How does a Danish school teach 21st-century skills?

Education policymakers worldwide recognize that students need a broad range of skills such as creativity, collaboration, real problem-solving, critical thinking in order to thrive in the future.

But what does it mean in practice?

My blog aims at providing concrete examples about “how to teach 21st-century skills”.

That is why I met Karen, one of the co-founders of Den Grønne Friskole, in Copenhagen, Denmark. During my visit to her school, I discovered important things I wanted to share with you:

  1. How does a project-based learning school work, 
  2. The new role of teachers: from teachers to facilitators,
  3. Why living by the “here and now” is so important,
  4. How chopping wood can teach pupils grit and persistence,
  5. A simple trick to teach creativity in the classrooms. 

Den Grønne Friskole, a project-based learning school

Den Grønne Friskole developed a “model for structuring learning activities and projects that foster sustainable learning by integrating different ‘ways of knowing’ in each activity or project.”

5 facts to understand Den Gronne Friskole:

  1. Learners work only on projects,
  2. The school gives the same importance and time to arts and crafts as they do to academic disciplines,
  3. Students get out of the classroom every day, learning in the park or working in the schoolyard,
  4. The school’s most important innovation is Snail-Based Learning, a structure created by Beverly Derewianka based on her observations of how children naturally learn (go to Hundred.org to understand the model better)
  5. Den Grønne Friskole is an independent school, which is 75% publicly funded

To learn more about how the project learning methodology is implemented in the school, I recommend you visit Karen’s innovation on Hundred.org.

From teachers to facilitators

 8h30. Debate time

The first activity of the day consists of debating.

50 pupils and 4 adults are watching two videos:

  • One video was about the Gay Pride Festival that took place that week.
  • The other one was about a measure to control child obesity in Denmark.

Then, one of the adults asks the students their thoughts on the video.

Here, teachers are not called “teachers” but “adults”. The idea behind this is to be seen as “facilitators” and not as “experts”. Something else really drew my attention.

Whenever another adult wishes to speak, he or she also raises her/his hand and waits patiently to be asked to speak.

“Why?” I asked.

By raising their hand, adults in the school wish to show pupils that:

  1. their point of view is not superior,
  2. the society is built on equality,
  3. no matter who gives an answer, what is important is being able to explain one’s opinion

Why is it important to focus on the “here and now”?

9h00 – Homemade musical instruments out of wood.

The next activity was about making homemade musical instruments out of wood.

In the school, children are allowed to use real tools, reals knives, real saws! Here, kids are taught how to use the knives properly, therefore knives are used as a tool, not as a weapon. Once a child has learned to use a tool well, they get a certificate that they understand the use and the safety precautions to take.  

What is the point? “It is about teaching autonomy, and responsibility.”

More illustration of that kind of documentary of that school in Denmark:

I then asked one of the adults, a naive question: “how long does it take the children to turn a piece of wood into a music instrument”?

One adult replied:

Here, we do not think about “what is next”? We focus on what is now! We do not work thinking about what we will be doing next! We focus on the quality of our work. Maybe this child will need a few weeks while another one will require a few months”

This quote really had a big effect on me and I am still thinking about it while travelling: are we always thinking about the future and forgetting to live in the present?

Can persistence be taught?

After lunch: back to chopping wood

This activity around the wood spread throughout the day.

Coming back from lunch, pupils could choose to go back to chopping wood or to draw an animal. The majority of them decided to stick with their wood activity. I was amazed by their patience, their thoroughness, and their interest in this activity. Here, there is no notion of “belongingness”. Pupils don’t write their name on their work. Besides, they just keep their piece of work according to its level of advancement.

Karen explained to me that through this activity, children learn how to focus for long hours, and she thinks that, in our over-connected world, this sense of persistence is a valuable skill to learn.

A simple trick to teach creativity in the classrooms

Pupils are required to follow instructions like in every school in the world. For instance, in the “cooking” class, pupils were asked to follow a recipe, step by step.

But, what if, at the end of each project, pupils are required to make their own solutions? That is the case at Den Gronne School. In our example, children are asked to come up with a new recipe and work on sharing their own solutions to others. Pupils seemed to like teaching each other. This peer learning activity is based on the principle that “teaching is remembering”.

A the end of the day, I asked one of the children, how she felt about her school.

Her answer made my day:

“I am happy to come to school because it is fun. In my previous school, I had to be perfect. Now, I just have to be me, and that makes me happy.”

 For future posts from What If Spirit, please follow me here or on Twitter @whatifspirit or @anaissalson

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