Saturday, 18 June 2016


While I am still meditating on Nordic school systems, PISA results and teaching approaches, I have received from my mentor and friend Maurizio Ascari an article on the concept of Transculture.

Written by Russian-American Professor Mikhail Epstein in 2009, it proposes a new way to interpret cultural differences.

It looks quite stimulating, and to me it is quite important because it gives a name to the feeling I felt my last day in Iceland, when I had the impression that my colleagues' presentations lingered too much on national identities, while I have always considered myself totally European.

Here is the abstract of the article:

ABSTRACT. This paper develops a concept of transculture as a model of cultural development that differs from both leveling globalism and isolating pluralism. While culture frees humans from the material dependencies of nature, it also creates new, symbolic dependencies—on customs, traditions, conventions, which a person receives as a member of a certain group and ethnos. Among the many freedoms proclaimed as rights of the individual, there emerges yet another freedom—from one’s own culture, in which one was born and educated. Transculture is viewed as the next level of liberation, this time from the “prison house of language,” from unconscious predispositions and prejudices of the “native,” naturalized cultures. The case of the Japanese poet Araki Yasusada (1903–1972), a survivor of Hiroshima, demonstrates how transcultural creativity, though cast in the form of a literary hoax, can produce an internationally recognized achievement. Transculturalism is especially needed in world politics, where the factor of fixed cultural identity based on race, ethnos, religion, or ideological commitments turned out to be a source of conflict and violence. This paper argues that the categories of opposition and identity do not preclude the significance of the third category, which is difference. The differences complement each other and create a new interpersonal transcultural community to which we belong, not because we are similar but because we are different. The transcultural perspective opens a possibility for globalization not as homogenization but, rather, as further differentiation of cultures and their “dissemination” into transcultural individuals, liberating themselves from their dependence from their native cultures. The global society can be viewed as the space of diversity of free individuals rather than that of fixed groups and cultures. It is an alternative to the clash of civilizations and a hope for lasting peace.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Finnish lessons

Yesterday I found an article about this book. Today I have started to read it, and I find it very interesting too!

More about it in the next few days!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

2 weeks after my Erasmus+ course in Reykjavik, I'm still trying to understand what we have seen and learnt. And to answer all the questions I still have in my mind.
The Icelandic system is very close to the Finnish one, but why does it have different results?
But on the other side, what are the basic choices in a school system?
And finally, is PISA a good way to assess school systems?
On the website of an American Montessori school I have found the following article which focuses on some basic points:

  • PISA has been organised to assess school systems on the basis of a competitive mentality which is the one the American school system is based on;
  • Success is based on equity, not privilege, on cooperation, non competition;
  • The success of a country is not measured by the achievements of the best, but by the fact that no child is left behind.
The American system does not contemplate the idea that education should be given in state schools where competition is not the main goal.
This article sheds light on some interesting points that can help us understand the Icelandic school system better, and ours.

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success
by Sergey Ivanov

DEC 29 2011, 3:00 PM ET 299
The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Saturday, 30 April 2016
Day 7

Portfolios and Good-byes

Eduardo introduces the last day of the course with a focus on dissemination.
What practices can be more effective than others?

Addressees:   students, colleagues, headteachers, inspectors
                     members of the school board, parents, associations, ...
                     members of the professional community

Ways: articles, reviews, blogs, reports

What is important is that people know about what we are doing.
What Europe is offering us.

Colleagues present their portfolios: what will they say about our Icelandic experience?

Many colleague underline the differences in school systems, school atmosphere and behaviours.
Other prefer to point out the hints offered by the landscape or the geology of Iceland.

Michael from Germany speaks about the shoes left at the entrance of the schools and other differences form German schools that might help students formulate comparisons and interpretations.

When it is my turn to speak I prefer to point out that Iceland can be different form the rest of Europe, but so is any other country. What makes our continent special is the mutual integration of our different cultures, so that it is true that when we say geyser we speak Icelandic, but then when we say volcano we speak Italian, and when we say geology we speak Greek, and at the restaurant we all speak French when we ask for the menu.

