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Horizontal vs. Vertical: An International Comparison of Teaching Methods

(Brand X Pictures)

A new study released by NBER from authors Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer takes a look at how teaching practices affect social capital. It’s long and detailed, so we’ll only give you the highlights: in a nutshell, there are major differences between societies that teach vertically (like a teacher lecturing) and societies that teach horizontally (with students working together in groups.)

And because everyone loves international comparisons, the difference between horizontal and vertical countries breaks down as follows:

Students work in groups more in Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain). This teaching practice is less common in East European countries and the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Italy). In contrast, in East European and Mediterranean countries, teachers spend more timing lecturing.

Among the most interesting points from the study is the correlation between teaching method, trust level, and government effectiveness. Reminiscent of the cultural hierarchy studies from Hofstede, Schwartz and Trompenaars the authors write:

The correlation between [teaching] Gap and trust is strongly negative; almost one-third of the cross-country variation in trust is explained by the variation in teaching practices. Scandinavian countries (with the exception of Finland), and to a lesser extent Anglo-Saxon countries, combine both a fairly high level of trust and teaching practices tilted toward horizontal rather than vertical. In contrast, most Mediterranean (Turkey, France and Greece in the first place) and East European countries are characterized by teaching practices biased toward the vertical and low levels of trust. The big outliers are Japan and Ireland, which tilt toward vertical teaching practices but have high trust.

Horizontal teaching methods are more endemic to countries with high levels of cooperation, and higher student evaluations of a teacher’s fairness as measured by a ‘willingness to listen.’ Teacher trust levels in students are particularly correlated to future government trust levels in adults. Using data from the International Social Survey Program, the authors write, “It appears that subordination to teachers as a student leads to a feeling – and perhaps a reality — of subordination to bureaucrats as an adult.”

The study argues that countries with an emphasis on vertical teaching also tend to have more dysfunctional governments than countries with horizontal teaching.

…government effectiveness is lower in countries where vertical teaching predominates. The correlation patterns are statistically significant and economically sizeable. Vertical teaching alone can explain 18.3 percent of the cross-country variation in government effectiveness.