AGC’s Innovation Fund offers educators the opportunity to develop innovative learning practices through travel, study, and pilot programs. Two Middle School educators — Ms. Feduniec, MYP Science teacher, and Ms. Salazar, MYP Spanish teacher — received an Innovation Fund grant to study Scandinavian pedagogy and school design in Denmark. They shared their learnings upon return to help enrich teaching and learning across AGC’s curriculum. We are excited to share these “Lessons from Denmark” with you now.
Lessons from Denmark
When we learned about the incredible opportunity our school was offering to engage in an innovative international learning experience, we immediately thought “Scandinavia!”
Many of us at AGC are already familiar with the high ratings that Scandinavian countries have earned on various global indices. From sustainable energy production to free universal healthcare and education, subsidized day care and a shorter work and school day, it is not surprising that the standard of living in these countries is often touted as a paragon for overstressed Americans. It is also easy to understand why most Scandinavian countries regularly occupy the top spots of the Global Happiness Index. This year, Finland holds the top spot, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
But enough about that! Our goal, after all, was not to completely restructure the fabric of our society. What drove us educators was the desire to learn more about Scandinavian instructional practices and how other factors worked together to make Scandinavian students academically competitive on such a global scale.
Our first question was — which of these meccas of welfare and happiness did we want to visit? Because AGC is developing a new campus right here on the Southwest side of Chicago which uses design to fuel inquiry-based learning, we decided to focus our study on innovative school designs that foster 21st century learning. AGC’s new campus is heavily influenced by Scandinavian school design, due in large part to the collaboration of celebrated Danish designer, Rosan Bosch. After some research, and several emails and phone calls, we identified three Danish schools renowned for their learning environments: Buddinge, Hellerup, and the International School of Billund (ISB.)
During our visit, we toured each school and interviewed students, teachers and administrators. We gained a tremendous amount of insight about the schools in particular and the country in general. Although each of these schools is unique in character, design, and location, they also shared a focus on traditional academic disciplines. We therefore divided our findings into two categories: the first one highlighting the new and innovative, and the second paying homage to the oldies but goodies.
Here are our lessons from Denmark.
On Creative Design:
One of the very first things that you will notice upon visiting any of these three schools is the creative use of space. When we first walked into Hellerup, we were taken aback by the grand and open staircase connecting all the levels of the building. This staircase is not only the physical center but, as one teacher put it, “the living, breathing heart” of the school. It serves a multitude of purposes as students use it daily for dance, games, reading, working, socializing and exercise. It even houses a built-in amphitheater in the shape of a whale!
The school’s overall design is reminiscent of a hive, with learning spaces branching out in a circular fashion from the staircase. This open concept space makes the learning process dynamic and ever-changing. Students are not confined to a single classroom environment, but have the capacity to move spaces and even create their own spaces depending on the nature of their work. They may gather in a larger hub for direct instruction, but move to a smaller nook or space for individual or partner-based work. As much as the space inspires autonomy, it feels incredibly interconnected at the same time. Standing on the top floor, one can see what is happening in every direction on the floors below it, which promotes a sense of collective unity.
Although the architectural stamps of Buddinge and the International School of Billund are vastly different from that of Hellerup, these schools also provide unique and creative use of space. Buddinge’s recently renovated upper grade wing boasts a colorful and fun open space with an array of flexible seating options: a room of colorful ascending padded seats known as the “mountain,” nooks for small group work, and even a room of padded rolling hills upon which kids can sit, play and learn. The design is ideal for students with different sensory needs.
According to Michael Gundlund, a school leader at Buddinge, this new space was an experiment of sorts. It was mainly intended to promote 21st century learning, with a focus on creativity, communication and collaboration, as well as student motivation. So far, the experiment seems to be working. The students adjusted quickly to the new design. They seem to love their new space and their academic outcomes seem to be improving.
