Discussion Groups and Gender

One of my favorite things to do in the classroom is to have small discussions with students. Norwegian students tend to be reserved, so these smaller discussions allow for them to talk to me in a safer setting and also make it easier for me to evaluate their language skills.

This semester I’ve added another International English class to my schedule, my second one. So far it’s been fun to work with the two different classes and to see how each teacher runs the class differently. The most obvious difference is how they cover the subject material. Both teachers work from the same textbook, but each has prioritized different chapters. In my newer International English class they have been working more with the “Living and Studying Abroad” chapter. Because I’ve done both of these things, I’m a fairly obvious resource, and that’s what initially got me invited to regularly follow the class.

The first time I visited, I more or less held a question and answer session with each discussion group. I’ve often found that Norwegian students don’t usually ask me much beyond a few generic questions:

  • How do you like Norway? (It’s great although the weather could be better. You have the most beautiful scenery that I’ve ever seen)
  • What’s Los Angeles like? (Warm, sunny, with lots of cars and people. I really miss good Mexican food)
  • Why did you want to come here? (I wanted to work with students who have a high proficiency in English. For a longer answer see this old post)
  • How long are you here for? (For a year)
  • Have you visited places in Norway other than Trondheim? (They are usually impressed to know that I have been to Longyearbyen, Tromsø, the Lofoten Islands, Røros, Halden, Lillehammer, Bergen, and Oslo)

but before long their questions peter out, and it’s my turn to take the lead and ask a few questions:

  • Have you ever been to the US? (Most students answer yes)
  • Would you like to go there and where would you like to go? (Standard answers generally include New York, Los Angeles, and Florida. Texas occasionally makes an appearance)
  • What are some American stereotypes that you have? (Americans all own guns, are racist, and fat)
  • What are some Norwegian stereotypes? (Norwegians are quiet, rude, and everyone skis)

Of course I did my best to try and break down some of these stereotypes, both Norwegian and American, and I like to think that by the end both I and the students had learned a bit more about each other.

While I really enjoyed these discussions, my second visit to this International English class actually proved to be more interesting. Part of this same chapter has a passage on gender roles. The students were asked to read a fictional story written by an Indian woman detailing her struggles with her family. The woman primarily writes about how she finds it difficult to get her family to support her career, something that she cherishes. Unfortunately, her family thinks that her career is unworthy of attention and wants her to get married as quickly as possible. Frustrated that her goals are being pushed aside and her accomplishments ignored, the author goes on to talk about how she considers her situation to be even more unfair because her younger brother is doted on, even though he has yet to accomplish anything.

The passage is clearly written to spark a dialogue on gender, so off I went to the corner of the classroom to talk to my students. My discussion groups naturally divided up into three different types of groups:

  • All boy groups
  • All girl groups
  • Mixed groups

To get things started I’d begin with the following questions:

  • What did you think about the passage?
  • What did you think about the way gender is portrayed in the passage?
  • Do you think things are the same in Norway?
  • Do you think that there is gender inequality in Norway?

Now the last question was by far the most interesting. Somewhat predictably, the answers I got depended on the group composition. All boy groups tended to say that there was no gender inequality, or very little. All girl groups would state that gender inequality exists in Norway, although not to the same extent as in the passage. Mixed groups would either 1) have the boys try and claim that there was no gender inequality, and rapidly get shut down by the girls or 2) the boys would wait for the girls to speak up and then support their statements.

The biggest cited gender inequality amongst my Norwegian students? The pay gap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows the current Norwegian pay gap at 7.01%, certainly better than the United State’s 17.91% (OECD). The other big inequality? A lack of female executives. While a few countries have talked about installing a mandatory gender quota in business, this is something that has existed for quite a long time in Norway. In 2003, Norway required that business boards be at least 40% female or else be shut down. And while this seems like it might solve gender discrepancies at an executive level, this doesn’t turn out to be the case. In 2014, none of Norway’s 32 largest companies had a female CEO, and more broadly speaking, less than 6% of general managers were female (WSJ). Gender disparity also extends beyond the realm of business. Academia proves to be another excellent example where gender quotas might earn women a seat at the table, but might not translate to high ranking positions.

While Norway has certainly taken steps to minimize gender inequality, the flip side is that this can sometimes be used to stifle debate. Instead of taking more steps to continue improving gender equality, sometimes the response can be “We’ve already implemented policies, what more do you want?”

