Inspirations from Iceland: Reflections on the USA

Imagine a land where pre-school education is guaranteed. Think of music teachers in most elementary schools and choirs in most secondary schools. Imagine a noticeable cleanliness of the hallways and classrooms. In many schools shoes aren’t worn inside because the staff doesn’t want the raw winter weather ruining the floors and making everything filthy. Imagine Iceland.

This Scandinavian country’s educators are thinking constructively about student engagement—through the arts and vocational education. Iceland, like the rest of Scandinavia, is not obsessed with standardized testing.

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

Rhythm warm up at the beginning of the forum

The Icelandic Teachers Union hosted me last month.  A special forum focused on the role of arts and arts education to strengthen teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Teachers and principals participated, along with officials from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Education. They kicked off the forum with interactive activities involving musicians and drama teachers. The group of 200 split in half to get to know one another through theatre games and some rhythm activities. A fantastic way to start the day!

Music begins the day in preschool

Music begins the day in preschool

As the forum keynote speaker I emphasized the value of arts at the center of a school curriculum. I shared how the arts can change an entire school culture and encourage young people to achieve at high levels—artistically and academically.  As both a teacher and school leader, I demonstrated how the power of arts helps children and adults walk in the other’s shoes and begin to learn skills of persistence, collaboration and risk taking – skills in short supply in most of the world.

Elementary school block area

Woodworking

Math activity

Math activity

During this trip I visited four different schools: pre-school, elementary (k-8), secondary and a tertiary institute for visual arts.  The pre-school children, ages 2-5, engaged in various activities ranging from woodworking, block building, clay sculptures, reading, measuring, Lego play and singing. A sense of creative play emanated throughout the bright and airy spaces. At the elementary school, students worked on math assignments in the hallway, which had become a makeshift classroom. They were hard at work jumping back and forth on a number line to experiment with positive and negative numbers. All students also take cooking, sewing and knitting, music, and shop as part of the required curriculum.

Knitting class

Knitting class

A secondary school highlight was the vocational pathways for metal work and automotive. The studios and shops rivaled that of the best-equipped factory imaginable. These young people were aware of the high quality education that they were receiving and its value in their careers as farmers, automotive techs or machinists. One spoke about how now he could fix the machinery on his family’s small farm. In the digital media lab, a young man talked about how he originally thought he wanted to be an actor, but realized he may have more aptitude for film making or television. He gestured to the end of his classroom, which was a professional looking TV studio. “I’m getting a lot of practice here at school for what I want to do in my career,” he acknowledged.

The visual arts institute was non-credit bearing. Students prepared to present their art and design portfolios to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in Europe as well as to compete for jobs in design firms.

Visual arts school

Visual arts school

Icelandic teachers and administrators do have serious concerns, however. In our discussions, they worried about the level of engagement of their students and their commitment to creativity and risk taking. They didn’t want me to be blinded by the lovely facilities (I was) or lulled into thinking all was well since music teachers are ubiquitous (I was). My job was to push everyone to think more about the role of performing arts (dance and theatre are not well integrated into the curriculum) and to encourage more experimentation. They also wanted me to challenge the notion that vocational education is second-class or second-rate. Not all children have to go to universities if the vocational training is truly high quality.
Back in the U.S.A. and reflections on Finland

On my return the United States, the topics of school autonomy and flexibility awaited. I am leading a study about how Boston Public Schools and other school districts understand and/or embrace those issues as part of school practices. A small group of schools came onto the educational landscape 18 years ago in the aftermath of charter legislation. These schools, which began in Boston, were called Pilot Schools. I often say I was the first in Massachusetts to hold a charter and the first to return it in favor of pilot status. This gave us the same flexibilities and autonomies that charters would enjoy. These areas include: hiring/staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, schedule and calendar and professional development.

In a recent meeting where our study team shared some of our emerging research, my colleague Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, admonished us in the US for being obsessed with accountability and test scores. “In Finland we talk about children’s well-being. That is what we count first.” My experience in Finland backs up this notion as well as the deep autonomy that teachers have to design and execute their own curriculum and assessments.

Our journey with education reform in the U.S. leaves only a distant memory of school and learning that is not synonymous with testing. But the Finns have adopted a different philosophy. Standardized tests are not introduced until secondary school and teachers are given wide flexibility and autonomy with curriculum and assessment. When they do test in secondary school, it happens once. A clear set of standards are skill-based with a great deal of trust for teachers. Teachers have the autonomy to assess how their students meet those standards. Collaborative work among teachers and with principals is highly valued as are skills of curriculum development. In Iceland there are standardized tests twice in elementary schools: at the age of 9 and 15. There are no standardized tests in secondary schools. Little talk exists around standardized high stakes testing and a lot of talk exists about art and music. On top of that, the Icelandic educators worry that students may be slipping with standards because the approaches are not creative enough. More art and music may be necessary. If students do not reach standards, the antidote is more teaching, not more testing.

Once again, I feel a collision course building in this country. As we adopt common core, which in some ways is our attempt to imitate Finland, we have not thought deeply about assuring that all of our young people have access to high quality arts education in all disciplines. This means visual, musical, dance, theatre, creative writing, etc., during all years. We have not thought deeply about the meaning of shop courses for students (something we taught routinely in the last century) and cooking and other vocational classes. We tossed those classes out in the ‘80s and substituted what? Test prep?

I certainly believe in the importance of high levels of literacy for all students. I fear that we have so constrained our curriculum to right brain foci that the very areas of exploration that could lead us to “wide awakeness,” as Maxine Greene posits, have been diminished to side conversations and sighs of “remember when…?”

I refuse to have well-being, creativity, and physical education relegated to the backrooms of our schools or to after school.

Instead of rolling out common core just in academic subjects, consider what Iceland and Finland have already done—make arts matter. They matter for well-being, for student engagement, for giving students an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes. They matter for understanding perspective, history, language, and collaboration. Arts matter in the development of abstract thinking and in helping students discern questions about judgment and perception. Arts give students strong communication skills.

Those 21st Century skills we so want to imbue in our student are readily accessible through a rigorous arts curriculum. The arts teach us perseverance and how to work in an ensemble. They arts teach us to continually refine and to work at a task for a long period of time. The arts teach us that our passions and interests in the world and in culture do matter. They teach us the value of hard work and lots of practice. There are no “quick fixes” in becoming a good musician.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra  and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.  Photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra
and Vernard J. Gilmore in Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Belen Pereyra was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella (January 6, 2014) who wrote, “I could not believe Pereyra’s speed, her spontaneity, her astonishing, open-legged jumps. It was like watching a baby or an animal – movement that is completely natural, but which, in and adult, is the product only of art and long training.”

I couldn’t have been more proud. Belen was my student. Of course, one could argue that Belen was exceptional. She was and is. But the skills she learned – of perseverance, of listening, of learning from others, research, ensemble – are skills that all of our students learn. All students of a curriculum steeped in the arts learn these skills.

The same can be true of vocational schools. One may not see the ability to “engage an audience” in class of metal workers, but when I spoke to those young people in Iceland, I know they were proud of their skills. I want that to be true of all schools—vocational, academic, artistic. Kids should own their explorations and feel pride in their emerging skills. We need to broaden our curriculum, broaden our sense of schools and ensure that our young people are well. I am ready for the Finnish lessons to be applied in the US, and the Icelandic ones, too!

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

My book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School” in Icelandic.

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1 Response to “Inspirations from Iceland: Reflections on the USA”


  1. 1 rostc@comcast.net April 3, 2014 at 2:18 am

    Great article , Linda. Thanks for sharing.

    Ros


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