Folk High Schools: The Gap Year of a Lifetime

By Phil Rooney

Oslo, Norway, October 2005 - I first heard of folk high schools in one of my classes at the University of Minnesota. We were reading a book about a school in the Appalachian Mountains that influenced the civil rights movement. That school, called Highlander Folk School, was heavily influenced by a strange school system in the Nordic countries called folk high schools. I was immediately interested and got my hands on the one book in English I could find about these schools. But I was not satiated, I wanted to know more. So when I heard about a study abroad opportunity in Norway that would allow me to do some of my own research, I quickly applied. Today, I'm studying at the University of Oslo and I just can't keep quiet about these schools. Allow me to explain.

The first reaction many people have when they hear about Norwegian folk high schools is disbelief. "A school with no tests, degrees, or university credit? What's the point?" is a common refrain. But to characterize folk high schools in such a way is to miss the point. Folk high schools can be considered somewhat similar to a residential adult college, but instead of learning about abstract subjects never to be used in daily life students develop knowledge on a subject they will use everyday for the rest of their lives: themselves.

The term "folk high school" is not very good at describing the schools. In Norwegian they are called folkehøgskoler. The problem in translation is that folk high schools aren't "high schools" the way many have experienced them. They are not secondary school institutions designed solely to prepare students for college or work through exams. Folk high schools are separate from the rest of Norway's educational system. Students can be any age and can have any level of educational experience. Indeed they are schools for all people, all "folk".

Most students who attend folk high schools are young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Especially common are 19 and 20 year olds. This can be a tough time in any young person's life. After finishing high school many feel a tremendous amount of pressure to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. They jump into university under prepared for life or rigorous study. Often they take time off for a so-called "gap year" to unwind from schools, to work, and often to travel. Mya, a 19 year old from California, said that she went to a folk high school because she didn't feel ready for college. She didn't know what she wanted to study, so she decided to go see Norway and to just meet people and have fun.

Folk high schools offer an excellent opportunity for students to experience the gap year of a lifetime. Many students just want to get away from university for a year. By "doing something different" students develop self-confidence, get to know the Norwegian culture and language, and become self-motivated, active citizens. Not to mention the opportunity the schools provide to international students to travel and socialize with people from Norway and all over the world. International students are able to learn about Norway in a way they never would by being a tourist. They stay in the country for a year, getting to feel what life is like. As a student I met from India, S.S. Pal, said "I'm learning so much about Norway. I'm learning the language, and everyone I've met is very friendly." And students' experiences in the country will always be linked to the subjects in class, providing more context to their learning.

Students have many choices on where they want to study; there are 78 folk high schools spread throughout Norway. Students are from all parts of Norway as well. Diversity in the student body is highly valued, and everyone makes an effort to make international students feel welcome.

Most classes are taught in the Norwegian language, but this is not a reason for international students to worry. International students take classes in the Norwegian language and are immersed in the language. Most students learn the language very quickly and can manage within just a couple weeks. Julia from Ukraine was amazed by how quickly she was learning Norwegian. But never fear: English is a second language of nearly everyone there.

Students choose one subject to concentrate their studies in. Also called major subjects, these concentrations include outdoor life, film, music, sports, computers, international issues, and many more. Most common for international students is "Norwegian Language and Culture." If you don't know Norwegian already, that's the subject to take. Students also take all kinds of other courses. Some may be required, but students will also be able to take a variety of electives. There are academic subjects such as philosophy. But subjects are not limited to this; there are all kinds of non-traditional and non-academic subjects. At a folk high school I visited within the span of just a few hours I saw students dancing, singing, making costumes, making masks, learning Norwegian, learning to play the guitar, and learning about different parts of Norway.

