The Katrineholm teachers’ visit to Ottawa Canada: Promoting International School Connections

John Fitzgerald
Anne-Marie Currier

The report that follows is a case study of teachers and principals from Katrineholm, Sweden who visited schools in Ottawa, Canada. Data were gathered to identify themes from this cross-cultural learning experience. The findings are shared here to illustrate the power and potential of international school connections, and for preparing the next generation as global citizens.

The International School Connection (ISC) is a multi-national non-profit organization that serves educators from Sweden, Canada, Finland, the USA, Russian, Spain, Venezuela and Columbia, The purpose is to bring school leaders together to discuss schooling, globalization and the future for students in the shrinking world. The ISC strategy is to bring practicing school leaders together by providing them with an opportunity to meet in their own schools and share their experiences. These very successful ISC visits, on both personal and professional levels, have taken place both face-to-face and on-line among a group of professional school leaders who are teachers, principals and student leaders. The idea is to promote lifelong learning connections that are based on positive, real life encounters. One main goal is to bring together school community leaders (principals, teachers, parents and students) in social, cultural and schooling contexts so that these leaders may share their cultures, their schooling ideas and their learning about global futures for their students and schools. It is within this context that the Ottawa-Katrineholm connection was born.

Background

After three years of planning, following visits to Sweden by John Fitzgerald, Superintendent of Instruction with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), and a return visit to Ottawa by Annette Hedlin, Assistant Superintendent in the Katrineholm (Sweden), School District, the Ottawa Carleton District welcomed 31 visiting teachers from Katrineholm on April 26th, 2003. The teachers were billeted with OCDSB teachers and principals and worked for a full week in our schools with their host teachers. Our guests stayed through Saturday May 3 when they returned to Sweden after a very full week of fulfilling personal and educational experiences.

Through the combined sponsorship of the International School Connection (ISC), the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and the Katrineholm, Sweden School District, this opportunity became very rewarding and authentic for us all. The connections that have been built through this experience will benefit our teachers, our schools and ultimately our students now and in the future. A number of personnel from the Ottawa Carleton District were involved with this visit. In particular, the International Languages Division under the direction of Constantine Ioannou, who worked with the Area Principals to facilitate the activities for the hosts and visiting teachers. As well, Constantine participated in an initial plenary session that was much appreciated by the Swedish visitors. This visit set the stage for possible future international partnerships not only between Ottawa and Katrineholm, but also for all school leaders and teachers involved with The International School Connection (ISC).

This opportunity to welcome a Swedish teacher into the life of Ottawa Carleton schools has been a solid educational and cultural experience for each school community. The Swedes brought an approach to life and world affairs very much like that of Canadians. Their school system reflects the social democracy that has governed their country for many years.

Multi-aged groupings, students taking responsibility, daily hot lunch and portfolio assessment derived from authentic tasks, are all approaches that are part of their schooling priorities. Although Sweden has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, they do not teach reading formally until their children are seven years of age.

The visiting teachers, as a group, have been together for three years and have been exploring student assessment and evaluation with a particular focus on student portfolio. Like our teachers in Ottawa, they believe that teachers play an important role not only in the classroom, and also as part of an educational team within the school.

Data Gathering

The data gathered for this account were collected in three ways. The first data set came from a two-hour debriefing session held on the Friday morning at the end of the week’s visit. Visiting and host teachers were asked to respond individually in writing to a series of questions, and then as a group in a general discussion. The transcription of the discussion provided a second set of data. During the week individual teachers, both hosts and visitors were informally interviewed about their experiences in schools, and many of their comments were published in an on-line bulletin each day. This approach provided a third source of information for this writing. Data were transcribed into an initial case record sorted by the questions posed in the debriefing session. The sub-headings of this paper reflect the questions posed. As is normal with this approach, there are several “other” categories that emerged during the analysis of the data.

The Sweden-Canada Connection: Annette Hedlin’s Point of View

Upon her return to Sweden, Annette Hedlin, the leader of the Swedish delegation, reported that she felt the week had been a tremendous success. Twenty-nine teachers and two principals came to Canada with great expectations and left with a feeling that all of them had been more than fulfilled!

Annette explained that the general idea was to bring teachers together in the daily environment of schools. It was not meant as a study tour, but rather as a first step to bringing schools, teachers and students together in a common learning context. And that’s exactly what happened; personal involvement was the key to this successful endeavour. Living in the homes of the Canadian teachers and taking part in the schoolwork during the week brought people together. “When people are close, they share thoughts about what they experience together and a whole new learning process begins.”

