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.

Keeping It Classy: The Best of Oslo

Today was technically the last day of orientation and we spent most of the morning at the US Embassy. To be frank, the exterior of the US Embassy looks a bit like a prison. Because the security at the embassy was getting antsy at the 19 random Fulbrighters dawdling on their doorstep, I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture so the below is borrowed from Google.

A bit ugly, right? We spent most of our time there going over practical tips for living in Norway and reviewing the rest of the red tape that we still have to wade through. On the bright side, I was the only Fulbrighter to have gotten their residence card so I felt a bit ahead of the game!

Because the orientation ended after lunch, most of the Fulbrighters still had a lot of time to explore the city. We decided to walk to Vigeland Park, which is the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist. It took Vigeland 20 years to make and there are 212 sculptures in the park depicting the “Human Condition.” The park provided a stunning view of the city and some of the sculptures were simply incredible while others were more disturbing. It was by far one of my favorite sights in Oslo and well worth the visit.

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After our wander through the park many of the Fulbrighters had to run to catch their flights. Lucky for me, all of the teachers (the ETAs and Roving Scholars) got an extra day of orientation so that we could get a thorough overview of the Norwegian education system. Since I had an extra night in Oslo I as well as Bergen ETA, Abby, decided to get tickets to the Oslo Opera House. Now I know that I mentioned that I have never been a particularly big fan of opera, however opera is something that I have always felt I could give a second, third, and even forth chance. Abby and her family are actually huge opera buffs so she was able to walk me through some of the finer points of opera before we went. What ended up being her most important tip was reading the plot of the opera beforehand. We had tickets to watch Madame Butterfly and she was able to give me a dramatic reading from the Met Opera’s plot synopsis earlier in the day. I decided not to write my own synopsis because this post is already fairly lengthy, but I recommend the link to the Met Opera’s synopsis and as a warning there are *spoilers* ahead as well as a few of my own thoughts on the opera.

Now I admit I was skeptical of how much I was going to like the opera, especially after hearing the plot. Boy was I wrong. I can’t wait to go back. First of all the set was incredible. The set designers really did a great job of utilizing the space on stage and even helped to nuance the plot with it. My favorite part was in the second act where the floorboards of the house are torn up revealing the supporting stones underneath. This gave the set the appearance of either being surrounded by a graveyard or a bombed city (appropriate considering that the opera ends in a suicide and is set in Nagasaki).

I was also surprised at how the Oslo Opera complicated the plot. The Met’s plot synopsis as well as Abby’s previous experiences with Madame Butterfly all cast Pinkerton as a pig and Madame Butterfly as a naive girl. The actual libretto reveals that Madame Butterfly is not as guileless as you would think. She tells Pinkerton of her initial disgust towards him because he is a “savage” and she still expresses some resistance to him on her wedding day. On her wedding night she reproaches Pinkerton by saying that she has heard how in America butterflies are killed and pinned to boards as prizes, yet Pinkerton insists that butterflies are not pinned out of cruelty, but to cherish them and keep them close. Obviously Butterfly’s interpretation is more accurate and despair raises its ugly head in the second act.

Pinkerton also appears much more remorseful in this interpretation of Madame Butterfly. According to Abby, the most noticeable change to the plot came with Madame Butterfly’s suicide. During the entire second act there was a seemingly random character on stage. Abby and I initially thought that it was supposed to represent perhaps a wiser version of Pinkerton or a personification of his guilt. This was true, but with a twist. The man who had been following the entire second act was the adult son of Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly, something that Butterfly reveals before her death. Her son is the witness to Pinkerton’s guilt, his abandonment of Butterfly, and his contribution to her suicide. He embodies the guilt that Pinkerton feels towards Butterfly because he stands as both an accuser and witness to his father’s crimes.

The theme of destruction on the part of the Americans also runs wild throughout the opera and in my opinion was done quite well. American consumerism can be seen in the way that people dress, but also in how Pinkerton objectifies Butterfly. He says that he is marrying her because she is beautiful and happens to come cheap (she costs him 100 yen) while also admitting that he plans to upgrade to an American wife once he finds a suitable one. Some other striking scenes include when Butterfly’s family disowns her and throws an American flag on her wedding bed, highlighting how she is quite literally sleeping with the enemy, and when Butterfly’s son is blindfolded and draped in an American flag. When her son then begins to play with a toy plane the kamikaze imagery becomes quite stark.

Then there was the singing. In all of the other occasions that I have gone to the opera I have never really appreciated the singing, mostly because I can’t understand what people are singing (yes, even when they are singing in English). The singing was absolutely superb and I could have cared less that the opera was in Italian. I got goosebumps galore and I admit that I was teary eyed by the time Madame Butterfly committed suicide. He Hui, the singer who played Butterfly got a standing ovation, and I found out afterwards that she is well known worldwide for her interpretation of Butterfly.

To make the night even better, Abby and I bumped into another Fulbrighter who we had encouraged to join us at the Opera. We all ended the night going out for cakes and hot chocolate and vowing to return to the Oslo Opera during our year here. Overall, it was a really fabulous day.

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You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

I had a great time this week attending Norway’s Fulbright Orientation in Oslo. If I remember the numbers correctly, 19 of us were able to attend the orientation but there are a total of 27 Fulbrighters in Norway for the 2014-2015 year. We break down into:

  • 3 English Teaching Assistants
  • 3 Roving Scholars
  • 1 Arctic Chair
  • 20 Researchers and Scholars

While the US government used to provide the majority of the funding for Norwegian Fulbrighters, this trend has reversed. These days, the Norwegian government funds 72% of the Fulbright program, the US government funds about 24%, and the remaining 4% is from private donations (2013 Annual Report). We started the beginning of the first day learning a bit more about Senator William Fulbright and the history of the Fulbright program. A few choice things to know about Fulbright are that he was a Rhodes scholar, the youngest university president in the country (circa 1936), and was called “an overeducated Oxford son-of-a-bitch” by Truman.

