This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Education in Greenland

Karl Kristian Olsen
Director of Inerisaavik

Greenland is the world's largest island, 2,175,600 square kilometres in area, of which 1,833,900 sq km is locked into the glacial icecap. The land is characterized by deeply indented fjords and high mountains. The length of the longest fjord is fully 400 kilometres, and the highest mountain rises 3,733 metres. Some of the fjords have active glaciers which produce the largest icebergs in the northern hemisphere. The coastal waters and the non-glaciated land support a variety of fish, sea mammals, birds and mammals.

Greenland's present population is believed to have originated with the Inuit of Northern Alaska, who migrated to Greenland approximately 1,000 years ago. The land had previously been populated by various North American cultures and by Vikings from Iceland but, presumably owing to climatic changes, it has been the present Inuit population who have survived. There are also approximately 10,000 Danish residents in the country.

The population is now about 56,000 of which 14,000 reside in the capital city, Nuuk. The principal occupations are fishing and the hunting of birds and sea mammals. In South Greenland there is a modest amount of farming concentrating on the raising of sheep supplemented by some fishing. New occupational activities centre around tourism, which is gaining a foothold in some places.

The country's official language is Greenlandic, an Inuit language which is related to the Inuit languages of North America but, owing to the influx of Danes, the Danish language predominates in administration, the media and education.

Greenland, which became an autonomous province of the Danish Commonwealth in 1979, is governed by a Legislative Assembly with 27 members. The eighteen individual municipalities are administered by locally elected officials. The Legislative Assembly sets the framework within which all local laws are enacted, but foreign policy and the justice system are administered in cooperation with the Danish authorities. As a member of the Danish Commonwealth, Greenland has in addition two Seats in the Danish Parliament.

A Historical Overview of Education in Greenland

Danish colonization of Greenland began in 1721 with the establishment of a Danish mission and the conversion and baptism of the population. The Lutheran Protestant missionaries were greatly concerned that the Christian population be able to read the Bible and other religious works, and so schools were established. In 1724, two Greenlanders were sent to Denmark to learn the language and customs of the country.

In the early period of the colonization some school teachers were Danish catechists and missionaries who, because of inadequate education and linguistic abilities, were not successful in serving the needs of the population. Therefore, in 1845 a teachers' college, Ilinniarfissuaq, was established to educate Greenlanders to this profession.

In his diary of 1844-49 Janssen, a missionary who tutored Greenlandic catechists, wrote, "The catechist asked for permission to dismiss the school in order to go out in his kayak to collect birds' eggs. He is 54 years old, a competent teacher and a capable choir leader" (Peter Berliner, 1987). On June second, 1844, in Maniitsoq, Janssen observed students in class and wrote, "The weather was rather mild, and we sat during the midday hours with the windows open. We were four hours at lessons, and the children's proficiency was rather according to expectations; they all learned to read, write and do arithmetic as well as learning the textbook, the Bible story book, and the catechism by heart. Some of the older students were able to read fluently - better than the young carpenter on the ship" (ibid.).

In 1905 a School Act was promulgated, the teachers' college greatly enlarged, and some young Greenlanders sent for further education to Denmark.

Concerning the 1920's, Christian Berthelsen, the first Greenlander to become a School Director, related, "About the textbooks we had, I can remember a Greenlandic reader, a book of Bible stories, the catechism, hymn book and a history of Denmark. I was promoted to the class for older students in the middle of the school year. Evidently I was all of a sudden mature enough for that. I can clearly remember my first history lesson. It was concerning Christopher the second, and I learnt it all by heart, and I knew the piece by heart many years later" (ibid.).

"Our teacher didn't neglect geography, and in Danish history we learnt the succession of Danish kings. World history with the migration of ethnic groups and the first World War were also among the subjects. On the other hand we didn't hear so much concerning the history of Greenland. We learned little in mathematics over and above the four arithmetical skills" (ibid.).

In 1928 the Danish language was introduced as a school subject in Greenland. Concerning the teaching of Danish Berthelsen wrote, "I was among those who experienced the beginning of Danish instruction in the public school. It was two years before I left the public school when Bugge's Danish textbook with Hans Lynge's illustrations was published. It was a school book that really made a hit because it opened a new world for us, and because it was illustrated with drawings" (ibid.).

