A Round Square Teacher Exchange to Denmark
By: Samantha Glover
This fall, I was stopped in the hallways by our Round Square Coordinator, Brad Hayes, and asked “How would you like to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Denmark?” After learning about an incredible opportunity to travel to an IB School, Herlufsholm, I could not pass it up. Having never traveled outside of the country on my own, I was a mix of nerves and excitement as I flew to Denmark for two and a half weeks.
Before the trip, I met with Herlufsholm’s IB coordinator, Richard Hannon, to understand his goals for the teacher exchange. I learned that the math teachers at the school were brand new to IB and he was looking for someone to collaborate with the teachers and share resources, pacing, and approaches to teaching in the IB context. Having just completed my Masters in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction, I felt that this was an amazing opportunity for me to put into practice what I have learned over the past few years. While I was able to accomplish the task at hand, the knowledge I provided paled in comparison to the knowledge that I gained from visiting an array of classrooms and experiencing Danish culture. I was impressed with Denmark’s progressive approach to education and was enamored by the culture I was able to experience.
Herlufsholm offers two programs, the Danish National System (STX) and IB, though IB is taught in line with the STX philosophy. In STX, the classroom is student-centered and students truly take ownership of their learning. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, “The educational approach in Denmark avoids class rankings and formal tests; instead, children work in groups and are taught to challenge the established way of doing things. Teachers are called by their first names. The emphasis is on problem-solving, not memorization.” In conversations with students, I learned that graded assignments and tests are rare and teachers want to utilize class time for learning, not tests. “Teachers are viewed as friends and mentors. They expect us to take responsibility for our learning,” said a 2nd year student (11th grade equivalent). When visiting both the STX and IB classrooms, this approach was obvious. In a film class, students were shown a brief video about auteurs and then were given a group project to explore two famous auteurs and analyze their film styles. The teacher provided resources and paused the class a few times to provide definitions and clarifications. Beyond that, the teacher was used as a resource for questions as students dove into the material and started working on their projects. In a business class, students were exploring fixed and variable costs in relation to Tesla. They watched a video where Elon Musk was speaking about becoming profitable and had a broad discussion about profit, cost curves, etc. The teacher was not delivering the information but was asking questions and guiding students (and myself) to construct our own knowledge. It was engaging and related to topics that students were clearly interested in. These are just two examples of an abundance of good teaching that I saw while visiting classrooms. I did not experience a traditional, lecture-style approach in any of the classes that I visited. Yet, students demonstrated a high level of understanding of the concepts they were exploring.
While reflecting on my observations, it strengthened my resolve that student-centered teaching needs to be a priority in my practice. Sometimes, I find myself shying away from student-centered teaching because it can feel chaotic when you begin to release control of the classroom. I appreciated seeing the productive messiness of starting a student-centered approach when comparing 1st-year students (10th-grade equivalent) in the IB system with 1st-year students in the STX program. In the STX program, students were brought up with a student-centered approach and are used to taking ownership of their learning. The first-year IB students, however, tend to come from all over the world. These students have varying backgrounds and many have experienced more traditional classrooms at previous schools and aren’t used to the Danish model of teaching. In giving students more freedom in the classroom, the 1st year IB teachers still struggle with the same things we do such as getting students to complete homework, having students stay focused in class, and keeping students off of their phones. While the issues are the same, they push through the struggle and don’t waver in their approach to keeping the learning student-centered. Sometimes, this means letting students productively fail, yet there is light at the end of the tunnel. After one year of persisting with the approach, the progress is undeniable. When I went into 2nd and 3rd-year classrooms, the IB students were highly self-motivated and owned the responsibility for their learning. Seeing this was motivating to me and encouraged me to accept that trying new things will be messy and will take time, but the results are worth it in the end.
Outside of the classroom, I was able to experience Danish culture in a broad sense in addition to Herlufsholm’s culture as a school. I spent a day in Copenhagen braving the cold on a canal tour, wandering the streets and shops, and visiting The Glyptotek Art Museum. At Herlufsholm, three teachers invited me to their homes for dinner on various nights. In conversation, I was able to learn about and share views on politics, religion, and the differences and similarities between Danish and American culture. While at the school, I was also able to learn about the history of the school and even attended the Founder’s Day Ball which is the event of the year. At the ball, 3rd year students performed dances for their families and then attended a disco which is equivalent to prom for our students.
Overall, I had an incredible experience at Herlufsholm and am thankful for the administration, faculty, and students who welcomed me and taught me about the school and Denmark as a whole. If you get the opportunity to do a teacher exchange, do it! It is an experience like no other.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. (n.d.). Lifelong education. Denmark.dk. https://denmark.dk/society-and-business/lifelong-education