U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia

In fact, educators and policy makers in all three countries view accountability and assessment far differently than in the United States, delegates said. In contrast to the focus on quantitative measures and standardized testing found in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Scandinavian officials rely on a system that produces highly competent teachers who use their professional expertise to work with each student and develop individualized learning plans.

“My teacher” and “the teacher” are terms of respect, not only when used by the students, but also by the school leader or headmaster. The teacher is most often viewed as a mentor, someone who has both knowledge and wisdom to impart and plays a key role in preparing students for adulthood.

In Finland, for instance, teaching is one of the most highly venerated professions in the country—and only one in eight applicants to teacher-education programs are accepted. All teachers there have a master’s degree.

Unlike in the United States, which has taken the opposite approach, Scandinavian countries have established national curriculum standards but have set fairly broad mandates, letting authority trickle down as close to the classroom as possible. Local school officials have the flexibility to provide education services according to their students’ unique needs and interests, as long as the basic policy framework is followed.

Therefore, teachers are extremely autonomous in their work. So are students. For example, internet-content filtering in the three countries is based largely on a philosophy of student responsibility. Internet filters rarely exist on school computers, other than for protection from viruses or spam. As a school librarian in Copenhagen said, “The students understand that the computers are here for learning.”

Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians, said these countries see students as having “the filter in their heads.”

Walker also noted that while “the U.S. holds teachers accountable for teaching, here they hold the students accountable for learning.”

One school that delegates visited in Copenhagen, Katrinedalsskolen, has students become independent learners working across curricular areas. Students stay with one teacher or mentor from grades one through nine, moving freely about the building—which is centered around the school library, or “pedagogical center.”


In the Danish system, the notion of grading is a foreign concept, with competitive grading postponed until high school. Students are judged in relation to their own growth, rather than that of others, and they are continuously evaluated. Teachers also write individual learning plans for each student after these evaluations.

Project-based learning begins in the first grade, and teachers work with students to structure their learning through a process described by one educator as “dialogue and trust.” Assessment is achieved primarily through a dialogue with each student, as is communication with parents about their child’s progress.

Meris Stansbury

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