Teacher Professional Development in Denmark

By Birkvad, Birgitte | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Teacher Professional Development in Denmark


Birkvad, Birgitte, Phi Delta Kappan


The agents of change in Danish schools are primarily the teachers, but the teachers in the Folkeskole are facing new and multifarious challenges. Their initial education is far from sufficient, and their role as change agents demands access to inservice training to bring their qualifications up to date, Ms. Birkvad points out.

In Denmark we like to say that school development and postgraduate education go together. Historically, Danish teachers have always worked to influence legislation and to inspire innovation in the schools. This tradition grows out of the idea that, as professional educators, teachers have a special responsibility for the development of the school.

To most teachers working in the Danish schools, continually updating their professional training is viewed as a matter of course. Teachers are considered the prime decision makers in the schools, and they wield considerable discretionary powers with regard to content, choice of textbooks and other materials, and methods adopted. In order to be able to play such an active role in school development, many Danish teachers regularly attend inservice training courses and take postgraduate education classes. To make the almost symbiotic relationship between the development of Danish schools and the inservice education of teachers clearer to readers from other nations, let me outline the working style of the primary and lower-secondary schools.

The Danish Folkeskole

In some ways the basic Danish education system is unique in Europe. The public primary and lower-secondary school is called the Folkeskole. Literally, it means the people's school, and nearly 90% of all Danish children attend a Folkeskole. The other 10% attend private elementary schools.

In Denmark, education is compulsory for nine years, with one year of preschool and a 10th school year available on a voluntary basis. At present, approximately 625,000 children attend a Folkeskole. They are taught by some 60,000 teachers, almost all of whom obtained their initial training at one of Denmark's 18 colleges of teacher education.

The Folkeskole is referred to as a "comprehensive" system, which means that the children stay together with the same classmates throughout their entire school career. In other words, all pupils remain in the same groups - with the same classmates - from the first grade to the ninth (or 10th) grade. They share the same experiences in all subjects with peers from a wide range of backgrounds and ability levels. The children progress automatically from one class to the next; that is, the classes stay together regardless of how much progress an individual student might make during a school year.

This idea is closely related to another characteristic of the Danish schools: the "class teacher" system, which is in many ways the backbone of the Danish school system. Children in a Folkeskole can look forward to having the same teacher - most frequently the teacher who teaches Danish - as "class teacher" throughout all the school years. The class teacher has special responsibilities regarding the social environment and the teaching of the class. The class teacher has a close knowledge of each child and comes to know and cherish every aspect of each individual pupil's abilities, skills, character, and aspirations. The class teacher also has close contact with each student's home and is well acquainted with the pupil's parents and background. The class teacher functions as counselor and encourages maximum contact between the family and the school.

It is also the duty of the class teacher to act as coordinator of all teachers assigned to a class. However, the number of teachers is kept at a minimum. This means that most teachers teach two or more subjects to a given class, and so children in the lower grades are taught by only two or three teachers, while students in the eighth to 10th grades are taught by no more than five or six. The close relationship that exists between the class teacher and the pupils - and between the teachers and pupils in general - creates a peaceful and friendly working atmosphere. …

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