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

There is a view that, if nothing else, the U.S. are extremely innovative in education technology. Have you found that to be true?

Renman: I’ve been visiting quite a lot of schools in the States, especially in Nebraska, Maine, California, and the New York area and I have to say I’m not impressed at all. I wouldn’t say you’re superior from a digital point of view. It’s all pretty much the same from what I’ve seen. From talking to researchers and looking at statistics I don’t think the difference is that big. I think what differs is how digitization has been rolled out to the schools and the emphasis. You must correct me if I’m wrong, but in the States there’s been a focus on the tools and the apps, the iPads and so on. While in the Scandinavian countries, Sweden especially but also in Denmark, there’s been a strong focus on leadership and changing the management, and what are the possibilities of this new kind of learning.

That’s an important distinction.

Renman: Look at PISA. The Scandinavian countries — you can leave Finland out of this equation — aren’t all that different from the States in what students learn and what they know. It’s not a huge difference there. On the other hand, the one-to-one trend started out really heavily in Sweden in 2005-06 and we were really on top of things. I worked for Apple at that time and we had people from Cupertino coming over to Stockholm and Denmark to take a look at what we were doing. It was really amazing. That was then. Now, 10 years later, the pace has somewhat gone down, and I don’t think people are flying over from Cupertino anymore.

What does it look like now?

Renman: It’s the same thing. It’s a bit different depending on which of the Scandinavian countries you’re talking about of course, but say from a Finnish perspective they haven’t done much work at all in the digital arena. Of course you can find schools with iPads, but they’ve really just started the process. While Sweden I think the latest numbers is that over 50 percent of the secondary schools have one-to-one. And in Denmark, it’s about 75 percent coverage of iPads in the classroom. It’s really heavily digitized from a device perspective, but the research we can find is rather obvious. I’d say it’s pretty much the same all over the world, which is that you’re handing out iPads but the teaching and the way students learn haven’t changed that much, so we’re still early in the process.

The public school system has been around since the 1840s or 50s and from that perspective the one-to-one and the digitization of schools is just a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective. Perhaps we should expect only a little bit of development at a time, but that is also a threat I’d say from the school perspective. The pace or the speed of the technology and the development of the world is super high and at the same time we say that education moves slowly. It’s going to take time, which, in practice, means that everyday life is running away from education, so education has no way of keeping up with what’s going on outside the school building. I think that’s a true challenge compared to education from the 1970s, when education was actually leading development in many ways — where parents had no clue at home what was going on in schools. Today, we’re not really in the same situation, I’d say.

What kind of emphasis does Sweden or Denmark put on 21st century skills?

Renman: Creativity and collaboration has been written down in the national curricula since about 1980 onward. Obviously, it wasn’t connected to digitization at that time, but there’s been free music schools and group assignments and peer reviews. Again, that has to do with the student orientation, the welfare state. So it’s that we’re doing things together. The nation has a common interest. That’s reflected all the way back through the classrooms and the curriculums. It’s a long tradition going way back, at least 30 years, and it has been given even more emphasis than in the States: creativity, innovation, and so on. I know it’s more of a new thing in the States and the U.K. Today, people are talking about entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation all over the world.

Is that paying dividends now that those students are in their 20s and 30s?

Renman: That’s the most important takeaway from my talk in Philadelphia. Students have been really focused on these collaborative skills like creativity, project-based learning, and so on since 1980. That means those kids that learned back then are actually professionals these days and that’s one of the major reasons behind the fact that 0.3 percent of the world’s population has had such a big impact on entrepreneurship, digitization, music, game-design, and so on. I would really say that kind of a curriculum for so many decades has really produced creative, innovative, entrepreneurial-minded people.

Next page: The 6 big trends in ed-tech in Sweden

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