But gender inequality works two ways. I was absolutely blown away by one male student, who in his mixed discussion group, was the first one to talk about gender inequality. To my surprise, his first comment was to talk about male inequality. His example was in education, where he’s seen firsthand that women dominate in primary and lower secondary education. He proceeded to tell me that in Norway it’s a requirement that primary schools have a teaching staff that is at least 20% male, something that most schools struggle to meet, and something that he’s heard about firsthand through his father, a kindergarten teacher. I was absolutely floored by his comments and incredibly proud of him for talking about male inequality. It definitely helped elevate the level of discussion, and I like to think that it gave the girls in his group something to think about.

Although gender inequality does exist in Norway, it’s still been wonderful to live in a much more equal society than the one that I’m used to. It’s incredible how much safer I feel in Norway, and part of that has to deal with the fact that I haven’t experienced any sort of gender related harassment. I actually feel reasonably safe walking alone at night (whether night starts at 3pm or 12am), and that’s been a welcome change.

It’s also great to see how relationships and parenting are much more equal here. I think I’ve seen as many dads out with their kids as I have moms, and it’s great to see that parenthood is something that is respected and celebrated by both genders. One Norwegian that I work with loves to talk about his son and advertise him on Facebook with a #funwithdad hashtag. It’s really wonderful to see. So while Norway still has a ways to go, I still raise my non-alcoholic (because alcohol is too expensive) glass to Norway for what they’ve done so far.

Education Culture Shock

Today the Rovers, Abby, and I had to get up early for an education seminar that we were going to in Halden. Because the train trip took over an hour it was a great time to talk to everyone about their experiences in American education. Topics ranged from the structure of Kipp charter schools to the state of sex education in the US and I had a really good time learning about the different places where people have taught.

The other great part of our commute was getting to use a maxi taxi, which was pretty much code for party bus. The taxi was even playing old Madonna hits.

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Our day was jam-packed with useful information, and it was great to talk with more people about what they thought of the ongoing teachers’ strike. I’ve divided up what I’ve learned into more manageable sections so feel free to skip over the parts that don’t particularly appeal to you.

Teachers’ Strike

The overall feeling that I got from people at the Norwegian Center was that they believed the teachers had valid grievances, but were worried that if the strike continued for much longer that it would hurt the teachers’ cause. In 2013, Denmark had a teacher lockout after negotiations between the Danish Union of Teachers and the local government collapsed. The month long lockout ended when the government forced an emergency bill through Parliament that unilaterally sided with employers (Education International). People at the Norwegian Center, as well as others, seem worried that if the teacher’s strike continues for too long that the same thing will occur here. The strike continuing is a very real possibility and it is rumored that the unions have enough funds to last for two months. Crossed fingers that I will make it school before the month ends!

Foreign Languages 

There are materials available for 38+ foreign languages at the Halden Center, but not all languages are offered in schools, and schools have some independence in deciding what languages they will have available. Learning foreign languages can start as early as kindergarten and preschool, but English doesn’t become a mandatory subject until the first grade. English is taught throughout high school, but in 8th grade students are given the option of either:

  1. Going in depth into Norwegian
  2. Going in depth into English
  3. Starting a second foreign language

The last option is emphasized the most and in order to qualify for university you must know a second foreign language. Being fluent in a second foreign language is also seen as a positive because it can be used to help foster a good working relationship with Europe. The fact that I only started to learn my first foreign language, Spanish, in high school was a bit humbling.

Research done at the Center also shows that when more languages are offered, the more students take foreign languages. There is the same curriculum taught in all foreign languages and an exam can be taken to determine fluency. Immigrants* are also encouraged to learn their home language so that they can take exams to become accredited. Perhaps because of the wide range of languages that are offered in Norway, weekend language schools such as Chinese school and Korean school aren’t very common in Norway.

*In Norway immigrants are not only people who move to Norway from another country, but also include the children of immigrants. In other words, even if you are born in Norway you are still considered an immigrant if your parents are immigrants.

Teacher Education

Teacher education is a four year masters course in Norway, and learning often continues even after teachers achieve their masters. The government has developed centers for teaching excellence where educators can go to to learn new teaching techniques, and teachers can also enroll in education classes and receive funding for this by national authorities. Teachers are also encouraged to get their PhDs to increase their competence in subject knowledge.

The government has also embarked on a recruiting campaign for teachers. Recently there has been a fall in respect for Norway’s teachers (one of the grievances of those on strike). One hypothesis that we were given for this decline in respect was that because education used to center around teaching the elite it was seen as a more “special” profession. Now that education is accessible to almost everyone, the respect for teaching has also declined and fewer people are becoming teachers. Not only is the government trying to recruit teachers generally, they are also trying to recruit more male teachers, specifically those who want to teach primary school children. The hope is that by incorporating more men into the education system schools can give children more male role models.

