kept on coming. Very quickly, I began to see a pattern; it was almost entirely negative. All delivered amazingly well, with examples of how I’d fucked up alongside helpful guidance on how I might want to improve.

The onslaught continued; it was relentless. It became apparent to me that there was very little chance of me passing my probation period if this continued. So I buckled down, pushed myself to breaking point and put in those extra hours to save my job. But still, it kept continuing critical feedback, after critical feedback.

For the first time in my career, I was going to fail my probation period. There was no point in getting feedback on how I improve the situation. I was getting it daily. I was just shit.

So finally, my final probation review came around. Everything was excellent; the company was super happy with my progress and delivery. I passed my probation period with flying colours. But it had broken me. I was fried and burnt out.”

Feedback: Be a little German, Be a little American.

American Feedback

“I have recently started working in an entirely new industry, leading a small team. Shortly after joining, my team’s scope changed to a new problem space.

Again, this company had an active feedback culture and processes. Constant feedback was given to the team every two weeks from leadership. As we built the team and worked out how we were going to achieve our new goals, we got feedback all the time. And it was always positive.

This didn’t play well for me. I knew that there was no way that we could be that good, we were a team with little experience in what we were doing, how could we be doing that well? There must be areas for improvement.

As this continued, positive feedback began to feel more and more empty. I went hunting for critical feedback. Unfortunately, this manifested in me trying to find critical input for the team bellow me. I became overly focused on trying to find areas for improvement in the team.

The problem came to a head when one of my team said ‘I only get negative feedback from you, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ I was so focused on finding the negative areas that we could improve on, and I had not given any support for improvement. I had also failed to celebrate the positive.”

Mr. German Man is deflationary

An American woman. About how her German husband is deflationary with scores. And how she is inflationary. Can’t separate the two.

Now this woman is a youtuber. And an American on top. So, she is more than a bit animated. And frankly, she could have made her points in about two minutes instead of seven and a half. But wait, it’s YouTube. And not a webinar.

Begin watching at minute 4:00.

“We want negative feedback”

Statement made by a German working in the U.S.: “It bothers us Germans when our American bosses give is inflated feedback, meaning too positive. Negative feedback keeps us oriented on avoiding mistakes, and it sharpens our ability to remain self-critical.

How is someone supposed to remain clear-headed and self-critical if all they ever hear is great and super. Performance which is clearly suboptimal should not be sugar-coated. Management loses credibility that way.

And feedback loses its key purpose, which is to address primarily things that aren’t working well. At some point this will hurt us. The quality of our work will suffer.”

Almost everyone gets an A

A comment by a German with extensive experience at the university level in the U.S.: “I think the real issue here is not how grades are officially classified but that there is a much stronger tendency of grade inflation in the US. 

Almost everyone gets an A, whereas a B already feels like a failure even though it’s officially considered “good”. 

Germans – at least at university level – are much more likely to give a student a C and think that she/he did a good job. When professors give a B they think the student’s paper is great. A basically means a professor could have written this.

Feedback frequency

German teams maintain long lines of communication. Feedback takes place in a formal setting, once or twice a year, according to the company‘s official internal process. Seldom do German team leads give team members spontaneous, informal feedback. Germans focus on the details of their work and less so on where they stand individually in the team at any given time.

Germans are critical of rankings

Germans prefer to measure performance less frequently, but when they do so then in detail and exact. The German media has taken to the trend of ranking, but most Germans criticize them for not being truly representative.

Several academic organizations have called for a boycott of university rankings. Ranking tv shows such as Simply the Best or The Top 10 are also criticized by the public for not being objective, for relying on viewer voting which is overly influenced by current events.

The ranking show Die ultimative Chartshow went on air in 2003, is based on reliable statistics and continues to command a loyal viewership. Das Politbarometer, The Political Barometer, broadcasts the results of its political polling each month and is watched carefully by citizens and political professionals alike.

Germans take ranking serious only if they are based on a serious methodology.

German law school top honors

The grading system of German law schools is a discipline of its own. In total there are 18 points. Every three points are equal to one grade level (like a letter grade). Law schools, in addition to the usual levels of very good, good, satisfactory, acceptable, inadequate, and insufficient, also use the level entirely satisfactory.

Those who receive the grades of very good, good, or entirely  satisfactory on their certification exam (comparable to the bar exam) graduate with distinction. A minimum of four points are required to pass the exam, and only 15% of students receive a score higher than eight.

To receive all eighteen points would give you a grade of very good plus. This practically never happens, becoming very clear when a lot of fuss is made over someone receiving a very good grade.

For example, Sonja Pelikan in 2010. She received 16.08 points, which was even worth an interview by a major German newspaper (Wie schafft man 16 Punkte? Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 10th, 2010).

Or Stefan Thönissen who was interviewed by the Baden news, because he received an evaluation of very good on his exam. The article emphasized: “In the field of law, 18 points is the magical maximum score, essentially unattainable.”

But why would one introduce a grading-scale in which it is impossible to reach the highest grade? Perhaps to convey the message: “It is always possible to do a little bit better, so put some effort into it!” Perhaps to keep the others “grounded to the facts”. Because nothing is worse than considering one’s self to be better than one really is.

“Always room for improvement”

The political barometer of the German television station ZDF regularly gauges the country’s political sentiments. As a part of this, the country’s top ten politicians are shown with their approval ratings. The scale ranges from -5 to 5.

In July 2014, the political barometer was titled “After the World Championship: Angela Merkel sees highest approval ratings.” This clearly meant that amongst the persons polled, Angela Merkel, with a score of 2.8 took first place amongst the most important politicians.

2.8 out of a possible best of 5.0 points demonstrates how deflationary grades are given in Germany, even when one is quite satisfied with the overall performance.

As the Germans like to say: “Es gibt immer Luft nach oben” – “There is always room for improvement”.