How I would Improve Danish Schools

Never let it be said, I don’t take requests.

Here is a rambly long form response to “You should be talking about school improvements. Not about how the lockout is a savings exercise.”
PART ONE: Or ‘un-informed people talk about school improvements all the time, man’

Back home, if I let it slip at a party that I was a teacher this would invariably occur:-

  “A teacher, eh? What, primary school? WHAT? Ok. Wow, you’re brave. What subject? I remember my physics teacher. He was a JOKE man, the experiments never worked. I really liked my English teacher. She was so inspirational. Anyway, you must love your holidays! That is amazing that you get so much time off! And you finish work at 3pm, what a great job. I would do it but I just don’t have the passion that my English teacher had. I think that is what you need. Passion. But what are you guys even teaching them? Kids today don’t even know who Hitler was. They can’t even read. In my job, I meet 16 year olds and they are thick and ignorant. Still. What do you expect with the quality of teachers and schools today? I wish I had a physics teacher like you *leer leer*”

So, it got to the point where I would not tell anyone at parties what I did. I could not give a flying fudge what they learned in their Physics O Level and so would not invite the anecdote into my life. I also have a problem with being told how lazy I am by a newly made acquaintance.

By this mark, shall ye know them
By this mark, shall ye know them

Schools can be improved. We still have not worked out how to secure achievement for children who are living in shocking circumstances. When people tell me about children who cannot even read! or count! or know who Hitler was! in this day and age! They think they are comparing some Golden Age in the past where 100% of children left school with basic skills with now:- where a minority underachieve. This Golden Age never happened.

In fact, before the welfare state, those children with similar shocking home circumstances also stayed ignorant and illiterate because they were underfed and sickly and most likely working two jobs. After the welfare safety net was put in place, those children would often be victims of low expectations and fail. And now, we have high expectations for them and they still fail.

Why do young people fail after so many years of school? Often, and I’m not being flippant, it is because their parents are on crack. Or similar. There are children that are hell to teach because they got attacked by a family member the night before. Or they had to move piles of rubbish to get through their home and slept in their dirty clothes and there’s no food in the house. I had one 14 year old child bite the face of another for saying he was late to the lesson. It turned out, he had been a child soldier and his dad had PTSD. How am I going to teach the poor guy about magnetic fields under those circumstances?

Then there are children who underachieve despite having reasonable home lives. This can be for a lot of reasons.

The easiest reason to reach for is:- the teacher is a lazy waste of space. Or:- the teacher was working hard but doing all the wrong things.

Possibly. When a lesson of mine goes badly or I discover my class haven’t “got” a thing I was certain that I had taught properly, I reflect on it. What can I learn from this? Where did I go right? Where did it go wrong?

After this reflection, sometimes I think of new ways of trying the same material or more ways of checking understanding as we go so I do not get any nasty surprises down the line. This time to reflect is really vital. Back in London, I had next to no time to do this, but it needed to be done. So I would lie in bed thinking, obsessing really, about my lessons. On the tube. On the bus. Walking. Eating. Everything I did was coloured by my reflection on my work.

And instead of making my lessons better, it made them worse. You know when you are trying to solve a puzzle and you keep trying the same two things and they never work? Then you go for a walk, forget about it and then you can solve it? Teaching is like that. You need time to reflect and you need time to forget.

I say I worked 50+ hours but it was more like every waking moment. This is not healthy.

Sometimes, the conclusion I would arrive at was that my students were not trying hard enough. They did not do their homework, they did not do the reading, they did not listen in class. The English system (and the Welsh, to a lesser extent. No idea about the Scottish), explicitly tells teachers that homework, student preparation before lessons and attention are not the responsibility of the student. If a student isn’t listening, it is because the teacher isn’t interesting. If the homework isn’t done, it is because the teacher isn’t on top of it.

The students feed off of this. It’s a Golden Ticket, nothing they omit to do is their responsibility. It is a disaster.

Politicians in Denmark are attempting to turn the population against the teachers and so the teacher blaming begins. Everyone seems to know exactly where teachers are going wrong.