Fulbright was both a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but it was in the House that he passed the funding for the Fulbright program. The original focus of the Fulbright program was not educational, rather it was seen as a way for indebted countries to pay off their war reparations and loans by providing for these scholars. The reaction by the American public to the Fulbright program was frigid, and several newspapers railed against Fulbright, complaining that he was throwing away his “good” American education and trying to force an unwanted British education on Americans.

We spent the rest of the orientation learning more about the Fulbright program in Norway, and we also got a great overview on Norwegian life and society. As the title of this post states, we learned that we are “not in Kansas anymore.” A few fun facts that I got out of this part of the day:

  • Norway has the population of Alabama (hitting the 5 million mark in Norway was apparently a BIG deal), is the size of Montana, and has the economy of Massachusetts.
  • The majority of the population is a member of a national church although few are religious (the number of members a church has helps determine the amount of funding they receive from the government).
  • The number of women in the workforce is almost equal to that of men; however, women are more likely to have shorter working hours or work part-time and there is still a considerable wage gap between men and women.
  • Lastly, Norway’s population is very politically active when you compare it to the United States. The average voter turnout is just short of 80%, and it was suggested during the orientation that each vote matters more because Norway has a proportional system of representation. Many people are involved in the political process from a young age, and several representatives of Parliament are in their early twenties. Members of Parliament are also much more accessible in the US and I’ve been told it’s generally very easy to meet with your MP in person.

Now for my favorite part of the day. We got to go to a reception at the Nobel Institute. The Nobel Institute is where they announce the winner of the Nobel peace prize, deliberate on the nominees, and have archives on the Institute and past winners of the peace prize. All of the Fulbrighters had a chance to announce their project in the same room where they announce the peace prize and then the rest of the time we had fun getting to mix and mingle.

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The Nobel Institute

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Where the Nobel Peace Prize is announced and where we got to talk about our different projects

 

The former head librarian also led a small tour of the Institute and was able to explain some of the history behind the prize. The Nobel peace prize is the the only Nobel prize given in Norway (and there is no definitive answer as to why that is). Nobel’s will mandates that the prize be given at least once every five years (notable occasions when it was not given include periods during World War I and World War II) and a lot of people, countries, and organizations are asked for nominees. The Nobel peace prize can be divided up between a maximum of three people or organizations every time it is given. The nominating committee is made up of members of Norway’s Parliament and they are elected for six year terms. Each year’s list of nominees is sealed for 50 years (Martin Luther King Jr. received the award 50 years ago so his year’s list of nominees will be released this year). Awards can be awarded posthumously as long as the people were alive when they were nominated (which is what stopped Gandhi from being nominated for the award). Awards cannot be given back, although they can be refused.

One particularly interesting story we were told was that Hitler was actually nominated for the peace prize in 1938 (his nomination was quickly withdrawn). Ironically enough, Hitler had banned Germans from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 after the prize was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, the man responsible for revealing Germany’s rearmament.

We also got a chance to walk around the room where the deliberations are made and were all surprised when the librarian told us that the nominating committee had just met, forcing her to turn over the pages of their notes so that we couldn’t see who was being considered for this year’s award. While we were all tempted to try and sneak a peak at the notes the librarian made sure to kept a sharp eye on us.

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Where the Nobel Peace Prize deliberations are made

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Copies of the handwritten invitations to awardees

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Copies of the prize and award

Week 1

A lot has gone on in my first week and about half of it is related to filling in the appropriate paperwork. Since arriving on campus I have:

1. Gotten my student ID and semester card, both of which are needed to qualify as a student in the eyes of most Norwegian businesses
2. Gotten my new NTNU email address and thus access to NTNU internet
3. Registered for courses and exams
4. Gotten a somewhat functional SIM card
5. Gotten an unlimited 6 month bus card

Unfortunately here are the things I still need to do, all of which hinge on me getting my residence card:

1. Get said residence card by going to the police station on NTNU’s scheduled date
2. Notify the Tax Office of my move to Norway and get a tax card
3. Open a bank account so that I can get paid by the Fulbright Office
4. Register a change of address with the post office
5. Join the National Population Register

Thankfully my week has included a lot more than red tape since it was orientation week for international students. I didn’t get the chance to participate in all of the events, but I did take part in a group competition called 63 Degrees North. Most of it involved silly games such as a three legged race, relay race, and spelling Norwegian vowels using your body, but it also involved answering trivia questions on Norway. While I was able to answer some of the very basic questions I was blown away by how much knowledge some of my teammates had about Norway (knowing the exact date Norwegian women achieved suffrage was one of them). My other favorite activity was hiking along the fjord. Yes, this is the backdrop of my new home.

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Some other highlights include meeting new people! Not only am I starting to meet other students, but I also got to meet Nancy, the professor I work with at NTNU. It was great finally getting to put a face to a name and to talk about the courses that I’ll be helping her teach. As of right now, I’m only going to be helping her with classes in the fall (her spring classes tend to be in Norwegian) and we hope that I’ll get to help with a writing center in the spring. For now, the classes that I’m helping with are called Communication for Engineers and Academic Writing, and I’ll write a bit more about them once they actually start.

The other person that I got to meet this week was Alix, currently the only other Fulbrighter in Trondheim. Alix is here doing research at NTNU and it was great getting to meet her and explore the downtown area together. I think the highlight was showing her a stuffed bear that I managed to find in Sentrum.

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