Can Iceland fix the achievement plateau?
They've got nice glaciers and sourdough bread. But what about their schools?
In January, a colleague and fellow doctoral candidate, Aaron Diaz, traveled to Iceland to visit their schools and learn from fellow educators there. We co-wrote the following post after I convinced Aaron that writing in numbered lists is actually writing.
In Iceland, all three schools politely requested we remove our shoes inside the school. At first, we were surprised, having never walked a US public school in our socks, despite toe shoes being Rob’s preferred shoe. However, with a quick glance around, I noticed ALL students were roaming the halls in socks. Most teachers were either in socks or were wearing some “inside shoes” like slippers, slides, or simply sneakers. This is what the entrance to the school looked like:
It’s as much practical — shoes track all the dirty snow in — as it is exemplary of the culture within the schools.
In our first visit, the principal — an amazing and veteran educator — was describing the school facilities. He said, “There are four houses…” At first we thought he was referring to the house structure some schools follow. Not the case. Referring to a school as a house is not just a matter of words in Iceland. A “building” can refer to any number of places: a factory, a store, a post office. But a house is where people live. A house is where families spend time together and support each other through tough times and good times. Isn’t that what school should be?
Teachers as professionals. Across the US, states are taking extraordinary measures to recruit more teachers, as colleges graduate fewer and fewer students from teacher preparation programs. That means slashing traditional requirements, like a teaching license or an advanced degree, to rush individuals through emergency certification pipelines. Iceland seems to be moving in the opposite direction, having recently required a Master’s degree for all teachers.
Commensurate with that is the amount of time teachers get to do their work. A full-time teacher in Iceland teaches 1040 minutes each week, or twenty-six, forty-minute periods. But actual teaching is only a fraction of a teacher’s work. Teachers in Iceland also get 20 minutes of preparation time for every 40 minutes they teach. That’s 520 minutes of prep time each week. For context, K-8 teachers in Philadelphia were only allotted 225 minutes of planning time each week. That’s not even enough time to plan all their lessons, let alone data analysis, grading, parent communications, and using the bathroom. Even with their lunch period, most US teachers fall well short of the prep time afforded to Icelandic teachers.
There’s also a distinct culture among staff. We ate lunch with the principal in the staff breakroom, surrounded by loads of other teachers, paraprofessionals, and building staff who chatted and sipped on the freshly-brewed coffee. The staff lounges themselves resembled something of a fancy tech office, with espresso machines and endless bubbly water. If the principal walked into the breakroom of a typical US school, I’d imagine every teacher would either leave or just stop talking. That culture of distrust wasn’t present during our visits.
Playskool. Iceland provides heavily subsidized, early-childhood education for kids starting at age 1. Parents pay a small fee and over 98% of eligible children attend Playskool. Providing high-quality, early-childhood education is critical: it alleviates childcare-related financial burdens on new parents and provides all kinds of cognitive benefits for students. In the US we’re hyper-focused on ensuring all students are proficient readers by 3rd grade by emphasizing rigor and more phonics in grades K-2. While this goal remains elusive here, especially in high-poverty areas, literacy rates in Iceland are sky-high. Maybe we should start focusing on what kids learn before they get to kindergarten.
Icelandic schools are built around the country’s Six Pillars of education: health and wellbeing, literacy, democracy and human rights, sustainability, equality, creativity. While education reform policy has pushed US schools to an increasingly narrow (and misguided) focus on math and literacy, Iceland seemed to be doing the opposite. Sure, all students had a daily, 40-minute period of Icelandic literacy. But the Six Pillars’ curriculum was more robust and engaging
Health and wellbeing. Icelanders love pools. It’s common for folks to gather at the community pool – which features thermally-heated hot tubs and cold plunges – before or after work to socialize. “It’s much better than going to the bar on a Tuesday,” said our colleague in the Ministry of Education. Debatable, but I see his point. That culture of health and wellbeing starts in schools, where all students take swimming lessons each week. Sport is featured heavily, as well. Icelandic schools each send a student to a crossfit-like competition each year, Skólahreysti. And schools teach about healthy eating with actual cooking classes. We walked through classrooms that were indistinguishable from a professional kitchen. At one point, a group of 4th graders scurried around us holding trays of warm muffins. “They only had 40 minutes from start to finish,” the teacher joked.
Creativity. Each of the three schools we visited had a carpentry studio complete with hand tools (saws, screwdrivers, hammers) and power tools (bandsaws, drill presses, and jigsaws). Schools also featured several visual art studios, which helped me understand why art galleries were featured prominently throughout Reykjavik's entertainment district.
Sustainability. Iceland is fortunate to have relatively easy access to geothermal energy. Nearly all homes are heated with geothermal energy. But sustainability is more than just energy production and consumption. There were no disposable lunch trays or plastic utensils in the cafeterias. Students used plastic and ceramic dishware and steel utensils which they placed on dish racks after eating. Even the teacher lounges had dish racks to wash the coffee mugs and lunch plates.
Equality. Icelanders call principals by their first names. Most school staff were casually dressed, making it difficult to distinguish teachers from students, and admin from teachers. The formal hierarchy that exists in US public education and gets reinforced through titles and formal communication was nowhere to be found.
Democracy and human rights. All students learn at least two other languages in school, typically English and Danish (Iceland was a part of the Kingdom of Denmark until the 1900s). We didn’t meet a single Icelander who couldn’t speak fluent English. It’s been said that monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century (though some tech wonks might argue that coding is literacy), and it does allow individuals to take a more empathic stance towards other countries and cultures, something US students — and society — could certainly benefit from.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
Great read, thanks for sharing!