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Sånn er det: Norwegian Schools

7 October 2011

The following dialogue comes from my Norwegian level 2 course book, Stein på stein, which is as good at teaching me the Norwegian language as it at teaching me Norwegian culture (or at least the aspects of Norwegian culture that Norwegians want to make sure I understand).

A typical Norwegian classroom. (What's going on here?!); photo by Lise Åserud.

Anita, as will be clear, is the Norwegian. And Martin? Well, judging by my class’s favorable view of Martin, Martin is anyone but a Norwegian. The student from China shuddered at Anita’s responses; the Berliner said, “We have schools like this in Germany, but we laugh at them”; the French student muttered, “This is ridiculous!” And me? I will save my opinions until after you read the dialogue.

(I should also note that the translation of this dialogue into English is mine.)

“What kind of school do we want to have?”

Martin:   I think Norwegian schools are much too relaxed. The students can just do whatever they want!

Anita:   Now you are exaggerating. They are learning to be more independent, and that is important. The old-fashioned way of memorization by rote is not useful these days.

Martin:   A bit more memorization would be good. I want my children to learn as much as possible. And when the teacher decides. Now they don’t have any respect for the teachers. The students call the teachers by their first names!

Anita:   Perhaps the teachers believe that there shouldn’t be too much distance between teachers and students. Cooperation and a sense of security are important.

Martin:   Cooperation, cooperation! They are wasting so much time! I think the students want to have more discipline. There is so much noise in the classroom that it is difficult for them to learn anything!

Anita:   You don’t believe that independence and cooperation are important? I think that people learn a lot from working together and discussing things with each other.

Martin:   But if they are learning math or languages, there is no need to discuss them with others. The teacher must help the students, and the students must be quiet and really work with the subject. Plus, they should receive grades much earlier.

Anita:   I completely disagree with that. Grades will only lead to more pressure for the students.

Martin:   If they don’t get grades, then they don’t need to work so hard at school. It’s important to know how their studies are going. If they get poor grades, the students know that they need to work harder. Besides, competition is good.

Anita:   I think that grades are damaging. It’s important for children to be able to go to school together without having to hear that some are better than others.

A classroom from Victorian Britain. (Oooh! Look how straight and still these boys are sitting!); photo from the BBC's 'Primary History' website.

My response? I could probably argue for both sides.  My oldest son is in the fifth grade and while the Norwegian system was shocking at first, he can read and write and he has learned lots of cool stuff like how the ancient Egyptians mummified their cats, and which mushrooms to avoid. I suppose because I come from an American system that by and large has categorized students as geniuses or failures by the first grade, I think a bit less focus on grades is a good thing. (Some preschools in the U.S. give children grades for skills like finger co-ordination.)

But, as the margin of my textbook says: “Discuss! Who do you agree with most?”

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    7 October 2011 14:10

    I guess I come down on the side of structure in the classroom, but I’m influenced by my experience as a teacher of Latin at a US university. Students look at me with incredulity when I tell them that they cannot learn this subject through osmosis, and that they need to be more than simply present and awake to learn the subject. I feel as if I am offending modern pedagogy to have students memorize grammatical paradigms. Of course, I’m teaching what many consider to be an archaic subject. But what about multiplication tables? Should these be explored if and when a child wishes, or should they be learned by rote?
    Luke has learned to read and write in his structured, first-grade classroom. Michael, however, seems to be picking up these fundamentals on his own at home. If it varies according to each individual, neither system will benefit every student in the classroom.

    • 9 October 2011 09:21

      Surely you can add a video and music to your recitation of Latin conjugations? 😉 What I love about your post, Matt, is that it expresses a truly North American perspective: i.e. that people are individuals who may learn things differently! (of course how one practices teaching to individuals in a classroom I do not know)

  2. Goodness and Grit permalink
    7 October 2011 15:46

    I have mellowed a bit over this topic, but it has taken me seven years to realize I am not comparing apples to apples when analyzing Norsk vs. American school systems. There are pros and cons to both. I personally wish I could have grown up without the added pressures of grades in elementary school. I would not have tried less. However, the lack of respect for elders, hard work, and property in the Norwegian school system is sad, and the results of this is clearvoyant in the majority of services rendered in all aspects of the Norwegian
    work environment.

