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Part of the playground at the Hellerup School in Hellerup, Denmark. Staff encourage children to run, climb or skateboard during the breaks between lessons. (Courtesy of Hellerup School)
Part of the playground at the Hellerup School in Hellerup, Denmark. Staff encourage children to run, climb or skateboard during the breaks between lessons. (Courtesy of Hellerup School)

Canada Competes

No classrooms and lots of technology: a Danish school’s approach Add to ...

The first thing that stands out upon arrival at Hellerup School, where 640 students between the ages of 6 and 16 study on the former site of the Tuborg brewery in Denmark, is the absence of a fence separating the school from the street. Inside, there is no office to greet visitors. Instead, small shoes litter the floor and children of all ages sprawl on couches doing homework, play foosball or run about the open space that substitutes for classrooms.

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Upstairs, in an administrative office housed between some of the only walls in this four-storey building, headmaster Jorn West Larsen explains the method behind the apparent chaos of Hellerup. “We try to put the single child in the centre and challenge every child,” he says. “We let each child work in the learning style that is preferable for them.”

This philosophy – that students ought to determine how they best learn – informed how the municipality of Hellerup, a suburb of Copenhagen, built this flagship school a decade ago. Its open design and the absence of traditional classrooms allow students from all grades to intermingle during class. Cellphones are permitted and the youngest students are each given a laptop or tablet. Older students are free to come and go from school as they please, as long as they stay in touch with teachers by smartphone.

Internationally recognized for being innovative, Hellerup School is certainly not a typical Danish school. But the pedagogical strategies pioneered here are being adopted by traditional schools in Denmark, and Hellerup illustrates Denmark’s efforts to make classrooms more like the real world, especially when it comes to technology.

In global rankings Denmark typically performs well on indicators related to technology, such as access to high-speed broadband and technological literacy. In the World Economic Forum’s 2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report, Denmark ranked third overall on technological readiness, a measure about willingness to integrate new technology into the workplace to improve productivity.

The country’s schools offer a hint to how it has achieved its technology successes.

Mr. Larsen explains that a Hellerup education is all about equipping students with 21st century skills, such as synthesizing large amounts of information accessible online and working on problems with groups. “Our philosophy is that we have to give students academic skills, but just as important are social and personal skills.”

While Hellerup students don’t perform significantly better than others academically, Mr. Larsen says they graduate with much stronger soft skills. “Our children take something else away from school, from the project-based and student-to-student learning. We think this something is necessary for a globalized world,” he says. “Our manifesto is that we want this school to be a trampoline for life.”

The headmaster chats as he walks up wide stairs that rise from the open library in the centre of the building and double as seating during assemblies. He pauses at a small round “pod” where a class of 25 teenagers is crowded on a small bench and on the floor. A teacher is giving a 15-minute talk on new concepts the students will tackle in today’s math assignments.

Short lessons like this are the closest that Hellerup ever comes to a traditional lecture. For the majority of the day students are free to study wherever suits their fancy, alone or in groups. They cram into nooks and crannies throughout the school, dragging tables to quiet corners or busy balconies overlooking the library. Lockers can be moved to serve as barriers. The school’s furnishings are designed to be flexible and multipurpose. Anything goes.

As Mr. Larsen passes a corner of the building where Grade 2 students gather, a small child is returning her laptop to its shelf. She was looking up facts about a village she read about, she explains. The small act illustrates how at Hellerup technology is not isolated in a computer lab and taught only during computer class. By allowing smartphones and laptops, the idea is that students interact with technology at school in the way they will later in the workplace.

It is not only while doing homework that students are permitted to use technology. In 2009, Denmark became the first country in the world to allow students to use the Internet during national exams. Educators wanted to de-emphasize regurgitating facts, figures and formulas; exams are now designed to test a student’s effectiveness at finding and analyzing material under pressure.

Testing should resemble the real world, where the Internet is always within reach, the minister of education Bertel Haarder argued at the time. “Our exams have to reflect daily life in the classroom and daily life in the classroom has to reflect life in society.”

Technology is being adopted in classrooms all over the world. (The Turkish government is currently debating whether to purchase 15 million iPads for the education sector.) And many countries, most notably the United States, are looking to Denmark for solutions to help teachers use all this technology effectively.

The Danish company Netop has emerged as a leader in classroom management software. Originally, Netop’s R&D focused on remote control technology, explains vice-president of sales Ronny Tovgaard, but they quickly recognized the value to teachers who needed tools to manage high-tech classrooms.

Their software allows teachers to chat with students, view what they are doing on their computers, and broadcast their own screen to students’ computers for demonstration purposes. One of the most important purposes is to make educational content attractive to students so that they engage. “We see that if you want students to use educational software, you have to reflect what they are doing online in their homes,” Mr. Tovgaard says. “They don’t like e-mails so much. They use Twitter and chat and Facebook.”

Netop is developing new software that will allow students and teachers to seamlessly connect and do school work regardless of which device they are using or whether they are at school or at home. This cloud-based education concept could transform the relationship that students have with their school.

This technology would also allow parents to take a much bigger role in their child’s education. “Parents could log in to see up-to-date assessments from teachers,” Mr. Tovgaard says. “The cloud could replace the parent-teacher interview.”

Despite Denmark’s openness to technology, Hellerup’s headmaster Mr. Larsen argues that to use it meaningfully in the classroom, technology can’t be adopted only for technology’s sake.

“Our philosophy is that a computer is a wonderful tool, but it’s a tool, not the aim,” he says. “When it is sensible, we can provide technology, but the computer is not directing the activity.”

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