My K-12 Experience in the Norwegian Public School System

At the time of the Norwegian K-12 reform of 1997 (Skolereformen 97), I was a ten-year-old girl eagerly waiting to start the fourth grade. By the media and the politicians advocating it, this reform was often referred to as a “culture reform” or a “family reform”, because it focused on allowing children to express themselves creatively, both during school hours and at after school programs for children with working parents.  The Skolereformen 97 has been referred to as a milestone in Norwegian K-12 educational history, though many of its decisions were revoked during the Conservative government’s Kunnskapsløftet (Knowledge lift) reform in 2006.

Flag of Norway
Flag of Norway

Democracy, community, and the common good

As a child being brought up in the Norwegian school system, it never occurred to me to question the rationale behind the curriculum. It was not until I moved to the States at the age of 18, that the uniqueness of my K-12 experience became apparent.

I was amused, for instance, by the fact that most of my American classmates at college had not had cooking classes or environmental studies, both of which are central parts of the Norwegian school and which are allotted up to four hours per week throughout the 10-year mandatory public school system. Reflecting on my educational experience, there are two main aspects that come to mind; aspects which I suspect would seem foreign to a non-Norwegian, but which I believe have had a great influence on my education and schooling.

the public school “shall be an active and lively cultural institution in the local community”

Firstly, there is an immense stress on the common good and the community in Norwegian schools. For this reason, students are from an early age frequently sent out to pick trash, plant trees and vegetables, harvest, and work with recycling.

According to the Norwegian Ministry of Church, Education, and Research (Kirke-, utdannings-, og forskningsdepartementet, KUF), the public school “shall be an active and lively cultural institution in the local community” (KUF, 1996, para. 6, own translation). Consequently, there is little room for individualism in Norwegian schools, which made my transition to the American society challenging. With little exposure to competition, public speaking, and individual assignments, it was difficult to maneuver in a society where one’s success depends on one’s ability to win and to “sell” oneself.

According to David Labaree’s (1997) principles of the goals of education, the Norwegian system would lean toward what Labaree terms democratic equality, wherein school is seen as a tool to educate future citizens, preparing its youth to “take on the full responsibilities of citizenship in a competent manner” (p. 42). Education is very much viewed as a public good.

With little exposure to competition, public speaking, and individual assignments, it was difficult to maneuver in a society where one’s success depends on one’s ability to win and to “sell” yourself

I further find that the system I was schooled in, fits with the “democratic schools” described by Michael Apple and James Beane (2007) as it is “marked by an emphasis on cooperation and collaboration rather than competition” (p. 12)

A second essential part of my educational experience was the heavy emphasis on the Norwegian languages[1], history, cultural heritage, and socialist values. Clearly, it was the governments wish to install a strong sense of citizenship and nationalism, and as I consider myself a passionate nationalist and patriot, it would seem they succeeded.

Although May (2001) concludes that “the link between language and identity needs to be critically examined, not just assumed” (p. 9), I strongly believe this link to be valid, especially for nation-states as young and small as Norway[2]. Thinking back on my educational experience, I remember monthly visits to the National museums and farms, as well as week-long projects on “Great Norwegians” such as Henrik Ibsen, Alfred Nobel, and Fritjof Nansen. In addition, up to seven hours per week were assigned to writing and reading skills, which I later have been grateful to be trained in.

One subject distinguishes itself as being far above average […] and that subject is written Norwegian

In an evaluation of Reform 97, lead by The Norwegian Research Council in 2003, it was found that “[o]ne subject distinguishes itself as being far above average […] and that subject is written Norwegian” (Haug, 2003, p. 3). Insofar as fostering patriotism and community, therefore, the Norwegian school system excelled, but the same cannot be said for mathematics, science, and technology, where the results tended to be lower than those of many other European countries (Haug, 2003).

Homogeneity and “uniformization”

Sheep trail up the mountain side.
Sheep trail up the mountain side.

While the Norwegian government made great efforts to preserve the Norwegian identity in the midst of globalization, they failed to include room for otherness in the Norwegian school system.

With the heavy emphasis on Norwegian-ness, it should come as no surprise that the Norwegian system has been criticized for being “a school that is little sensitive to variation, heterogeneity, multiplicity, deviation from the norm, colourfulness, what is different and unknown” (Haug, 2003, p. 6). Drawing on my personal experience I can attest to the lack of multicultural education, and while this may be a result of a homogenous student body and faculty, I also believe this reveals shortcomings in the underlying educational philosophy. In this unfortunate aspect, the Norwegian school is driven less by “popular impulses for advancement and empowerment, and more to the requirements for discipline and conformity demanded by […] the nation-state” (Levinson and Holland, 1996, p. 13).

In their book Globalization and Education, Stromquist and Monkmann (2000) warn of the uniformization and homogenization of school curricula, especially in an era where ‘global competencies’ (e.g. cultural awareness and acceptance) are vital for students’ future success.

While the Norwegian government made great efforts to preserve the Norwegian identity in the midst of globalization, they failed to include room for otherness in the Norwegian school system.

I mentioned earlier that the Norwegian school installed a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism in me, but it is important to keep in mind that, “nationalism and patriotism will only coincide in true’ nation-states; that is, in states where the population is ethnically homogenous” (May, 2001, p. 77). How do Norwegian citizens of a different ethnicity or religion feel in Norwegian schools? How must the system change in order to accommodate the increasing number of immigrants and refugees? Can the irrational fear of “other people” that is so prevalent in many Norwegians stem from a lack of multiculturalism in the K-12 curriculum?

Conclusion

The Norwegian public school system— especially after the Skolereformen 97— is built around the goal of democratic equality (Labaree, 1997). The purpose of education is to create responsible citizens with a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism, notably through the teaching of Norwegian languages (past and present) and cultural heritage.

Further, the curriculum is designed to promote creativity, innovation, and originality. While these aspects of Norwegian school coincide with my own educational philosophy, I am wary of the negative impact a nationalistic curriculum might have on the multicultural aspect of school, which I believe to be vital. I see education and schooling as a way to not only produce citizens but also global citizens. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, I fear the Norwegian system is failing to prepare its students for the plethora of cultures, religions, and worldviews among the global community.

References

Apple, M., & Beane, J. (Eds.) (2007). Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinneman.

Kirke-, utdannings- og forskningsdepartementet, KUF (1996). Retningslinjer og brosjyrer [Guidelines and brochures] Retrieved on 24.02.2014 from http://www.regjeringen.no/en/dokumentarkiv/regjeringen-brundtland-iii/kuf/veiledninger/1996/reform-97-dette-er-grunnskolereformen.html?id=87403

Labaree, D. (1997). Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals. American Educational Research Journal 34(1); pp. 39-81

Levinson, B. and Holland, D. (1996). The Cultural Production of the Educated Person: An Introduction. In Levinson, B., Foley, D., and Holland, B. The Cultural Production of the Educated Person: Critical Ethnographies of Schooling and Local Practice. Albany, NY: State University of NY Press.

May, S. (2001). Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Language. NY: Pearson Education.

Stromquist, N. and Monkman, P. (2000). “Defining Globalization and Assessing its Implications on Knowledge and Education”. In N. Stromquist and K. Monkman (eds.). Globalization and Education. New York: Rowan and Littlefield

[1] There are two official languages in Norway— Bokmål and Nynorsk— both of which are taught in school. In addition, students study old Norse languages and runes.

[2] Norway (with a current population of 5 mill.) gained its independence from Denmark in 1814 and has since seen several language debates, resulting in 2 official languages (in addition to Sami, an indigenous language)

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