Student-centered Education Reform

Much longer post than normal.  Economists may see a dip in US productivity as people all over the country simultaneously read this Monday’s missive, or more accurately, massive.  Persevere to the end and you’ll be rewarded with a picture of the worst cross country skier in Norway.

Thanks to the hospitality and constant help of people like our friend Inger, we’re adapting well to Norwegian life, learning lots, and enjoying the experience.  We’re settled into the second story of a nice house, picked up some Norwegian phrases, and learned our way around town.  It’s been clearer and colder than normal and It hasn’t snowed since our first two days.  J wants it to snow and I want it to melt so I can run which probably explains the meteorological impasse.

I enjoyed teaching for the first time recently with Inger in a town about an hour away.  Beautiful drive, combo of forests and snow covered family farms disguised under the snow as pure white ocean swells.  Interaction was limited in the classroom, but the students were very attentive, and they want me to return, so that’s a good sign. 

J is in a neighborhood school part time and A is playing in an orchestra and is about to enroll part time in school too.  L has been organizing school visits and has turned our apartment into a nice base.  Home schooling is underway and during today’s break J went ice-skating across the street where we live.  She came home from PE the other day and said basketball isn’t the Norwegians strong suit.  I told her not to talk too much smack because everything will even out on the ice. 

We miss friends and elements of home—ice-less running paths, Marleyboy, our garbage disposal, and Costco prices.  Prices are two to three times what we’re accustomed to.  Gallon of gas, $7.50-$8.  Litre of milk, $2.20, or nearly $8.50 gallon.  Small jar of peanut butter, $4.  Swimming pool/fitness center entrance, $14.  Movie, $13-$14 depending on how long the movie has been playing.  It’s a daily torture chamber for a cost conscious person like me.  The Fulbright stipend was adjusted upwards for the higher prices, but it’s still hard to pay $4 for six eggs or over $40 for a family trip to the pool.  On the plus side, the hens probably have decent health care.  In A’s and J’s view, the killer slide at the 50 meter pool . . . priceless. 

The UN Development Program uses about 30 variables to measure quality of life in countries throughout the world and Norway is often ranked #1.  Minimum wage is around $20/hour which helps explain the cost of goods.  L and I tried to figure out the bus system recently and failed.  We must have looked pretty forlorn because we were offered a ride by a nice couple and jumped in.  Nice, newish VW wagon I thought to myself before learning our new friend was a prison guard at the 50-person prison in the middle of town (built in 1864).  I think he makes a bit more money than his counterparts in the U.S.  

Schools provide an interesting window into a culture.  Before offering initial impressions about Norwegian schools, a precautionary parable:

In the mid 90’s I traveled to Accra, Ghana with a colleague, Dave, to visit students of ours studying at Cape Coast University. Over the course of a two-week visit, Dave and I became friends with Marshall, the Cape Coast University employee who had been assigned to us as our driver. The more I got to know Marshall, the more I liked him. He had held a series of interesting jobs in a few different countries, he had a large and loving family, and he was excited about the goings on at his local church. I could tell by the way he talked about his family that he was a caring father.

These positive impressions were all called into question when, while negotiating narrow streets in a dense, residential part of Accra in our van, an 18-month old child ran out into the street right in front of us. Marshall slammed the breaks, stuck his head out the window, and yelled at the knee-high girl in a local dialect. I was stunned. I thought I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t cruelly lash out at a young child.

The three of us sat in silence for a few minutes until Dave, sitting in the passenger seat, asked, “What did you say to that girl back there?” Marshall briefly paused, and then said, “I didn’t say anything to the girl. I yelled at her mother telling her ‘Children are precious gifts from God and you should keep a closer eye on yours!’”