You know what is interesting about which professions are given a trial by media when the politicians decide they need to save some money?

Nurses and teachers.

Other public servants do not get nearly as much scrutiny.

Soldiers, bin men, doctors, builders… imagine if the media started calling them lazy/uncaring/unprofessional or encouraging “debate” about how they could improve their professional lives.

Teachers (and nurses), work in a caring role and this is seen as being more ‘intuitive’ and more of something anyone can do. Which is why so many people feel entitled to give their opinions about how to do it better. The word ‘vocation’ is invoked.

Vocation means ‘calling’ and is a word to describe people in the religious life. Priests, monks and nuns are supposed to hear a small voice from God saying “be a priest, yo” and they are ‘called’ to their vocation. They vow to be chaste, poor and obedient.

I did not hear a voice from God telling me to be a teacher. I have made no vows about the quality of my life or my behaviour. What happened to me was this:-
PART TWO: or ‘Why I am a teacher’

I wanted to be a scientist. I did not like being a scientist. I enjoyed explaining science. I had some ideas for bringing science to little kids. I was going to get a double decker bus and kit it out like a school lab and go to primary schools, so they could get some hands-on experience of school science. I thought ‘maybe I could get a teaching certificate, that might make my business model more credible’. I graduated and started the teacher training course.

I have NEVER worked as hard before or since than on that course.

I realised that there was a lot more to this teaching thing than I had arrogantly thought. I also realised that I loved teaching very much.

Nine years later, here I am.

Teaching is not a vocation. It is a job. It is a job that I enjoy very much. It is bloody hard work. At times, I work more hours than I am paid for without any hope of gratitude or recognition. I do it because it needs to be done and because I have feelings of good faith with my employers.

It seems to me that very few professions would be expected to work for free on a continual basis. Cooking, cleaning and caring. They are the areas where the most piss is taken.
PART THREE: Or ‘How to improve schools. SPOILER: doesn’t include calling teachers lazy and useless’

The thing is, education can always be improved. How can we reach the minority of children who fail? How can we push the minority of children who could excel but coast instead? How can we get the majority of children who are not underachieving but could be pushed to do more? New research is coming out all the time. Teachers find things out from their practice and share it with colleagues. Being a teacher usually means constant re-evaluation and renewal.

What I resent is someone coming to the discussion with “But my son is underachieving, therefore all teachers are useless.”

I do not want to hear it. Personally, if my son was underachieving, I would do more than rail against everyone in the teaching profession.

Denmark’s schools may need an overhaul and there is definitely room for change. This could be an exciting process where they research studies from other countries, invite outside experts in, trial improvement programmes in schools, look at teachers sharing best practice, all that good stuff.

Decide what you want

The first (not necessarily boring) step of changing the school system in Denmark is to decide what you want for the learners. A lot of international parents find that education takes too long to get going in Danish schools. Children do not start school until seven and they take the first few years easy. There is no pressure to spell correctly in the first year or two, for example. Despite the slow start, Danish teenagers at high schools are completing work to the same standards as their counterparts in British schools.

Yet, there is a problem. A significant portion of children are not achieving to the standard that will “increase their life chances” (to use the jargon from back home). And Denmark needs highly qualified immigrants to come in and do jobs the natives cannot. And no one on Danish facebook seems able to spell “sgu” correctly.

So, it depends what you want and what you value in a population. Maybe you want Danish people to be able to recall facts, in which case you need to drill them on facts. Maybe you want them to be able to think innovatively, in which case you need to set them creative problem solving exercises. Maybe you want them to be able to think critically, in which case you need to give them the tools to question. If your priority is literacy and numeracy, then you can make children repeat years until they master the basics. Or have special outreach classes to catch them up. Or make sure all teachers are trained in addressing those skills in their subjects.

What I personally think is going wrong in schools

If you made me “king” of Danish schools, I would make a lot of small changes and a couple of big ones. I have been reading books about education during the lockout, the most recent is about “flipped” classrooms and “flipped mastery” classrooms. There are some interesting ideas that would form the basis of my changes.