According to Annette, Canadians and Swedes are somewhat “like minded”. Many of the Swedes commented upon their arrival that Canada felt like home...but not quite. There are many differences between the two cultures and certainly, things may be done a little differently in Canada, but Annette felt that we have many more things in common, particularly the way we think and respond to our surrounding world. “When we ask questions about schooling, education and the future, new thinking takes place.” It’s probably on the periphery that we find small differences, and they are springboards to learning. Annette explains that if the gap between people and cultures is too wide, it takes a lot more effort to start the learning process on an equal basis. “One must find common ground in order to develop a strong enough interest to be willing to learn, not only from each other, but together.” This is what Annette believes helped make the Sweden-Canada connection so successful. She reports that many of the Swedish participants said that they have had more pedagogical discussions about their work in schools, than they have had for years, and now wish to continue with more of these types of professional discussions. They are eager to share their schools and their life in Sweden with the Canadians.

When asked where we would go from here, Annette suggested that several of the partnerships between Canadian and Swedish teachers resulted in common projects involving students. Some will be sending mail; others plan on videoconferences. At the moment everyone is focused on keeping up the initial contact and working towards having Canadians come to Sweden. Annette feels this is very important, as the Canadians must have a similar experience for the connection to produce common learning on a deeper level. It is also important to use the techniques available to us in order to stay in contact as much as possible, in spite of the distance. The use of video-conferencing and common “discussion rooms” in an Internet based communication platform will help with this communication. Plans to use the First Class system in both Katrineholm and Ottawa are already under way, and a common connection between all the participants will probably be available before the end of the school year.

Participating Teachers’ Response to The Ottawa-Katrineholm Visit

Similarities and Differences

Both Swedish and Canadian teachers felt there were many similarities between their countries. During a joint discussion session, it became apparent to all that teachers everywhere work hard and tend to be very friendly, at least all of the teachers participating in this exchange! Most observed that kids are kids; they tend to share many traits, wherever they happen to live. The ‘tween’ age (9 to 12 year olds) in particular, seems to have similar interests, in both countries, in fashion trends, friends, and enthusiasm.

Teachers from both groups were always ready to share information and answer questions. We appear to have much in common, not only in our careers in education, but in our lifestyles, our family life and our environment. There are similarities in the daily start up activities in schools; Swedish schools run a program that resembles our Ontario Teacher Assistance Program (T.A.P.) program, where students are given some assistance in setting goals and determining long range plans. Our visiting teachers felt they had learned a great deal about the Canadian school system. They went home with many ideas and copies of documents they feel will help them in developing portfolios and other general classroom activities.

Some of the differences that were noted included the fact that many of our Ottawa teachers seem to start out in the system as occasional teachers, whereas this is not the case in Sweden. Swedish teachers were surprised that Canadian teachers were addressed formally, as Mr. or Mrs.; Swedish students are more typically on a first name basis with their teachers.

Many of the Swedes seemed to feel that the Canadian school system was more difficult, with higher expectations and more frequent assessments. They observed that students were generally more disciplined and there is, apparently, a greater focus on respect for each other in Ontario schools.

One of the main differences is the age at which we begin a child’s education, particularly in reading and counting. There is less emphasis on academics at an early age in Sweden and more focus on social development and free play. Another major difference is that in Sweden, teachers generally stay with their students for as many as three consecutive years in a multi-aged group environment. Ottawa teachers were interested in hearing about the benefits of such a system. In Sweden, formal schooling does not begin until children are 6 years old, so their grades are one year behind ours. Rather than working for a school board, Swedish teachers work for a municipality. There are no extracurricular activities such as sports teams at school. Another difference is that daily hot lunches are provided for students and teachers at no extra cost.

The Swedes seemed to think that Ontario teachers have more paper work to complete and are bound by a stronger focus on accountability. They wondered if we might not be losing some elements of trust…and fun.

There are apparently significant differences between the two educational systems in the way with which teachers’ sick leave is administered. In Sweden, there are no occasional teachers, so when a teacher is absent, there is internal coverage on the first day of sick leave, with zero pay for the absent teacher on the first day and only 80% of pay after that.

Personal Associations

Our Swedish visitors felt that even in a short time, they learned a great deal about our country, our city and the Ontario school system. There was a general consensus that Canadians are friendly. Our visitors enjoyed becoming acquainted with not only places, but also people in the school system and in our community. It was important to participate in our “every-day” and family life. For some, it had been a long time since they had lived in a family setting and the experience brought back memories of living with young children. For others, living with children gave them a little taste of family life to come, and perhaps opened their eyes to what households somewhat like those of their own students can be like. Many commented that this experience helped them learn more about themselves as well.