    • 9 October 2011 09:24

      I agree about this not being apples to apples. I think schools reflect and implement an educational system that teaches students how to grow up and succeed in the society that they will live in. The U.S. has a system of hierarchy in place, and that hierarchy is taught through a grading system that lets people know from an early age that some are going to rise to the top and some are not. I wonder how much grades made me work hard, or how much I just really loved to learn and would have done it on my own anyway. I think the latter, because I did spend a fair amount of time learning stuff outside the classroom and books I was supposed to be reading!

  3. Teresa Owens permalink
    7 October 2011 16:07

    What a GREAT post! I can see that when I arrive there, I will most likely just finish up my M.Ed. as I would feel right at home in their education system. As a former high school history and French teacher, I can TOTALLY relate to their teaching style. My theory has ALWAYS been that the more the teacher is up at the front of the class spewing information which the students just grab and put in their brain-pouches, (or purses….and we know how hard it is to find stuff in a PURSE!), the less engaged they are in learning. Learning is an ACTIVE process. Students need to be ACTIVELY engaged in this process. I also used to say that the one doing the most talking is the one doing the most learning….Imagine my surprise when I heard this AWESOME story on NPR about a physics professor who discovered that his students were NOT learning the material although they APPEARED to be learning because they were sitting quietly while he lectured, and taking copious notes, only to not perform up to par on an exam. And of course, the most important part of all this, was that they weren’t really UNDERSTANDING what they were “learning”. I have tried both ways of teaching, and have had MUCH better success with the students ACTIVELY engaged in their own learning process with the teacher being a facilitator, mediator, devil’s advocate, etc. The world is not set up as a traditional classroom in neat little rows where everyone is hanging on every word of the person who read a chapter ahead of them and calls themselves a “teacher”. So….kudos again to the Norwegians who GET it….and here is a GREAT article about this very thing at UC Davis. More objective studies that generate hard data need to be conducted so that the “science” will actually be IN on this and faltering education systems (like here in the U.S.) can get busy doing what actually WORKS……anecdotal evidence only goes so far….Thanks again for the post Jena, and here is the link. I really hope to be able to meet you when I get over there in January!

    • 9 October 2011 09:29

      Thanks for the link, Teresa. And I look forward to meeting you as well — January is coming soon, isn’t it?

      As I said in my above comment, I think it is important that schools teach students for the world that they will live in. Quite honestly, there is no reason for grades to matter in Norway (or not much anyway) because students will either go to a tech school or a college or a university, all paid for by the govt., and then move into various jobs that have a very comparable salary (for example, an administrative assistant who has worked for 20 years might have a higher salary than a first year university lecturer with a PhD). On top of that, Norway has a record 3.3% unemployment rate … so why would people need to know that some are ‘smarter’ than others through a system of grading? What would that possibly achieve?

      Anyway, thanks as always for your comment!

  4. 7 October 2011 16:35

    I would think somewhere between what Anita and Martin believe might be closer to ideal for me. As a product of 18 years of U.S. education I feel I have a valid general viewpoint on many things, but I don’t feel competent at any one thing in particular. I am highly qualified for menial tasks! Most (all) of my Norwegian cousins are fairly successful in their chosen careers and I wonder if I had grown up in that system how I would have turned out.

    • 9 October 2011 09:31

      Me, too, Jon — somewhere in between. And I guess what I just wrote above in response to Teresa also applies to what you wrote about your Norwegian cousins who are successful in their chosen careers. Thanks for your comment!

  5. 8 October 2011 11:48

    I agree that grades are no good. I remember how stressful I was because I was supposed to be in the top three all the time. Once I fell out from the top ranks and I was so afraid to go home from school (Don’t ask me, Asian mothers are vicious!)

