Reflections on Denmark: A Conversation between Dov and Matt

Fellows Benjamin, Matt, and Dov chatting at BHS earlier this fall

On Monday, October 15th, Partnership for Change Fellows Matthew Webb and Dov Stucker gathered with Drew Blanchard, Signe Daly, and Partnership co-cordinator Alan Tinkler for an informal conversation with Peter Sloth (whose last name means ‘castle’ in Danish). Peter, who was here visiting Signe, his cousin, is a teacher in his native Denmark. The conversation ranged broadly, but explored many of the differences in philosophy, design, and practice between our two education systems.

The following discussion took place a few days after the conversation with Peter.

Dov: One fascinating aspect of the Danish system is the fact that, while some early-adolescents choose to go directly to “Gymnasium” [for which the closest analogy is U.S. high schools], many students opt to enroll in boarding schools when they are 14-15 years old. These schools are often far enough from home that students only go home on the weekend. Many are fully project-based. While at boarding school, traditional disciplines fade away, and student groups work with teacher-facilitators to investigate local and global issues and solve relevant problems. Along the way, they log their own learning daily, and reflect with their advisors. Finally, they present their collective findings for standing-room-only audiences at the end of the year. I’m curious what you think about this approach to the early high school years.

Matt: So, I was a summer camp counselor all through college, and many times over the years, I’ve thought that the best thing for middle schoolers, maybe grades 6-9 or 10, actually, would be to get them living and doing projects outside.  I’m not saying there wouldn’t be academics: brain research shows that the early adolescent brain has tremendous capacity for growth in traditional areas, including music and world language.

But it seems there is a much more logical way – an ‘early-adolescent-friendly’ way – of providing kids with these and other experiences.  It also aligns with my belief that tech programs start much, much too late.  Kids in that middle age range benefit from being active and doing things with their bodies and hands, yet wood shop and sewing have disappeared from many middle schools.  Seat time isn’t just a phrase, it’s literally what we make children do all day: sit and sit some more.  Following my camp analogy, and like Peter’s boarding school students, I think many kids would benefit from living in cabins during the week, away from sedentary temptations like video games, and being active with project-based learning and the tasks that would support that kind of life – like learning to cut wood, keep a garden, cook nutritious food.

All of which is to say that I think the Danish approach Peter discussed with us makes a ton of sense for kids in the 11-16 range.

Dov: What you observe about “seat time” resonates with me. While the schools in which we teach and learn in are certainly more innovative than schools of the 50’s, or the 30’s, I have to believe that if a time traveler from the previous century were to magically appear in our classrooms, what they observe would actually be strikingly familiar. Learners are sitting; teachers are delivering Knowledge. While I do hold some hope that new technologies (including iPads and laptops) will help us acknowledge that today’s young people are growing up in a world where knowledge itself is freely available–finally relieving teachers of the responsibility of being the sole arbiters of content–I also love the idea of learners being in the world, as opposed to merely in front of their screens.

Another interesting aspect of how the Danes approach the early-adolescent years is that the project-based learning is exploratory, as opposed to preparatory. While it is hands-on, it’s not career-driven. Students don’t actually choose coursework based on potential career interests until later on. This seems to illustrate a deliberate approach to student growth, namely the idea that learners should grow as individuals and community-members first, before defining who they are by “what they want to be.”

Matt: You’ve really hit on both an advantage and a challenge of technology.  The advantage is that it frees us up from teaching the way we used to, which was by some level of necessity teacher-directed.  While it was one great way for one type of student to get lots of information, it could also be boring and tedious, a real turnoff to many other types of students, not to mention not the crucible for critical thinking that we like to say we’re aiming for.

The key, and the challenge, is that it requires teachers to think completely differently about how they structure classes.  Classes need to be problem-based, and assessment must be proficiency-based, for the iPad or laptop to become more than an augmentation tool.  If I think of my own high school history teacher 22 years ago, her facts-and-worksheets approach could be replicated pretty closely on an iPad with an online textbook and electronic formats for worksheets.  Bear in mind this is unlike anything students in stimulating careers will be asked to do once they leave formal education.  On the other hand, the devices start living up to their full potential the more classes focus on interdisciplinary questions with multiple avenues to answers.

Anyway, we’ve been brought through systems that generally reward getting the right answer the fastest.  It creates a fair amount of uncertainty when teachers trade in something that feels so familiar, clean-cut, and organized, for something that at times feels uncertain and is much more out of our control.

Dov: Which brings up another question… How is it possible for so many Danish early-adolescents to leave home, and immerse themselves in integrated project-based and problem-based learning? The answer can be found in the cultural context of the country. First, despite a new wave of immigrants, Denmark is still essentially a homogeneous society. In addition, it only has five-and-a-half million people. It also has an egalitarian, collectivist culture. Finally, equally relevant to this issue, it has a tax rate nearly 25% higher than ours–ensuring a social safety net that can not only provide basic public education, but actually pay young people to attend college. In Western Europe, this approach to learning makes sense. It’s a natural extension of the kind of society the Danes hope to replicate, with each generation.

How might schools help seed the kind of society that we want here in the United States?

Matt: I hadn’t really thought about the immigration connection: a homogeneous, left leaning place meets increased racial diversity and religious traditionalism.  Our two communities, Burlington and Winooski, are so unique in that regard here in Vermont, and we have a lack of models.  Is northern Europe a possibility, or is social democracy too far removed from our reality in the U.S.?  Not to mention that numerous countries in Europe have had some high-profile public relations disasters in their approach to Muslim immigrants.

And can we talk about trust now?  Is their trust in teachers and the system not merely abetted by cultural homogeneity, but actually based in it?  It really struck me how Danes trust that giving half their income to the government, and by extension to schools with incredible latitude, is such an expression of faith in community and education as a societal good.

Dov: I’ll respond to both ideas you introduce… First, the issue of homogeneity is an interesting one. It’s true that Burlington and Winooski have few analogous models here in Vermont, but I’m not sure that Denmark is the best teacher, at least in this case. Denmark’s education system, which is caring, creative, and collectivist, is intended to re-establish the societal norms of the country. These norms, in turn, feed and support their approach to education. Our current system in the U.S. also replicates values–as all systems do–but they may not be the ones that actually serve us in the 21st century. Times have changed, and a new approach seems to be called for.

The good news is that the rapid shifting of our own demographics may provide the opportunity to ask questions that even technological and economic change have not yet forced us to ask. How responsive is our model of education? How resilient? And are we truly preparing young people for the dynamism and interdependence of today’s world–let alone tomorrow’s?

Regarding trust, there seems to be such a copious amount in a place like Denmark that I wish we could import some across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, trust is something that container ships can’t carry. And it may not actually fit with our own culture. Even in a relatively collectivist state like Vermont (the only state with the word “unity” in its motto–although, funny enough, Texas’ “Friendship” comes the closest), the idea of responsibility and self-efficacy runs deep. It may be worth thinking about what Danish “trust” seems to cultivate–including creativity, teacher-professionalism, and humanism–and reflecting on how we can encourage the same goals here in the Green Mountains.

Matt: You’ve gotten me thinking about what shifting demographics could mean for Burlington and Winooski, and also about what values the Partnership might foster right here.

In that light, what I’m rooting for the most is a network of people in these communities whose combined energy has a positive effect on the schools.  If community members have a collective, largely grassroots experience that results in demonstrable changes, they will carry that forward in their approach to community, whether or not there is a grant to support them.  Taking the long view: a community of people who believe they can affect the system – and even better, with some of the efficacy to do it – would be an amazing legacy.

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