Some visiting teachers spoke about leaving with a full heart and a full head. Being with a host for the week and speaking English constantly required a great deal of concentration, and some found it difficult to focus and attend to quick thinking and fast-talking in English. On the other hand, there were many comments about how our visiting teachers appreciated the spontaneity and warmth of their hosts, qualities that were apparently admired.

Many Ottawa teachers asked where those shy and reserved Swedes were… so much for stereotypes! Anytime we were all together, it was easy to see that we all shared a love of teaching and dedication to children. Teaching is a vocation and we are all professionals in the same field. There is certainly a sense of universality among teachers, and getting to know one another on a personal level was most enjoyable. There were many “deep’ discussions about personal philosophies of life. It was interesting to see how some of the partners seemed to naturally have many interests and approaches in common.

As the Swedes arrived during the Stanley Cup semi-finals, they learned about the Ottawa Senators and how supportive the Ottawa fans are. “As Canadians we complain about the late arrival of spring, we, in turn, discovered that Swedes really don’t mind walking in the rain... some of us were forced to stop griping!”

Several host teachers commented on the value of opening up one’s life to someone and welcoming a guest into one’s home to share interests, hobbies and passions. Although our guests seemed to feel we were being very generous, the hosts actually felt that we were the ones benefiting from the shared stories, pictures and experiences. “Every one of us feels that this has been a most rewarding experience. We may live far apart, but we have become so close in a short time and several soul mates found each other during the week.”

Thoughts about Teaching and Learning

Every Ontario school is different, of course, but some comments concerning particular schools were rather interesting. To some visiting Swedish teachers, the idea of open concept schools was new; they were convinced that this is something they would like to try, although had they not lived the experience, they would not have thought it feasible. Teamwork, positive attitudes and a higher tolerance for noise are some of the pre-requisites for success, it seems!

Several teachers from Sweden commented about the many self-directed learners they encountered during their stay. The use of computers for individual language lessons, report writing and other assignments impressed them.

As with most teachers, many felt that it was not only interesting, but also inspiring to watch another teacher in action. There were several comments from Swedish teachers that their Ottawa counterparts were all so well mannered to their students as well to their colleagues. Many attended school assemblies where awards and certificates were handed out and there were comments about regularly recognizing our students’ efforts.

The necessity of speaking English all day, every day, for a week gave our visiting teachers a better appreciation for children immigrating to their country and learning Swedish for the first time. Some of them reported that this was the most English they had ever spoken, but that their fluency greatly improved even after only one week. All of us discovered that many words sound the same in English and in Swedish. We all learned the importance of repetition when learning languages. This was a good reminder for all of us, especially when we are dealing with students with various learning disabilities.

Obviously, hearing another language as part of the popular culture impacts on learning that language. Swedish students follow the same trends, music videos, movies and advertisements as our Canadian students. However, “it appears that our Ottawa students’ level of French after 40 minutes a day is probably not as good as Swedish students’ fluency in English”.

Pedagogy and Curriculum Issues

Canadian teachers learned about the individualized approach to learning that appears to be more frequently used in Sweden. Some expressed an interest in learning more about how to go about establishing such a system within their classrooms. Waiting a little longer to teach children how to read, as they do in Sweden, makes sense to several Ottawa teachers.

Each week Swedish teachers sit with their students and plan for the week ahead. Goals are set and reviewed at the end of the week in order to see what should be taken up in the following week. Also individual contracts and teachers’ meetings occur daily and portfolios are observed on a regular basis.

In Sweden, there seems to be more emphasis on providing food that actually nourishes the brain, such as the hot lunches provided daily. The visiting teachers were surprised at the sweet treats and “junk” food Canadian students had during their lunch and snack breaks. In Sweden, they have regular exercise breaks, as well as massage breaks for young children.

Techniques and tips were shared in many areas such as: how to help children organize their work, class management and getting students’ attention, and also hands-on math activities and long range planning. In Sweden, students learn about woodworking and sewing early. The development of various “intelligences” other than logical-mathematical and linguistic is fostered.

Some Canadian teachers found it quite easy to integrate parts of our Ontario Social Studies Curriculum during our guest’s visit. Some of our junior classes presented information to the visiting Swedish teachers such as comparing our form of government to theirs. Grade 4 students were able to share information they had been gathering about the different provinces and territories of Canada. In explaining this to our visitors, they had a very real opportunity to compare various areas, use appropriate vocabulary, locate key information, sort and classify the information. In several cases, Swedish visitors asked the students if they could keep the charts and posters that had been produced; our visitors plan on using these with their own students in a future study of Canada. Grade 6 curriculum expectations require students to demonstrate an understanding of the distinguishing features of another country. This visit provided the perfect opportunity for several of our students to learn more about Sweden as part of a research assignment.