In the 1930's prominent Greenlanders began to work toward the ending of Greenland's colonial status. The few Greenlanders who had received permission to travel To Denmark also criticised the schools for being too antiquated to rise to the challenges facing Greenland in conjunction with the transition from traditional hunting activity to the fishing industry. There was the desire for more and better instruction in the Danish language and for increased academic performance in the educational system. However the criticism that was directed against the schools of the period did not result in substantial changes for either the schools or for the training of teachers.

The Second World War and the United Nation's policy concerning the phasing out of colonial possessions had consequences for the political administrators of Greenland. With the changes to the Danish Constitution in 1953 Greenland became an equal part - a county - of Denmark. The end of the colonial period and the transition to a free democratic society brought about the need for substantial changes in the institutions of the society. The content of schools and education was gradually brought in line with Danish standards. In order to implement the changes teachers and administrators from Denmark were hired. As far as the public schools were concerned the Greenlandic School Act of 1967 was almost identical to the Danish public school law, and the Danish law concerning teacher education was applied to Ilinniarfissuaq in 1964, though with a few adjustments to the needs of Greenlandic society. In order to accommodate the public schools' need to train Greenlandic teachers, a temporary two year teacher training program was begun in 1973. This arrangement continued with legal status until the end of the '70's. In the vocational education field Danish derived training was gradually introduced in Greenland with cooperation between Greenlandic and Danish authorities.

The first political action after the establishment of Home Rule in 1979 was the enactment of a new school statute, in which it was stipulated that the language of instruction should be Greenlandic. There was also the stipulation that the contents of the school subjects should to a greater extent be adjusted to the needs of Greenlandic society. An obligatory nine year elementary and middle school were established, upon completion of which students could choose to attend a two year "Continuation School", completion of which would confer a public school diploma. If students had the need for further qualifications, they could choose to continue in a "Course School" and receive instruction that met their needs.

The gradual improvement in instruction in the public school resulted in the need for the introduction of high school/college training in Greenland. A two year Danish "Adult Education" course, with substantial accommodations to Greenlandic culture was introduced at Ilinniarfissuaq in Nuuk in 1977. A few years later high school/college training courses in Aasiaat and Qaqortoq were also established.

In 1981 the Legislative Assembly adopted a new executive order on teacher training at Ilinniarfissuaq. The revised course was a four year arrangement, in which was included a one year practicum at a school in Greenland. In order to increase the number of Greenlandic speaking teachers during the '80's various gradual alterations to the standard training program were initiated. Specific arrangements for teaching assistants and kindergarten teachers who had attended to educational tasks in the public schools for a number of years were also begun.

The Current Situation of Education in Greenland

With the advent of Home Rule in 1979 there had been appointed a minister for culture and education. At the present time the minister's responsibilities have been expanded to include culture, education and research. A deputy minister manages the daily operation and administration of the directorate, which is divided into two units run by deputy directors, the one looking after the management of vocational education, and the other looking after the public school, high school/college, Ilinniarfissuaq, Ilisimatusarfik, Inerisaavik /Pilersuiffik and research.

The Public School

Following a comprehensive commission investigation in which parents, members of school boards and local politicians got the opportunity to express themselves, a new School Act was adopted in 1990. The intention behind the preparation of the School Act was that the quality of public school instruction and the benefit to the students should steadily develop. The Act also stipulates that Danish speaking students shall be integrated into Greenlandic speaking classes, beginning with Grade 1 in the school year 1994/95.

The public school in Greenland is operated as a municipal school. The Legislative Assembly provides the legal standards and operating rules for the school and its administrators. The individual municipal authorities guide the students' daily work, and for each school is provided a school board, which ensures the influence of parents in the daily activities of the school, as its electorate is composed solely of parents. Economic support for the schools is provided to the municipalities by way of grants from the Legislative Assembly.

The administrative and pedagogic management of the schools is handled by a municipal school principal. The remaining town schools or settlement schools are directed by a principal if the school is large enough. Smaller schools are directed by a head teacher.