    But on the other hand, I agree that Norwegian / or Scandinavian schools in generals are too “relaxed” when it comes to scientific materials. It’s definitely good to teach kids values of group work, creativity, but children really need to learn the basic of things too instead of just letting them “learning it on their own”.

    Of course I might be wrong in this since I have no knowledge of Scandinavian schools, but from what I read from other (foreign) parents, they complain that the classes, the curriculum was too easy.

    So maybe it’s best if they could “meet in the middle”, between the strict and harsh Asian school way and the Scandinavian method that focuses on creativity and group works.

  6. 9 October 2011 09:36

    Have you heard of ‘Tiger Mom’ phenomenon in the U.S. right now? (Americans moms who want to emulate strict Asian mothers!)

    My son’s math book has a purple section at the back with more advanced problems for every chapter. I guess that is how they are trying to help those with better scientific skills succeed. I also read in the newspaper few weeks back that Oslo is going to try taking the top 10% from each school and put them in an advanced program. To be honest, though, I thought this sounded like a terrible idea, because it means that if you are not in that 10% you won’t have some of the same opportunities that the other kids will.

    I guess I get nervous whenever I see Norway trying to move closer to systems in place in the U.S. Because the U.S. should only be a model for what NOT to do!!

  7. 9 October 2011 20:03

    I am somewhat anxiously awaiting the day when my 3 year old begins school in the Norwegian school system. I already know it will be a huge culture shock, and I anticipate that I probably won’t be entirely pleased with their methods and attitudes! As a student who benefitted from “moving up a grade” (in a few subjects) in elementary school, and took the “challenge” classes in junior and senior high school, I haven’t heard anything about how the Norwegian educational system handles those situations and kids.

    Read my blog in 3-4 years, and I’ll let you know my more informed opinion!!!

  8. Tore permalink
    15 October 2011 20:32

    Oh, hard one!

    First of all, Its been a while since I was a student in Norwegian primary schools (something like 21 years), and it’ll be another year until I have children in school. I may not have all the pieces of the puzzle.

    I work as a technical translator, but I’ve always thought that teaching English and Norwegian would be my backdoor if I needed a new career. In recent years, I’ve had to rethink this. I’m feeling more and more that Norwegian schools are not giving their teachers the tools they need to maintain any form of discipline in the classroom.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that teaching cooperation / group work and independent / analytical thought is very important, and a strong point of the Norwegian school system. However, the teachers have been deprived of the tools they need to keep order in their classroom. One disruptive student is all it takes, and all the focus is one the students’ rights and not their duties.

    I also feel that the lack of “pugging” of basic knowledge is a huge downside to the way students are taught. They need some foundation for what comes later – thinking for yourself requires prior knowledge. And lastly, they need to be taught responsibility for their own actions. Both in terms of consequences for themselves, and for the people around them.

    So yes, I’m anxious about putting my daughters into the Norwegian school system as it is today. In my opinion, quite a lot of work is needed to make a system that “produces” both well-balanced and knowledgeable individuals.

    Cynical? I don’t really know. I only know that some illusions I had about the Norwegian school system and its importance in the minds of Norwegian politicians and the general populace.

  9. Tore permalink
    16 October 2011 06:55

    Um, forgot the last few words… “have been shattered” or something was what I intended to write.

    • 21 October 2011 10:47

      Hi Tore — thanks for your comments! It’s always interesting for me to hear a Norwegian perspective. I’m reminded by other Norwegians that I tend to have cultural blinders on — I, too, tend to have illusions about the school system. On the other hand, having taught at the university level here, I saw firsthand that something had failed these students along the way. The large majority were simply not prepared to write a 100-level essay, or to engage in any critical discussions. I read in the news that people (politicians? schools?) are quite worried about children experiencing too much stress — tests are too hard, they have too much homework — but where is the evidence of this “stress”?

      Anyway, a “well-balanced” system is good for most things in life!

