Northern Ventures

In my last blog, I reported that was in Copenhagen with a group of senior educators from Kosovo. We were on a study visit to Denmark and Sweden, looking at how the school systems there plan and implement induction programs for new teachers, and then provide ongoing professional development to teachers throughout their careers. It was a thought-provoking visit. I won’t give you a detailed day-by-day account of our various doings, but I was able to draw a few generalizations which may be of interest,

First, the group found that although the education systems in both Denmark and Sweden were patently more advanced than the system in Kosovo, the ‘gap’ was not as large as they had expected. One major difference was the high degree of trust shown by all actors that all educators were properly trained, knew their own mandate as well as their role within the larger system, and were competent to ‘do the right thing’ without being constantly monitored. That same degree of trust is not yet present in Kosovo, where there remains a reliance on detailed Administrative Instructions and manuals which describe not only what needs to be done but also how to do it.

The group were also impressed by the focus on practical skills, not just on academics, which was apparent in both systems. In Copenhagen the ‘Future Classroom’ at UCC contained a 3D printer which was being used by teacher education students to construct models of teaching materials and complete art projects. In Luleå the school curriculum included practical skills lessons in woodworking, metal work, textiles, and so forth, for both boys and girls.

A third area of note was the high degree of decentralization found within the system, especially in Sweden. Here the role of the Municipal Education Director (MED) is make sure that national or state laws are followed by the school system. However, although the MED can say what has to be done, she cannot say how it should be done. The principal makes this decision and determines the best strategy to be followed in his or her school. This decentralization extends to funding, with school principals being responsible for a comprehensive budget that includes professional and support staffing costs. Even in Canada this would be revolutionary, with some systems decentralizing operational costs but very few (and none on PEI!) decentralizing a whole budget and letting school principals be responsible for the hiring and firing of teachers as well as all other costs.

One of the strange things about most contemporary education systems around the world is that the education profession continues to rely on a ‘sink or swim’ method of induction. Teachers are given their classroom, informed of a few rudimentary rules, provided with a class list, and then left to get on with it. Not for them a close mentor and restricted responsibilities as found in law, the structured residency system of medicine, or even the reduced teaching load of the professoriate. New teachers in Canada are generally thrown into the mayhem of schools, where they close their classroom doors, and get on with it. This is also the case in Kosovo.

At the school visited in Denmark, it was interesting to see that mentors were appointed to support new teachers, as well as student teachers engaged in their practicum. In both instances it appeared that these mentors served more as coordinators, making sure that the student and neophyte teachers had a designated person to whom they could make initial contact, with more comprehensive advice coming from relationships either facilitated by the mentors or developed independently by the new and trainee teachers. The mentors were provided with one (1) hour per week within the school timetable to perform their role.

At the school visited in Sweden, the mentor for new teachers was a half-time (50%) appointment assigned to a ‘lead teacher’. This person was appointed to the role based on their teaching expertise and their ability to communicate well with colleagues. The appointment was also seen as a way to encourage good teachers to stay in the classroom, and not seek an administrative post simply as a means of promotion. In both cases the decentralized nature of the school budget meant that principals could determine the degree of flexibility they assigned to the mentor teachers, although there were limits imposed by union contracts and other legislation.

In Luleå the snow was still on the ground, and the sea was frozen. We walked out along an ice road into the bay, rather nervously at first but in a more relaxed manner when we were passed by a car – this assured us that the ice was safe! The kick sleds were a success, and the conversations ebbed and flowed as we wandered out under a northern sky. The next morning we left, flying south to Stockholm, and then home.

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