In their book ‘Imagination First’, Eric Liu & Scott Noppe-Brandon wrote “it is pretty clear what makes young humans allergic to imagination: school”. In my search for schools or approaches to education that truly place the imagination at their heart, and which avoid this kind of allergy, I was fascinated to hear about Den Grønne Friskole (‘The Green Free School’) in Copenhagen. They are a school that values imagination, Transition and sustainability above everything else, and have developed something very powerful. To find out more I spoke to Danish American Karen MacLean, one of the people who started the school. She had originally trained to be a university teacher, but never actually taught, ending up initially working as a translator, but then more recently as one of the people running the school. I started by asking Karen how the school initially came about:
I sent my daughters to Waldorf school because I was interested in creativity. I knew that my partner and I could provide a stimulating intellectual environment for our kids but I wasn’t so sure about the creative part. But as I got familiar with Waldorf, which is still a kind of schooling that I really like, I became more interested in sustainability and in Transition, and it became clear to me that the local Waldorf school was not as interested as I was in those things.
I became more and more curious to know what a school would look like that actually prepared children to participate in creating Transition, and who would also want to. Who would not see it as a drudgery the way many adults do – “Oh, we have to do things differently, that’s so awful” – but would be thrilled and excited and feel themselves as activists where being part of Transition gave meaning to their lives. That’s a tall order, but that’s what started me on the path.
I had a friend whose daughters also went to Waldorf school and we decided that we would start a school for our daughters to teach them the things, the skills, the knowledge and the way of relating to knowledge that would start from the very beginning involving them in Transition.
If I came to visit today, what would I see?
We started our actual preparations for the school in 2013. We opened our doors in 2014 with 43 children, and if you came to our school today, you would find that we’re on an industrial lot with a hodgepodge of different kinds of buildings. There are 150 children ages 5 to 14.
We have a lot of outdoor space at the school which is basically asphalt with garden bits on top, and then we have some newly built facilities which are sustainably built and quite beautiful, and then we have some restored bits and bobs that are sustainably restored and look very homey. You don’t think when you walk into our school that it’s a school necessarily.
There are no tables and chairs in rows. There are no blackboards necessarily. There are a lot of various kinds of spaces that are homey and comfortable to be in, and it doesn’t look like an institution. It doesn’t look like a place where children should necessarily be learning things.
Is it funded by the state or funded by the parents?
It’s a mix. The Danish education system consists of public schools that are free for everybody, and then there’s a private option which is called the Free Schools, which is why we’re called the ‘Green Free School’. And the Free schools, if they satisfy certain requirements from the government, receive approximately 70% of their funding through grants from the government. I don’t really know of any schools in Denmark that are able to run outside that model. It would be prohibitively expensive to do that.
Do you have to teach the national curriculum? Are there things expected of you by the government?
There are. The government has articulated learning goals at each grade level. All the way up to the ninth grade. They are guidelines and we follow them, but there’s a lot of leeway for us to follow them. We do not have to administer national tests. We are free to choose any method that we wish. We are assessed every year by a certified – I don’t know what you would call her – consultant, government certified, who certifies that we teach in Danish and we teach Danish values and that the education that we offer, the learning activities that we offer, are commensurate with the kinds of activities that are offered in Danish public schools at the same grade level.
She checks our English and Danish and Math instruction, and sees that it matches what children at the same age are taught in a public school. We have grades K through 9, which are basically five, six year olds through fourteen year olds. And that’s where primary school ends in Denmark, after the ninth grade.
One of the things that Steiner schools are very famous for, I guess, is their approach to particularly digital technologies, and to say that children should have no television and smart phones and iPads and social media and stuff. What’s the position that you take in your school on those technologies?
Well, we view technologies as tools on a par with a hammer or a pen. We try to teach the children to use them for their own purposes, and in order to teach them to be not consumers and users, but producers, we aim to teach them code. To teach them how these things work. So in a sense we have some of the wariness that Waldorf has, but our approach is to teach children how these things work, and to have them use them as tools in certain settings.
Now we’re not a very rich school so we don’t have very many computers, but we do have a computer lab and the kids go there to research or to write their blog logs if they’re the older children. But we do have a no-telephones-in-school policy, which I don’t think is very controversial. So you get to school, you put away your telephone and you can’t use it unless the teacher gives you permission or asks you to use it as part of the instruction.
What’s your sense of what you do in the school around imagination? How specifically do you feel like you nurture and cultivate the imagination of your students in a way that in a more conventional setting might not necessarily be the case?
Formally speaking we do some interesting things. First of all we work in projects, so we don’t have regular instruction in Maths or Danish or whatever. We work in interdisciplinary projects that are quite open ended. The learning products that the children create in these projects can just as well be a work of art, or a craft, as a text, or a presentation. We’re very open about the products of learning.