      • Tore permalink
        24 October 2011 11:21

        Hi Jena,

        Thanks for your answer. 🙂 My wife, who’s having to correct 100-level papers as part of her work (pliktarbeid) with her thesis in Archeaology, would agree whole-heartedly with you on the failings of university students in Norway. To her, they seem unable to follow instructions, unable to present an argument coherently, and unable to improve their work based on feedback. They haven’t learned the basics on how to interpret the assignment text and translate that into a paper that adresses the questions they have been asked.

        It scares me that there is so much focus on the “hows” in Norwegian schools, and not on “what”. Sort of “the medium is the message” for educational systems. It doesn’t matter what content you have, because the mode of learing is so good!

        Personally I think that if there is stress, it is from relating to constantly changing requirements and situations, not from too much work. If the schools taught them the basics instead of being a social experiment (OK, I’m being harsh here) the quality of the “learning output” would increase drastically, I believe. You can’t build an educational system on sand and hot air.

      • 24 October 2011 11:29

        How funny, though, Tore, for me to hear this perspective from a Norwegian. I have spent years complaining about why Norwegians are always changing the rules and requirements and really just the whole system! I know you felt you were being harsh, but do you think this is the reason that everything is always changing in Norway? Is everything a sort of social experiment — let’s see how this new cycle path works? Oh, it doesn’t. So we’ll build a bybanen there instead. Oh, let’s see if it works to have administrators over specific classes at the school. If it doesn’t, we’ll just re-organize the school in another year or two. Does it all come down to experimenting instead of making solid, permanent plans? I’ve sort of thought it had to do with the fact that Norwegians give everyone an opportunity to share an opinion, so first we’ll try Helge’s way, and then we’ll try Kristina’s way, and then we’ll try ….

  10. 29 October 2011 23:11

    I’m willing to sign much of what Tore writes here, as I am not saticfied with the Norwegian school system. I ‘m just glad it is yet another year before my son hits school age. Attending Norwegian school in the 80s and 90s I am really to be concidered a grandmother in thsi ever changing system. I think it is good there is no grades (yet) in primary school. I did not miss them when I went. But then again I liked to learn things and it was always a bummer not to do good at tests. And I do not think one need grades to tell you how you are doing in primary school. Most kids are clever enough to understand feed back from teacher and from tests (at least I think they still have some tests…?)
    Of course it can be good with discussions and group work etc, but the problem in Norwegian school on 2011 is that there is no diciplin, and one needs diciplin to learn and work togethere on a specific subject. Yes, it seems like the politicians jump on every folly that they hear about when it comes to changing our school system. And they spend a fortune on “konsulenter” that has never worked as terachers and don’t bother to ask neither the teachers nor the students about their opinions. It seems like a majority of high school students don’t find it helpfull to have a PC at their hands at all times. And most schools don’t event have the right or whatever to block out pages like facebook etc. So what is the point of ALL students should attend high school when they spend a big part of their school day chatting with friends, playing computer games etc online?
    And as for primary schools, even first graders are put in front of a computer to do “educational” games. And yes, one noisy pupil is enough to disturb the whole class, and then you are not even allowed send the student out od the class room because you are responsble for him,. Having taught norwegian to foreignere, and also read Stein på stein, I must say there is al ot of things about us Norwegians that I do not agree on.

    • 31 October 2011 09:25

      Hi Anette! Thanks for your comments. It is always good to be reminded that, just like all Americans are not alike, not all Norwegians are alike, and culture and language teaching books generally want to inform their readers of an ideal, rather than a reality (or so it would seem.) I think the same is true of the TV program “Alt for Norge” in which very Norwegian stereotypes are presented as a widely-practiced “Norwegian culture”. But that is another story ….

      I wasn’t aware of the discipline problems in the school, and feel that my son — in the 5th grade — is very lucky both in terms of his classmates (who really do look out for one another and make sure no bullying occurs) and his teacher (an older man who still believes in learning and in sending misbehaving kids out to the hall or to the principal’s office.)

      What you said about computers is certainly true, though. I was appalled when my son reported that during “research” time in the library a group of girls were watching PORN videos! (Although I did think it was funny that it was a group of girls!) Either the schools are incredibly naive when it comes to internet filters, or they really don’t care what the kids are doing.

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