Schools today are based on an industrial revolution model. You prepare students for their jobs in factories. There are bells, they sit in rows, they listen to the boss, you give them tasks to do, you give them your assessment of their task. Danish schools have “project week” which breaks out from this model a little bit but it is still about being set a task by the boss and doing it in a set way.

This model does not encourage deep understanding of topics. Bright students can teach themselves to the test, so they look like they understood something when they just gamed the system. Middle students can cram before tests. Weak students can fall behind entirely.

Possible change of model:-

How about we introduce a topic with a list of all the things we want the students to learn, where they can find the information from, a list of required activities and a list of possible ways of proving their understanding?

There is a lot more emphasis on the child taking control of their learning and can mean that faster students progress to the next topic/extension work more quickly, while slower students can take it easy.

Ban Homework

The first thing I would change is homework. I would ban homework tasks that require help. Children with no help at home fail. Children with lots of help at home watch as their homework is done for them.
One good task for homework would be watching a video of the lesson’s lecture. Instead of listening to a teacher for 15 minutes (and getting distracted or losing the thread or getting bored), in a lesson and then writing a paper (and getting discouraged or doing the wrong thing or copying and pasting in desperation), at home; why not watch the lecture on Youtube (and get to pause and rewind and rewatch whenever you want) and write the paper at school (and get to ask the teacher detailed questions about the task).

Homework is, in my opinion, only there for the parents. I hate chasing it up, I setting it for the sake of it, I hate it when the child has obviously cheated, I hate it! Parents love it because they get to see what their child is doing, feel useful and keep a hand in with the education of their kid.

I usually end up asking students to “find out x” but then they just google something and never think about it again. Or I ask them to do some exercises and they do them. Unless they get stuck, then they don’t or they copy. I never know what happened because it was not on my watch.

So. I would ban “homework” and replace it with a task where students find out about the topic they will be working with in class.

Get rid of lock-step lessons

Once they are in class, I would do away with “lessons”. As in “Today’s lesson is Ohm’s Law”. In class, they would definitely learn about Ohm’s Law, do some labs, read some stuff, write some stuff but maybe not on the same day as the other children in the group.

This means that children do not need to be placed in year groups or according to ability. It means that children with learning difficulties can be in the same group as children with no learning difficulties.

Stop wasting time

I would do away with “makework”, where you basically waste a child’s time just to keep them busy until you are ready for the next lesson. Some makework looks like it is not makework. For example, answering comprehension questions, writing a paper, working through exercise drills. Those activities are pedagogically sound but can drift into makework territory once a child has already learned that thing you wanted them to learn. If you can factorise an equation, it is time to move on to something else.

Trust teachers but develop their skills properly

Another thing I would do is leave the lesson planning largely up to the teachers. Denmark is privileged in that teachers currently enjoy professional trust. They can plan anything they like, with little oversight. Back home, teachers were untrusted and often have to write lesson plans to a certain formula (or follow the lesson plans of others). That said, I have attended too many training sessions where an expert has outlined an interesting way of improving lessons and the teachers shrug and say “Well, that’s nice but I’m going to do the stuff I always do.”

I would overhaul professional development, so it is never some wise person wittering on about multiple intelligences for 45 minutes after school. I would require that they demonstrate exactly how they would apply the theory. Teachers are magpies, if you show them a way to teach something that fits their teaching style, they will snatch it up and make it their own. In my opinion, lessons need a variety of activities and students need to be as active and responsible for their learning as their maturity allows.

Other teachers have different priorities. As long as the students get a range of teaching styles, I do not see the harm in exposing them to different methods.

Reduce meetings and change what happens in them

Danish schools have too many meetings and they are too long. The topic of conversation is often irrelevant to teaching and learning. Many meetings could be replaced by a memo “This is happening from now on. Kthxbai” Very few meetings result in minutes with “action items”, as in a lot is said but not a lot is planned. I would change meetings into planning meetings, where what gets discussed is who does what and when.