In the Grade 2 Ontario Curriculum, the study of heritage and citizenship focuses on the wide variety of cultures and traditions in Canada. Some of our students were asked, as part of this unit, to share with our visiting teachers the ways in which our traditions differ. As they were allowed to ask questions regarding Swedish traditions, they were provided with an authentic venue to learn about the features of another community in the world. Students were excited by the opportunity to ask questions of a real person to obtain information usually found only in books. Primary students are expected to demonstrate an understanding that the world is made up of countries where people have both similar and different lifestyles. The visiting teachers provided these classes with a perfect opportunity to find out more about another country’s location, climate, language, transportation, recreation, homes and people.

Assessment, Reporting and Portfolios

Information about portfolios and various ways to collect students’ work was shared. Some Swedish teachers were taken through a student led conference, in the role of a parent. Some of the tracking forms and templates Ottawa teachers use in student portfolios and student-led conferences have made their way to Sweden and will be used in the coming school year. With regard to assessment, in Sweden, it appears that there are fewer formal tests with the exception of those reviewing daily work. Swedish standardized tests take place in Grades 2, 5 and 8, as opposed to our Ontario EQAO testing in Grades 3 and 6 and the Grade 10 Literacy Test.

In Sweden, student portfolios are generally kept in a binder. Some of our visitors commented on the value of maintaining a portfolio throughout a student’s stay in a particular school. In Ottawa, most of us tend to send the portfolio home at the end of a school year, and the following teacher starts the process of gathering evidence of learning all over again in the next school year. The Swedes’ suggestion that the portfolio would be an excellent introduction of sorts for a student beginning with a new teacher will be taken into consideration as we wind up the present school year in Ottawa.

Student Behavior and Children with Special Needs

Although the Swedes commented that our students were good independent workers, many Canadian teachers felt the opposite; it seems that Swedish students work more independently and set goals for their own work every week. There was a general feeling among the Swedish teachers that we are more valued and respected as teachers in Canada, a comment that was surprising to most Canadian teachers. It appears that Swedish students, in general, could show more respect for their teachers.

Many Canadian teachers were happy to see their students become attached to our visitors very easily. It was interesting to see them pull together lots to show and tell when they are motivated. Some of our visiting teachers observed that students integrated from the GLP classes were well treated by their classmates in similar grade levels. Generally, Ottawa students were very interested in learning more about Sweden and Swedish schools. They wondered if Swedish students had homework, were allowed to chew gum, had computers, cars, etc. Swedish teachers were impressed that our students were disciplined enough to complete work on their own without wasting time.

Some teachers were interested in the way we teach students with special needs in Canada, and discovered new ideas to bring back to Sweden. Generally, it seems that we have similar approaches, such as withdrawal from the classroom setting, the use of manipulative materials in smaller groups, and individual meetings with children experiencing difficulty. When the Swedish teachers very patiently taught Canadian students and their teachers Swedish words, it was interesting for many of us to see which of our students were most keen to practice these new skills. Their enthusiasm for a new ‘subject’ was rewarding.

Personal and Professional Learning Prospects

The Canadian hosts seem genuinely interested in reading more about Sweden and its people. Many did not have preconceived expectations about the visit and just wanted to help the Swedish teachers enjoy their visit. They welcome the opportunity to visit Swedish schools and to discover more about the Sweden in general. Members of both groups still have more questions about pedagogical issues and will be continuing discussions in their follow-up communications. Swedish teachers look forward to using the ideas gathered during their stay; many also expressed an interest in reading more about Canada.

Several Swedish teachers indicated that they are looking forward to trying student-led conferences with portfolios next year. They are planning to share much of what they have learned with their colleagues and students. Many commented that this visit was the motivation they needed to put into practice what they have learned in their assessment course.

Some Canadian teachers are re-thinking the use of student portfolios. “Perhaps we need to reassess the original purpose of the portfolios and lower expectations regarding format. After all, assessment should improve performance, not simply audit it.” A visit to Sweden would allow us to see a more individualized teaching approach in action.

Some Ottawa teachers mentioned that they would like to implement a yearlong work-in-progress portfolio using a checklist similar to what was described by the Swedish teachers. “As Canadians, we realize that we need more emphasis on healthy living and environmental citizenship”. Others indicated that they want to teach their students more Canadian folksongs, which they can enjoy at social gatherings such as the ones we shared with our visitors. “Perhaps we don’t spend enough time being proud of our culture and practicing our special songs.” Several Canadian students did a quick overview of Sweden, but said they would like to study certain aspects in more depth.

