Help! I'm failing Spanish school (and they tell me it's normal)

Dear Anna,

We briefly touched on this subject when we shared an introduction to the Spanish school system, but it is completely possible that you find yourself (or one of your students) failing a class and people here don’t seem to think it is a big deal. Now I know that, for me at least, growing up failing was a big deal. Between the No Child Left Behind Policy that was in place for a large part of my education and the fact that getting good grades was pretty easy as long as you studied, failing didn’t even feel like an option. This has been problematic for me when trying to wrap my head around how they think about failing here in Spain while studying my degree at the University of Granada (or even while trying to pass my driving test). After several years of being integrated here, this is what I have learned:

The Spanish school system is different:

You might not get what you expect with Spanish school.

You might not get what you expect with Spanish school.

As you probably expected (or learned about in the article introducing the Spanish school system mentioned earlier), there are cultural differences that can be clearly seen between Spanish and American education systems. I feel like we expect that everyone does things like we do—not because it is necessarily better or worse, but because it is the only thing we know—and, sometimes, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The general structure of the Spanish school system may not seem super different from the one you are used to back home but, upon closer inspection, you may find that it has less in common than you think. For example, most kids enter into the education system around three years old. In addition, at 16 students have the option to leave school, study in a technical school, or complete what we consider their junior and senior years of high school (bachillerato). These differences might not seem huge, but they are part of a system that views education differently—again, not necessarily better or worse—than other places around the world, including where I grew up in Wisconsin.

They are straightforward with their grades:

In comparison to my hometown, where we were oftentimes coddled in the sense that we didn’t know what other students scored on tests and more than the standard bell curve of students received As, Spain is brutally straightforward about grades. Many teachers post grades after exams right outside their doors (if you’re lucky, they use your ID number instead of your name) and no one ever seems surprised. In addition, I know of university professors who regularly have half of their classes fail and while students complain, there doesn’t seem to be any pressure to change how these professors do things*.

I know that we are thought of as being incredibly competitive in the U.S., but for me this system of blatantly ranking students so that anyone can see how you did seems more cutthroat because you can’t hide the good or the bad. While back home everyone could guess who did well in certain classes, here you know for sure. This was initially very shocking for me as I was not used to this kind of thing, but on some level I really appreciate the calculated honesty that comes along with grading here (however, on the other hand, sometimes you just don’t need everyone to know everything). And I personally believe that this way of looking at grades allows the culture to accept the following point in a way that would be really hard to understand back home.

Even if you study hard, you might have to do the test/class again.

Even if you study hard, you might have to do the test/class again.

It’s not unusual to fail exams or repeat classes:

Failing exams or even having to repeat classes the next semester/year is not that big of a deal here. In fact, retake exam periods are even built into the academic school year. For me, personally, this is super stressful because my brain doesn’t really accept failure as a viable option at the end of the semester. At the same time, I see people around me who don’t even take all their exams the first time around because they know they have a second chance (and will do better on all their exams if they leave one or two for the retake period) and, logically, this makes sense to me too.

In addition to being able to redo exams, as far as I can tell, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have to repeat an entire class (and I even know quite a few people who have done a whole year again). On some level this goes against everything I was brought up believing—again, No Child Left Behind—but on the other hand I could imagine a world where we are not forced to move on simply because we are old enough. While I am not totally convinced that Spain has the great idea of what Carol Dweck calls “Not Yet,” I do think that there is something to the idea that we all develop differently and recognizing that it is okay to do things over is an idea we can learn in the U.S.

What is your experience with the Spanish school system? And what do you think about failing?

Sincerely,
Spain

*Note: While this is something I have seen, I do personally believe that if half the class is failing, then it is the professor’s fault that he/she is not explaining the material correctly in regards to what is asked in the final projects/on the exams.