The adjustment for teachers was more challenging than it was for their students. Rasmus, a History and Language Arts teacher, said that the move meant a “complete realignment of teaching and pedagogy.” Moving from traditional classrooms to an essentially open and shared space meant they “had to learn how to plan and collaborate better together.” They adapted to a new model of teaching. In this model, a lesson might begin in a group setting or “campfire,” move to a small group nook or “cave,” transition next to a hands-on or “movement” setting and culminate at the “mountaintop” for a presentation and collective discussion. Despite the fluid movement across spaces, these lessons are structured and need be planned out ahead of time. Luckily the school employs someone to manage the often complicated scheduling of these spaces so that teachers can focus on instruction.
Another imperative component in each of these school designs is nature. Most learning spaces have big windows and are flooded with natural light. Trees and gardens surround the schools and are often embedded within them. ISB features numerous inner courtyards while Hellerup boasts a rooftop garden. Buddinge went even further by making each learning space accessible to the outdoors. When weather permits, learning at Buddinge is happening outdoors just as much, if not more, as it is indoors.
With all this creative and innovative design, our Danish colleagues also imparted a few pragmatic details. They encouraged attention to the size of learning spaces. More flexibility requires more space, especially when there is a variety of teaching happening simultaneously in a shared space. They also urged attention to acoustics. This is especially important in spaces with minimal interior walls. At Hellerup, the teachers and students make use of lockers, screens and furniture to foster small, intimate, and collaborative learning spaces while promoting concentration and minimizing auditory distractions. Danish educators know that trust is fundamental in innovative learning environments. Moving with autonomy through various spaces requires trust that students will behave appropriately. This means a lot of scaffolding is necessary for students, especially those with trauma and socio-emotional needs. This is an especially important point to keep in mind in our underserved community in Chicago, where many of our students have a history of trauma and where social work and counseling services are too often limited. Finally, Danish educators know that teacher input is paramount. Educators will have to do the most to adapt their practices to innovative learning spaces, and therefore, they should be intimately involved in the design process.
On Respecting Academic Disciplines:
While Hellerup and Buddinge are best known for innovative architecture, these schools also place great value in traditional disciplines including athletics, arts and science. Buddinge has several gymnasiums, outdoor sports fields, arts studios, woodshop studios, student kitchens, and science laboratories. Pretty impressive for a neighborhood public school!
Hellerup, which is located in a city, boasts a variety of outdoor sport and recreation areas for their students, including a track, soccer field, skate park and the mother of all playgrounds with sandboxes included. ISB, located in a less urban setting, celebrated the opening of a new outdoor running track on the day we visited. This investment reflects the important role that physical and mental well-being has in Danish society at large.
Speaking of well-being, did you know that students in many Danish schools prepare their own meals in school? Each of the schools we visited boasted a large area designated for collective cooking in middle school, with smaller kitchens for the younger grades. Many meals are prepared using discarded produce from local supermarkets that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill. We were excited to watch “scraps” transformed into culinary delicacies by students as young as fourth graders.
The respect for the arts and sciences within these schools is also something worthy of discussion. Buddinge boasts several arts studios catered to specific age groups, and a separate woodworking facility. ISB houses a spacious arts studio, an auditorium for performing arts, a library, a technology lab with specialized laser technology and even a robotics lab. Science laboratories are a staple of each school. The facilities vary to some degree but all are outfitted with standard chemistry equipment, hook ups and storage. ISB has even gone the lengths to separate their lab spaces by scientific discipline, one for chemistry and another for life sciences, and yes, both have access to the great outdoors, just in case you were wondering.
In the end, the greatest takeaway for us has been that innovative design and practices definitely enhance student learning, but there is also value in tradition and practices that work. A new building design is not a silver bullet, but it can fuel innovative teaching and learning. Michael Gundlund captures this ethos perfectly when he states, “Here in Denmark we already do education so well that we have the room to experiment.” Implementing a Scandinavian-inspired model here on the Southside of Chicago will require foresight, resources and collaboration. Thanks to our generous benefactors, AGC’s board of directors, assistance from our school founder Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, architect Trung Le, designer Rosan Bosch and our new friends at Buddinge, Hellerup, and ISB, we have gained new insights and look forward to putting them into practice right here at AGC.