Recently my home school in Vermont allowed me to share some reflections on education in Norway and the US, as well as how I've worked, grown and been challenged during my year abroad. The following post was originally published in the Colchester High School professional development newsletter.
As your school year is wrapping up in Vermont, my time here in Norway is rapidly coming to an end as well. I am looking forward to returning to CHS in August, and in the meantime I want to share a few observations and reflections from my year abroad.
I knew a few things about Norway before moving here for a year; I knew it was a beautiful country, rich with nature, wildlife, impressive vistas, fjords and coastal villages—and great for skiing and cycling! I also knew that it had a small, relatively homogenous population of roughly five million. I knew that it was a social democracy, where healthcare and education are funded by high taxes and a publicly owned oil reserve fund. And according to the UN World Happiness Report, I also knew that Norway is ranked the happiest country on earth!
By and large my impressions have been confirmed, but I’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of this place. I can see that Norwegian’s high score for happiness, for example, is actually more indicative of contentedness. Access to free education, healthcare, and generous family leave policies provide stability and create confidence in the system. Being outdoors is most certainly a way of life; the work day really does end at 4pm and public places are impressively clean and tidy. As for services, University of Oslo historian Finn Erhard Johannessen explains, “We have a welfare system that takes care of us, a safety net. When it comes to income and standard of living, the inequality is low, and our society is rather safe and harmonious, without internal conflicts. We don’t have to worry, as it cannot go too wrong in Norway. This gives us a fundamental feeling of safety and freedom, both socially, financially and security-wise.”
I am sometimes asked what the biggest difference is between life in Norway and life in the US. Usually, I talk about social trust: I can leave my backpack while I use the restroom on the train and am confident it will be there when I return. Not once have I feared for my safety while out for a run, and if I get lost and have to cut through someone’s yard, there is a law protecting my right to do so. When I registered with the tax authorities, a letter telling me who my neighborhood doctor would be appeared on my doorstep just a few days later. My husband and I have joked that the biggest culture shock we experience is that in Norway, everything just works.
So what’s it like to be a teacher or student in a country with such a high standard of living? Visiting over 100 different communities has shown me that, regardless of culture, political or economic system, there are opportunities and challenges—and schools illuminate many of these. Smaller student populations and a great deal of social trust allows for unique place-based learning experiences. In some schools students are out in the community regularly, visiting museums, hiking mountains as a class, sourcing local moose meat for the kantine, or swimming in the fjord during PE. As for some challenges, consider that such a strong emphasis on the collective rather than the individual might cause a teacher to prefer a “one size fits all” approach instead of a differentiated one. A reliance on the state for healthcare might mean that teens struggling with anxiety or depression fall through the cracks, as school social workers and guidance counselors are far fewer here, the assumption being that everyone has equal access through their doctor. A student with a unique talent or interest might shy away from developing it in a culture that tends to criticize individual success. And in an ethnically homogenous population, young new Norwegians face challenges to integrate into such a rigid collective identity.
One hard reality on everyone’s minds is the decline of the oil and fishing industries. There’s acknowledgement that the country needs to diversify economically, and rein in boom-era domestic spending. At the same time, immigration is on the rise. At least 17% of Norwegians have some recent family history of immigration and the non-ethnically Norwegian population is currently growing faster than the ethnically Norwegian. I was surprised to learn just how segregated Oslo is: working class and low-income groups live primarily on the east side, while wealthier families traditionally live on the west side. In the east-side suburb of Haugenstua, for example, a school that Skyped with Jim Price’s geography class in December, the population is over 70% immigrant (almost all non-western), while my neighborhood on the west side is overwhelmingly white and ethnically Norwegian—less than 5% immigrant. As in our country, some Norwegians desperately want to protect their prosperity, and the security that provides for their future, leading to contentious political rivalries.
Due to these changes, teachers feel the pressure to foster global awareness and empathy in the next generation. Some acknowledge that their students will need to be competitive in the international market. All teachers understand that in order to do so, they have to be proficient in English, which is why the Roving Scholar position exists in the first place.
In my own reflections I often come back to the notion that, at least for now, the very purpose of education is different here. When I began visiting classrooms it didn’t take long to realize I was approaching school from an entirely American perspective. I was surprised to see that most teachers started their day with a cup of coffee and quiet conversations in teachers lounges, often by candlelight. I was frustrated and impatient when no one seemed to make a move for the classroom until after the bell had rung, teachers and students alike! I am sure some of my hosts wanted to suggest I relax a little.
While my workshops ranged in topic, many students and teachers wanted to better understand American politics, the election of Donald Trump, and recently, gun laws in the US. I’ve been challenged to explain the ideological differences between political parties in the US and how Americans from diverse backgrounds might feel about issues like taxation, personal freedoms, racial and economic inequality and healthcare. I hope that by incorporating the voices of many Americans into my lessons I was able to give Norwegians a better sense of what it means to be an American today, and the unique challenge of perfecting a diverse union of more than 320 million citizens.
In my after-school workshops, teachers were very eager to learn how American educators personalize learning and told me time and time again how inspiring it is to see how we incorporate student voice and choice into lessons, units and entire courses at CHS. I also shared how colleagues work together as collaborative teams, how we implement special education, and how grading, assessment, and reporting systems are evolving to communicate proficiency of standards. I have found that in some ways Norwegian schools are already doing many of the things we aim to implement in the coming years, yet in other ways their practices seem outdated and based in tradition rather than research.
For example, academic grades and behavior grades have always been reported separately in this country, on a 1-6 scale. That’s right, the entire country uses the same scale on every assessment! However, even within schools and departments there is often little consensus about what each level of performance represents. Not unlike our faculty, Norwegian teachers want to better understand the role of grades as motivators. One major difference: I was surprised to learn that in Norway it is impossible to earn a failing grade. A student may earn a 1, but that student will move on. “Everyone can do something,” I have been told on more than one occasion.
As you might expect, some of this has left me feeling confused, lonely, and at times misunderstood—but that’s really the entire point of this journey. I wanted to be forced to think about school in a whole new way, and I have. I think that many characteristics of Norwegian schools are clearly reflective of the strong welfare state, a belief in putting the collective before the individual, and high levels of social trust. I have been forced to remove my American-tinted glasses and see this work through a new lens, and the result has been one of the most rewarding experiences in both my professional and personal life.
I am certainly leaving this year as a stronger educator, more thoughtful global citizen, and after living out of a suitcase for more than 150 nights, a MUCH better traveler! I cannot wait to see you all in August.