Marte Blikstad-Balas QUINT. Photo Jakob Chortsen

The pandemic challenges the Nordic school model

The pandemic has affected pupils around the world in very different ways. In many countries, home-schooling has meant that pupils have had to follow national radio broadcasts or watch state television at home. Here in the Nordic Region, our efficient digital infrastructure has turned home-schooling into a fully digital school, where all communication takes place digitally.

But what impact has home-schooling had on pupils? At the NordForsk-funded research centre Quality in Nordic Teaching (QUINT), Professor Marte Blikstad-Balas from the University of Oslo, together with her colleagues from all over the Nordic Region, has conducted a large study involving more than 4,500 parents from all over Norway. Parents with children in grades 1 to 10 were asked to answer a series of questions about what kind of education their children had received. Parents were also asked about the positive aspects of home-schooling and what had been particularly challenging.

During the recent Arendal week (the Norwegian political folk meeting), Professor Blikstad-Balas presented their findings about how the pandemic and school closures had affected the pupils. And the results are startling.

The youngest pupils have had the least contact with their teachers

According to Professor Blikstad-Balas, there has been great variation in the pedagogical models the schools have adopted and how the parents experienced these. And, in her view, this is the key point from the research study: Home-schooling is not one approach – it has been practiced in different ways and gave diverging results in each respective home:

“There is a great variety in how much home-schooling the pupil has had, depending on which part of the country they come from and the level of infection and quarantine at the school. For a few, home-schooling has worked better than regular education. But for most, it was worse,” she said in her introductory remarks.

She went on to explain that there has been a huge difference in the amount of contact the oldest and youngest pupils have had with their respective teachers.

“Our research shows that the youngest pupils have had much less frequent contact with their teachers than older pupils: Over half of pupils in the lower grades have had contact with their teacher a maximum of two or three times a week, many less often or never. In other words, over 50% have had contact with their teacher less than three times a week. In the higher grades, a large majority of pupils have had contact with their teacher at least once a day (71%). Perhaps that’s not so unusual. Older pupils are both better at initiating contact with their teachers, just as our figures show that they had better previous understanding of the different platforms which the school uses.”

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Professor Blikstad-Balas presents the findings from the NordForsk funded Nordic Centre of Excellence QUINT on how the pandemic and school closures had affected the pupils.

The older the pupils are, the more structured their day-to-day school life has been

Professor Blikstad-Balas also said their study had exposed different requirements for attendance.

“We asked the parents: ‘To what extent must the pupil demonstrate their attendance/presence digitally on a normal day during home-schooling?’ It turned out that, in comparison with the lowest grades, a much larger proportion of pupils in the middle and higher grades would show up by logging in at a fixed time every morning, and this seems to be the most common practice. In the lowest grades, this applied to just a third, and here it apparently seemed sufficient just to deliver assignments. Therefore, 23% of the youngest pupils had no check-in procedures that they could follow.”

Big difference in digital practice

A key aspect of home-schooling has been digitalisation. The research results from QUINT show that, at the time of home-schooling, digital practices varied widely and worked in different ways in each individual home.

“Previous research has shown that digitalisation depends on each individual teacher. Some teachers have used the digital approach a lot, while others chose not to use digital tools to any great extent. So, although digital skills have been highlighted in the curriculum as a basic skill since 2006, there is a big difference in the teachers’ digital repertoire,” Professor Blikstad-Balas explained.

“This difference in digital practice also affects home-schooling. What the teachers have done and what the pupils have done has varied not only from school to school, but from teacher to teacher as well. This is probably not so unusual when you consider that the guidelines from the authorities have been fairly open to interpretation. Unlike in a number of other countries, Norway chose not to re-prioritise the curricula, nor was anything deemed to be more important than something else. All academic ambitions were maintained, and the pupils had to learn the same things as before – only from home. At the same time, Denmark, for instance, took a completely different approach. Here, the Danes use the term ‘Emergency teaching’ when referring to home-schooling.

Home-schooling has led to a high degree of individual work

Finally, Professor Blikstad-Balas concluded that home-schooling has consisted of a lot of individual work and required additional follow-ups at home.

“We know that not all children have parents who can help them. And this is not only about educational background, but also about time and opportunities to be with the pupil. However, the positive side of home-schooling was that parents gained greater insight into what contemporary schooling entails. They got to know better their children’s day-to-day lives, what they have to master, and the kinds of academic challenges they encounter. The most demanding aspect for many parents was combining their own jobs with being a teacher at the same time. Several parents have also said that they have gained a whole new respect for teachers who are able to motivate not just one child at a time, but an entire class.”

Professor Blikstad-Balas pointed out several times that the study should not be seen as a criticism of the teachers. On the contrary, she emphasised that the teachers have managed as best as they could in an extremely challenging situation.

“Home-schooling during the pandemic has, in many ways, challenged the Nordic model, where everyone must have the same opportunities, regardless of their circumstances and where they come from. By sending everyone home, we have shaken that principle,” she explained.

Finally, Professor Blikstad-Balas pointed out some major questions that the study has raised, and which we must all address:

“How do we ensure that all pupils get the best possible schooling in the future, regardless of what experience they have had with home-schooling? How do we improve the motivation of those who have found home-schooling more demanding than others? And how should we relate to the loss of learning that we know some pupils have experienced, without leaving it up to the pupil or teacher to fill this ‘learning gap’ themselves? In other words: Are there any positive experiences we can take away from home-schooling that we can use in the future?”