This cultural misunderstanding was an epiphany for me. I learned that cross-cultural encounters aren’t always as they first appear; as a result, when trying to make sense of them, it’s important to guard against quick and definitive conclusions. I was certain that I saw and heard Marshall yelling at an infant. In actuality, I couldn’t see Marshall’s eyes from where I was sitting to know who he was looking at, and I couldn’t understand what he said because I didn’t understand the local dialect. Sadly, I didn’t let those limitations keep me from concluding that Marshall was not a caring person. When trying to understand cultural differences while living abroad, our eyes, ears, and other senses sometimes fail us.

With that caveat, here are some initial impressions and tentative conclusions from visits we made to a range of Norwegian schools last week.  We also spent one evening watching a youth orchestra rehearse.   

The administrators couldn’t have been friendlier.  They spent a lot more time with us than U.S. administrators would have been willing and able to spend with a visiting Norwegian family because they had far fewer fires to put out.  I looked in vain for the requisite denizens of school offices in the US, the frantic parent, the in-trouble troubled students awaiting their fate, the over-eager student council leaders clamoring for the intercom, the disgruntled faculty member. 

We casually walked into class after class sometimes unobtrusively watching and others creating enough of a stir to interrupt the lesson.   My favorite entry was through a black sheet that turned out being the back drop for the cast of “Queen: We Will Rock You.”  Suddenly we were on their stage.  I figured that was sufficiently embarrassing for A and J so I resisted the urge to belt out “Find Me Someone to Love.”  The administrators exuded a calm that spoke to the smooth functioning of their schools and society I suspect.

The ethos at each school was informal.  After our tours we sat down with the administrators to look over the master schedule.  We’d explained our interest in classes that weren’t as language intensive; art, music, PE, and their response were always, “No problem, whatever works best for you.”  When L and J finally settled on a school, L asked about paper work and was blown away to learn there was none.  In essence they said, “Whenever she shows up, we’ll take good care of her, no problems.”

Teacher-student interactions were informal too.  Students seemed almost equally divided between being in class with a teacher, socializing while on a formal or self-determined break, or working on a class project in small groups mostly independent of a teacher.  Inger’s daughter Rakel explained that students at her high school (grades 11-13, children start school one year earlier) are free to leave the classroom if so moved.  No real explanation needed.  Most of the time they visit in the cafeteria awhile before eventually returning to class.

Like everywhere, the students were social.  A friendly eighth grade girl complained to us about the obnoxious boys in her class, a universal lament.  Students were lively and energetic, but not so much so that administrators or teachers had to intervene.  I didn’t notice any obviously alienated or unhappy students.

The hallways and classrooms struck me as unusually relaxed environments.   

There was one telling sign that at least some of the instruction was more teacher-directed than student-centered.  Some of the classrooms were V-shaped.  Strangest thing ever.  Everyone knows classrooms are supposed to be rectangular.  We walked into a “V-shaped” 9th grade English class and the teacher was so excited she stopped reading about the King of Norway’s new Toyota and explained the lesson to us.  The 50% of the students on our side of the “V” gawked at the real live Americans that magically appeared before them.  The other 50% had to listen and imagine what the visiting foreigners looked like.  Eventually, we exited through the other half of the “V” so they could compare their images with reality.  How do you lead a class discussion when one half of the class can’t even see the other?  And more importantly maybe, what do you do if the person you have a crush on is assigned a seat in the other half of the “V”?  Classic example of architecture confounding student-centered teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to assess how good one set of schools is compared to another without first thinking through the purposes of public schooling.  One philosopher of education distinguishes between a utilitarian/extrinsic orientation toward the purposes of schooling and a humanitarian/intrinsic one.  She labels the first “education for having” and the second “education for being.” 

In the US, in the first decade of the 21st century, business model thinking has reshaped public schools and the pendulum has gotten stuck on the “education for having” end of the continuum.  Teachers are constantly being told that economic competition is intensifying and China and India will dominate the 21st century if we don’t raise academic standards, improve math and science teaching, eliminate the achievement gap, and toughen graduation requirements. 