There were in all 9,785 students in 753 classes in the school year 1992/93. The students were distributed among 24 town schools, 62 settlement schools and one school for the specially handicapped. In addition there is provision for home instruction for children living on isolated sheep farms and in hunting areas.

Students who find it difficult to live at home while attending school may live in student residences which house students from within the settlements of the municipality.


In the school year 1992/93 was assembled an instructional force of 835 persons, although there were employed 219 hourly teaching assistants who attended to instruction corresponding to 139 full time teaching positions.

The composition of teaching personnel for the school year 1992/93:

Greenlandic teachers


Danish teachers


Greenlandic hourly instructors teaching a total of 3040 hours


Danish hourly instructors teaching a total of 713 hours


School administrators for 1992/93:












Recreation directors





Source: Den Grønlandske Folkeskole, Pilersuiffik 1993.

The number of Greenlandic teachers will increase within the next few years and the number of hourly instructional assistants will decrease correspondingly. The steadily improving public school instruction ensures a growing number of students at the high school/college level, and this development has resulted in an increased number of recruitment possibilities for teacher education at Ilinniarfissuaq.

During the '80's vocational education was decentralised with the establishment of local vocational schools in individual towns. The intention was to ensure a more local orientation in vocational education, create more educational centres and create possibilities for the rapidly increasing number of members of the society seeking education, to establish better cooperation among school administrators and more training sites, and to ensure a continuity in the career development of the country's youth. The local vocational schools have proven successful in many areas, giving young people basic technical knowledge, skills and positive attitudes within the area of training they have chosen. A two year educational residence at a local vocational school gives youths the qualifications to be "trainee" workers in their field and also gives them the possibility of completing their education at a two year "trainee" school with the writing of a journeyman's exam.

Greenlandic Language Instructional Materials

As the Greenlandic language is spoken by only approximately 50,000 people, there is a strong tradition among teachers in Greenland for the individual development of instructional materials, but instructional materials in the Greenlandic language have published, since the beginning of formal education in the previous century. In the lower classes there is a supply of good instructional materials in Greenlandic in all subjects, but the higher classes to a greater extent must make use of Danish language materials. At this time various educational materials are published in Greenlandic and Danish by the Greenlandic publishing house, Attuakkiorfik.

Pilersuiffik, Greenland's centre for the distribution of educational materials, produces and distributes video and sound media, as well as school radio and television materials for Greenlandic children. Teachers can also request information and materials, literature and specific materials for the solution of particular instructional problems.

Inerisaavik: Centre for Pedagogical Development and In-service Teacher Training

The establishment of Inerisaavik is linked with the adoption of the School Act of October 25, 1990. Inerisaavik's main objectives are to contribute to the fulfillment of the act's educational goals and to insure that teaching methods and practices will continue to develop in accordance with the development of society.

In order to determine Inerisaavik's direction, administration, organization and function the following goals were determined for Inerisaavik (Karl Kristian Olsen, 1991):

  • the development of educational methods to benefit the individual teacher and student
  • the implementation of developmental projects in the individual school
  • the development and testing of new educational material; applied research
  • the development of curricula
  • preparation of educational guides for the various public school subjects
  • the coordination, planning, implementation and evaluation of in-service courses and further training for all educators and administrators in the public school system.

For the management of Inerisaavik, a steering group has been designated with the following composition: the head of the Directorate of Culture, Education and Research (chairman), the head of the Directorate's public school section, the rector of Ilinniarfissuaq and the director of Inerisaavik.

Teacher Training- Ilinniarfissuaq

Teacher training in Greenland has a proud 150 year history. The present teacher training law was enacted in 1989. Teacher training at Ilinniarfissuaq can progress through a three year campus based program or a four year field-based program of which the last year is completed on campus at Ilinniarfissuaq.

In the last four decades Greenland has had a continuing lack of Greenlandic speaking teachers. However, the steadily improving level of instruction in the society has brought about an increase in recruitment possibilities for teacher training.

