Five Things Norwegian Schools Do Differently

Thanks to Hollywood and Netflix, I sometimes feel like the image that Norwegian students have of American high school is a fictional reality somewhere between High School Musical, Thirteen Reasons Why and Mean Girls. "While there are probably elements of truth to some of what you see," I tell them, "American high school actually looks a lot more like your school than a movie."

Part of my interest in spending a year as a roving teacher was to see the diversity of a school system across an entire nation. Now in the first week of December, I have logged around 50 teaching days and carried out almost half of the school visits I will make this year. I enjoy answering questions about a range of misconceptions about American schools, and American society in general. To this end I'm having fun sharing quotes, letters, pictures and videos from what American high school really looks like in Vermont and across the USA. 

Noon in December. Fjordtun skole, Rypefjord.  

I've taught at tiny schools on islands, accessible only by ferry, bridges and tunnels. I've taught on the ethnically diverse east side of Oslo, in affluent communities on the southern coast and in several schools above the Arctic Circle, including schools as far east as the Russian border! Over lunch, students tell me stories of seeing the northern lights on their walks home from school and how, in one fjord town, they can't wait to turn 16 because most of them will get a small boat that they can drive to school.

Much of the lifestyle here is so uniquely Scandinavia. At the same time, these young Norwegians share many characteristics with my own students. Hanging out with friends, enjoying family time, playing sports, consuming social media, planning for the future and dating—this is what they tell me teenage life in Norway is all about.

Common space at Presterod skole, Tonsberg. 

At the end of my workshops I always invite students to come up and ask me questions they may have been too shy to ask in front of the entire group. It’s during these conversations I often forget that I’m 3,000 miles from my classroom in Vermont—the anxieties and aspirations of teenagers seem universal.

Here are some differences in the routines and systems that I have found most fascinating:

1. Standing greetings: Before each lesson begins, students and their teachers remain standing and exchange hellos and a few words together before diving into the day's tasks. It goes a little something like this: "Good morning class. Good morning! I hope you're all doing well today; I am happy to see you! As you can see we have a visitor from the U.S. today. You may be seated."

2. Breaks: After every 45 min or so of lessons, students spend 10 to 15 minutes playing outside or in common areas-- as many as five or six times a day. At many schools teachers hold on to the students' cell phones all day in a “cell phone hotel” and encourage real play during break times, like a short pick-up game of soccer or foosball or just jumping around with friends for a few minutes. And during this time, someone always opens a window to let in a little fresh air, even in December.

Students relaxing during a break. Breilia skole, Hammerfest. 

3. School shoes: Students and teachers have specific indoor shoes. In many towns, students walk or ride their bikes to school and keep a pair of slip-ons in their classrooms to change into when they arrive. Usually they are clean tennis shoes or sandals like Birkenstocks with comfy socks.

School shoes!

4. Classrooms: Students stay in the same classroom with the same classmates all day long, and the teachers rotate to the students. Norwegian students are very surprised when I tell them that, in American high school, a student’s schedule is unique to the student, and they move all around the building throughout the day. Students here also eat lunch in their classrooms, and everyone brings a small tin or plastic box with bread and pålegg, which are the toppings for a open-faced style sandwich. Fruit and yogurt are common sides.

Students giving an oral presentation. Fjordtun skole. 

5. Sports: Sports are played on private teams, not at the school. Many Norwegian students are athletes; handball and soccer are extremely popular. But all sports happen in the evenings on local town teams rather than with school teams, and seasons are the length of the school year. Students pay fees to participate and get to know kids from other schools through sports.

A student showing off her handball team sweatshirt. 

The other day, in a tone that suggested he already knew my answer, a student asked me, “Do you think America is better than Norway?”

“Absolutely not,” I quickly replied. Then I added, “But Norway is not better than America, either—they are just two very different places with unique histories that have made you who you are and me who I am. I think it’s fascinating to learn and share about both.”

It can be really tempting to visit a new place, make a few observations and quickly become a believer in a new system— especially in the happiest country in the world. Free higher education? Yes please! Universal healthcare? Sign me up! But one thing I try to emphasize everywhere I go is that comparison-making is not for the purpose of determining which country is better; it instead helps us stay open minded to a different way to doing things. In this way we learn from each other’s successes and shortcomings, making small changes toward progress rather than blindly adopting the latest and greatest.

Seeking to understand how things are done in another place turns us into global citizens. Being surprised or even startled by cultural differences helps us think critically about our own norms and compassionately about the lives of others. It develops “the wonderment muscle” and just might lead to new ideas about how to make wherever you call home a little nicer. 

Here are some pictures from my last two months of teaching and travels...

Commuting on the ferry in Arendal. 

Learning Norwegian from my host's five year old daughter!

A late fall after school run in Tvdestrand. 

Reading letters from students at Colchester High School in Arendal. 

A weekend in Hammerfest, the northernmost city in the world. 

Creating Dream collages. Flatestad skole, Oppegard.