Primary & Lower Secondary Education

Yes, Norway uses the same education naming system as British so the above roughly translates to grades 1-9. Primary school has students until around age 7 and lower secondary school encompasses ages 6-15. Municipalities are responsible for primary and lower secondary schools, counties are responsible for upper secondary education and training, and the state is in charge of universities and university colleges.

The biggest difference from the American system that I was told about was that there are no grades are given from grades 1-7, though informal evaluations are given. The professor that I work with at NTNU said that the reasoning behind this is that educators don’t want to encourage competitiveness amongst children. Children also can’t fail a class and retake it. Students are graded on competence, so instead of being given a failing grade, a student is simply marked as at the lowest degree of competency.

Another difference is that teachers do not have their own classrooms, the students have their own classroom. The teachers are the ones responsible for changing classrooms when they switch lessons.

Lastly, there isn’t the same concept in Norway as there is in America of separation of church and state. Religion is a mandatory subject here and while it used to only focus on Christianity, it has become more diverse over the years. It used to be that you could apply for an exemption from the class, but now that coverage is more diverse you can’t do that anymore. As for what’s actually offered, the religious classes available are Christianity, Ethics/Humanism, and Other Religions.

Upper Secondary School and Vocational Training

Upper secondary school and vocational programs round out the last few years of what we would call high school. If students participate in upper secondary school they normally do two years, but if they are in a vocational track they can either do:

  1. Two years of upper secondary school and two years of apprenticeship
  2. Three years of upper secondary school then one year of apprenticeship

Vocational tracks include things like

  • Building and construction
  • Design, arts and crafts
  • Electricity and electronics
  • Healthcare, childhood and youth development
  • Media and communication
  • Agriculture, fishing and forestry

and much more. Vocational students still have to take theoretical core subjects (things like English, Math, Social Sciences, etc.) and students have reportedly found it difficult to work with these subjects and see them as relevant. The FYR project has tried to change things by making core subjects more vocationally oriented. For example, an English class would focus more on how to write cover letters, CVs, and professional writing than a standard upper secondary school English class would.

One thing that Norwegians are concerned about is the dropout rate, especially in vocational programs, and especially amongst boys. In fact, almost 45% of vocational students achieved no competence in their studies, or failed to finish. A few factors that Norwegian authorities have looked into:

  • Parental education (parents who have a good education or an interest in education have children who more likely to complete school)
  • The grades people received in lower secondary school
  • Ethnicity
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Rural people moving into urban areas

The last two bullet points have caused schools to call dropouts “push outs,” because they see it as a more accurate term. Additionally, when students apply for vocational studies they rank their top three tracks as part of their application. Most students get their top choice, but those who don’t usually end up dropping out. Moreover, some students select a vocational track not because they are particularly interested in a vocation but because they hate general studies. Students who do this oftentimes still struggle in vocational tracks.

Higher Education 

Norway has eight universities and there are several ways to qualify for them. Typically students need to have three years of completed and passed upper secondary education, but for those over 25 university access is based on several forms of competence. In order to apply for university, you simply fill in a national application that states your basic information, your grades, and your ranked preferences for universities. There are no personal statements, references, lists of extracurricular activities, or work experience. This was probably the thing that I found most shocking since it offered such a large contrast to the US application system. The other thing to note about the application process is that students are only admitted to one school. Mind blown.

Universities in Norway also take part in the Bologna Process, something that establishes standards for higher education throughout Europe. There are 46 out of 47 European countries participating in the Bologna Process (Belarus is the odd one out), and in theory the Bologna Process means that degrees are recognized between countries and that classes should be fairly equal throughout Europe since classes are using common reference frames.

As for funding, financial support is originally given as a full loan, but about 40% of that loan changes into a grant after certain modules are passed at university.

Because higher education is so accessible here, there is a feeling that people have too many masters degrees when what Norway really needs are people in the professions, such as plumbers. The question being asked is whether or not people have become too academic, especially when there is a dearth of skilled craftsmen. Similarly there has also been a loss of respect for the humanities in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) because STEM is seen as being much more practical and helpful in terms of boosting the economy. As a humanities major myself, it’s sad to see that the loss of respect for the humanities appears to be a globalized trend.

Our orientation was full of useful information and I was thankful to have a much better understanding of the Norwegian school system by the end of the day. Once our lectures on education finished both Abby and I returned to Oslo to catch our late night flights back to our new home cities.