In which I join a panel discussion on American high school and take a peek into the life of a typical 16-year-old Danish gymnasium student.
Fun fact: Denmark uses a 7-step grading scale from -3 to 12 (look it up, it’s incredibly confusing)
Also, happy World Teachers’ Day! Thank you teachers.
My very first day in Denmark, I got into a conversation with my host family about school over a scoop of lemon sorbet.
We were standing at the Espergærde harbor, vigorously licking our ice cream before it melted in the toasty Danish sun (which is now all but a distant memory). As it was the family’s first time hosting an international student, they were naturally curious about my journey through the school system.
At the time, I held the assumption that Danish schools are structured similarly to their American counterparts; that is, kids work their way through elementary & middle school (or primary school) and move up the ranks to high school before potentially attending college. My host siblings, Lucca and Tristan, are three years apart and both still in school, so I thought it would be interesting to hear about their experiences as well. I quickly realized that I knew nothing about the education system here!
For one, the equivalent of American high school is the Danish gymnasium, which is more specialized and usually attended a year after Grade 9. There are also alternatives like vocational school or apprenticeships, so it’s not required. Some students opt to spend a year or two at an efterskole (literally “after school”, but it’s really a voluntary residential school) following completion of primary education and before gymnasium, which is what Tristan is doing right now. At efterskole, students may choose a main theme which sometimes isn’t a traditional academic subject — for example, Tristan’s focus is racquet sports.
I’ve drawn out a school system chart for your convenience 🙂
Perhaps the most well-known and striking fact regarding Danish education is the fact that all of its public institutions are FREE.
FREE! I repeat: School = FREE!!
That sharply contrasts with the heavy burden of college tuition and student loans in the US. Here in Denmark, students over the age of 18 receive the “SU”, or state education grant. Although there are time limits to how long the government will support your schooling, there’s very little pressure to finish ASAP and it’s really generous (I believe it’s six years).
All this talk about school made me eager to chat more with Danish students on their observations of the education system. This opportunity turned up when I spoke with a teacher from a nearby gymnasium at the DIS activities fair in September. He was promoting an upcoming panel discussion about American high school and wanted to invite a few DIS students to participate. At first, I didn’t think much of it — why would I want to be put in the spotlight in front of a mass of potentially disinterested Danish teens? Seems awkward at best.
Well, true to my inquisitive self, I always find a way to fit things in. After my class that day was cancelled, I figured I’d reach out and see if they were still looking for panelists. Snorre, the teacher responsible for organizing and facilitating the panel discussion, was more than happy to invite me onto the team. He gathered all the participants (4 DIS students, including me) for an introductory session at the gymnasium, Zahles, the night before the panel, where we got a sense of each other’s high school experience and went over the topics we’d cover. We all grew up in different regions of the US and went to WIDELY varying high schools, so we had a pretty good mix of perspectives. A quick rundown:
- HS #1: Charter school on the East Coast, graduating class under 100 students, young teachers, no sports
- HS #2: Huge school in rural Pennsylvania, BIG football & cheerleading scene, classic movie high school scenario, hierarchical, white
- HS #3: Medium-small school, small-town Minnesota with commute, peaceful environment
- HS #4: Medium-sized, located in Silicon Valley, football culture loses to band culture, academically rigorous
The panel ended up being very pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable; although the Danish students were initially a bit shy, they were engaged in the conversation and eager to learn more about America. On the panel, the DIS students sat on one side and a group of 6 Zahles first-year students sat on the other side. Almost all of the six Zahles panelists had previously studied abroad in the US, Canada, or Australia, so they actually already had their own perception of overseas high school. Snorre was excellent in facilitating and asking the extra question, and we covered everything from high school stereotypes in movies (think Mean Girls, High School Musical) and social life to sports culture and academic expectations.
Some key takeaways about Danish school:
- Attitude towards school work is relatively laid-back in Denmark, also less stress because university admission relies solely on GPA
- Area of study is narrowed down earlier — students choose a studieretning (“study program”) in gymnasium, which is kind of like a major
- Kids stick with the same class through the years, and they always hang out with their classmates. This leads to tighter “cohorts” and they say there’s little bullying because they are close (do you think this is good or is socially limiting?)
- Relationship between students and teacher is pretty casual, they call their teachers by their first name which was initially quite strange to me. Definitely a skill to be on good terms with the youth while maintaining respect, and they seem to have that mostly down.
- A group of students who came by to chat afterwards were starting a debate club! Clubs/extracurriculars aren’t common in Danish schools; students usually participate in activities elsewhere (there was a band rehearsing though and they sounded great)
I was curious whether the Danish students felt motivated to study since the government pays for their education and there’s less incentive to strive for success or earn more to survive. After our discussion, it seemed that even though ambition as a whole is a bit more subdued in Denmark, there’s plenty of opportunity and flexibility for a student to pursue something they like to the most advanced degree. I encouraged them to cherish the lightness of studying in a low-competition environment while also dreaming big and seeking after the things they want to see around (beginning with their gymnasium! like the debate club).
At the end of the day, I learned just as much about Danish gymnasium as they did about American high school. I love this form of cultural exchange which allows us to directly dialogue with other students, and I definitely respect the Danish way of learning that is high-quality education without the pressure. In my opinion, I’d want to combine American and Danish mentalities towards schooling — it’d be a healthier balance of high standards and appropriate rest.
So I think back to that sunny first day in Copenhagen, unaware that I would have so much to learn about… learning. We’ve come pretty far, and there’s more left to discover.
Special thanks to Luiza from DIS and Snorre from Zahles for organizing the high school panel!
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