Article Art, Politics & Protest

Someone I met in March

“I told them that it was unsustainable, that something had to change. Six months later, the school burnt down to the ground.” Stories of change often begin with something radical, but Lennart Nilsson’s experience took ‘starting from scratch’ to a whole new level.

We are standing in the arrivals hall of Stockholm Arlanda Airport, waiting for school principals and teachers from all over Europe to arrive. About forty visionary educationalists have volunteered to lock themselves up on a tiny, remote Swedish island to re-imagine learning for the 21st century.

Principal Lennart Nilsson is the only Swede on the trip and his approach is unique in his country and beyond. While we make our way to the boat to take us across to the island, I read up on his school and find out that there are no classrooms, no year groups and no traditional subjects and lessons. Academic achievements are in line with the rest of Swedish schools, but there is a whole other set of skills that pupils master: from empathy to entrepreneurship and leadership, and –perhaps most importantly- happiness.

In the only house on the island, we compare the state of education in different countries and I get a chance to ask Nilsson the question that had been on my mind since we met at the airport earlier in the day. What made him change his approach to education so rigorously, after more than twenty years in the field?

It all started in 2005, when Nilsson took over as head teacher of a school in Gråbo, near Gothenburg. He had returned to teaching after a couple of years working at a sailing club. The need for change was urgent: the school’s older pupils were misbehaving and many were fast climbing what Nilsson calls the ‘crime ladder’. “The first step is bad language, then further up on the staircase it becomes vandalism, graffiti, school drop-out and worse”, he explains.

Just how bad things could get on the top of the ladder became clear when the unimaginable happened. On a Saturday night in 2007, a group of unidentified youngsters broke into the shed where the lawnmower was stored, took a jerrycan of petrol, climbed on the school roof and poured it down the ventilation pipes. By the time Nilsson got the phone call, the building had mostly gone up in flames.

Rather than stricter rules and punishment, the discussion became a call for more freedom and a different way of learning.

It was the wake-up call that set things in motion. Local policy makers, parents and teachers got together to completely rethink the role of schools in their community. There was a common understanding that the system had failed some of the young people. But rather than stricter rules and punishment, the discussion became a call for more freedom and a different way of learning.

After five years of planning and teaching in temporary barracks, three new schools were opened. Nilsson and his colleague Marie Sandell head up one of them: Röselidsskolan, which is home to 370 pupils aged 6 to 16. Both the learning programme and the school building itself are designed around the ethos that rather than a place of duty and obedience, school should be a place of engagement and inner drive.

I like the idea of having more flexibility for children and a focus on developing ‘soft skills’ like empathy and leadership, but I do wonder how teachers avoid chaos in the set up Nilsson so passionately describes to me. He assures me that although things were rather chaotic in the first couple of months, there is a lot of structure and planning in place to assure children get the most out of their time at school.

Teachers have a very different job than the ‘performer’ role they had before, he explains. “They are process leader, supporter and subject expert. Every morning, everyone takes an hour of calm process time. Teachers and students talk through the current project and work out the best way to make progress. They look at how they can help each other and whether they need to refer to a book, the internet, teacher or sometimes even an external expert. Problems and solutions are discussed together. Once everyone is clear, they get stuck in with the work.”

Pupils work in mixed-aged teams of around 75 children and have sub-teams within that group. Depending on the task, they work with learners of their own age or get together with others who share the same interest. Every two to three weeks they cover a new topic and create projects to tackle it from different angles. The idea is that this kind of learning is closer to what happens in life after school, and in the world of work.

“Walk into any classroom and ask a pupil: What are you working on? Why are you doing it? And what will you use it for? I am convinced that in order to learn, every child should be able to answer all three.”

“Around election time, we pick the topic of democracy”, says Nilsson. “For every theme, we look at the national curriculum and work out how we can meet its requirements. So we cover the history of democracy, but also develop citizenship and Swedish language skills by looking at campaigning and policy making. Everything we do has a connection to the real world.”

Nilsson recalls a conversation he had with a social entrepreneur in Sweden, who introduced him to entrepreneurship education. “He taught me three simple questions to determine whether children are truly learning. Walk into any classroom and ask a pupil: What are you working on? Why are you doing it? And what will you use it for? I am convinced that in order to learn, every child should be able to answer all three. It needs to make sense to them why they do what they do, and how it relates to their lives.”

“Pupils are much more engaged if the learning is driven by them.”

Another project focuses on love. The younger children use arts and crafts to create a human body out of paper, learning biology while looking at organs and body parts. The older ones have conversations around relationships and personal space with sexologists who visit the classroom. The teenage girls of the group then anonymously write down the questions they have for the boys in their class, and vice versa. They then swap lists and answer each other’s questions. Rather than the traditionally awkward sexual education lessons delivered by teachers, this fresh approach works, says Nilsson: “Of course you get some silly answers and giggles, but mostly, pupils are much more engaged if the learning is driven by them.”

Three years into his mission, Nilsson is convinced he made the right decision. He says that if it wasn’t for the disaster and the chance to start again, he would probably have quit his vocation. He admits there were many hurdles, like criticism from colleagues who did not understand his radically different ideas. Some parents were sceptical, too, but he feels that the mindset is slowly shifting in the right direction.

“When parents take their 7-year-old to the dentist, they want that experience to be very different from when they went to the dentist as a 7-year-old themselves. Yet when they bring their 7-year-old to school, they expect things to be the same as two or three decades ago. We make a big effort to involve parents by showing them what we do. Once they witness the learning in action and see their child go to school happy every day, they see that a fuller way of learning is possible.”

[Photo by Tito Spinoza]

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