Swedish teachers hope their students will learn more about Canada. Some are planning a Canada day when they returned to class, with songs, food and flags from Canada. Several were impressed that Canadian students and teachers had done so much work preparing for their visit. The Canadian phrases and the facts about Canada that they heard and saw during the week here were planned with enthusiasm, and will motivate Swedish students, they expect, to work on a project about Canada with the help of their new pen pals.

Expectations for the Future: A Return Visit

It is certainly the wish of everyone associated with the Swedish visit that Canadian teachers might soon have the opportunity of visiting their new friends to see first hand how our educational systems compare. Many Ontarians commented that they looked forward to seeing for themselves the aspects their colleagues love most about their homeland, as much as they were able to show their guests what they appreciate the most about Canada, and the Ottawa area in particular.

Everyone indicated that they planned on staying in touch via e-mail and letters. Some Ottawa teachers were quite serious about learning Swedish before any exchange takes place. Many of the Ontario teachers said they would like to read more about Sweden and indicated that they will be going to the library to do a little personal research.

There is a general interest in maintaining communication and friendship as colleagues using First Class as an e-mail platform, including a shared folder within that program. There were several mentions of group projects to be completed on line. Several partners have set up pen-pal opportunities for their students already. All of these teachers now have a real desire to visit Sweden. The comfort level would be a little higher for Canadians, of course, now that we have had the opportunity of getting to know our future hosts. Several host teachers acknowledged how intimidating that first meeting must have been for the Swedes. We were happy to hear a few visiting teachers mention that they would like to plan a return trip to Canada with their spouses or partners, since there is so much more to explore! There is a consensus among the Ottawa host group that any one of the Swedish group would certainly be made to feel welcome in Ottawa.

“So, many new friendships have been formed…friendships, several expect, will last a lifetime”. The knowledge and personal satisfaction gained from this experience are attributes that many participants suggest they intend to apply to other areas of their lives. Most of the teachers from both countries expressed an interest in taking part in a similar exchange again, with teachers from other countries. Many feel the need to continue this important work and develop more exchanges in order to continue a global co-operation amongst educators.

Several teachers from both countries expressed the feeling that as educators, one of our fears is of becoming so set in our ways that we get stuck in the proverbial rut. “When we establish international contact with colleagues, it forces us to visualize in a more concrete fashion what it is, exactly, that we are doing in our classrooms. We can learn so much from each other precisely because we share the same beliefs and hopes for the future.”

Summary

There is a quotation, attributed to Saint Augustine, often employed by travelers. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page”. I think our Swedish visitors were avid readers throughout this trip. The experience was more than about travel, however. Connections were made between individuals, between schools and between nations. Our careers and working conditions are changing at a rapid pace in this global network society. As teachers, we are responsible for preparing students for a future that will be very different from what we are living today. We are contributing to the development of global citizens who will be lifelong learners, critical thinkers and respectful citizens of our world. It is reassuring to know that teachers elsewhere are dedicating themselves to the same process, regardless of curriculum content. Success in the key areas of the curriculum such as literacy and numeracy will no doubt contribute to the further development of our students, but the skills developed along the way, thinking, planning, reflecting, establishing relationships, are what will make them successful in life.

As we share and discuss with colleagues from across the world, we are reminded of how well we are doing in our own schools. Although we may get bogged down in curriculum issues, discussions about assessment and standardized testing, we are indeed helping our students learn, work together, respect and help one another…every day. The one-week we spent as colleagues naturally became an opportunity to showcase what we Canadians think we do best in our schools. A professional dialogue was started with discussions about particular issues such as student portfolios and student-led conferences, but as we realized just how many things we have in common, it became more of an opportunity for teachers to inspire each other and build something together.

As a result of one week of sharing, there are now close to a thousand students in the Katrineholm district of Sweden who know more about Canada and just as many, if not more, Canadian students who have expanded their knowledge about Sweden. There has already been electronic communication between several schools, pen pals opportunities have been established and will no doubt flourish over the summer, Ottawa-Carleton resources have been sent to Sweden, and future travel opportunities are being discussed. These are all smaller parts, relatively speaking, of the big picture that we must remember to step back and look at…the awareness of this new global view that many of us have only had a glimpse of in the past. We are learners, always, and we are engrossed in that book that is the world.


Post script: In August 2003, a group of teachers and principals from Ottawa visited their partners in Katrineholm for a week of sharing, learning, and exchange, and also to create new possibilities for future school projects.

John Fitzgerald is Vice President for School Connections, International School Connection, Inc. and former Principal and Superintedent with Ottawa Carleton District Schools.

Anne-Marie Courier works for the Central School Board for Ottawa Carleton School Board