This past July, our family moved to Oslo for six months. We left behind our 9-year-old son’s ADHD medication, which he started taking last year. The medication did wonders for his standardized test scores, which our suburban school district seems to care about a lot. But we wanted to give him a break from the side effects, and we did not have high expectations about what he or his sister would learn in the classroom in Oslo, where instruction would be in Norwegian, a language new to them.
When our son started school in August, we weren’t sure what to expect.
We didn’t anticipate that his ADHD would disappear, but this is what seems to have happened. It isn’t that ADHD is unknown here; 3 percent to 5 percent of Norwegian schoolchildren have it. But our son’s behavior no longer fits the condition, and his teacher here sees no evidence of it. The characteristic signs — fidgeting, inattention in the classroom, weepiness over homework, trouble falling asleep at night — are gone.
Incredibly, he cannot wait to get to school each day. He is rapidly learning Norwegian. He is happy to do homework and, in fact, sometimes works ahead or asks his sister to make up math problems for him to solve. At night, he readily reads before falling asleep, something he would never do back home.
What accounts for this dramatic change? Neither his diet nor the amount of “screen time” — two factors sometimes implicated in the rise in ADHD — has changed significantly. What has changed is his school experience.
He has three recesses here, rather than just one, as in Minnesota. The school day is about an hour shorter than at home, giving him extra time to play before doing homework. He enjoys nearly two hours of unstructured, outdoor play every day here, four times more than in the United States.
His classroom experience is also very different here. His classroom is virtually free of technology. There is an interactive whiteboard, but it is not used much. The teacher has no computer; she is thus liberated from the tyranny of endless e-mail messages that teachers back home receive. She also does not grade assignments during class; with the shorter day, that can wait. The entire day, she is both physically and mentally present with her students.
Education here focuses on the “whole child.” So while most of the week, our son gets instruction in the three Rs, he is also learning to cook, do needlework and dance. And every other week, regardless of weather, his class takes a half-day field trip. This usually involves a long walk to a park where they grill hot dogs and play.
Perhaps the field-trip time could be better spent in the classroom. But a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that Norway’s education system is doing an excellent job producing a population with high literacy and numeracy. Norway ranked sixth among industrialized countries in both these categories. The United States, in contrast, ranked 16th in literacy and 21st in numeracy.
Building camaraderie, as opposed to competition, is also a goal here. This is a main reason for the field trips, the teacher explained to me; group cohesion is considered important to learning in school. This contrasts with school back home, where the kids talk about who is in which math track and at times even know each other’s test scores.
The group esprit among Oslo classmates has nothing to do with ethnic homogeneity. None of the children in my son’s class are native Norwegian speakers. At home they speak, variously, Urdu, Russian, Icelandic, Polish, Chinese, English and Spanish. This diversity is reflective of Oslo itself, where 30 percent of the population is composed of immigrants or children born in Norway to immigrant parents.
The day I observed our son’s class, the teacher focused almost entirely on reading and writing. The students sat at their desks most of the day, with periodic breaks for a song or game. The teacher moved around the room, taking time to sit with each child and talk about his or her work. In Minnesota, our son’s classroom bustles with activity, as the students move from subject to subject and from individual work to group work, to rug time, and to other classrooms. The Oslo classroom, in contrast, was placid.
In Oslo, the teacher knows each child well, in part because she has just 13 students and a full-time aide. The teacher-student ratio in our son’s classroom back home is good by American standards, but twice that of his Oslo classroom.
One more difference: Our son has taken no standardized tests here and won’t, as students learning Norwegian take these tests only in their second year in the school. So we only have his enthusiasm, and his teacher’s evaluation of his abilities, by which to judge his educational experience here.
In January, we will return to Minnesota and to our kids’ routine of testing, competitive pressures and a long school day with little play time. We’re hoping that our son can somehow hang onto the love of learning that he discovered in Norway.
Rebecca Lowen teaches American history at Metropolitan State University.