I heard of one place where the teachers go for a walk during their meetings. In smaller departments, that could be great. There is some hippy dippy study about how walking in step makes people work together better, plus walking around gets the blood flowing and prevents phone fiddling. I probably would not make this mandatory but I would trial it.

I would also make parents decide if they want written reports or face to face consultations. They cannot have both.
Assessment

I seriously dislike the oral exams at the end of 9th class. They are too subject to the whims of the examiner. If you (as I have experienced), get a teacher who has misunderstood a key part of a topic you have taught, then they can award grades that are unfair to students who have demonstrated understanding of the topic.

The grades are also too wishy-washy for my liking. I would have statements that are not subject to interpretation like “Student can draw a pie chart” or “Student can explain scientific concepts using models” or whatever. Not “Student has an excellent grasp of the subject with only a few flaws.” I hate it!

Whatever these statements are, very much depends on what the society values. And I am not sure what I would choose. Though, it would show more than recall of facts.

I like the idea of practical exams, don’t get me wrong, I just think they should be more rigorous and more reproducible. If a student of mine is capable of a B at GCSE, I don’t think they should be getting 02 in their Danish exam. And vice versa, if they cannot get more than an F in GCSE, how on earth are they getting a 10 in the Danish exam?

Team teaching

I think I would increase the amount of team teaching. I really appreciated working in pairs with colleagues. It was especially powerful when I could take small groups out to work with them, while the main teacher took the rest of the group. I liked how I could tailor my teaching for the strengths of the small group. I also liked getting to see how others teach because I am nosy (and a magpie).
Class size

I would be very careful about class size. Apparently, class size does not make much of a difference to students’ attainment but I find that when a group gets larger than 25, the quality of my teaching drops off significantly for every “extra” member. Working in a practical subject, I also hate having more than 20 or so students. I cannot really get stuck in helping one group of students, when the possibility for mayhem behind my back exists.

Part four: Or ‘I bet you wish you didn’t ask.’ Or ‘TL;DR’

In conclusion. Danish schools could be better. But I think non-teachers should be more humble about their contribution to the debate and they ought to examine whether what they are saying is coming from a place of true reflection or is just ill-informed patronising guff. I think any improvement of schools needs to start with a discussion about what you even want from learners and needs much input from people who actually teach. I think consulting studies from other countries is a good starting point. I think a lot of what I suggest could be done for the same price or cheaper than now but many changes would require extra money.

I think making it about how many hours are spent teaching or in school or how much money school costs is a bad idea if you want to improve things. But a good idea if you want to make things cheaper.

2 thoughts on “How I would Improve Danish Schools

  1. I agree with so much of what you say in this post. I’m a parent who hates my childrens homework. Not because I don’t want to help them, or because I lack the skill, but because I feel so sorry for them; we’re a family with two working parents. We get home at 4.30 – 5 pm and the children are supposed to be in bed at 8 – 8.30, to get enough sleep. So in just three to four hours we have to prepare dinner, eat dinner, clean up the kitchen, get three children ready for bed and help two children with their 15 minutes of required reading exercises + what other homework they may have on any given day. Usually one of us spends around an hour every evening doing homework with them. A lot of the assignments, they could probably do with very little help, if they weren’t so tired. As it is, we just sit there and try to keep them focused. I feel so sorry for them. They’ve had a long day already, and they just want to spend a little while being children, playing, watching TV, relaxing, before bedtime. And I can’t give them that. I wish that if the school insisted on homework, they would at least make a quiet room available at the SFO, so they could do it in the afternoon while they’re still alert, and not have to spend their limited free time on it.

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    1. Yeah, it’s total rubbish. And if your kid can’t do it? Then what? The teacher goes through the right answers and then what? How do they make sure the exercise wasn’t a complete waste of time?
      I gave my 4th graders homework as a way of getting points, if they did it: they got stars on a star chart. If they didn’t: no big deal. It was surprising who did homework under that regime!
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