Why Scandinavian schools are superior (and what we can learn)

By Stephen Noonoo, Editor, @stephenoonoo
June 18th, 2015

Nordic schools (Finland included) captivate American educators. What makes them so strong?

scandinavia-schoolsThirty-five years ago, back when most schools around the world were still preparing students for their 20th century futures, a clutch of Scandinavian countries were reworking their curricula to include more creativity, collaboration, and communication — today’s so-called 21st century skills. It was an effort grounded in the region’s welfare-state mentality, which values inclusiveness and cooperation for the common good, according to Hans Renman, a former educator from Sweden and the founder and CEO of Scandinavian Education, a consultancy and think tank.

While Scandinavian countries generally perform about average in PISA rankings (Nordic neighbor Finland is an outlier), they have made significant strides in creating equitable conditions for all students and were early adopters of technology and one-to-one device programs. Comprising just 0.3 percent of the world population, these countries, and their graduates, have often punched above their weight in music, game-design, and technology innovation (think Minecraft, Spotify, Skype). In advance of his ISTE 2015 talk, “The Scandinavian Miracle,” Renman recently spoke with us about what schools can learn from Sweden and her neighbors and why America may have won the lottery when it comes to the future of education.

What is education like in Scandinavia? Can you describe some of the differences between the countries?

Renman: That’s one thing to bear in mind here — you can’t talk about “Scandinavia” at all at a systems level. It’s different countries. You have Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and often Finland goes along with it. They’re different countries with different cultures and languages. No one understands Finnish even though they’re close-by geographically. It’s more accurate to say the U.S. education model even though there are differences between the states. However, it’s possible to draw some lines connecting the Scandinavian countries.

For one thing, there are national curricula in Scandinavian countries that every school has to follow, and there’s no exceptions to that. The school systems are also very student-oriented. There’s a lot of talk about inclusion, democracy, and equality. The teachers unions, too, are very strong. Also, the education system is free in all these countries, even the university education, and it’s publicly funded. Even if you’re born in a very socially tough situation, it’s still easy as anything to become a professor from an economic point of view — you don’t have to pay anything — which is of course interesting.

In Sweden, we have a much more extensive voucher system than they do in the rest of Scandinavia. Sweden and Chile have the same kind of extreme voucher system — no other nation in the world has that. That’s strange knowing that Sweden is a social democratic country. In Denmark, they were early with digital strategies and learning and have a lot of official monetary support for that. While Finland, the PISA superstar, is much more traditional in education, even though they keep saying they’re on the brink of something. And then we have Norway, one of the richest countries in the world thanks to oil — kind of the Saudi Arabia of the north — and I’m not impressed by the Norwegian education system at all, especially not from a digital point-of-view. I call it petrol-coma — they have so much oil, they don’t need to bother about anything. It’s really a strong sense of, “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

Next page: The Nordic keys to success