Yesterday I spoke about this topic with José Luis. We both noticed at Keflavik airport a sentence written on a wall, attributed to a Viking leader:

It doesn't belong to any specific culture, and this is how we both would like to use it with our students. Because wisdom is everywhere, and we have to learn it everywhere.

José Luis reminds us that the week we have spent together is not just a training programme. It is much more.

Europe is one, and integration is what I feel makes it so great.

Cultural integration does not necessarily mean a political one. Iceland is very proud of its independence, and it will probably never join the European Union.

However, culturally speaking it is totally part of it, Because, in the end,


Our last moment together presents the final ordeal. The school has prepared one last snack, ad this is the ultimate Icelandic ordeal: fermented shark (hakarl) with Brennivin, the local liquor.

This is also a way to know a country!

And now, time for hugs and good-byes:

Thank you Iceland, and thank you Europe!

Technical school visit. Students learn a variety of subjects. The school is private, but funded by the state.

Creativity is encouraged. Students produce a magazine every year that can be used as personal portfolios.
Friday, 29 April 2016
Day 6

Technical schools and good practices.

Time flies, we know. It seems we have been here just one day, and it is already time to start to assess our Icelandic experience.

In the morning I visit a Technical School which includes also a Gymnasium.

It is for students over 16, after they have completed compulsory education.

The 3 years of gymnasium are especially for those who want to go to university. They work on projects and study the subjects they will need to pass the entry tests at university.
The technical school offers a wide variety of specializations, from house painting to gold-working, from computer programming to wood-working.

In Iceland, school is not seen (only) as a regular track that you finish once for ever.
We have learnt by know that students have individualized curricula.
If they are extremely good at a subject, they can finish studying it before the natural end of the course. If they are good at English, for example, or at maths, they can take the final exam when they and their teachers deem good. And if they pass the exam, they will not have to attend that subject any more, ore use those ours to attend other courses that they can find interesting.

The curriculum is therefore flexible. Students with special needs (ranging from disabilities to the study of Icelandic for newcomers) have the possibility to skip some classes to focus on what they need more in that special moment.

And again, Icelanders may abandon school (after compulsory education), but they can also come back to it when they are older, or when they need new qualifications.

What has happend in the past years, is that Icelanders left school en masse when economy was doing very well. Then, after the crisis of 2008, they went back to school to get new qualifications. Now, that economy is doing well again, especially because of tourism, they are abandoning school again.

The school we visit is a private one, but funded by the state. Is is the result of the merger of very old schools and academies, like the ones to become sea captains or airplane pilots.

Learning is based on projects. Here, for example, they are preparing the final exam in house painting.

Students don't have a specific time schedule. They are followed by a mentor who is available at specific times.

Unfortunately, today all the classes in Gymansium are out of school, or they are sitting final exams.

Therefore, we visit the vocational section, with its great workshops.



computer design


In all workshops the unmissable koffi machine:

There is a big canteen, where prices are not necessarily better than in town:

A very interesting thing is that students, especially those specializing in creative subjects, produce every year a magazine with their profiles:

The idea sounds rather good and effective, because students can use the magazine as personal portfolios, and they can show it to those who might hire them for a new job:

The school seems very active, encourageing creativity and project-work. The atmosphere is very relaxed, as you might expect more at a university than at a secondary school.

The school uses social media to interact with students, answering questions and giving them help.

Seminar on Professional Development

Back at Vaettaskoli, we have lunch with delicious salmon.

The afternoon is devoted to the presentations of those of us who will have to leave early tomorrow, and to present good practices that might be used by colleagues.

Exchanging ideas and experiences is probably the best part of the whole week.
Elena form Greece tells us about a project work of her primary school pupils who produced models of the solar system; colleagues from Spain proposed flipped-classroom activities on poetry; Tiina form Finland presents a project-work which uses the whole city of Helsinki as a textbook, where students have to perform activities related to memorials or statues which commemorate national writers; Markus from Germany speaks about a project where students observe wild nature in local parks.
Many more ideas and projects are presented.

