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

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

What are some of the keys to success in Nordic countries, like Finland?

Renman: There is some research around this. Pasi Sahlberg — he’s at an American university right now, Stanford — is the expert on the Finnish education system. He keeps saying that the success story in Finland is due to one thing and that’s the equality aspect: In every single class you can find students from any social background. How people live in Finland is not as extreme as in other countries, like England or the United States. You can see research on the effectiveness of school systems that says that if the education system is equal and democratic, it’s a good thing for every student, not just the top five percent, like say in Singapore or China.

In general, educating students at the bottom and the top is something that we have done really well. That’s why you get people flying in from China and other countries to take a look at these systems, trying to figure out how we took the steps from poor agricultural societies in the late 1840s to industrial societies in just 100 years, without being torn apart from the inside by forces of social instability. We have done a great job the past 150 years, but the problem is what’s coming up further on down the road.

I’ve heard that Finland places a big emphasis on teachers.

Renman: It’s a perfectly correct answer to say that Finland has much more of an emphasis on teachers and that the teachers are much more praised and valued than in the other Scandinavian countries. Also, perhaps they lean a bit more on traditional learning. It’s interesting that Finland has almost no national tests whatsoever. Compare it to the situation in the States and [testing] policies that have been the trademark of your system for many years now. If you look at the Finnish system, which has almost none of that, they’re still much better. One special ingredient is their very early special resources for kids that show signs of underperforming. Students between the ages of 6-8, these kids get more attention and hours with teachers.

This lack of formal testing, does it perhaps put less stress on the system?

Renman: I think it’s fair to say that. Especially in Finland, which doesn’t have that culture at all. But also in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. For sure there are more national tests, but not at all to the extent as in the U.S. Also, we don’t have the need for national testing to the degree of the U.S. The schools aren’t ranked or compared in the same way out of the results. It’s not at all as important as in the States or in the U.K. or France or Germany. In Scandinavia, the results of the national tests are more the business of the school officials. For a single student, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect your grade.

Next page: How innovative is the U.S. in ed-tech?

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

What are some of the big education trends in Sweden around technology?

Renman: For students, there are six big trends. One is the cloud computing, Google apps for education cluster. That’s one huge thing going on all over the Scandinavian countries right now.

The second is the maker movement, programming, pro-digital thinking, robotics. There’s a lot of talk about programming as a new languages. It’s super hot. The biggest conference for internet and education in Sweden has two separate [tracks] for education and both of them this October will be about programming.

The third trend would be the flipped classroom. That’s really popular these days. The fourth would be gaming, game-based learning driven by the strong culture of the gaming industry here — Minecraft and so on.

The fifth would be kind of a dark horse revolving around cognition, neuroscience and how the brain works. It’s also a digital trend because we have discovered that when students are working more digitally they learn different ways, and sometimes you just have to catch up to how people learn inside their brains. Other conferences are becoming big in these countries about what goes on when you actually learn.

And the last one I’d say would be the mobility trend — one-to-one, iPads in education, BYOD — which has been going on for ten years now. It’s not that different from the U.S.

Are there lessons to be learned for U.S. administrators?

Renman: I think so. That brings me to the other trends, those about teachers. I think it’s a bit of a new thing. For one thing we’ll discover that moving in a digital direction means that you become a different person in your role as a professional, as a teacher. Perhaps it means moving away from being a content expert to becoming the guide-on-the-side. It’s not saying that content knowledge is not important, but we’ve added other competencies, like the TPACK model, that has become included in teacher colleges and so on.

And the other thing is that teachers are learning in new ways. We’ll use social media, #edchat and Twitter, and social learning in much more advanced ways than before when you were forced to have professional development in two or three conference days a year that the principal decided on. Today, you actually learn just by going to work. That’s a really new thing for teachers. Another trend or something we’ve managed to change is that principals have realized that they can’t just manage the status quo anymore; they have to be much more focused on their job as managing change and working as a leader on change and for change. It’s a struggle for a lot of Scandinavian principals, since they’re not used to that. That’s a management trend in any field, but education is especially vulnerable. Education changes with digitalization and we’re just discovering the really huge impacts these days. There’s very little research around it. We need to be really observant and share what’s going on. We’re not super good at it but we’re definitely much better at it than in the old days.

However, I’ll say it’s a catch 22. In the Scandinavian countries, I’m not sure if you have this in the American school system, it says that education development must be based on research and evidence. So those two words, research and evidence, are portals so to speak, but from a digitalization perspective there is no research or evidence connected — at least not very much. So that means on the one hand we want to move in that direction but on the other hand we can’t move in that direction because there isn’t research in that direction. That’s why I call it a catch 22. We’re stuck where we are.

There may be less of an emphasis on that in the U.S. Teachers are innovating as they go along.

Renman: Exactly that. I’m quite sure the American mentality is much more open for innovators, doers, adventurers. All the way from the founding fathers you’ve been very positive around people who are actually doers and build around success. In Scandinavia, we do it together, wisely though political decisions and research. There’s absolutely a different kind of a culture. You won the lottery in the future of education. These days the development of education is so rapid that if you’re using the Scandinavian way of developing things, slowly and wisely, you will be No. 2 on the ball all the time, while the U.S. has a much more innovative society in general.

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