Educational researchers: The system doesn’t work

Research has suggestions for solving the massive problems in primary and lower seconcary schooling in Greenland. But it will require listening to them and not just doing as usual.


By Uffe Wilken, Polarfronten  


Let us begin with a success story, because there are not too many of those in Greenland’s educational system. In connection with a research project in a settlement, the following situation emerges from the fieldwork: Lars Demant-Poort from Illisimatusarfik – University of Greenland explains how one teacher makes teaching work because he and his fellow peers have established a network across Greenland where they exchange ideas, experiences, and solutions to the didactic and professional problems they meet in their classrooms.


A kind of support one would otherwise think the teachers would receive from the municipal system, depending on which problems they may have. But it doesn’t work like that – teachers are often left to fend for themselves. As Lars Demant-Poort explains:


“The system doesn’t work. There is no help out there. That’s why it’s a success when a teacher in a rural school manages to create a network that can jump in where the system should otherwise have been present.”


Besides being a success story, the network is also the result of a Greenlandic education system that looks great on paper but is characterized by habitual thinking in practice. This inhibits teaching and ultimately contributes to the fact that many young people do not continue in the educational system, often never moving on from lower secondary to upper secondary school. Researchers have long pointed out some of the challenges in the education system, and even come up with a few solutions.


Language leap between primary school and secondary education

Education was the first area to be transferred to Greenland following the Greenland Home Rule referendum and the subsequent Home Rule Act in 1979. Yet, the education system still has seemingly insoluble challenges.

The report A coherent and flexible education system from 2020 highlights the lack of quality in the schools: too many students finish primary school without the necessary competencies to begin and complete a secondary education.


Only about 40% of the primary school students begin a secondary education within a year of completing the 10th grade. And the completion rates for both high school and vocational education are relatively low.

“The system doesn’t work. There is no help out there,” Lars Demant-Poort


Boiled down, it is safe to say that part of the problem is keeping young people in the education system, and another part is that the young people’s abilities are too poor. Why this is the case, assistant professors Lars Demant-Poort and Mitdlarak Lennert (both from Illisimatusarfik – the University of Greenland) offer their opinion on. Lars Demant-Poort says:


“There are many explanations. Distance is one of them. We only have four high school educational institutions across Greenland. If you choose to pursue a high school trajectory, you may have to travel far away from your hometown where your family and friends live. Another challenge is the language. Most high school teachers come with a non-Greenlandic language background.”


Mitdlarak Lennert elaborates:


“The language of instruction in primary and lower secondary school is usually Greenlandic. In Nuuk most people speak both Danish and Greenlandic, but as soon as you go outside the city you find that the amount of Danish spoken is very limited. In primary and lower secondary schools most kids have five hours of Danish classes a week, and in schools along the the coast teachers are often not fluent in Danish. This means that a lot of the teaching that is meant to be in Danish is actually being conducted in Greenlandic. And since the education programs after lower secondary are primarily in Danish, this presents challenges at the secondary schools.”

Professional competencies are not completely utilized

The problems with Greenland’s primary and lower secondary schools are not only the teachers’ lacking competencies, but also the way their energy is used by the system. Lars Demant-Poort explains:


“If you look at the national level, the teachers are divided into whether they are trained teachers or not, and if they can teach in Greenlandic. We don’t know if a math teacher is teaching math. We have lots of statistics showing what teachers are being trained for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that is also what they end up teaching. Some schools may have a total of ten teachers who have to teach everything from the first to the tenth grade. And that means that you’ll have to teach something you aren’t trained for just to make sure all subjects are covered.

“The system is running, but not based on making it run smoothly and developing it as it goes but based on how it’s always been done,” Mitdlarak Lennert 


It brings challenges to the classroom if you have an unskilled teacher teaching, for example, English. How come the system is not interested in knowing exactly what competencies the teachers have? The only thing the system seems to want to know is whether the teachers can teach in Greenlandic – not if they are qualified to teach math or social studies.”


Mitdlarak Lennert adds:


“It’s been a political goal to have as many teachers as possible teaching in Greenlandic in the primary and lower secondary school. Statistics on their actual subjects and teaching competencies are not registered, only what languages they can teach in.”


Local principals have the overall pedagogical responsibility for their schools. Mitdlarak Lennert explains:


“In my own research I’ve looked into the way the overall Greenlandic education- and management system is run. And it’s dominated by ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it…’ It runs on traditions and operation, and not so much on what the actual needs are. The system is running, but not based on making it run smoothly and developing it as it goes but based on how it’s always been done.”


When I asked if they could dig out just one positive story for this article, Midtlarak Lennert answered with a laugh: “… I was asked the same thing when I defended my PhD. I had too many critical aspects and not enough positive.” Safe to say, the researchers have enough to deal with.


Contact: Lars Demant-Poort og Mitdlarak Lennert. 


This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.

Top photo Students doing investigative fieldwork. This is an example of well-planned research-based teaching that values the students’ own curiosity. Photo: Lars Demant-Poort
Photo 1 The students use temperature sensors for a smaller project in science class. Photo: Lars Demant-Poort