One that I find especially easy to apply to my work at school is suggested by Carlos, from Tenerife.
He proposes to use poems to rewrite them: imitate them, parody them, partially cancel them.

Our Portuguese colleagues show the wonderful technology they use at their school: they really look cutting edge in this field, and we should ask them to share their skills with us!

I have spoken about the need I feel in my school to escape from the national obsession with culture, and to lead students to ask, and not only to answer. This might stimulate their curiosity, lead them to formulate hypothesis, and look for answers.
It might also be a way to let them ask question about us as teachers, avoiding the neutrality we are normally plunged in and becoming human beings who have experiences and stories to tell.

Technical school visit. Students learn a variety of subjects. The school is private, but funded by the state.

Creativity is encouraged. Students produce a magazine every year that can be used as personal portfolios.
Thursday, 28 April 2016

Day 5

School visit 2

The group I have been assigned to is today visiting our school, Vaettaskoli Engi.
We have asked to sit and observe lessons, and we have been distributed in different rooms.
Our programme needs dometimes to be amnded as some classes are busy with exams, so we improvise a little.
What surprises me is that we are left totally free to roam around, enter rooms, interrupt lessons, speak with students.

The first lesson I observe is Icelandic in a year 8 class (14-year-olds).
They are studying an Icelandic saga, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. They read it in a partially modernised version, which however is apparently still quite challenging to read.
The lesson is teacher-centred: she reads, ask questions, explains meanings and writes main words on blackboard.
She often uses a map of Iceland to show where actions take place.

Students answer without putting up their hands, but are quite orderly and respectful of others.
They are 14 altogether, and this probably helps.
Students are eager to know how the story goes on, and ask to continue also in the following lesson. They sound honestly interested, but then we found out that the alternative would be a grammar lesson.

The lesson is quite traditional, not very imaginative.
I ask if they study texts from other literatures, and I find out that they don't.
This sounds quite shocking to me. Is it possible to focus on such a small tradition as the local one?
Again this feeling of Independent People I felt yesterday.
Parochial and proud.
But then: how important is the content of what we study? Or is it only the procedure that counts?
Can a student live without knowing about Cervantes, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dante?

However, what strikes me more is again the fact that students look totally relaxed when we observe them, sit next to them, talk to them.

There seems to be no problem in mixing generations or in taking photos. We are told that many visitors come, and students are used to them.

The same happens in a class of younger pupils who are working on an art project.

They are happy to talk with us and to show their works.

We visit for a short while a science room.
Big balls hanging from the ceiling represent the solar system.
The room is dark: the teacher is showing something with a projector.
Some students are quite disctracted. They talk to each other openly.

The last lesson we observe is an English lesson.
The teacher gives activities on photocopies. Students work in pair asking each other questions to complete a chart on the solar system.

Students are quite fluent in English. Some of them are professional sportspeople and they probably have understood how important English can be in their lives.

The equipment in the room is a mixture of old and modern. There is a cathode-ray-tube television set with a VHS player.

It's finally lunch time.
Students go to the cafeteria or eat their packed lunch.
They have places where they can relax:

and a nice table football:

They use all places in the school without any hesitation, except for the area reserved to offices and teachers' room.

The library is again the heart of the school. I ask whether they have books in other languages. The answer is no.
Students are led to focus only on Icelandic heritage, because it is already quite wide.
I automatically compare it to the English, French, German heritage.

In the afternoon we go together on an excursion with some free time.
We visit the place where the two tectonic plates - American and Eurasian - are clearly visible.
The two continents meets here, or better they split here at a speed of 2 cm a year. The same speed of the growth of our fingernails.

And here is our group, filling the gap between the two continents.

The day finishes with lobster soup at the Sea Baron restaurant on the old harbour of Reykjavik which really looks like the Iceland I imagined as a child.

And the company couldn't be better!

Icelanders focus a lot on their heritage. They study Icelandic sagas and they seem to enjoy them, but they don’t study other cultures a lot. Are contents necessary, or is it just the procedure that counts?