In-service and Post-employment Training of Teachers

Through cooperation among the Directorate of Culture, Education and Research, Ilinniarfissuaq, Inerisaavik, Pilersuiffik and the teachers' professional organisations a yearly catalogue of courses is produced, giving the various possibilities for education. The content, form, extent and target group of the courses vary greatly. There are distance education courses, internal courses, local courses and various forms for study groups, etc. Besides courses in Greenland, students can also apply for one-year courses at the Royal School of Education in Denmark. At the Royal School of Education teachers can perfect their abilities in praxis related courses, but they can also study for B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. A new course offering at Ilinniarfissuaq will be a one-year course in native language education for the 1994/95 school year.

Ilisimatusarfik - Greenland's University

Ilisimatusarfik, Greenland's university, began as the Inuit Institute in 1983, offering two year studies in Greenlandic grammar, Greenlandic literature, Greenlandic history, and in political science within a Greenlandic framework. The examination was at the B.A. level.

In 1989 the Inuit Institute Act was replaced by an act setting up Ilisimatusarfik. Greenland's university is divided into three departments, of Greenlandic Language and Literature, of Culture and Society and of Administration. All departments offer studies leading to examinations at the B.A. and M.A. levels. Before the students begin their study in a particular department they must pass an introductory year. Only Greenlandic speaking students who have graduated from High School are accepted as students. 13 to 18 students have enrolled in Ilisimatusarfik each year since its founding, to a total of 60 students in 1992.

Greenlandic Students at Danish Universities

In the last decade the number of Greenlandic students at Danish universities has increased, owing to the fact that the Home Rule government provides good support for all who seek education. Youth receive stipends as long as they continue their education; moreover they receive support for housing and book expenses, and the cost of one holiday trip to their home town per year.

The Greenlandic students at Danish universities were divided up as follows in 1992:

Technical and scientific studies:





Qualifying year




Chartered Surveyor


Administrative data processing


Medical and scientific studies:

Veterinary Medicine






Qualifying year








Social Sciences:



Political Science


Qualifying Year








Arts Studies:



Qualifying Year






International Trade


Source: Karsten Rosendahl, Koordinationsgruppen vedr. de videregaende uddannelser, Direktoratet for Uddannelse, Kultur og Arbejdsmarked, 1992.

The Home Rule Government has also prepared the way for students, should they so choose, to go to North American colleges and universities. In 1992 there were a total of 17 students in North America. Ilisimatusarfik has in recent years entered into cooperation with universities in Scandinavia and North America, which has had the result that students who have been at Ilisimatusarfik for some semesters can study in Scandinavian and North American universities.

The political goal of the creation of an autonomous Greenlandic educational system with culturally negotiated institutions is undergoing a process of evolutionary change in these years. In the ten years since the achievement of home rule the politicians, administrators, parents and students have, through their participation in the local political process, acquired the tools for reconciling the external needs of the ever changing complex world and the cultural and educational needs of the modern autonomous Greenlandic society.

The post-colonial evolution of political reality has given rise to a pattern of pedagogical development concerning instruction in the public schools in which teachers, students and parents have obtained extended ownership of the institution through participation in the planning, implementation and evaluating of the learning process.


Peter Berliner, Afha ngighed og Udfordring, DLH, 1987.

Peter Berliner, Skole og Samfund, DLH, 1986

Christian Berthelsen, Træk fra den grønlandske skoles udvikling, Selskabet for dansk skolehistorie, DLH, 1979.

Den Grønlandske Folkeskole, Direktoratet for Kultur, uddannelse og Arbejdsmarked, Pilersuiffik 1993.

Mikael Gam, Kalaallit Nunaanni Atuarfik, Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri, 1952.

Mads Lidegaard, Kristendommen og den eskimoiske kultur, Tidsskriftet Grønland, 1991.

Karl Kristian Olsen, Inerisaavik - en ny institution, Nyt fra PI nr. 3, Inerisaavik/Pilersuiffik 1991.

Karl Kristian Olsen, The Field-based Teacher Education Program in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), Proceedings of the Circumpolar Conference on Literacy, Department of Education, NWT, 1992.

Karsten Rosendahl, Koordinationsgruppen vedr. de videregaende uddannenser, Direktoratet for Uddannelse, Kultur og Arbejdsmarked, 1992.



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer, educational institution, and provider is a part of the University of Alaska system. Learn more about UA's notice of nondiscrimination.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 15, 2006