Introverts and the Norwegian Classroom

Not too long ago a friend of mine recommended that I read a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. As someone who has generally considered myself somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, or an ambivert, I figured I’d give it a read and see what I thought.

The book is written much like an academic thesis, filled with facts, studies, and scholars, yet it is also clearly written to be understandable by the layperson. At times I think this means that the book sacrifices academia for readability, but overall I enjoyed it. In fact, to my surprise, according to Cain’s definition, I’m much more introverted than I thought. You can take a quiz adapted from the book here, but signs that you might be an introvert include:

  • You prefer one-on-one conversations to groups
  • You prefer to express yourself in writing, as opposed to say face-to-face
  • You are happy being alone or independent
  • You are often told you are a good listener
  • You’re generally not a risk taker

And the list goes on. Much of Cain’s book deals with how to appreciate being an introvert in the United States, a society that largely celebrates extroverts. Her book also looks at ways of celebrating introversion instead of critiquing it, and how to maximize your strengths as an introvert. While the book is mostly geared towards introverts, it does provide information on extroverts, and even spends time discussing how the two can best work together. But what particularly struck me about Cain’s book was its implications for education.

So, I thought we’d make a pitstop at the Norwegian education system. Now Norway is notorious for having low levels of in class participation, and I feel confident saying this having discussed this with a number of Norwegians teachers and the Roving Scholars. Students simply don’t want to participate or volunteer. Even getting students to answer straightforward or obvious questions is a struggle. It’s also not uncommon for students to ask to give a presentation in front of just the teacher, instead of in front of the whole class.

Several of my co-teachers said this lack of participation could be traced back to Junteloven, a feature of Scandinavian culture that can be summed up by saying “You shouldn’t think you’re better than anyone else.” According to Wikipedia, Junteloven breaks down into the following ten laws:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as anyone.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than anyone.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than anyone.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than anyone.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than anyone.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at anyone.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about anyone.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach anyone anything.

If that doesn’t crush the idea of the individual, I don’t know what does.

The idea behind all of this is to preserve harmony within a community. In short, if everyone is equal, nobody stands out or can rock the boat.

If you apply those ten rules to the classroom, it becomes easy to see why a student might not want to raise their hand, or appear to think that they know best in front of their classmates. Luckily, my co-teachers have said that Juteloven hasn’t been emphasized as much with younger generations. This might be why children are starting to participate a bit more in class, though nobody would say that class participation is high by any means.

Now all of this brings me back to Susan Cain. Before this book, I had never thought to think of my students as being introverted, and while I’m not saying that a lack of student participation can be traced to introversion, I suspect that introversion does play a significant role in Norwegian classrooms. Luckily, a significant part of Cain’s book looks at how to interact with introverted children, and it specifically touches on teaching techniques. Here are the ones that I thought were most useful, most of them direct from the book:

  • Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured. If help is needed with social skills, teach them or recommend training outside class (similar to if a student needs help with any other skill, such as reading or math).
  • One third to one half of people are introverts. Extroverts like movement, stimulation, and collaborative work, while introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly.
  • Some collaborative work is fine for introverts, even beneficial. But it should take place in small groups–pairs or threesomes–and be carefully structured so that each child knows his or her role.

Using the points above, here is how I plan on using some of Cain’s suggestions in the classroom:

  • Remembering that it’s okay for my students to be introverted. I think it’s useful to remember that extroverted behavior should not necessarily be the pinnacle of the education model.
  • Mixing up different types of work. I often lecture my students and then follow up with an activity. So far I’ve noticed that they really like games (what student doesn’t?) but I’ve also had them collaborate in large groups. I’m now planning on having them do a few more independent projects.
  • When assigning group work having that work be structured so that each student has a specific role.

I obviously don’t know how successful this will be, or even if my guess about introversion in Norwegian classrooms is correct; however, there is nothing to lose and potentially much to gain. So here’s to trying new things.

Ethiopian Food and ETA Musings

One of my favorite parts of our Bergen trip was catching up with some of the other Fulbrighters in town. We managed to meet up with both Kyle and Abby at an excellent Ethiopian restaurant called Selam. If you happen to be searching for spicy food in Norway this is definitely a good option.

Abby is my ETA counterpart in Bergen so I was really excited to see her and compare ETA notes. The first thing I asked her was whether her students were also really quiet. Lud and I had talked about this when I was in Oslo and we’ve both found it difficult to get students to participate. Abby confirmed that she’s experienced the same thing and said that it was really different for her in comparison to her last school. Abby was based at a KIPP school when she was working with Teach for America (TFA), and she said that in KIPP schools students either raise their hands or are punished. In short, she went from a school system where there was no shortage of hands in the air to one where generally only the know-it-alls and Hermione Grangers of the world raise their hands.

We also had to laugh when we realized how similar our schools’ curriculums were. We must both be in an International English class because our students cover the exact same materials, even down to the same movies.

Abby also had a one observation that I found particularly striking. Through her grading experiences at the university and upper secondary school, Abby doesn’t necessarily think that upper secondary schools adequately prepare their students to pass university classes. Even though Abby is working at the second best school in the city, Abby was telling me that the grading system is very flexible and thus it doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the university’s harsher standards. I’ve done grading for NTNU but have yet to do much for Byåsen. Additionally, the majority of my students are international students so it’s hard for me to accurately say if things are similar in Trondheim.

Like Abby pointed out, I have also noticed that grades seem to be pretty flexible, and there is not always a clear rubric that dictates what sort of grades students should receive. At a university level, all of the assignments that I’ve had to grade have only given me three real grading options (pass, fail, fail pending improvement). This can make it a bit more difficult to grade since the bar for a pass is much lower in a pass/fail system. In my opinion this isn’t a good thing because it doesn’t give students a good idea of how well they did or how much they still have left to improve.

Overall, Abby and I have found the grading and feedback system in Norway to be very different from the one in the United States. In the United States, high school students are constantly given assignments and feedback. In contrast to this, I think that my International English students have only had two major assignments this past semester. Also, from what I can tell, homework is never work that is turned in and graded.

American university students also tend to be given more feedback than ones in Norway. In Norway, it’s not uncommon to have a grade be almost completely based on the one final exam.

But, both of us have really enjoyed our time teaching. It’s been interesting working in the Norwegian school system and I can’t wait to see what the spring will bring.