At School In Riga - A Comparison

[After all, truth may not be in the eye of the beholder, and the following impressions may thus not be the absolute truth about Latvian schools; nevertheless, these were my impressions.]

School is no fun in Riga.  At least that is my impression after a 10-day stay in Latvia during which I visited four high schools.  Some of the buildings I saw were in need of immediate repair, but the main differences between schools in Latvia and Denmark are probably due to our differences in attitudes to the concept of school and education as such.
     From what I saw in the English lessons it was my impression that:

- Latvian high school students are supposed to learn facts (not form personal views)
- Latvian teachers are know-it-all authorities (and therefore always right)
- Latvian students are mostly tested orally in today’s homework (and some even stand
  when asked)
- Latvian schools do not practice group work assignments

Further, it was my impression that Latvian students are graded after each lesson (i.e. after each answer); the class/subject register will also show the curriculum taught.  The register is checked regularly, so both students and teachers are being watched closely.  The students’ behavior is also graded or reported.

To a Dane my age (born 1945) it is no wonder that students working in such an environment may find it hard to show enthusiasm and commitment, but I was sorry to see that not only were many of the students ignorant of the world, many of them also seemed to lack any interest in learning about other cultures.  It was not in the curriculum and not discussed.  Instead, to me it seemed that they were mostly interested in studying what would “pay off” in their future careers, mostly related to business.

That is probably why subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry are in high priority - in these subjects there is often only one right answer (to be learned and graded) - but also English seems to be result-orientated towards proficiency in grammar which leaves no room or time for proper literature.  In the many English classes I visited I saw but one novel, abridged and edited, with a vocabulary of only some 3,000 words.

In Denmark the teaching of foreign languages aims at an analysis and interpretation of fiction to enable the students to 1) understand the relationship between language and culture and 2) make them realize their own cultural background through a comparison between their own cultural beliefs and habits and the ones expressed in the text.  Language and fiction are cultural utterings by humans to be studied by other humans to gain insight into human affairs, not mere tools or instruments to be used in a business relationship.  Thus the study of fiction is essential to one’s perception of identity.

In Denmark it was once suggested that literary studies should be carried out by literary scholars alone, but experience shows that the study of elaborate fiction provides a better platform also for skilled laborers who nowadays have to read and understand the precise meaning of (English) manuals to computerized machinery to do their jobs.  A handyman with a screwdriver is not in demand in the industry of the future.

Furthermore, in a true democracy everybody should be able to read and understand the text and implications of a new law or general instructions to the people, so a developed sense for shades and nuances in the text is required.  Hence the study of any language should include the aesthetic aspects of phrasing and dynamics (the law-makers themselves not excepted).  Hopefully, this will also prevent populist agitators from misleading the public with false information.  Dysfunctional illiteracy is a looming threat to any democracy as the speed of the world’s affairs accelerates; and to let the “experts” of science decide our future from their limited cultural point of view would not be acceptable in a democracy in which everybody is supposed to play an active part.

Most Danes also believe that a test for a student’s understanding of any topic is his/her ability to convey his/her findings to another student (who may even benefit more from learning from a fellow student than from the adult teacher); thus group work assignments are integrated into the Danish curriculum, the obvious idea being that two or three heads put together think better than any individual.  And since many decisions in modern management (and at universities who even test students in groups for their oral exams) are made by teams of employees (think tanks), it is a natural thing for schools to prepare students for this aspect of their future life.
     The idea of an opening joint brainstorming has come to be an integral part in many parts of Danish society, and through this encouragement to cooperate we hope to instill in the students not only social skills and responsibility, but also respect for differing opinions (until argued, of course).

I talked to Latvian high school students and teachers about the importance Danes attach to the difference between learning skills and being educated, but I don’t think I was understood; apparently schools should primarily lead to better paid jobs and a greater consumption of material goods.

I was told that Latvian teachers teach an average of 45 lessons a week.  In comparison Danish high school teachers teach only half this amount of lessons a week as all other work such as conferences, sub-committee work, PTA meetings, oral examinations and grading papers is included in the grand total of a year’s work (1680 hours).  To ensure the quality of the teaching a teacher is granted an hour’s preparation for every hour s/he teaches.
     Danish high school teachers have studied two different subjects for six years (some more) at a university and are thus considered responsible professionals (academics) who need not be checked by any authority.  The qualifications acquired at university also allow high school teachers to teach university courses.  Teaching is still to some extent a calling, and that together with a profound interest in the subjects taught bid the teachers do their utmost in finding new ways of teaching.
     In English there is no fixed curriculum, no textbooks.  Instead there is a demand of a total of 400+ pages which must include a play, a novel, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction (essays), covering several periods of literary expression including knowledge of the cultural history of these periods.  New books are constantly added to the school’s library as the curriculum must include recent fiction.  In addition to this students must write a number of essays on short stories and other pieces of literature.

In other words, English literature is a study for life as life goes on, relentlessly and in all corners of the English speaking world: Canada, the US, the Caribbean islands, in Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, even Hong Kong - besides England, of course, and Scotland, and Ireland, and Malta, and…

We consider it to be our task to keep track of the cultural development in countries like these as we consider ourselves part of a world that is growing increasingly smaller.   Today many Danish students and teachers communicate on the Internet (internally as well as externally = with colleagues in other countries), and the use of computers is obligatory in all subjects.

Aalborg, December 3, 1998,  Erik Moldrup