Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What seems to make a good school?

What I have read about the Finland schools has been banging around in my head for a number of days.  I also remember visiting an elementary school in Norway that seems to have been designed in the same way.  I was in Stavanger to do a workshop at an international school and was given an opportunity to visit a Norwegian elementary school for a day.  

It was situated on the side of a slight hill--daylight basement type you might say except the basement was the local medical clinic.  The school along with the medical clinic was the center point for the neighborhood.  And it certainly seemed to me highly intelligent for if a child got hurt while playing at recess, there was medical help at the ready.  

The elementary school was built shortly after World War II and was primarily wood but it appeared to me to be quite modern in appearance.  I like modern.  As the principal and I walked through the school he pointed out that the doors were larger then standard and with no sill so that wheelchairs could maneuver easily.  That made sense to me.

But as we walked down the halls and looked into different classrooms I noticed adults sitting next to certain children from first grade to fifth grade.  Some rooms had only one adult sitting next to a child while, if I remember correctly, there was one room with four adults sitting in the rows between the desks.  The principal explained to me that if a child is having trouble in a subject then the teacher tells the principal and he arranges to have an adult help that child as soon as the next day.  These adults, many retired teachers but others as well, help that student during the instruction by the teacher and to also help assist in doing the school work.  The principal explained that if a child is not understanding a subject, they begin to fall further and further behind.  This way, with extra help, they can stay up with the rest of the class.  Sometimes it takes only a few days of assistance, sometimes a few weeks but the child stays with the class.  I guess the Norwegians also believe in....."Success breeds success" as well.  

I like this system.  No one gets left behind.  Did I say that? But, as you can imagine at the end of the school year everyone is up to grade level.  It does cost, but it is an acceptable part of the educational costs for the school district.  Pretty smart in my estimation.

From a teacher's point of view it is also smart.  When I taught in the elementary school, if one of my kids did not understand a problem or how to do something, I would have to go to that child and help.  I would flit from raised hand to raised hand.  But it dawned on me that as I helped those students who were having problems, the successful student was sitting without my giving them the encouragement they needed.  In essence, bright students were being short changed.  In this Norwegian system, the teacher could continue to teach new material but wasn't bogged down helping those that were falling behind.  Nice idea, eh

At some point I was allowed to wander on my own.  Everyone was very friendly and polite and somewhere in my meanders I realized that everyone had spoken English to me, teachers and children alike.  In Norway, all children (and teachers) speak Norwegian and English and for some, a third and/or fourth language as well.  

[An editorial comment]  If we in the United States want to improve our schools I think that most teacher education graduates ought to be able to speak two languages.  This coming from a guy who has troubles with his native English.  I am embarrassed to say the least.  However, I believe that there is a connection in the brain between the two languages that enables learners to look at learning differently.  In essence, it helps kids to more effectively and efficiently learn....not just languages but other subjects as well. [End of pontificating]

The curriculum in this school, I was told, was quite standard for the country.  Languages, mathematics, culture, history, art, music, writing, reading--the whole broad spectrum of being educated.  Lots of stuff to learn but the children were happy and learning in all the classes that I saw.

At one point I peeked into a classroom that appeared to be empty but as soon I opened the door I realized there were five fifth grade girls who quit giggling as I entered the room.  They were grouped around three or four Macintosh Plus computers and obviously working on something on the computers.  I asked in English if I could watch and they immediately switched to English and told me that they were putting together a "newsletter" which when approved would be sent to Stanford, Connecticut in the United States.  When I told them I was from the United States, there was more giggling and embarrassment that only fifth grades girls the world around can produce.  

They were having a problem using PageMaker on one of the Macs.  They didn't know how to go to page 2 to continue one of their articles.  Although PageMaker was in Norwegian it was similar to our English version and I could move the mouse to the lower left hand corner and click to get to page two for the girls.  They were delighted and immediately continued composing their newsletter. I asked who their teacher was and seeing looks of concern and worry, immediately said that I wanted to tell their teacher what a good job there were doing.  With relaxed faces and smiles they told me which room there were from.  

I did go see the teacher and did comment favorable upon the girls and their project.  The teacher told me that she had made contact with a friend of hers who also taught in the Stanford school district and that they would exchange newsletters by the internet.  This was the early days of the internet and I was much impressed. I still am, as you can tell.  The teacher also said that the newsletter was also sent to several Norwegian Islands that had small schools so that they could feel connected to the entire school system.  I was and still am very impressed.  Apparently doing the newsletter was one method in which the teacher taught English and writing.  The students "owned" the learning project.  And it was fun--it had to be with all that giggling.  

I wonder why the federal government, more specifically the Department of Education cannot set up a system which might encourage classrooms to communicate with other classrooms around the world.  I suspect there are ways already in place--I just don't know about them.  Pity.

I want to thank teachers around the world who help their chargers learn.  And to those Afgan teachers who are teaching girls and are being shot at--thanks for being brave as well.  You are an inspiration.  


  1. I just posted a description of a school I visited in Bend, Oregon. It is one of the schools that is part of the League of Democratic Schools. It is a wonderful model of a democratic, progressive school. Check it out at: http://journalofeducationalcontroversy.blogspot.com/2010/04/schools-that-make-difference-look-at.html