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The great fail


- the underlying data, empirics, and narratives - presentation at the educational seminar on 2 March

Lars Demant-Poort, PhD
Institute of Learning

Now, that could sound like the title of a bad novel from the 1970s. However, the underlying story is about how society and the system here in Greenland exhibit a monumental failure and lack of responsibility for generation after generation of children in primary school.

When we make legislation in this country that affects the school life of the more than 7000 primary school pupils - it is done based on grades and results from tests. That is the starting point for the Education Plan, and for the acts that set the framework for pupils' life in primary school.

So, let's start with the grades: across virtually all subjects (Greenlandic, Danish, English, mathematics, social studies and so on) the results are consistently poor - the national average is well below average. A conservative estimate suggests that pupils leaving primary school have not gained the benefit of ten years of education both they themselves are entitled to, and we as a society desire.

When pupils do their final exams after 10 years, they are assessed on the GGS scale (Greenland Grading System) - but behind the deliberations by the censor and the examiner is also an expectation that the pupils have acquired the knowledge and skills described in the 2003 acts concerning tests, learning goals etc. in the Greenlandic primary school.

When grades show a low downward trend, the search is on for answers - often focusing on the conditions many pupils grow up in, or bullying, or that pupils have had high absenteeism.

Now, let’s turn the focus away from society and the system, and take the pupil Paninnguaq by the hand through her 10 years in primary school - with a special focus on mathematics. Paninnguaq is a fictional character shaped by 10 years of research focus on the primary school, and before that 10 years of practical experience in the primary school.

Paninnguaq has done the final written examination in mathematics, and she has received an 'Fx' - she has not passed the primary school final examination in mathematics. This is even though she has attended every mathematics lesson for all ten years. Paninnguaq grew up in a home, where her parents made a living as cleaner (her mother) and fishing (her father). The parents have not been able to support Paninnguaq academically - but they made sure that she looked after her bedtime and that she had a healthy diet.

Now, we look back at the framework the primary school provided for Paninnguaq to learn what she was tested in at the end of 10th grade.

Between 1st and 3rd grade, Paninnguaq was taught by a preschool teacher, trained in the 1980s. Paninnguaq remembers that they did many '+ assignments' on copy sheets. Between grades 4 and 7, Paninnguaq was taught mathematics by a trained teacher, who had main subjects in Greenlandic and visual arts. This teacher told us during an interview that during a school year the teaching followed the 'Matikkut' book system, where book 'A' had to be finished before Christmas, while book 'B' was the basis for teaching from Christmas to summer. The goal was not that the pupils had learned to multiply and understand geometry. It was the transition between book 'A' and book 'B' that was the goal - because the teacher knew nothing else. The teacher's didactic training was in two completely different subjects. However, the teacher's colleague in grade 8 was a qualified mathematics teacher - but was not allowed to teach mathematics, because it would require extra resources in terms of timetable planning.

In the 8th and 9th grades, Paninnguaq was then taught by a trained mathematics teacher who had joined the school at the beginning of the 8th grade. This teacher had an absence rate of 30% over the two years. Paninnguaq's class had no substitutes during those lessons, as they were in the older grade - and there were no funds in the municipality to cover substitutes during all 10 years.

In 10th grade, Paninnguaq and her classmates got a new mathematics teacher. The teacher was brand new and had a lot of ideas for exciting teaching. The pupils liked her, and Paninnguaq felt she was learning something. However, during autumn, the teacher was met with resistance from her colleagues, who did not think her ideas were the way to teach mathematics. The teacher left her post as a teacher at the primary school after a mere five months. For the last four months of Paninnguaq's public school career, mathematics was taught by a teacher who now had far too many hours of teaching.

Remember, Paninnguaq received an 'Fx' in the final exam - and an 'Fx' is given for "the inadequate performance that does not demonstrate an acceptable level of achievement of the subject objectives".

The first systemic fail occurs during Paninnguaq's first year of school - with the first teacher she meets who teaches her mathematics. This preschool teacher comes without the prerequisites needed to create a basic academic foundation in the pupils. The failure here lies in two places - in the part of the system that sets the framework for school education - what minimum level of education can we demand of those who are to teach our children. And then there is the school management, which has assessed that a preschool teacher has the right subject didactic competences to teach mathematics in a qualified manner in the youngest grades of primary school.

The next systemic fail is in the middle. The teacher is now a qualified teacher, but with a specialization in subjects other than mathematics - and the teacher follows the mathematics textbook blindly, with no regard for how individual pupils learn. The failure in the middle school is that the school has not 'allowed' the teacher who has the competences (in grade 8) to teach in the middle school. 'It is administratively too difficult to organize' is the explanation given by the principal.

The third systemic fail in Paninnguaq's schooling is during the 8th and 9th grade, when Paninnguaq finally has a trained mathematics teacher. The teacher has just been hired, but it soon becomes apparent that the teacher has a high level of absenteeism, which affects the pupils' learning. The same teacher left his previous school because of high absenteeism. The absenteeism continued at Paninnguaq's school. The failure here is that the school allows the teacher to continue teaching mathematics despite massive absenteeism. In 10th grade, Paninnguaq encounters the fourth systemic fail - a young newly qualified teacher with many ideas to make teaching mathematics relevant and interesting for pupils is trampled by the established teaching staff. The new teacher is 'bullied', because she dares to think about teaching differently.

Across Paninnguaq's 10 years in primary school lies the fifth systemic fail - there is no follow-up on the history of failures, which means that Paninnguaq is assessed in the final written examination in mathematics on the basis that she should have received qualified teaching in mathematics over 10 years in primary school.

Paninnguaq is not alone in her experiences. The fact that individual schools do not seem to prioritize qualified teaching for administrative reasons is not just a local issue. At national level, the National Board of Education publishes the annual booklet 'Folkeskolen' (in English: 'The Primary school'), which is the only statistical material on the primary school - apart from grades. In 'Folkeskolen', teachers' professionalism is prioritized and described solely based on the following three criteria: whether the teacher has a teacher training education; whether the teacher is a temporary teacher (i.e., no teacher training education); and whether the teacher can teach in Greenlandic. 

What seems to be successful is therefore whether the teachers have a degree, and whether they can teach in Greenlandic. That is, across all primary schools in the country, there is no interest in the individual teacher's professional skills in, say, mathematics or English - nor whether it is a trained mathematics teacher who teaches mathematics, or an English teacher who teaches English. The School Act (from 2012) also makes no reference to teachers' professional skills.

Throughout Paninnguaq's schooling, things have gone wrong in many places - and the question that should rightly be asked, is whether Paninnguaq's 'Fx' should have been given the system.

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