Crash Course: Norwegian Education

Every August, teachers in the United States can count on a few days of intense professional development before the students return. At my school in Vermont, these "PD" days have recently included work with transforming standards into proficiencies and learning targets, ensuring equity for all students regardless of ability and identity, and personalizing learning. 

This year, my inservice is a crash course in Norwegian culture and education. This past week I attended a two-day retreat put on by the Norwegian Centre for Foreign Languages, a branch of the Norwegian Ministry of Education. The chair of the centre welcomed us by explaining that "in Europe we know that in order to have functioning democracies we have to understand each other." And so, the Centre has partnered with the Fulbright foundation to bring three American Rovers to Norway each year (and its the only country in the world to do this).

My grant is a result of the Norwegian government's investment in language education, so while I'll certainly be teaching about American history and culture, I am also expected to give students the chance to practice their English, as it is the first required foreign language required of all schoolchildren. Almost all Norwegian teenagers take a second foreign langue as well, for a total of three languages. There are about 40 languages being instructed across Norway!

Some of the major questions I posed in my application for this grant surround the Norwegian national curriculum and its implementation through competencies at the Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary levels. In short, I am curious how, in a comparatively much smaller and more homogeneous place than the United States, to what extent do teachers have autonomy within the national 'Core Curriculum'? 

(Side note: in the US our closest equivalent to this is the Common Core, which is not so much a national curriculum, but a framework of standards. From these, states and content areas have additional standards and assessments.  Implementation and accountability systems vary somewhat from region to region, state to state, community to community.)

So immediately there are a few major differences worth noting: 

  • In Norway there is one nation-wide assessment for reading, math and English, given at the end of years 5, 8 and 9.  
  • School funding and teacher salaries are in no way tied to performance on these tests. All funding comes from the federal government. 
  • Student test scores are purely to be used as diagnostic and to improve instruction. In some cases the scores are reported in communities and create a reputation for the schools. They are reported to the student and families, but never submitted to Universities. 
  • On exams and in classes, grades are reported using a 6 point scale. My next questions include: What does a grade mean in different classes? Is there a scale? How are scales developed? How often? Are grades averaged? What counts toward a grade? Alas... I have a lot of questions about grading... Is there a head exploding emoji on this Norwegian keyboard?! 

Ungdomskkole: I will serve as the Rover for ungdomskkole, which is the Lower Secondary school, or ages 13 through 16. All classes are heterogeneous. In fact, what we call "tracking" is prohibited in Norway, and teachers are expected to differentiate to the diversity of readiness levels in their classrooms. I am very much looking forward to seeing differentiation in practice in the schools I visit. Ungdomskkole is compulsory, and has a near 100% completion rate. 

After ungdomskkole, students choose if they would like to pursue traditional or vocational upper schooling from ages 16 to 18 or so (depending on choice). In a traditional track, students will apply to University at the end of upper secondary school. 

Applying to University: When students apply to University they simply submit their Upper Secondary grades on a nation-wide common application. On the application they list what they would like to study and where. Not much more. No college essay, no letters of recommendation, no resume with endless extra-curriculars. Just grades. 

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Of course, we had tons of questions about what we should expect from the Norwegian students in terms of academic interests and behavior. I wanted to know, "what major cultural differences between the US and Norway do you think we'll see play out in the schools?" 

The presenters looked at each other and immediately said "janteloven." The Norwegian Principal of Jante describes how individuals should behave, that they should put the community first, and not be boastful, should resist showing off or standing out from the collective in order to make onesself seem more special that anyone else. Here are the rules:  

You should not believe you are anything. 
You must not believe you are as much as us
You should not believe you are wiser than us. 
You should not imagine you are better than us. 
You should not believe you know more than us. 
You should not believe you are more than us
You should not believe that you are doing anything. 
Do not laugh at us. 
You should not believe anyone cares about you.
You should not believe you can teach us anything.  

And so, in a Norwegian school I am told I should expect to not see academic achievement ceremonies, no "star of the week" boards, generally less fuss made of individuals because Norwegians are not so interested in being in the spotlight as the "best" at something. Sometimes, this means students are timid and shy to participate. When I asked "How do teachers motivate students? How do you celebrate academic excellence?" a smile came across the presenter's face, and I could tell I'd asked an entirely American question. "Lots of certificates of participation" she only half-joked. I wonder how this aspect of Scandinavian culture is reflected in public education. And how, perhaps, public education teaches this aspect of culture through a hidden, ethical curriculum. 

Pedagogically, I am eager to see how teachers really use their national standards-- do they drive instruction or are they shelf documents? What accountability systems have municipalities and schools developed to track student progress at the lower secondary level? Do school communities have vertically aligned learning sequences between ungdomskkole and upper secondary? How do schools provide equitable experiences for all students, including those with learning disabilities? What is standard practice for modification of standards?

Further, what are student attitudes about learning, when it seems like so much is left to intrinsic motivation? How does the fact that their grades alone determine university admission impact the student experience? And what role does janteloven really play in schools? What is its effect on building self-confidence and assurance in young people- young women, especially? 

Luckily, I have a year to begin to dig into some of these questions. I'm already fascinated by "the Norwegian way." Which is to say, their emphasis on community, the gentleness in human interactions, and the ethical code which seems to drive everything from the intense rubbish sorting everyone is expected to follow, to the beautifully maintained trails of the Nordmarka. 

So what's in the water here? Or more accurately, what's in the schools?