Several changes happened all at once in Danish folkeskoler. This sort of ‘shock and awe’ tactic is becoming more common in political governance. Politicians make a huge crisis (or wait for a huge crisis), and then make all the changes they want. All at once. People are so turned around by the crisis the changes become a ‘new normal’.
The major changes were to the working hours of teachers or ‘normalisation’, beginning ‘inclusion’ (where special needs students are taught alongside students with no particular educational special needs), more focus of numeracy and literacy, longer school days, introduction of homework clubs and new ‘activity’ lessons added to the timetable.
The ‘normalisation’ 8am-4pm thing in folkeskoler has meant that teachers have not been able to do their preparation properly without doing unpaid overtime. If you only have 15 minutes on a Monday for preparation because you’re teaching or in meetings, you’re not going to get a lot of prep done for Tuesday. As much as you can prepare a week (or weeks in advance), sometimes things happen in lessons that should inform your planning for the next lesson. For example, you are teaching how to solve polynomials and realise your students don’t know how to do long division. You have no long division lesson plans ready to go because it’s usually the teachers in the grades below that cover that topic, you need to think carefully about how to teach this skill to your students. If the next lesson is the next day: too bad under this new system.
If you have a lot of long essays or tests to grade, you can either grade them all in one go and not have any time left over for lesson planning or you can do a handful at a time in short spurts. It’s a horrible choice. Option A: your under prepared lessons will be crap in weeks you have a lot of marking. Option B: your students will get inconsistent grades and get their work back long after they have forgotten all about it. Option C: work unpaid overtime and get it all done.
If you have a lot of parent-teacher conferences in one week or a lot of ad hoc meetings or you receive a large order of equipment that needs to be put into cupboards, then your planning time gets wiped out in these weeks too.
The reason that teachers worldwide typically plan at home, after school hours, is that grading and lesson planning is very taxing. It can be creative, it is usually done with respect to several inter-related factors and you often need undisturbed quiet to do it. Teaching itself is exhausting. You have to keep your sense of humour and proportion up even in the face of extraordinary provocation. You have to make decent human connections with several young people. You have to run activities that will best help these individuals learn. You have to fine tune these activities on the fly. You have to ask and answer challenging questions. You have to be a performer, a professional and a person. If you think you can go from a high-impact lesson on radioactive half life with 9G where you kept them active and on-side for 90 minutes and then go to your desk and plan a lesson from scratch for 7B on the Haber process where you will have the same level of activity and engagement then you have a lot more juice than I do. What I typically like to do straight after teaching is have a nice cup of tea and zone out. I plan my lessons when I have recovered, usually after dinner or at the weekend. If it’s in the school day at all, it’s before any lessons have happened.
In short, this thoughtless change has been disastrous for many schools and their students. It’s all very well saying that teachers are ‘normalised’ with other state employees as compensation for the changes the lock-out brought but if they are not able to provide the usual level of service without working for free, then this is nothing like compensation. This is just a way of obscuring unpaid overtime.
Some teachers, it is worth mentioning, prefer this system. They like how they can say ‘done with school now!’ and can go relax when they finish their working hours. But I wonder how they manage to get everything done. How is it done? I don’t think I could do it. Not in weeks where I have to write reports or go on training and probably not in ‘ideal’ weeks where I don’t have much to do. How are they managing, these teachers who don’t mind this new system?
The unions can do nothing right now because their war chests are depleted. It’s not like they can threaten strike action. And so the politicians keep coming with new reforms:- inclusion for those with educational special needs, more focus on literacy and numeracy, more hours in school. Nothing particularly controversial but they have made it clear they do not want teacher input on the implementation of these changes. So, these reforms have been a load of bollocks.
Inclusion without proper resources and training is not doing anyone any favours. The special needs students either get sent out of the lesson every 20 minutes or they get a crappy make-work task to keep them busy or they have a great lesson but the other kids get short changed. Something has to give.
Special needs inclusion is something that I believe in. It is the way to go for most students, I think. But you can’t just drop kids with learning difficulties or emotional disorders into a room with 20 other children and call that ‘inclusion’. Inclusion necessarily means you are planning separate activities according to your students needs. Inclusion means you have other adults in the room to support learning. It means you have some basic understanding of the different disorders and how they make learning difficult for the student. You know, so they are ‘included’. Otherwise, it’s ‘mainstreaming’, if you want to get technical. ‘Mainstreaming’ is when you just put all the kids together in one place: the lack of special needs will rub off onto the kids with problems!
Without this input of funds for training and extra members of staff and time for preparation, your special needs students are going to struggle. Your students with no particular educational disabilities are also going to have a crap time because so much teacher in-lesson-time is spent on preventing or dealing with problems relating to having one or more children in the room who can’t read or sit still or remember instructions or deal with strong emotions.
Numeracy and Literacy
As for increased focus on numeracy and literacy, who can argue against that? If Denmark is spending so much on education, you would hope its students would be able to demonstrate basic skills, right? But if 4 hours a week with your math or Danish teacher isn’t raising your attainment, why would 5 hours? If students in Danish schools are not doing well with basic skills it is not because they don’t get long enough in the classroom, it is their teachers are not doing the things that will help them improve.
Much research has been performed and analysed to tackle the question of what helps students learn best. All I am asking, from the bottom of my heart, is that the people implementing changes in Danish schools just read it. This is about the most frustrating thing about teaching. So much time is spent talking about stuff that makes little or no difference to students’ attainment while the things that do make a difference are completely overlooked. There are several interventions and techniques that are shown to improve how well students learn. It’s not like the research is secret or hard to read. People just cannot be bothered. Increased contact hours is an overly simple solution to a complicated problem. Which is why it is doomed from the start.
This has led to is greater use of private schools. More and more private schools are opening up to cope with increased demand. This has some interesting knock-on effects on the private sector.