From Iceland to Vinland
|Dr. Jean Brown
One thousand years ago, Leif the Lucky brought a bit of Iceland to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. More recently, Dr. Jean Brown of Memorial's Faculty of Education has been continuing this tradition through her research on the Icelandic educational system.
Despite the province's recent surge of interest in Iceland, Dr. Brown noticed that "education was not being studied." So, with funding from the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the provincial Department of Development and Rural Renewal and Industry Canada, along with help from the Centre for Telelearning and Rural Education, she did a comparative study of education in rural Iceland and in School District #2 (Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador).
Dr. Brown's work was not an individual effort. "I knew that if I was to use a traditional research design ... it was going to take an awful long time to discover what I discovered," she commented. "Instead, the research design was to have a study tour, in which educators and key organizations from around the province would be invited to be part of. They would become researchers ... and be given tasks that were particular to their expertise." Because of this team effort, aspects of labour, administration, technology and curriculum received specialized attention.
Iceland is well known for its economic vitality and high level of literacy. What Dr. Brown found was a tantalizing mix of parallels and dissimilarities between society and geography with Newfoundland and Labrador. "If you look at the island of Iceland, you will see that they have small, remote, rural communities, just as we do. They are often isolated with very difficult geographical conditions which make the providing of education really difficult. So," queried Dr. Brown, "why have they got a 100 per cent literacy while we are the lowest in Canada?"
The difference, she found, lies in the Icelandic model's emphasis on pre-school education, municipal involvement, and the professional development of teachers.
Dr. Brown, citing research in early childhood development, believes that pre-school is an important ingredient in Iceland's success. "There are four levels of schooling, and the first level is pre-school - that's quite different from Newfoundland. Outside of the urban areas in Newfoundland, you'll find very few pre-schools - they can't afford to operate them."
This is primarily because pre-school is completely privatized in our province. The situation in Iceland is very different: "In any community, (pre-school) has to be provided. Its costs are shared between the municipality, the parents and the state - one-third, one-third, one-third."
This division of labour is also evident in the decentralized decision-making process. In particular, in Iceland the role of the local community is crucial, whereas in Newfoundland and Labrador the province and school boards are responsible for education. "Municipalities are responsible for education. That is a big difference. In a small community, there wouldn't be a school closure unless the municipality itself decided," Dr. Brown explained. "In Newfoundland, there is no role whatever for the local municipal government in running schools."
Iceland makes a serious investment in its teachers. "The kind of ongoing, short-term modules for professional development has really been lacking in our province," Dr. Brown commented. "In law, such courses have to be provided in Iceland. We can learn from that kind of professional development model."
These differing emphases are a product of the unique society that is Iceland. "You can't look at education without looking at the society," she said.
Iceland's status as an independent nation is the foundation of their educational thinking."One of the main things is the difference between being a province and being a country. (I) realized how much independence and control they truly have," Dr. Brown pointed out. "They have really strong public and social programs ... education and public libraries being some examples. Education is free all the way to and including post-secondary."
According to Dr. Brown, the structure of Iceland's educational system has deep roots: "(Icelanders) come from a tradition of an emphasis on literacy that goes back many generations," she said. Iceland's Lutheran Church inculcated a deep appreciation of literacy, because "every person within the Lutheran Church was supposed to be able to read the Scriptures." Because of this heritage, "the access to and emphasis on reading is much stronger in Iceland than in this province."
Finally, a good dose of self-awareness has helped the Icelanders reach their educational goals. "I found that, as a society, they value their culture and really work at the preservation of culture," Dr. Brown remarked. This, in particular, has given music and art a central role in Icelandic curriculum: "There's a lot more emphasis on the arts."
Is the Icelandic model applicable to this province? Dr. Brown isn't sure: "I don't know if we (in Newfoundland and Labrador) value the school in the community enough. If it came to an increase in our taxes, would we be willing to follow the Icelandic example?"
If the answer is affirmative, the Iceland of today might yet again form a part of the Newfoundland and Labrador of tomorrow.