Teaching US Students about the Nordics

One of the classes I teach is AP Comparative Government and Politics; so, every May the students take the AP test on what they’ve learned throughout the year.  This leaves us with three weeks after the test until the end of the school year, meaning I have to find something engaging and educational, but not too intense, for my students.  This year I tried something new- a unit on the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden).

Format
Given the nature of the class, I wanted to make sure students learned about each country’s government and policies.  For the policies, we focused on two areas in which the Nordics excel- gender equality and sustainability.  To help them with these policies, I gave them two readings- The Nordic Gender Effect at Work, and A Good Life in a Sustainable Nordic Region: Nordic Strategy for Sustainable Development, 2013-2025.  I also planned on having students learn about each country’s culture, with a focus on language and food.  To help them start their research I gave them the websites for the Nordic Council and the respective embassies, ministries of foreign affairs, and ministries of the environment.

Indicators
One of the topics we discuss during the year is indicators because they help us learn about a government’s values and priorities.  The textbook we use focuses on four broad categories- 1) measuring wealth, 2) measuring inequality and poverty, 3) the Human Development Index (HDI), and 4) happiness- as such, we looked for a variety of related indicators and included the US just to see how we stack up against the Nordics. (*Note: The first five after the HDI rank are all found on the HDI website)

HDI (rank): Denmark- 11; Finland- 15; Iceland- 6; Norway- 1; Sweden- 7; USA- 13

Life expectancy at birth (years): Denmark- 80.9; Finland- 81.8; Iceland- 82.9; Norway- 82.51; Sweden- 82.6; USA- 78.69

Mean years of schooling (years): Denmark- 12.6; Finland- 17.6; Iceland- 12.4; Norway- 12.6; Sweden- 17.6; USA- 13.2

GDP per capita: Denmark- $56,307.51; Finland- $45,703.33; Iceland- $46,483; Norway- $74,504.57; Sweden- $47,766; USA- $54,225

Income inequality, Gini coefficient (100 equals complete inequality): Denmark- 26; Finland- 27.1; Iceland- 25.6; Norway- 25.8; Sweden- 24.9; USA- 41.5

Carbon dioxide emissions, per capita (tonnes): Denmark- 5.94; Finland- 8.66; Iceland- 6.1; Norway- 9.27; Sweden- 4.5; USA- 16.49

Environmental Performance Index (rank): Denmark- 3; Finland- 10; Iceland- 11; Norway- 14; Sweden- 5; USA- 27

Total paid leave available to mothers (weeks): Denmark- 50; Finland- 161; Iceland- 26; Norway- 91; Sweden- 55.7; USA- 0

Gender Inequality Index (rank): Denmark- 2; Finland- 8; Iceland- 9; Norway- 5; Sweden- 3; USA-41

Global Gender Gap (rank): Denmark- 13; Finland- 4; Iceland- 1; Norway- 2; Sweden- 3; USA- 51

Women in national parliament (percentage and rank): Denmark-37.4%, 26; Finland-41.5%, 12; Iceland-38.1%, 22; Norway-40.8%, 14; Sweden-47.3%, 5; USA-23.5% and 25%, 79

Freedom in the world (score out of 100, 100 being the best): Denmark- 97; Finland- 100; Iceland- 95; Norway- 100; Sweden- 100; USA- 86

World Happiness Report (rank): Denmark- 2; Finland- 1; Iceland- 4; Norway- 3; Sweden- 7; USA- 19

Good Country Index (overall rank): Denmark- 6; Finland- 1; Iceland- 36; Norway- 8; Sweden- 4; USA- 40

Government and Policies
Similar to most teachers, I try to make the topics we discuss in class interesting and  come alive.  One way I’ve done that is through Skype.  In the past we’ve talked with Žygimantas Pavilionis, the former ambassador for Lithuania to the US; Carl Skau,  Ambassador to the Security Council and Spokesperson for Sweden’s Mission to the UN; and Chris Kendall and Jon Worth, experts/analysts on both Brexit and European Union. These experiences are always valuable because the students get to learn from someone who knows way more about the topic than I do and who is not me (as much as the students love seeing my face every day and hearing my voice, they benefit from a “change in scenery”).

One thing that has really impressed me about the Nordic ambassadors is they hold Twitter Q+A sessions (#AskNordicAmbs) on a variety of topics (the most recent one was LGBTQ+ rights).  In that spirit, I reached out to all five embassies via Twitter (and email) seeing if the respective ambassadors or their staff would be interested in Skyping with my students.  As a result, I was able to set up sessions with four of the five embassies:

Denmark: Jeppe Mathias Helsted, Senior Advisor (Climate and Energy)
Finland: Sirpa Nyberg, Head of Political Affairs
Norway: Ambassador Kåre R. Aas
Sweden: Göran Lithell, Deputy Chief of Mission

All four were very informative and gracious in answering my students’ questions.  Besides basic information, they all made sure to discuss the two focus areas of sustainability and gender equality.

Protecting the environment and sustainability are quite important to the Nordic way of life.  In particular, it was a point of pride for two people to mention their countries had achieved economic growth while simultaneously lowering GHG emissions.  Additionally,  Amb. Aas discussed the use of battery powered ferries and even airplanes to combat climate change, as well as the emphasis on protecting the oceans.

When it comes to gender equality, one important reason for their success is their respective social welfare systems.  Subsidized daycare.  Free education.  Paid parental leave (including mandatory leave for fathers).  Universal healthcare.  The list goes on and on.  All of these services help to empower women and girls and give them the same opportunities as men and boys.

My only regret from this part of the unit is that we had a mere forty-five minutes to talk with each of them.

Culture
As much as I wanted students to learn a bit of the languages, I was unable to set anything up with people from the university to come and help us.  I guess I’ll just have to be more persistent next year.

To get a taste of the culture of the Nordics, I had students create an itinerary for a week-long trip to their respective countries.  They then had to present their travel guide to the class.  The trip had to include include visits that emphasized the following:

  1. Culture (art, music, language, etc.)
  2. Food
  3. Nature
  4. Innovation
  5. Sustainability

It also had include:

  1. A lot of pictures
  2. Accommodation (where are visitors going to stay?)
  3. Transportation (how are visitors going to go from one place to the next?)
  4. The total cost of the trip

The results were fantastic.  Some groups looked for dates to coincide with festivals or other celebrations.  Others also took advantage of the bicycle-friendly infrastructure and well-established public transportation.  They were also able to make time for trips to picturesque parks and other outdoor areas.  Finally, as to be expected, there were a few museum visits to learn about the Vikings.

One thing I would like to add for next year is movies or tv shows.  I had time to show only one episode of one of my favorite shows on Netflix, “Occupied,” which is set in Norway.  If anybody reads this and has recommendations, please leave a response below.

Conclusion
The students seemed to get a lot out of the unit.  It illustrated the values and priorities of other governments (other than the ones we studied during the year), and it got students thinking about what they want to see from our government here.  Many of them also seemed quite keen to visit the Nordics (or at least one of the countries); in fact, one student asked about immigration policy.   As for me, I have already made it a goal to visit as many of the Nordics as possible and to continue teaching my students about them.

If you have any ideas for next year’s unit on the Nordics, please leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

 

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