Danish classrooms built for empathy, happiness

With school back in session, The Local's opinion columnist Jessica Alexander argues that the very way Danish classrooms are organized help contribute to the country's happiness.

Danish classrooms built for empathy, happiness
Throughout their schooling, Danes are grouped together with their peers. Photo: Jens Thaysen/Scanpix
In my ongoing research about cultural differences and how the “Danish Way” of doing things really does impact happiness, I had some enlightening discussions recently with my two 18-year-old Danish nieces. 
We went over many things but, ironically, one of the most banal observations became the most intriguing. Strangely enough, we spent a lot of time talking about desks. Yes, school desks took the top seat as we discussed where they were placed and how they might contribute to our different cultural mindsets.
My nieces, Anne and Linnea, have both just came back from spending a year abroad in America as exchange students. One studied in Nebraska, went to prom and was on the swim team. The other lived in Ohio, became a school dancer and went to homecoming. This is not like going to New York, California or Disney World, places many Europeans associate with the US experience. These were real American experiences for a real amount of time and I was extremely curious to hear their thoughts from a Danish perspective. 
Our unexpected focus on desks began when both of them mentioned having difficulties remembering where their assigned seats were in their American high schools. I found this very odd indeed. Having spent my entire school career knowing exactly where my seat was in every class, I couldn’t understand why they would have trouble remembering this. That was until I understood how desks are arranged in Danish classrooms.
From a child’s first desk-sitting experience in Denmark, they are placed in groups, never individually. This continues right up through upper secondary school, when are often circular tables or variations of connected shapes. The main rule is that they are always together, never separate. The seats are not assigned per se. They change seats throughout the year so that they end up spending time sitting next to different students. Even if it isn’t openly discussed, students know that the teacher mixes students of varying abilities so that kids of different strengths and weaknesses can help each other. This is called cooperative learning and my co-author and I talk about it in more detail in our book.
This seating arrangement unwittingly encourages empathy because students have to try to understand another student’s issues in order to help explain how to solve them. It is also a very different set of skills to have to explain something to another person rather than just remember it individually. Interestingly, many studies show that teaching others actually enhances individual learning and memory retention much more than rote memorization.
In the US, desks are almost always more or less in individual lines apart from the rare extra curricular class like art or laboratory work. We American students know where our assigned seats are throughout the year and this doesn’t change. Looking over at someone else’s work ‘to help them’ randomly would most likely be considered interrupting or cheating.  Unless it is a specified group project, you do your own work and let others do theirs. The ‘smart kids’ and ‘hard workers’ will rise to the top. Those who can’t pass the tests and do the work will fail. That’s the way it is in school – and in life so to speak.
“In Danish school, it would be weird if we didn’t help those around us,” Anne told me. “The idea that you work alone in class is really strange for us. I think you would almost be considered an outsider if you didn’t help others or if you only worked alone.”
Linnea agreed. 
“I remember there was this sign all over our schools growing up. It rhymed and we all knew it. It was ‘spørg igen, spørg en ven, spørg en voksen’”- that is, if you have a problem you can’t figure out, you should first ‘ask (yourself ) again’, then ask a friend (your classmate opposite), and if that doesn’t work, ask an adult (the teacher),” she said.  
This kind of thinking encourages trusting in your own abilities and turning to your classmates for help rather than only going to the teacher. This way you don’t see your fellow students as someone who might steal your work but rather as someone you can depend upon. Cheating is a lot harder to do when you are actively encouraged to help each other. 
It makes me wonder if educators elsewhere put their heads together, they might come up with the idea to put desks together too. Being at the head of the class in terms of more trust and connectedness could be a whole new indicator of success in the very difficult subject of Happiness.
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo

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Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?

Parenting expert Jessica Alexander worries that even in Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life, free play could be pushed out by a focus on competitiveness.

Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?
Can 'play' be packaged and sold? Photo: famveldman /Iris/Scanpix
I recently took a tour around the International School of Billund, Denmark which is backed by the Lego Foundation and situated in the Lego capital of the world, so to speak. 
For those who don’t know, Lego is a Danish brand and it is a combination of the words 'leg godt' or ‘play well’. It’s one of the building blocks of Denmark’s firm belief that children need a lot of unstructured playtime to be healthy.
Rows and rows of Lego-based learning could be seen throughout the school along with tinkering walls, creative corners and design centres where kids were making clothes in Project Runway style rooms as part of their after-school programming. The school is built on a philosophy of learning through play, and teachers strive to incorporate play and creativity into the curriculum at every stage, from kindergarten through students' early teens. This is special even for Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life.
While I was there, I ran into a group of Harvard researchers who were working together with teachers to investigate what it means to put play at the heart of a school’s curriculum and how one measures this.  The idea is to create an educational framework and tools that can be used by other educators interested in making learning more playful. 
While I think this research is truly fascinating, I also feel a little bit nervous about it.
When my book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ was first released, I did several interviews with my co-author about play and what the future might look like in countries where free play had declined in favour of scheduled, adult-led activities. 
Some studies, for example, show that the amount of a child’s free play in America has dropped 50 percent since the 1950s just to put it in perspective.
One thing I kept repeating in these interviews was my fear that free play might one day become an oxymoron or commercialized. I was afraid that, as soon as it was proven to be serious learning, someone would surely want to measure it, package it and ultimately sell it. 
Let me say that the International School of Billund is not interested in selling its findings or quantifying the “learning results” for any toy or technique. School officials know that they are investigating something that is almost inherently unmeasurable, but they believe that it’s worth it if it empowers children to see learning as a pleasurable lifelong pursuit. I think what they are doing is very interesting and the school is brilliant.
My concern, however, is that at some point, somebody will try to quantify the concept of “play” and sell it. And the idea of charging for play feels a bit like selling an overpriced apple and labelling it as a diet product. It defeats what should just be a natural healthy part of life, not a specialized technique or super food. 
I can already foresee parents cutting back on the violin, Chinese and organic cupcake making lessons to enrol their kids in free play courses where children could get score cards on how much their social skills, negotiation and empathy capabilities increase. Where they can get graded for their collaboration, self-control and resiliency. All of these things, unfortunately, completely defeat the purpose of why play is so good in the first place. 
Free play is a child’s way of making sense of their worlds. It’s their way of coping with anxiety and expressing themselves and feeling in control of their own destiny. This is where some of their sense of self-esteem gets developed and this can’t be controlled, coaxed or measured by an adult. 
I often wonder if that competitive edge everyone wants to buy for their kids is cutting away at the very self-esteem we want to build up. What if kids really just need more freedom to feel in control of their own lives?
All of this pressure is coming from an ever increasingly competitive society. It’s not coming from kids. They are just mirroring what we want. If we could relax ourselves, sand down our competitive edges, let kids be kids and trust them more to trust in themselves, we might see a drop in anxiety and a true increase in happiness down the line. And wouldn’t those be measurable results we could be proud of?
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo