When principal Lasse Reichstein stands on the wide, wooden staircase in the middle of his school, he can see and hear more than 650 students — kindergarten through ninth grade — at work all around him. On each of the school’s three stories, teams of teachers huddle to discuss new pedagogies, while some students chitchat and others present their latest projects, all under the bright, clear light of the atrium windows. No classroom walls divide them.
“It really builds, in my view, a special feeling that this is a community,” Reichstein said.
Reichstein works at the Hellerup School in the suburbs north of Copenhagen, Denmark. Hellerup is an open-plan school. There are no classrooms but rather a series of contiguous, multipurpose spaces arrayed around the central stairs, which themselves double as social meeting areas or lecture seats. Furniture and temporary folding walls form moveable enclaves and nooks.
The innovative building, which allows teachers and students to create spaces together, is just one manifestation of the Hellerup School’s vision. Compared to children at a traditional school, students at Hellerup have a tremendous amount of freedom in how they work. Although their schedule is punctuated by brief periods of teacher-led instruction, much of the children’s day is flexible. Students carry out coursework in the manner and pace that suits them — whether it’s sprawled on a sofa in a quiet corner or within a gaggle of talkative classmates sharing a common computer. As a 2013 report from the EU Joint Research Center put it, the school emphasizes “learner choice and empowerment in every possible area.”
The school’s aim is to foster an environment in which student and teacher together are jointly responsible for learning. That heightened sense of ownership, which some research suggests could strengthen students’ desire to learn, is one of the many facets of an educational approach called “personalized learning.” Although definitions vary broadly, personalized learning endeavors to design educational experiences that suit an individual student’s abilities and interests. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction as technology offers new tools for both tracking student learning and customizing classwork based on past performance.
Hellerup, now in its 16th year of operation, is like a living laboratory for these ideas and one that has inspired other schools to take similar steps. Over time, the community has made adjustments, including increasing its emphasis on social development and collaborative work, in part to address concerns that personalized learning might be solitary learning. As the school continues to find its footing, it can offer lessons for other schools to follow, even if they do so on a smaller scale.
In many ways, Reichstein insists, Hellerup is “a completely normal public school, with the same goals as everyone else.” Like traditional schools, Hellerup’s student body is divvied up into grades; students are assessed based on projects, portfolios, and standardized tests; and teachers follow the national curriculum.
Teachers at Hellerup also prioritize developing their students’ interpersonal and social skills, a longstanding tradition in the country. In recent years, schools across the Nordic countries have also agreed to emphasize a set of “21st century skills,” such as creativity, metacognition and tech literacy, that should serve students as they become workers and citizens in a rapidly, changing knowledge-based society.
But on the ground at Hellerup, the school looks anything but ordinary. The 10 grades are each split into groups with a designated base (analogous to a homeroom) and teacher. Each morning, students check in with their teacher to discuss their strategies and goals for the day. When a class period begins, students assemble in an agreed-upon area and the teacher gives a brief introduction — often just 15 minutes — to the day’s lessons before students disperse to tackle the associated coursework.
“At first it looks really chaotic, but it’s not,” said Søren Lønstrup, a teacher by training, who is currently a counselor and parent at Hellerup. That’s because teacher-student dialogue, both in the morning and throughout the day, allows each teacher to negotiate with the student how he or she will handle schoolwork. Teacher and student agree in advance where and for how long the child’s work will be conducted — and the teacher helps students make decisions (work alone or in a group, for example) based on the individual skills and the assignment at hand.
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Last Updated on March 3, 2020
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