Adventures of a Texan in the snow

How studying abroad in Norway taught one American about more than literal clothing

Photo courtesy of Grace McClure
Dressed for the weather in Norway.

Grace McClure
Dallas, Texas

“There is no such thing as bad weather; there is only bad clothing.”

These were the words of wisdom given to our class on the first day of class at Nord University in Levanger. As it turns out, this phrase often taught to Norwegian children would come to define what has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life to date. But let me start at the beginning.

I was born and raised in Texas and currently attend the University of Texas at Dallas where I study Cognitive Science. I am a McDermott Scholar at the University, which means (among other things) that I am expected to spend part of my undergraduate experience studying abroad. When the time came for this, my specific interests within Cognitive Science had turned towards education. How do we design curriculum that takes advantage of nascent research in the neurosciences, which shows that children learn better if they get the same information through multiple sensory systems? How can our knowledge of children’s development and psychology affect how we train teachers, preparing them to observe and take advantage of the various stages of brain development? What is the best way to present information to children in a way that is tailored to the ways their brains work?

I wanted to study these questions in an environment that had a different philosophy of education than I had experienced in the States. I had heard good things about education in the Scandinavian countries and in my research found that Norway had a much different philosophy than I had encountered anywhere before. I was fascinated by the emphasis on holistic education, developing civic/social skills as well as academic skills, and some strange thing called friluftsliv; as I would later learn, it’s a term that means living in concert with and fully engaged in the natural world in our daily lives. On a study abroad matching website, I came across a listing for the perfect program—a semester package for international students, taught in English, called Nordic and International Perspectives in Teaching and Learning. And so, armed with good hiking boots, a whole three days of camping experience, not even a smidgeon of Norwegian, and a Texas-sized smile, I packed my bags and flew to Norway.

Week 1, Day 1: Introduction to the Norwegian alphabet. Y’all have three extra letters in the alphabet? How do I even make those sounds? Day 2: Hike up a mountain. Day 3: Hike to a remote mountain lake in Sweden. Stop to examine the marshes and a methane pocket in the middle of the bog. Have a discussion on climate change and its very real, visible effects in our immediate surroundings. Talk about how students learn best when they can see and hear and feel and engage their sense of curiosity, and know that what they are learning has important relevance to their lives and the world. Day 4: Review what we learned on the hikes (we managed to hit history, mythology, biology, chemistry, sociology, and pedagogy). Day 5: Review how to paddle a canoe. Wait, what?

Week 2: Canoe through Femundsmarka nasjonalpark on the Swedish border for four days and three nights. Experience nature as a learning arena that teaches the values of cooperation, humility, and knowledge as essential for survival; as an intoxicating bazaar for the senses as well as the imagination; as a place where the earth is kind if you treat it with respect and might kill you if you don’t. Learn from classmates how to start a fire and put up a tent. Sit around the fire until the late hours of the night teaching each other traditional songs from our respective cultures: American, Norwegian, Yakut, Russian, German, Polish, Czech, Slovenian, and Spanish. Fall in love with the stars and the sound of the wind as it lilts across the water and dances into the birches.

The rest of the semester unfolded in much the same way. We of course had days in traditional classrooms, but even those were filled with hands-on inquiries and group activities. We compared experiences from all of the countries represented. Slowly I noticed that my questions had started changing: How can you use maps to explore psychology? How do you teach children about the responsibility and relationship of a prevailing society to native minorities? How do you integrate a second language into a generation without losing the first? How do you use traditional academic topics as a medium for teaching respect for others, self, and the earth? A veritable host of professors from across topics helped us begin to answer these, both in theory and by example. Behind all of it was the scientific research I had been interested in before I left the States, but my experiences had taught me something different than I had expected: sometimes, the questions you ask are more important than their answers.

When I was a child, I was a bookworm. I was always more likely to be curled up in a corner with a new tome than outside playing pirates with my brothers. As I attended academically rigorous schools growing up, my desire for knowledge was stoked further and further and I learned to ask questions at every opportunity. I had some incredible teachers and am grateful for the education I received. It was excellent in many ways. But I think that due to the increasingly competitive nature of education (and particularly college) today, many of the questions I began asking leaned toward head-knowledge over heart-knowledge or hand-knowledge. I became interested only in questions I could answer in traditional academia, and I fear that the American school system is headed the same way.

You know what I’m talking about: in the race for high SAT scores and admission into increasingly selective universities, woodshop and home economics classes have all but disappeared from American schools. Music and arts electives are headed the same direction. Even physical education programs and outdoor recess are shrinking. This is not to say that mathematics or history are not important, or that well-roundedness is overrated; certainly, having a wide base of knowledge allows us to approach problems in creative ways. But I would posit that we should push for more well-roundedness in American schools. As much as we need good teachers, we also need after-school music societies and theater clubs. We need vocational training programs for high schoolers who want to pursue alternative post-secondary education. We need biology teachers who have the time and resources to take their class camping, to experience what they’re learning in the “real world.” The way we go about asking and answering questions in music composition is very different from the way we ask and answer in electrical engineering, anthropology, or graphic design.

In a TED talk in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson said, “We have a huge vested interest in [education], partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.” The goal of education is to prepare students to solve problems in the future that we can’t begin to imagine today. The best way to do that is to familiarize them with a whole range of problem-solving options, so that they have as many tools at their disposal as possible. As they say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” So let’s give the next generation the benefit of a whole wardrobe in a world that changes as soon as we blink. Let’s teach them not to ask what they have to wear, but to ask what the weather is, secure in the knowledge that they can face it, whatever it will be.

Grace McClure is interested in human learning and language and is currently pursuing a B.S. in Cognitive Science at UT Dallas. Born in Texas, she loves two-stepping, peanut butter fudge, her long-haired Chihuahua, and learning new words.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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