Social Education 55(5) pps. 294-295
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

Learning from and in Norwegian High Schools

Murry Nelson
EIKSMARKA, NORWAY-December 26, 1990-Living in Norway and traveling to high schools around the country for the past five months has allowed me to view American schools and school issues from a new perspective. What I see is that American schools are successful in offering students a diverse selection of courses that promotes student deliberation and may keep students engaged in schools for a longer time than might have otherwise occurred. Students often succeed in spite of a bureaucratic structure that inhibits maturity, democracy, and creativity. American schools do a poor job of teaching basic skills because they emphasize them to such a degree that they lose sight of what skills training is preparing students to do. Finally, Americans are globally ignorant at precisely the time there is a great need for global understanding.
Despite criticism, I believe that American schools provide most students with a good education, but it may not be the best for the jobs that are available. As I travel around Norway, speaking to students and teachers in Norwegian high schools, I cannot help but notice how American and Norwegian schools differ and think of how we, in America, can benefit from the good aspects of Norwegian high schools. Of course, there is no reason for the schools to be alike, but there are things that the schools of each country could borrow from each other to make both countries' schools better.

Critics of American schools should stop harping on the number of contact hours in a school year. Despite the Norwegian school calendar starting earlier and ending later than American school calendars, the days in school are about the same. Norwegians have more school vacations, students are in school fewer hours per day, and spend fewer hours in class each week. Norwegian students also have much less homework than their American high school counterparts.

All this is indicative of a relaxed school atmosphere and a realization that life is composed not only of school. Norwegian students attend high school by choice since mandatory schooling ends at the junior high level. Many American students are in school because they must be and it is obvious by their complete lack of interest.

Students in U.S. schools are bombarded with rules and regulations and are treated like children. The students respond in kind. Norwegian students are treated with respect by teachers and they respond in a reciprocal manner. In the more than thirty schools I visited I saw only one "discipline problem"-two students were talking too loudly to each other during class. After class the teacher told me that he was disappointed and embarrassed by their behavior, yet they were not reprimanded. He explained that it was not a teacher's responsibility to police students; it was his responsibility to teach.

There are no fights in Norwegian high schools, no garbage thrown on floors, no rude comments to teachers, and no restrictions on basic human demands. If students come late to class, then they miss some of the material-they are still responsible for it. If students need to use the lavatory, they do so; they need not ask for permission. If students are given homework, it is a small amount to ensure compliance and not to overburden them. If students have no class scheduled, they may go wherever they wish. Most find a place to study, but some go to the shops or even home. No one restricts this movement.

Can all of this be borrowed for use in American schools? Generally yes, though there are some legal restraints because of school liability fears. Nevertheless, there is no reason that students need to be subjected to the numerous degrading rules that high schools perpetuate. In the name of discipline students learn the antitheses of democracy and responsibility. Repression ultimately fails as we see in Eastern Europe and America. Repression disguised as discipline is just as abhorrent. High school students deserve respect and so do their teachers. Norwegian educators recognize this, therefore eliminating the tension and time-consuming frustration of American high school "discipline."

One of the most bothersome of American institutions is the "pass" system that regulates student access to the school except between classes. It demeans both students, who need to receive permission for movement, and teachers, who become wardens rather than educators. No one likes the system, but its primacy rests on its claimed necessity. Norwegian students and teachers found this system most loathsome. I could not justify it, merely explain it. It need not exist with such universal acceptance in American high schools.

American high schools are much larger than Norwegian high schools; the average Norwegian high school is a three-year institution that has around 450 students. Research has shown that smaller schools make for happier youngsters. Many American middle schools have organized into "houses" to reduce the feeling of student anomie in large schools. High schools could help students form support groups that would be small and allow for students to know some students well and feel confident in turning to them for help in school situations.

Norwegian high schools have ten minutes between classes and the enforcement of even that restriction is problematic at best. In many cases it is the teacher-not students-that is late since teachers move more than students do. Most teachers do not have their own classroom, which means most Norwegian classrooms are sterile, with little color or decoration of any sort. American students lead more frenetic school lives and there could easily be a lengthening of the time between classes. That might mean either lengthening the school day or altering the daily schedule so every class is not taught every day. Some school critics have encouraged this idea but have been thwarted by the reliance of high schools (at the insistence of colleges) on the Carnegie unit. Breaking free of that would allow for more flexibility in the schedule.

Despite this impediment, American students have more choices in their course selections. In Norway, all students in a "major" take the same courses. Norwegian students were excited, but a bit apprehensive, about the tremendous choice of coursework that many American students have.

Norwegian high schools have also shown me the need for the feeling of community in schools. This is especially needed by American teachers. In all Norwegian schools students and teachers eat lunch at a common time, varying from twenty to forty-five minutes at schools around the country. All teachers also eat in a "teachers' room" that is large enough to accommodate all of the teaching staff comfortably. At lunch time announcements are made, brief meetings can be held, and ideas shared. It is a simple but most appealing characteristic of Norway's high schools.

What about the question of success? One aspect of education where Norwegian students surpass Americans is in their communication ability-both oral and written. I was amazed at the excellent speaking and writing ability of Norwegian students in English, their second language. High schools give only essay tests in all humanities and social sciences. Multiple-choice testing simply does not exist. Thus, Norwegians write much more than American students who often come to college unable to write a coherent paper.

I find too much emphasis on final examinations in Norway, but they are spread out over a month and interspersed with classes in other subjects.

Norwegian students have asked me where I would prefer to teach or attend school. My reply is that I would prefer the choice of American schools, but the attitudes of Norwegian schools. As a teacher I would definitely opt for Norwegian schools and be rid of all the onerous tasks of hall duty, lunch duty, and study hall.

American schools need to reassess and clarify their goals and ways of achieving those goals. The lessons of Norwegian schools can help in that process.

Murry Nelson is Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University and a 1990-1991 Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies with the Norwegian Council for Upper Secondary Schools.