Testing and an Open Internet

Norway does not have the same test taking culture that we have in the United States. Going through the US education system I remember being regularly tested. Up through middle school, I remember taking at least one form of standardized test each year, and in high school I took the SAT in addition to several AP tests each year. On top of that, you also have your standard classroom tests.

In Norway, things are very different. Students are not assessed as regularly or as often as students in the United States. Homework is rarely assigned or handed in, and major assignments and tests are few and far between. The one glaring exception to this is the end of year mock exams and national exams.

Mock exams are designed to emulate the national exams and thus help students prepare for their exams. The name is a bit deceiving however because these exams still count towards a student’s grade. They are effectively final exams. Students have mock exams in all of their classes, but they will not have a national exam in all of their classes. When students first begin upper secondary school they are unlikely to take national exams, but as they continue to move up the education ladder they are tested more and more. Here’s how things break down for the college prep track:

  • First year in upper secondary school (Vg1) – Maybe 1 exam. Approximately 20% of students will be given an exam.
  • Second year in upper secondary school (Vg2) – 1 exam (Two thirds of students will take a written exam and the remaining students will take an oral exam)
  • Third year in upper secondary school (Vg3) – 4 exams (3 written and 1 oral) are necessary in order to graduate. It is required that one of the written exams is in Norwegian.

Rarely is a student given both a written and an oral exam in the same subject. Students aren’t told what subjects they’ll be tested on until a few weeks before their national exams.

Although students should be prepared to take an exam in any subject, I’ve been told that things hardly appear to be completely random. For example, it is rare for those in the sciences to ever be tested in the humanities. In essence, students are tested in their strengths. While there is some value to that, one of the downsides is that it’s easy for students to dismiss subjects that they don’t think that they will be tested in. For example, it is not uncommon for mechanics students to be blasé in their English classes, secure in the knowledge that they probably won’t be tested in the subject at a national level.

I’ve been told that national exams are good for schools because they give the school a good idea of how well the students and teachers are doing. As for the students, I’ve been told that although the national exams do not factor into their grades, their scores are looked at during the university admissions process and might even hold more weight than a student’s transcript.

One interesting development that has taken place in the last few years is the introduction of the Internet to the national exams. My school is participating in a pilot program that has the students to take their exams online and allows them open access to the Internet. Although this is technically a pilot program, everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the pilot program is not to determine whether or not students should have access to the Internet, rather it is to work out any kinks before rolling the system out across the entire country. So far there are no restrictions as to what websites students can access during the exams, meaning that in theory the students could spend their entire time on Facebook instead of on the exam. Maybe it’s just my suspicious American mind, but it seems to me that this leaves a very clear opportunity for students to plagiarize, cheat, and collaborate during an exam. The Norwegians on the other hand seem fairly unconcerned with this possibility. I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a largely law abiding society.

Beyond the possibility for cheating, I generally think open access to the Internet is a bad idea. First, from the teaching perspective, it makes it very difficult to know what to actually teach your kids. Because the Internet gives students access to so much information, the scope of the exam increases, making it more difficult to try and guess what will be on the exam. This forces teachers to focus more on breadth instead of depth, making them feel as though they have to cover more material in the same amount of time.

Second, I think that it makes it more difficult to encourage critical thinking. Because students are covering so much information in such a short span of time, it means that students don’t have as much time to really engage with texts. I think that the biggest thing education can offer students is how to think on their own. Because teachers aren’t able to cover topics in depth, this can prevent students from learning the nuances of a topic and allowing them to create their own informed opinions. It’s much easier to read an opinion piece on the Internet and regurgitate it on a test than it is to critically engage with the facts and come up with your own answers.

But so far it seems like only me and a few of my co-teachers have that opinion. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens and hope for the best.

Transitions

It’s strange to think that my time here is slowly coming to a close. My mother recently reminded me that I only have about six weeks left (and that she’s counting down the days to my return). I’ve even been given my walking papers by the Fulbright Commission and asked to fill out my final report. I’ve also talked to my successor! I definitely got a sense of deja vu doing that. It seems like just yesterday that I was up early Skyping my predecessor and having her answer all of my questions.

