The indulgent persuaders

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Paul Stephens visits a student teacher at a high school in Norway and finds that they do things differently there

The taxi arrived at 6.30 on a cold, dark morning. It was snowing. In 20 minutes, I was at Stavanger harbour on the west coast of Norway waiting to board a boat. Thoughts of a spectacular winter tour of Norwegian fjords or of an offshore inspection on a North Sea oil rig come to mind. But my February trip was to a senior high school. In a landscape reminiscent of a scene from the Kirk Douglas movie Heroes of Telemark, I was heading for Sand, a fjord town north of Stavanger, to supervise a student on teaching practice.

After the boat left the harbour, everything was pitch black. Slivers of land appeared now and then, discernible only because isolated house lights shone like bright stars. An hour or so later, I disembarked at Jelsa and boarded a bus for the remainder of the journey.

Now it was light, and the sun was peeking through. The bus travelled up and down winding mountain roads in a surreal black and white landscape: snow-capped, charcoal mountains, snow-dusted fir trees, and, below, grey, icy fjords. An hour later, we arrived in Sand. My student teacher was waiting in her car, and drove me to the nearby school.

One of the first things you notice on entering Norwegian schools is the fine quality of the buildings. Teachers and students work in physical surroundings more akin to LA Law than the Bash Street Kids.

This school was no exception. The staffroom contained beautifully restored period furniture, as well as freshly brewed coffee, and the redbrick corridor had big windows looking on to a fjord. The classroom I visited was bright and friendly, and very well equipped.

A school I recently went to in Stavanger looked more like an upmarket shopping mall than a place of learning. Among its interior accoutrements in spacious, green foliaged surroundings, were a cafe, a goldfish pond, and a skylighted ceiling.

Norwegian schools are strictly no smoking areas. Even so, I was surprised to see the headteacher of the high school in Sand puffing on a cigarette outside the school entrance.

Headteachers in Norway are remarkably informal. When I turned up at one school in jacket and tie, I found my student teacher wearing jeans and the headteacher sporting a rugby shirt. I have given up telling student teachers to cultivate a "presence" in the classroom. Informal understatement - whether in dresscode or mannerisms - is the norm in these parts.

Norwegians abhor hierarchy, and the sentiment extends to schools. As if to hammer home the point, Stavanger College, where I work as an associate professor of education, reminds would-be teachers not to forget the child in themselves.

Even the Norwegian Ministry of Education officially endorses the principle of meeting children on their terms. I'm minded of an altogether different philosophy in England, where New Labour talks of tough crackdowns on unruly young people. Such state-mandated vocabulary isn't at odds with what I have seen - and sometimes practised - as a teacher in English high schools.

But things are rather different in, let us call it, Fjord Senior High School. Kristine, my student teacher, is addressed on first name terms by her students - routine in Norwegian schools - and her teaching style is "indulgent persuader" rather than "sergeant major". A liberal approach in Norway is standard, and teachers are encouraged to adopt the role of veileder (mentor).

Senior high school teachers here are like good primary school teachers in England: getting in early, setting up interesting props, and punctuating short bursts of whole-class teaching with structured group work.

There is no incidental meandering in Kristine's class. Today she's teaching resuscitation to a class of sixteen-year-olds on a vocational course in health and social care. Groups move around different task stations - a recovery position area, a mannequin which lights up when the rescuer delivers effective resuscitation, etc. Banter and humour among and between pupils and teacher are a normal part of the backdrop.

I notice that one of the pupils who can't get the mannequin to light up is chewing gum. "Take the gum out," I tell her, "then you'll be able to blow properly." Kristine is aghast - not at my involuntary English reaction (Norwegians are kind to "foreigners") - but because she hadn't noticed the gum herself. Gum chewing, sandwich munching, and the sipping of soft drinks during lessons is commonplace in Norway, but is clearly out of place in a First Aid class. The issue, however, isn't about bad behaviour, but of practicalities and of health and safety.

Even by their own indulgent standards, Norwegian teachers do, of course, encounter pupils who misbehave. A recent report from the Norwegian Ministry of Education on pupil behaviour in primary and junior high schools, discloses that more than half the teachers have experienced "undramatic problems linked to behaviour" in lessons. Ten per cent or less reported "serious rule-breaking".

Unlike certain of their English counterparts, however, Norwegian teachers appear to focus much more on the "E" in "EBD" - the emotional side of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Based on my own experience of English high schools, both as teacher and pupil, classroom disruption usually triggers a "B" side response from teachers - controlling or modifying the offending behaviour rather than recognising emotions that are central to what is termed "disturbance".

In Norway, teachers act on Tolstoy's dictum that the good practitioner sees a child's learning difficulty not as a defect in the child but as a defect of her own instruction. So she needs to find out what is bothering the child, to engage in a bit of what Donald A Schon* terms "on-the-spot reflection and experiment". Might this approach work in England? Let's do some creative cherry picking and find out.

* The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A Schon, (1995). Aldershot: Arena Paul Stephens is an associate professor of education at the School of Teacher Education, Stavanger College, Norway

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