As Nel Noddings notes in “When School Reform Goes Wrong,” teachers are unfairly scapegoated when our economy underperforms because they don’t receive credit when it does well. 

I’m extremely skeptical of politicians and business leaders ideas for improving public schooling, yet I acknowledge young people are entering a more competitive economy and more challenging future.  Phone calls, tax returns, x-rays, anything that can be digitized probably will be, and once digitized they will be sent via coaxial cable to a lower paid worker on the other side of the world.

My sense is new teachers are passively accepting the business model prescriptions for strengthening schools.  Add to that the publics uncertainty about whether young people will be able to earn a livable wage, have health benefits, and afford decent homes in an era of outsourcing.  Instead of hoping that their kids will do better than them, many parents wonder whether their kids will live as well as them.

This mantra of foreign competition combined with general economic unease has created stressed out teachers, parents, and young people.  I want my college students to earn a livable wage and successfully compete for jobs with health benefits, but I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t challenge them to think about the intrinsic, “education for being” value of education as well. 

My sense is Norwegian educators and parents aren’t nearly as worried about China, India, or their children’s economic prospects, and not just because they’re sitting on incredible oil and financial reserves.  My guess is they know that type of pressure isn’t in their children’s best interest.   

As we drove to class recently, Inger, my colleague and friend and I, were discussing this.  She thinks Norwegians may be compromising academic excellence by limiting academic competition.  In fact, during my initial visits to four Hamar schools, I didn’t get a feel that many students were deeply engaged in especially challenging content. 

To a casual observer, Norwegian and American schools would look fairly similar, but dig a bit deeper and meaningful differences reveal themselves.  I believe cultural differences enrich the world, so I’m glad schools in Norway and the US reflect those differences.

Advocates of business model education reform often reference the “race” we’re in with other developed countries.  The “race” metaphor suggests a zero-sum global economic competition with clear winners and losers.  What about challenging the business model orthodoxy with other metaphors that accentuate cooperation more than competition?  Does educational excellence have to be a zero-sum game?  What can I learn from Inger about Norway’s unique approach to schooling and what can she learn from me about schooling in the US?

If Inger and I were put in charge of educational policy in our respective countries, she would seek to infuse a bit more US-style academic competition into Norway’s schools and I would seek to emulate aspects of Norway’s more informal and relaxed educational environments by decoupling academic excellence and global economic competition and by asking teachers, parents, and students for their best ideas on how to make schools healthier, happier places.

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4 thoughts on “Student-centered Education Reform

  1. insightful, thoughtful…..

    interesting that Norwegians may not be too worried about the rest of the world……. maybe we North Americans ARE too worried aboot things….. and thus live, teach, and learn too frantically…. of course, Nowegians understand curling…..

  2. All I really have to say is that I wish we could have had a V-shaped classroom in the library. This would have done wonders for the Spanish discoteca scene…just imagine…we could have had two separate dance floors! WOW.

    P.S. I promise I read the entire thing (didn’t seem long at all, and that may or may not be because I am avoiding reading Inauguración de una época poética, Angel Rama), but I most definitely scrolled down to the end to check out what I thought was going to be a picture of me super-imposed with the powers of Photoshop into the winter wonderland.

    I’m learning Norwegian. Or trying.

  3. As usual, very interesting and thought-provoking but I think when you’re driving an automobile you slam on the “brakes” . . . not the “breaks.”

    Love you man – keep up the good work – my best to you, L, A and J!

  4. I have just had the opportunity to catch up on 4 mondays. I’ll have to say it is comforting knowing I’m not the only one out of my element. I may not be in another country but I’m away longer so I think it evens out. Your story about Marshall reminds me that I should be more aware and forgiving of the culture that I am in. I recently had an experience trying to plan a party and had the rug pulled out from under me. It has taken some time to realize that it was not malicious but just very different from our Washington ways. Thanks for reminding me that while not in another country I am in a different world :-) and to take a deep breath before rushing to judgment.

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