One of my favorite aspects of the Danish National Learning Festival was not the amazing speakers and presenters — though there were many — nor was it the sheer quantity of innovative teaching tools and materials displayed in engaging booths staffed by energetic, earnest demonstrators — though an entire hall was filled with them. What was best was that everyone I met really wanted to make a difference in the lives of learners and was willing to make whatever choices they needed to make that happen. And what this appeared to mean most often for those in Denmark (like the other Nordics) was relinquishing the centering of the teacher and the teacher’s authority in favor of building around the learners’ identities, needs, and interests.
Those of us in the rest of the world hear much about what’s happening around learning in the Nordics, and in my visits, I’ve found much to admire. Municipalities, schools, and educational organizations are recognizing the need to try new approaches and engage learners in ways that take advantage not only of emerging technologies, but also emerging neurological and social understandings. Play, challenge-based and service learning, civic engagement, and the integration of new social and creation tools offer learners a path for discovery while also making a difference in their lives and communities. Sometimes those differences are grand and laudable; sometimes, they’re small — like creating a learning environment where kids can have fun. But what is most admirable and what I think the rest of the world needs to learn from these teachers and school leaders is that they are designed: intentionally built and intentionally executed to use particular approaches to deliver particular ends. Design is absolutely not something the Danes take lightly, and it showed in every conversation I had during my recent visit: how can we design a learning environment to produce capable, flexible, thoughtful, civically engaged citizens? Sadly, many schools and governments are far more concerned about other things: test scores, funding, compliance, bureaucratic service, preservation of established structures and patterns.
One of the best aspects of the Danmarks Læaringsfestival this year was that every person had to walk past the area pictured above, typically occupied by playing children. It’s amazing to me how many educational conferences are filled with experts and teachers but no learners. If nothing else, this was a great way to remind everyone at the conference what their work should really be about. And it was a great way to observe how many critical skills people at play have to exercise: communication, collaboration, strategy, knowledge, skill, awareness, and teamwork.
Traveling around the world and learning from so many people and approaches is a rare gift, and I’m grateful for my time learning in Denmark. Their focus on making — and making a positive difference — is something I’ll carry with me for a long time.