The social aspect of folk high schools cannot be ignored. In fact, social life is a focus in the schools and many students say it is the most important part of the school. Students live in dorms on campus and are always encouraged to be social. It is part of the folk high school experience to form a common community bond within the student body. Without the pressure of exams, students are free to make friends and be active. But the social life is not confined only to students themselves, it extends to teachers as well. Indeed, everyone at the school is part of the community. And since the schools are small, everyone makes a difference. Line, from Norway, said her favourite part of folk high schools was "meeting people and having fun. It's about being social." What better way to make new friends than at a folk high school?

By forming a community, students have to learn many skills they will use the rest of their life. They have tasks to solve together, not the least of which is figuring out a cleaning schedule. Students also learn conflict mediation and learn to have meetings by themselves. Students are in close contact with each other: they study, have meals, and attend classes together. Schools average 80 to 90 students, but can have between 60 and 150. Truly, the schools become small learning communities.

So, the ultimate question: Why are there no grades or exams? It is difficult to believe that a school of this type exists, let alone one that receives government funding. But by taking away the pressure of grades and exams, students learn to motivate themselves. They find the topics that interest them and they learn about those topics. Students often end up working harder than they would have otherwise, all because they are motivated to increase their own knowledge! Learning that happens for an exam is soon forgotten, but what is learned for pleasure is always remembered.

Many students discover during the year what they want to do the rest of their life. Folk high schools encourage students to try many different things, so students often discover the career they want to pursue. Folk high schools are a place for the students to do things they've dreamt about, but haven't had the opportunity to do elsewhere. Many students leave the schools with the confidence that they can pursue whatever careers and dreams they want.

Students also have the opportunity to learn by doing. By experiencing the very things the students are learning about, their knowledge and understanding become much greater. What the students learn becomes more valid. And students are far more likely to believe something after they've seen it applied in real life. Classes are conducted in a free and open way, progressing through conversations between students and teachers. An art teacher I met talked about how amazed he was every year by the progression of the students. They come in having difficulty making group decisions and applying their ideas to what they create. But by the end all this changes. Classes function smoothly with little intervention by the teacher and the class has learned to experiment and try everything that pops in their head.

Folk high schools encourage this experiential education by organizing school trips to other countries. School trips highlight how folk high schools try to train more active democratic citizens. Students learn how to have an active role in government and society. Solidarity projects help to broaden social perspectives to include different people, opinions, and values. International students are welcomed and integrated into the student body. They are encouraged to share their own values, experiences, and culture. At a school I visited the international students had a class where they cooked for the Norwegian students dishes from their own country. In this way stereotypes are demolished and empathy is learned. Students learn to have a more democratic perspective.

It may be strange to hear that the Norwegian government helps subsidise folk high schools. In many places throughout the world education is losing more and more of its public funding. This is not the case in Norway. The government, politicians, and the general public all recognize how important folk high schools are. Many have been to one themselves: every year 6000 students attend and approximately 10% of all Norwegians have spent a year in a folk high school. The Norwegian government covers tuition for all students. Room and board, trips abroad, and course materials need to be covered by students. A typical year is between NOK 60,000 and 67,000. This works out to about $9,000 to $10,000. The final cost all depends on what programs and school trips are taken. Scholarships from the Memorial Fund of 8th May, 1970 are awarded to some international students to fully cover their expenses.

It is difficult to define what students get out of a year at a folk high school. Each student has their own experiences, challenges, frustrations, and triumphs. A common theme from each experience is personal growth and development in a social setting that focuses on "learning for life". A student's educational program allows the student to follow his or her own interests and abilities. Students become self-motivated actors in developing their own education. Every student leaves with a broadened horizon, social insights, more confidence in themselves, and the tools for lifelong learning. Undoubtedly, students are better prepared for whatever path lies ahead of them, whether it is in a university, in the workplace, or in the broader world.

You can find out more about Norway's folk high schools . Applications for the nine month school year from August to May can be downloaded from their website. If the idea of folk high schools appeals to you but the location doesn't, there are about 400 schools throughout the Nordic countries, which includes Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.