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Lessons from a school without walls

Through questions and prompts, the teacher also tries to help students develop greater insights into their individual abilities and the skills they need to build. Teachers might, for instance, help a student think through the stages of a group project or they might greenlight a student’s request to work outside, provided the student agrees to make progress reports at regular intervals. While older students typically enjoy the most autonomy, teachers have to attend carefully to students’ performance and struggles at all grade levels to make sure they are coping well with the added responsibility the freedom brings.

Another major component of the school’s curriculum is project-based work. Several times throughout the academic year, other classes are suspended, and students focus exclusively on their cross-disciplinary projects while working on small teams. At the end of a week devoted to a given project, groups present their work to teachers and peers.

Getting the balance between project-work, which allows students to tackle complex problems that draw on diverse skills, and lesson-based instruction can be tricky. When Reichstein joined Hellerup in 2015, project weeks exceeded regular instruction weeks. At that time, however, Reichstein also noted that students, despite performing well across subjects in their final exams, showed some weaknesses in reading and writing. In response, teachers have opted to increase the number of instruction weeks versus project weeks (it’s now roughly 50:50). “We still want to be a project-based learning school,” Reichstein said, “but we need to make room to learn the basic skills.”

When the school opened in 2002, it made headlines not only in Denmark but across Europe for its daring design and pedagogy. Education researchers flocked to visit and observe teachers and students at work. The central staircase, meanwhile, has become a reference point for architects around the world.

Hellerup School was all out there, changing rooms, everything. Now baby steps are being taken in other schools.
Graduate student Louise Tidmand, who is studying personalized learning at Denmark’s Aarhus University

Hellerup is not the first or only open-plan school (a concept that’s existed since the 1960s). Nor was it the first school in Denmark to explore philosophies to support personalized, student-directed learning (Reichstein previously worked in another Copenhagen school with similar goals). But the Hellerup project was noteworthy in how ambitiously it combined new teaching and architectural ideas.

Speaking of the building itself, Prakash Nair, an architect and president of the school-planning firm Fielding Nair International, called Hellerup “an adventure in change.” Nair, who has helped design many open-plan schools, explained that these buildings resemble contemporary working environments, but also enhance student autonomy and teacher collaboration.

In fact, Lønstrup, the counselor, points out that the open design at Hellerup requires cooperation. Without walls, the space creates total transparency: Everyone always knows what colleagues are doing and all must coordinate to share common areas. (No one would yell at a student in this environment, he explains. The teachers have agreed that is not a practice they want in their school — and everyone would know if someone broke that rule.)

That style does not appeal to every teacher, Lønstrup acknowledges. And it takes time for people to adjust. The week before school starts, therefore, is a crucial time for teachers and administrators to review, discuss and strategize for the coming year. Teams spend time firming up their techniques and approaches, to prevent backsliding into more traditional methods.

Students also have to adjust to the school. In Denmark, families have “free choice”: Parents can select, and children attend, any public school, provided there is room for new students. “I’ve been here since kindergarten and I like it a lot,” explained Anna, an eighth-grader, but, she added, her brother did not enjoy the school’s unusual space. He transferred, preferring a traditional classroom with assigned rooms and desks.

Hellerup is still, in many ways, a young school. But it’s already had an impact. Louise Tidmand, who is studying personalized learning as part of her graduate work at Denmark’s Aarhus University, points out that Hellerup’s scale of innovation has inspired other communities and educators. “Hellerup School was all out there, changing rooms, everything,” she said. “Now baby steps are being taken in other schools.” Other Danish schools have since adopted more flexible Hellerup-like student schedules, for example, and project-based learning is increasingly popular.

At first it looks really chaotic, but it’s not.
Søren Lønstrup, a teacher by training, who is currently a counselor and parent at Hellerup

Hellerup has also had to wrestle with challenges familiar to those who’ve experimented with personalized learning. For instance, critics question whether hyper-individualized learning experiences deprive students of opportunities to interact with each other.

Reichstein believes the school has already made shifts to alleviate this issue. “We have also moved a little bit away from the very individualized perspective and now we are focusing on building strong learning communities,” he said.

In practice, this change has been gradual. When the school opened, building on then-current trends in education that emphasized the idea that each child has a learning style, teachers used daily dialogues to help students identify their preferences and make the most of their personal style. As research challenged the ‘learning styles’ concept, teachers turned to newer ideas, guiding students in identifying strengths and targeting weaknesses. Today, teachers spend a significant amount of time encouraging students to develop interpersonal and collaborative skills, which are strengthened through team-based work.

Overreliance on technology is a recurring concern about personalized learning. Apps that serve up classwork based on student ability, for instance, risk putting each child in a separate learning bubble, isolated from others.

“It’s quite a dilemma,” Tidmand said, noting research suggests that too much time online could hurt social development.

The Hellerup School, meanwhile, has always emphasized student access to technology, although it has adjusted policies over time. Students spend much of their school day on computers, which they use to conduct research, work on assignments and, occasionally, communicate with each other.

Until recently, many students were also free to use cell phones. Initially, the school tried to reduce phone use, by allowing phone access only to students in grades 7 to 9, for example. Last year, however, a ban on smart phones was extended to all students, a decision driven by the desire to decrease student reliance on virtual interaction.

“We are always making changes here,” Lønstrup said. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back.” He added, however, that this flexibility is an ideal mindset for students and teachers alike, “We’re learning all the time.”

Source: HechingerReport

Last Updated on March 3, 2020

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