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Re-imagining Learning

I recently had the opportunity to tour a school in Denmark that has completely shifted their vision of what school looks like and how they think and talk about learning. The results have been phenomenal and have assured me that this kind of change is definitely possible! Thank you to the Søndervangskolen School for allowing us to visit and to Anne Katrine Kusk for the tour and for sharing the presentation that I will reference throughout this blog entry.

Søndervangskolen, a primary and secondary school, is located in Aarhus Denmark. It is home to 348 students, 96% of whom are bilingual, and represent more than 20 nationalities. They have a vision of being a school which houses all of the children in the district and their mission is to create a school which matches their students’ complex needs, with a focus on well-being and to make the students be winners in their own life. Ten years ago, they found themselves in a tough spot and they recognized the need to make some changes. They had low numbers of students, they were getting weak test results, they had high absence rates for students and employees, and they were sending a large number of students to schools for special needs. They noticed a sense of negative storytelling and there was a lot of conflict. The teachers and teaching assistants did not work well together and there was little to no collaboration with parents. The learning environment was very traditional with a lot of teacher talk, little collaboration between teachers and a distance management approach to leadership. I am fairly certain that many schools and educators can relate to some or many of these concerns. In fact, I am guessing that many of these concerns are the very reasons that educators are leaving the field. I will tell you, though, that this story has a happy ending, so keep reading…

The leaders and staff stepped back and decided to focus on their children and what they need. As a result, they developed a shared mindset for learning and a new culture for learning. The following image is from a presentation shared by Anne Katrine Kusk, which outlines their shared mindset:

They did not attempt to make this massive shift by fitting it into the existing structure and paradigms that landed them in this tough spot. Instead, they made a complete pivot and began to rethink everything from the spaces where they work to the spaces where students learn and beyond. They gutted the inside of their building and reworked the spaces to make them fit their new vision and mindset.

They started with the teachers and leaders and the spaces where they work and collaborate. The classrooms were transformed into learning spaces (more on that later), so the teacher space for planning and preparation was moved out of the classroom and into a shared space where they are able to engage more with their peers and collaborate effectively. The teaches have a large area with desks for working and meeting and lockers for their belongings. Right across the hall, the leaders have a similar, wide open space. This allows for easy access and collaboration among the leaders, and between leaders and teachers.

I was extremely impressed by an additional staff room that really honored and respected the teachers’ need for quiet, reflective time while at work as well. They have a staff room with comfortable chairs, soft lighting, carpeting, and live plants where teachers can go to read, rest, reflect, or simply put their feet up and take a break.

When you walk through the media center and head to the classrooms, there is a beautiful message hanging from the skylights that were cut into the ceiling as part of the re-model to bring more natural light into the building. I couldn’t help but think about the symbolism with the sky showing through the letters- boundless- no limits- reach for stars.

As you can see from the focus areas of Søndervangskolen’s new shared mindset and culture, there was a tremendous amount of time and effort invested in creating conditions for learning. This includes the physical environment, the language of learning used in the school, and their approach to learning. The hallways are filled with options for all types of physical movement:

The classrooms are clearly designed for learning and were learner focused. They are clean, open, clutter free and purposeful. Each classroom has multiple, designated learning areas, including an area for full class activities where the teacher has access to a screen display and there is space for a full class. The other spaces are for small groups or individuals to work, or for experiments, inquiries, and other activities.

The students’ need for quiet, personal time is also honored and respected in this re-design. A room that they refer to as the jungle room is a place where students may choose to go at any time they need a break or feel overwhelmed. There are games available for them to play, they can read, bring work to do, or they can rest and reflect.

This changed mindset and the changes in environment led to positive results in the school. Student scores on the compulsory 9th grade exams increased, moving their average score from low average to high average, there was much more collaboration within the staff, the culture was more positive, and the referrals of students to outside schools for special needs dropped dramatically, from a high of 53 in August 2009 to 31 in August 2016. In 2016, the leadership team decided they could still improve in their learning mindset and culture. They decided to engage in a Challenging Learning Process for the following reasons:

  • To secure continuous progression for the students at their school- with a focus on knowledge, attitude, and skills.
  • A wish to develop a shared mindset for learning, a shared language and approach for learning- a shared culture.
  • To move the leaders closer to the daily practice of learning and teaching. More shared leadership.

As a result of a thorough evaluation, which included interviews with staff, students, and parents and learning walks, Challenging Learning worked with the leadership team to identify the following three Aims:

  • To develop independent thinking and learning in students
  • To encourage a culture where there is a shared language for learning
  • To build a sustainable model of professional learning for teachers and leaders

For the next three years, Søndervangskolen worked with Challenging Learning to achieve these aims. They developed “champions”, who support the professional learning of teachers through a coaching model. For their leaders, they focused on developing a culture where they are able to build capacity for teachers’ professional learning while monitoring the progress of the work. They also worked on structures to actively engage parents, with the goal of having parents who are active and collaborative in the learning process. The Challenging Learning team conducted sessions throughout the three years to train and support the champions, model lessons, conduct parent meetings, and support the leaders in conducting learning walks. Between these sessions, though, the staff worked hard to continue the improvement work, using these key questions to guide their efforts: Where are we going? Where are we now? What’s next?

At the end of their 3 year journey, they have noticed a complete shift in the language of learning used by the staff and the students. Feedback in the classroom is focused on progress and learning and includes quality peer feedback. The students engage in more dialogue and are more willing to take risks. They have embraced the advantages of challenge and use the language of the Learning Pit to talk about how to demonstrate through their attitudes, skills and knowledge that they are learning and progressing. One impact we witnessed was the independence of the students. There were multiple learning spaces that we entered where there was no direct supervision by an adult and yet students were actively working and collaborating.

They have seen a continued drop in the number of students who are being sent to outside schools for special needs, reaching an all time low of 26 students in November, 2018.

The leaders in the buildings have moved from a distance management role to an active, instructional leader role. Through learning walks, they are able to see evidence of students engaged in peer collaboration, students able to articulate what they do when they “struggle”, clear, shared learning intentions and students discussing learning. They are then able to follow up with teachers and champions to celebrate the successes and talk about next steps.

Søndervangskolen has much to be proud of. They have done outstanding work and continue to strive for improvement as they focus on learning. Well done!!