Reporter’s Notebook: Learning in Iceland

By Andrew Trotter — December 16, 2003 7 min read
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Iceland is an island of rich contrasts—snow-capped volcanoes and Euro-trendy nightclubs; Viking lore and cellphones; proud fishermen and, yes, a few Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.


Just a few degrees of latitude below the Arctic Circle, the island famously sits astride the North American and European continental plates, and is actually growing by about an inch a year, as those plates part company. In many ways, it is a crossroads for Europe and North America, taking ideas from both regions and melding them to its unique society.

Staff Writer Andrew Trotter spent six days in Iceland in November, visiting a half-dozen schools in the capital city, Reykjavik; one of its suburbs, Gardabaer; and the rural town of Selfoss to look at the use of technology in education. His story will be part of the next spring’s Technology Counts 2004 report on technology in education around the globe.

Meanwhile, the following reporter’s notebook shares some observations about the education system in this remote but technologically savvy nation.

(Requires Macromedia Flash Player.)

Small and Social

With a land mass the size of Virginia but only 280,000 inhabitants, Iceland is the most thinly populated country in Europe. And any two Icelanders can find someone they know in common after a few minutes’ conversation, natives say.

Schools are small—for example, Gardaskoli, in the affluent town of Gardabaer, a bedroom community for Reykjavik, is the country’s largest lower secondary school for ages 12 to 16, with only 740 students.

Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands (translated into English as Sudurland College), an upper secondary school in Selfoss in southern Iceland, has 840 students ages 16 to 20. It follows a modular schedule that gives students and faculty ample time to relax between some classes, in contrast to the five-minute rush between classes more typical in U.S. high schools.

Read a complete overview and description of Iceland’s education system, from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

During breaks of 15 or 30 minutes at Sudurland College, practically the entire student body pours into the bright, vaulted gallery that runs nearly the length of the school for some coffeehouse-style socializing.

Teenagers sip coffee at café tables, or in a carpeted conversation pit or other nooks. They chat on cellphones, or use laptop computers for homework or to watch a DVD with their friends.

One day recently, a poet who once attended the school was reciting passages from his newly published book to a throng of students.

Shoes Off

The casual atmosphere at Sudurland College starts in the entry halls, where hundreds of shoes and boots are set on racks or neatly lined against the wall. Students and faculty members take off their shoes when they enter the building and don slippers or sandals stored on the same racks. Or they simply pad around all day in thick wool socks.

As a consequence, the floors of the 6-year-old school are immaculate, the polished granite and marble and blond woods kept clean and gleaming by the constant foot polishing.

The practice of taking shoes off before entering a structure is customary in most Icelandic homes. The reason is practical: to keep out the country’s gritty volcanic dust.

When the long-awaited Sudurland school was built, the faculty decided it was a good practice and should become a school rule.

Lunch Comes to School

The school lunch is a very recent innovation in Iceland, adopted over the past few years because more families have both parents working.

Students used to go home for lunch, because they attended school within walking distances of their homes. But the realities of contemporary life are keeping most Icelandic children in school buildings for lunch these days.

In a nation that is struggling to maintain tradition while also reaping the benefits of the modern world, the school lunch menu can be controversial, says Oddney Ey-jolfsdottir, the superintendent of the Gardabaer schools.

Parents insist that school food should be “ordinary, old-fashioned food"—fish, lamb, and vegetables, and served hot, Oddney says. Staples of school lunches in the United States—such as hamburgers and pizza—are “not tolerated by parents,” she says.

Her schools typically offer menus of fish, pasta, fruit, and dairy products, as well as cold sandwiches trucked in by a caterer. The superintendent sees a contradiction in parents’ insistence that schools serve healthier, traditional foods, when families often are eating pizza or other junk food at home these days. “They would be outraged if we did the same at school,” she says with a sigh.

World Travelers

Imagine a middle school in which every classroom has at least a few students who have traveled to other countries. That is the case in Iceland, where a cultural wander-lust that dates back to Viking times persists.

Ragnar Gislason, the principal of Gardeskoli, gives leave to up to five students a week to go abroad, often to the United States and the European continent.

“You would probably not find any classes where no one has gone abroad,” says Ragnar, whose students are ages 12 to 16.

Some families travel abroad every year, usually during the summer holiday, which in the European pattern is a minimum of four weeks and often six weeks long. And some high school students hop on cheap, government-subsidized flights to the Continent several times a year, through youth organizations or with friends.

Educators travel, too-sometimes en masse. Schools periodically send entire faculties on professional-study trips to other countries. Even janitors and cafeteria workers come along, says Thorunn Bjarnadottir, an Icelandic-born educator at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who has coordinated visits for Icelandic schools to Minnesota.

Students are primed for their overseas visits by their study of languages, Ragnar says. In addition to studying Icelandic from their earliest years, students study English from age 10, or 5th grade; and Danish from age 12, or 7th grade, he says.

Students tackle other languages in high school-key skills in a tiny nation that must communicate with other countries to survive and thrive.

A Traditional Celebration

One day in Reykjavik, a car stopped at an intersection to allow a crowd of nuns in black-and-white habits—an oddity in an almost universally Lutheran country— to hustle across the street.

In fact, these were upper secondary students celebrating “dimission,” the last day of classes before examinations.

Following an old custom, students come to school in costume on this day. They sing songs they’ve made up about their teachers, make speeches, and give gag gifts. And their teachers sing and laugh with them.

Soon after this celebration of their release, they must buckle down to their examination period.

Language of Vikings

The Icelandic language is difficult even for Icelanders to learn, because it is remarkably unchanged—barring slight differences in spelling and some letter shapes—from Old Norse, the language the Vikings brought to the island in the year 874.

Tomas Ingi Olrich—Iceland’s minister of education, science, and culture—explains that because of isolation, Icelandic has retained layers of grammar that have been stripped from the other, more streamlined Scandinavian languages. Those layers carry complexities of meaning that are valuable to the culture, he says. Icelandic children as young as 9 or 10 can actually read the original versions of the Icelandic Sagas, written on cow skins in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Of course, new words have been introduced, and several organizations are devoted to creating Icelandic terms for new inventions and campaigning against the use of foreign words.

Indeed, the government won a hard-fought compromise with the Microsoft Corp. in 1999, by which the company agreed to reverse a decision not to publish Icelandic versions of its most popular software, if in return the government combed through its computers and removed unauthorized copies of all Microsoft software.

Purists of the spoken language are unlikely, though, to stop teenagers from using global terms like “pizza.” Even so, a visitor sees hardly any English words on notices posted at schools in Iceland, except for the occasional “log-on” that appeared in a computer lab in one school.

Tomas Ingi worries that the new shorthand ways of communicating, using technologies such as instant messaging and speech-recognition software, may unavoidably lead to a more streamlined language.

“Education and culture is always a very complex thing—they are always very linked to technology,” he says.

Philosophically, he adds, “I don’t think a language can be defended. You have to feel a pleasure in using it.”

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