The educational bottom lines

"The Oslo School system is run like a big company where the students' achievements represent the bottom line. The goal is improvement year by year."

The quotation is taken from a newspaper article in 2007. The words are, as far as I remember, from one of the directors at the Superintendent’s office (it may have been a principal). It was not meant as criticism but as praise. This quote represents (albeit an extreme one) a view of education which unfortunately has characterized parts of the education policy over the past

20 years.

I think it is right to say that we are witnessing a change away from the perception of education that underlies this quote. Fortunately. Education is not a competition arena in which countries, municipalities, schools and students compete for the best results on selected tests. Education is about liberation, formation (bildung), learning, well-being, critical thinking, sustainable development and much more. Education is a normative project that is mostly about values. About community building. About trust building. Increasingly, Norwegian education politicians now seem to accept that the education policies that have been conducted over the last 20 years have had side effects. Serious negative side effects.

We need to fight back at the instrumental view of education. But we must not portray this fight as a choice between well-being and learning, between knowledge schools (a strange term by the way – does anyone talk about health-hospitals?) and enjoyment schools or between input and output. We must be able to see the complexity. That things are intertwined and that we must think holistically when we develop education policy. (And that not every problem in society can be solved by education.)

We as teachers must handle tensions. Between the measurable and the non-measurable, between the precisely expressed and what must be interpreted, between education as investment and education as care, between the experimental and the routine, between the planned and the unexpected. The list is long.

If we the teachers or society at large think that an "education company" can be run well by trying to repeal these tensions, we are on the wrong track. When placing so much attention on the measurable education goals, we should not be surprised that it has consequences. If we pretend that placing attention only on students’ well-being gives us a good school, we have failed.


One of the things that makes most impression on me in the debate about the Oslo education authority is the degree of cocksureness in statements from its directors. I think it was the Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen who once claimed that there is an overproduction of cocksureness in this country. In education, we should fear cocksureness like a plague. And the Oslo education authority should take that warning seriously. In the education system, we should cultivate doubt. Not only because our work is a normative project in which we are in danger of using our power as teachers in unfortunate ways. But also, because we know there are many paths to the same goal. And because there are an incredible number of goals to reach for so many different people.

The German pedagogical theorist Klaus Mollenhauer said this about educational formation:

“Our own formation is not just something we can thank the grown-ups for, but also something we can blame them for. Any formation process is extension and enrichment, but also narrowing and impoverishment of what could have been possible. Grown-ups are not only midwifing for the development of the child’s mind, but also powerful sensors who set limits for the formation of the child.”                                       

This should make us humble in our approach to education. Regardless of whether we perceive an education system as a company or not. 


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Steffen Handal

Steffen Handal is the president of Union of Education Norway (UEN) and EI Executive Board Member, he is particularly engaged in early childhood education policies, teacher professionalism and professional ethics.

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