A Pedagogy of Self-Reliance. Nordic Model

Nordic education is commonly associated with the high performance of Finnish students in PISA assessments. However, test scores do not comprise the sole objective of schooling. The Nordics place a significant emphasis on practice and relationships.

The purpose of education is to ensure graduates are equipped to manage when the time comes for them to take responsibility for their own lives. One of the beneficial approaches involves learning to navigate the challenges of a demanding environment—direct engagement with nature, a concept known by Norwegians, among others, as “Friluftsliv.”

For many adults, school evokes memories of lesson plans, rote learning, and a succession of exams. Yet, this perception is gradually becoming outdated, at least in Scandinavian schools. Here, the focus is predominantly on practical activities. Learning aims to solve specific problems. It involves group work and the process of maturing to take responsibility for oneself.

Not Only Finland

For years, when citing positive examples of education systems, the focus has primarily been on Finland. This attention stems from Finnish students’ dominance in the international PISA achievement rankings, interpreted as an indicator of the highest quality of education. However, is school solely geared towards preparing students to pass exams effectively? It appears not. Finns attend schools where teachers do not place special emphasis on such maniacal testing. If they conduct any studies, it is primarily so that students can assess the usefulness or potential need to change their work methods.

This example is not unique to the Finns but applies to the majority of other Scandinavian countries. Norwegians fundamentally devote little attention to the education of typical school knowledge and skills. They focus mainly on preparing for life, working in groups, and respecting others. In Sweden, a lot of time is devoted to fostering independence and developing skills to cope in various dangerous situations. One example is map-reading activities that involve a solo expedition to the forest, locating a specified place, and then returning to school on one’s own.

Even more extreme are practical sessions where students practice falling into holes in the ice on a frozen lake and getting out by themselves. In Denmark, there is a focus on the mental well-being of the child. Here, students start and finish school with the same group, the same class teacher, and the same instructors.

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Ekaterina Bolovstova / Pexels

Practicality Takes Precedence

Schools are gearing towards practical self-sufficiency, training students to independently draw conclusions from observations and analyses. Subjects are merged into useful clusters, for example, combining nature study with biology and physics, or history with geography and social science. A significant portion of time is dedicated to experiential learning, such as through reenacting historical battles, fieldwork, or laboratory experiments. Students routinely prepare various presentations, learning how to define a problem, justify their stance, engage in discussion, and perform public speaking exercises.

The Scandinavian education model emphasizes a practical approach to learning. There is a strong focus on hands-on experiences, projects, experiments, and independent problem-solving. This method allows students to apply theory in practice, enhancing their understanding and retention of the material and developing practical skills. Critical thinking, problem resolution, and collaboration are highly valued.

An innovative approach can be found in Swedish open laboratories (Öppna laborationer), designed for older primary school students, where research topics are proposed by the students themselves. All tasks are rooted in everyday life, enabling students to connect the basics of the research process with their personal experiences. It is no surprise, then, that a majority of students find chemistry classes particularly engaging, with those conducted in laboratories receiving especially positive feedback.

Finnish schools prioritize the development of passions. Education is oriented towards supporting creativity, individual student involvement, and creative action. Teachers aim to identify and nurture each student’s strengths, encouraging them to delve deeper into their interests. A deliberate effort is made to avoid ranking and dividing students based on knowledge or skill levels.

Partnership and Autonomy

Students often engage in tasks that demand interdisciplinary thinking, creativity, and the use of diverse strategies. The challenge lies not in victory or competition but in the process of achieving the desired outcome. This is also facilitated by significantly reducing the distance between adults and children, which does not undermine the teacher’s authority but rather encourages students to ask bold questions, learn from mistakes, and draw conclusions in a safe and friendly atmosphere.

Autonomy is a cornerstone of the Scandinavian educational practice set. Centralized instructional task programming is limited to outlining key ideas rather than detailing required content and skills. Teachers are not obligated to work based on imposed curricula or to use approved teaching materials. They are also exempt from maintaining complex documentation to verify their activities during each hour of work.

The Scandinavian education model places a strong emphasis on equal access to learning. Efforts are made to minimize social inequalities by providing free education, adequate financial support for public schools, and tailoring curricula to the individual needs of each student. This approach aims to bridge the gap between students from different backgrounds, offering equal development opportunities to all. Teachers strive to recognize the unique abilities, interests, and needs of each child, allowing for the appropriate differentiation of programs and teaching methods. Individualization lets students progress at their own pace and in a way that best suits their learning style.

The principle of “less is more” prevails in Nordic education. Students have fewer classroom hours per day, allowing more time for rest, physical activity, self-development, and play, which is vital for overall student well-being and counteracting the stress associated with intense learning processes.

Furthermore, Nordic educational systems are supportive, devoid of grading, and free from an obsession with testing. Grades are only given from the eighth grade onwards. Before that, students receive recommendations on areas for improvement. Importantly, even the lowest grades do not result in failure to advance to the next grade. In Denmark and Norway, there is no such thing as repeating a grade because of failure in a subject. A student struggling in, for example, mathematics may attend classes for that subject in a lower grade. Conversely, a student who excels in a particular area may attend classes in a higher grade.

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Friluftsliv: The Educational Power of Nature

Scandinavians deeply believe in the educational and developmental power of nature. Younger students spend a third of their class time outdoors. In Norwegian schools, the concept of uteskole, or outdoor learning day, is introduced as early as the second grade. On this day, the priority is to wear weather-appropriate clothing instead of bringing books, and snacks are essential, regardless of whether it is relatively warm, raining, or the temperature has dropped below freezing. This is hardly surprising given that many Scandinavians jest that they were raised in the woods. However, it is worth examining the Nordic phenomenon of forest kindergartens. Originating in Denmark, this concept has become an educational hallmark of all Nordic countries. Available to children aged three to five, these outdoor sessions enhance motor skills and health. Furthermore, children learn respect for animals and nature, and through play and various creative activities, they gain confidence and independence.

Another distinctive feature of Danish forest kindergartens is that children spend the entire day outdoors, whether it is raining, sleeting, windy, snowing, or sunny. The guiding principle behind this approach, widespread among Scandinavians, is the saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Forest kindergartens and ice-hole swimming would not exist without the Nordic belief in the inseparable bond between nature, learning, and children. This is partly due to the historical challenges faced by generations adapting to often harsh natural conditions. Yet, it also reflects a contemporary lifestyle defined by direct engagement with nature, known as Friluftsliv. For many Norwegians, Friluftsliv is a cultural element, a part of their identity, and a natural habit. This is how they were raised, and these are the patterns they pass on to future generations. The Norwegian Royal Family has also been actively promoting the Friluftsliv lifestyle by example for years. Queen Sonja, a graduate of an ordinary Norwegian school, is renowned for her love of the mountains and the numerous peaks she has conquered in Norway.

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Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Jarosław Kordziński


Trainer, coach, mediator, and moderator of development processes for people and organisations, mainly in the area of education. Over the years, a partner of key entities supporting the development of education: MEN (Ministry of Education and Science), CODN/ORE (Central Teacher Training Centre/Centre for Education Development), CEO (Centre for Citizenship Education), FRDL (Foundation for the Development of Local Democracy). A regular collaborator of „Dyrektor szkoły” (“The School Head Teacher”) magazine. The author of a dozen or so books devoted to education on management issues, professional development of teachers, but also the challenges that education is facing at the threshold of the 21st century.

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