Yet even though there are all of these tangible signs that I’m leaving Norway, I’m definitely not quite ready to go. It’s funny how at the beginning of my Fulbright I felt overwhelmed, and how now I don’t feel prepared to leave. I’m sure I’ll soon be joining the ranks of Norwegian Fulbright alumni who regularly come back to visit.

So, even though I still have a few weeks left, much of my remaining time has been spent thinking back on what I have accomplished so far. So I thought I’d leave you with something that I wrote as part of my final Fulbright report:

When I first arrived in Norway I was nervous. I had never lived in another country for more than a few months, and I had never taught high school students in a formal setting. I had a million and one questions about what would happen in the next year: How would I handle winter? How good would my students’ English be? Would I get homesick? But because I happen to be a huge fan of Google, I made sure to Google just about everything I could find on Norway, Trondheim, and on being an ETA. What people don’t really tell you is that no matter how many blogs or Norwegian guidebooks you read, there is nothing quite like just doing things. So although these resources made me feel a bit more prepared when I arrived, there was nothing quite like just setting off on my own and creating my own new experience.

Arriving in Norway was an adventure. There was definitely a bit of an initial culture shock: Where did all the people go? Is that BROWN cheese or just really weird peanut butter? Does everyone have a hand knit sweater? Why is everything so expensive? It was also strange arriving in a country where the majority of the population speaks English almost fluently. It made everything seem slightly familiar, even though it was clear that I was placed in a new landscape. But I adapted. I can even say that I like brown cheese!

Being in student housing helped me form a friend network and my predecessor even connected me to a few Americans in town. Through this, I managed to feel more at home and branch out and try new things. These new friends encouraged me to take up one of Norway’s great pastimes, hiking, and to even get involved in local community groups, such as TEDx Trondheim. These friendships, both international and Norwegian, have proved invaluable to helping me get a better sense of what it means to be Norwegian and live in Norway, and they have also given me a deeper sense of Norwegian culture.

As for teaching, the teacher’s strike made for an interesting start. Luckily both of my co-teachers were very communicative and I was able to keep on top of what was going on. Once the strike ended, I soon managed to settle into a schedule. My time was divided between working at NTNU and at Byåsen videregående skole (my inability to say videregående is always capable of making my students laugh). In the fall, I spent most of my time at NTNU helping with two classes, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers. Here I helped hone the writing skills of my students by helping them work on things like structure, topic sentences, and annotated bibliographies. Because the students were supposed to send me weekly writing samples, I could really see how my students improved over the course of the semester.

Although I spent less time at the upper secondary school in the fall, I was able to make up for lost time in the spring. I primarily help with two International English classes and a Social Studies class. In International English, we look at multiculturalism, working and studying abroad, and global issues. It was here that I was largely able to talk about about immigration and race relations in the United States, something that I think my students found enlightening.

With the Social Studies class, I have helped teach both British and American history. Race has also been a huge conversation topic in this class, and I’m happy to say that my students did a great job of delving into To Kill A Mockingbird and looking at the various ways that America has grappled with race. I have also enjoyed teaching them about the American political system and explaining difficult questions such as: Why does the second amendment exist? Why do states have so much power? It’s been a joy to explain these things to my students, and to help them see both the good and the problematic sides of America.

When I’m not in one of those three classes, I have also enjoyed going into a variety of vocational English classes and teaching there. Things are taught at a much slower pace, and the focus is more on getting students to feel comfortable speaking English. Because of this, I have often had more everyday conversations with my students and gotten to learn more about the life of the average Norwegian teenager.

Overall, it’s hard to believe that this year is already drawing to a close, but I couldn’t be more happy with the way that this year has turned out. It has taught me a lot about both Norway and myself and, although I’ll be sad to go, I can’t wait to bring some of the best aspects of Norwegian culture with me.

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.