Education Opinion

Enough About Finland, Let’s Talk About Norway

By David B. Cohen — September 29, 2014 7 min read
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In recent years, anyone who’s been reading or talking about international comparisons in education practices and policies has some familiarity with Finland’s education story by now. I know at least four or five American educators who have visited Finland to learn more about their system. It’s certainly an experience I’d like to try myself someday, to visit schools in another country and learn more about them. I actually taught English in an Israeli school for several months in 1993, but that was before I even had any training or teaching experience in American schools; still, the experience adds a small bit of useful perspective.

I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to go abroad to visit schools, but for this coming year, at least I have the opportunity to visit schools all over California. Last week, I also had the opportunity to play tour guide for a Norwegian visitor to the San Francisco Bay Area. Even without leaving the U.S., it was a chance for me to learn and reflect on what we do here, and how we can be simultaneously quite similar and dissimilar to other countries.

Thor-Ivar Eriksen, a principal from a school outside of Oslo, Norway, put out an inquiry on Twitter several weeks ago, seeking to visit schools in my area that might be implementing a 1:1 program using Chromebooks. (1:1 meaning that every student has access every day to a particular networked device, whether it’s a tablet, laptop, or netbook-style device). The reason for the request was that Thor-Ivar has started a 1:1 pilot program in his school, and even had the chance to join about 40 other Norwegians for some training at Google last week. Anticipating some time on his own near the end of the week, Thor-Ivar started looking for ways to visit American schools, and since I’m in the area but not teaching this year, I offered to help make the arrangements and provide the transportation.

We visited two schools: Los Altos High School (Los Altos, CA), where we were hosted in the classroom of Stephanie Downey, and Graham Middle School (Mountain View, CA), where we able to tour and talk with principal Kim Thompson.

In Stephanie Downey’s history and social studies classroom, we found a slight variation on the type of program Thor-Ivar had originally wanted to see; while every student in the school is issued a computer for use at school and at home, students have the option to bring their own devices. Having everyone on the same type of device might offer some benefit, but I would say having everyone online is the top priority.

Thor-Ivar and I were both impressed at how smoothly Stephanie’s students began working each period. There was a clear routine, carried out in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. It was clear students know how to get to work and find their daily activities online. Whether they were doing independent research on lobbying and political donations, preparing group presentations, or completing a quiz, students did not need paper and did not ever seem confused about how to access or produce material. We also didn’t see kids veering off into the internet distraction zones of Facebook, fantasy sports, or other entertainment. That’s not to suggest the kids were perfectly dutiful and studious at every moment, but it was clear that, as Thor-Ivar put it, they see the devices as tools for work, not toys for playing.

And don’t imagine that all the devices and screens necessarily present an impediment to a warm and personable atmosphere. The students and teacher had a pleasant and easy rapport in each of the three classes periods we spent in Stephanie’s classroom; while the technology can facilitate learning, it’s the personal relationships that made the class a real learning environment.

Our visit to Graham Middle School took place while the students were in non-classroom activities with their teachers. So while it would have been good to see the students and teachers in action, we ended up talking while looking into several classrooms, discussing learning spaces and technology with the principal. I put “learning spaces” first because that was the more interesting aspect of the visit, for me, though the school does have Chromebooks for every student.

While the school buildings are around 60 years old, the interiors and the furnishings are mostly brand new, and really reflecting students’ learning needs. There were classrooms and outdoor spaces between them being outfitted and organized to encourage middle schoolers to move around - in the room, out of the room, into other rooms - when appropriate for multi-class, project-based learning activities. The new facilities for music classes were have modern acoustic furnishings, practice rooms, and teaching walls set up to accomodate technology and facilitate student interaction. The interiors of the school buildings we visited seemed noticeably more kid friendly, and yet more professional, than most schools I’ve visited. Kim Thompson was generous with her time, and it was a treat for me to listen in as the two principals shared observations and reflections about schools and leadership.

At the end of the day, there were a few clear similarities that I’d observed or heard about in these classrooms and conversations:

  • Technology integration and adoption is in a transitional phase here and in Norway. We have still have teachers whose own student experience and later training occurred with no technology, or very different technology - though Thor-Ivar was quick to point out that in his experience, age alone does not predict a teacher’s willingness to develop tech skills and integrate technology in school. It’s hard to imagine that in another ten years, we’ll still be seeing this variability.
  • Changes in technology and pedagogy will be implemented gradually and unevenly. Every school and every classroom will present some unique wrinkle in the process, with outliers at both ends of the tech skills spectrum. School leaders and policy makers should certainly pay attention to the pace and uniformity of change, but they cannot control it to the extent they might like. Accepting the nature of a transitional period probably makes more sense than strict mandates for total, rapid adoption.
  • Students’ learning experiences are changing. While it’s still appropriate to question the dominant model of schooling, the use of learning time and space, and traditional approaches to course credits and requirements, it is no longer accurate (in most cases) to say that “teaching today is just like they were 50 years ago.”
  • Changes often require a champion with a clear goal and vision, someone who’s willing to get ahead of the crowd, bend a rule or two, press for change, encourage colleagues, and “manage up.”
  • Effective changes in pedagogy, technological or not, depend on staff coheision and positive school culture and cohesion. Without that in place first, the adoption of new technology is likely to have minimal impact on a school.

However, spending the day with Thor-Ivar talking about American and Norwegian schools also highlighted some significant differences between our systems.

  • Schools in Norway are managed as part of the local government, rather than having separate school districts. This approach probably reduces some bureaucratic overhead, and it certainly streamlines some functions; for example, there is no separate transportation system for schools and cities.
  • Schools in Norway do not have competitive sports programs. I happen to like sports as much, or maybe a little more, than the average American, but when I see schools in my state operating with utterly inadquate staffing among librarians, counselors, or nurses, and class sizes out of control, I do question our priorities in spending what money we have.
  • Norwegian children do not live in poverty. Thor-Ivar said that there are differences in class and wealth, but children in Norway do not go homeless, or lack for safe housing, or adequate clothing, nutrition, and health care.
  • On our way out of one school, Thor-Ivar was surprised to see what is a rather common feature at many American campuses: a large poster showing the progress of school fundraising efforts. “You would never see that in Norway,” I was informed. I don’t necessarily have a problem with schools doing some fundraising, but I know that the funds are often going towards items that should be considered part of normal operating costs, and that’s hard to accept.

While it’s reassuring in a way to know that the basics of learning and working together are similar across cultures, it’s discouraging that we undermine ourselves as a nation by refusing to confront the fundamental challenges of adequacy and equity in our educational systems, and society as a whole.

Photo credits, from top: Stephanie Downey gives instructions at the start of a class at Los Altos High School, CA, 9/26/14 (David B. Cohen); Thor-Ivar Eriksen with Graham Middle School (CA) principal Kim Thompson, 9/26/14 (David B. Cohen).

In one year, I hope you’ll be able to read my book about visiting great teachers and schools throughout California. To ensure the viability of the overall project - all the way from the first tank of gas to the final step in publishing - I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. I invite you to visit the Kickstarter page to see a video about the project and read more of the details. Feel free to share widely if you like the idea, too! (Note that Education Week is in no way affiliated with with the Kickstarter campaign.)

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