Being open about the product of learning, the outward sign of learning, and not having a right answer, is incredibly important in my mind to fostering creativity and to letting the imagination come into play. So that’s one formal way in which we foster the imagination. Content wise, we have a lot of stories. We have a lot of arts. Again, arts are children’s creations that don’t have a correct answer. The process isn’t closed down by the child having to either having to come up with the correct answer or guess what the adults are looking for.
It’s like the new approach they’ve bought in in Finland around not teaching subject based, but teaching based on projects. So they might decide, “I want to figure out how the Big Bang happened”, and then they bring in whatever, and the teacher supports them to learn whatever it is they need in order to understand that thing. Is that what you mean?
Yes. Exactly. And so one of the things that we do which is different from the Finnish approach is that we try to start our projects with an experience. A sensory experience: hearing a play, or walking into the ocean with our bare feet to feel the sand, or going into the forest to listen to the birds. We try to start with a sensory experience because starting in the senses anchors us in a way in ourselves, and our own interpretation.
Then the project goes in different directions, and for example, goes in the direction of standardised knowledge. Right? But the entire process of going through our project model keeps putting the children through the paces of being knowledge producers. And when you’re a knowledge producer for yourself, again you’re not coming up with a fixed answer.
We might say, “We’re going to look at the universe” and then some of the children might peel off after a couple of weeks of studying the universe and decide, “We want to do the Big Bang”, but most likely we would not have a project named ‘The Big Bang’ – that would grow out of the children’s interest.
We talked at the beginning about how it’s a school that promotes Transition, or tries to produce young people who can contribute and are as excited about Transition as possible. Learning through that model of, “Here’s a problem, there’s not only one solution to it, there are many, many solutions to it”, how do you see the overlap there between that way of thinking and contributing to the challenges the world faces today?
Yeah, I want to say we take a step back from that. We say, “Here is something we’re experiencing. What are you curious about here? How does this particular natural phenomenon, or social phenomenon tick? What questions does it bring to the surface for you?” And out of experiencing that, and this is very abstract but you actually do it with the kids, out of that experience grows an awareness of the problems that there might be that we might want to address.
It can be something as simple as taking a walk down at the beach. We have a project about the ocean. The children themselves discover how much bloody trash is accumulating on the beach. Then the ocean project actually, for some of the children, goes in the direction of pollution. Plastic pollution in the oceans. They discover the problem. They’re not presented with the problem. That is not the job that we have. That prepares them for being in any kind of life situation and experiencing it, and noticing it. And then noticing what can be tweaked.
When involved in, and doing Transition, there is always that balance between, “Hey, we could do this, and we could do that, and let’s go and do it, and let’s learn how to do it” and digesting and understanding and internalising the scale of the challenge and the grief that accompanies that. Do you design in space for that digestion as well?
Part of our approach is to not get into the issues that are big enough that the grief takes up a lot of space. To tell you the truth, we’re very invested in being super local with the children and working very locally, and spending more energy actually creating an attachment to their local built and grown environment, and discovering the smaller problems there, than actually tackling talking about the larger problems.
For the older children these problems obviously come up. They’re on social media. They’re aware of them. But for the kids all the way up to the fifth, sixth grade, we work with problems that are manageable at kids level.
For you, what would you say are the vital elements of space in which imagination can flourish? If you want to create and hold a space in which kids can be really wildly imaginative, what are the ingredients of that space?
One important ingredient is nature – being in all different kinds of nature as much as possible. Being outdoors as much as possible. Part of what that is, is to have body freedom, to be able to do a lot of things in a lot of different kinds of landscapes. I also think self-determination is really important to imagination, that there’s something about just having to diddle around and make up your own mind, which is a really important ingredient in imagination.
We want to sit kids down with the markers and the piece of paper and say, “Well, use your imagination” but in fact an interesting moment in imagination comes before the markers and the paper. It’s in that empty space which can be beautiful or not so beautiful, but it’s empty of your creation. You can only take advantage of that space if you have the power to make your own decisions about what you want to do in that space.
You mentioned that you’re on a unit in an industrial estate. How easy is it to create that relationship with nature in that kind of a setting?
Well, we have a lot of outdoor schooling. We have a school garden which is about 10-15 minute walk away, down at the beach. Each of the groups goes on a field trip once a week, and many, many of those field trips are to the forest or to the beach. Sometimes they can walk there, sometimes they have to take the bus or the train, or both. Some of those field trips are also to museums or businesses or whatnot, but a lot of our field trips go directly to nature, and we either have activities and instruction about the nature we’re in, or about something else that just happens to take place in the nature.
If you had been elected as Prime Minister of Denmark, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Denmark Imaginative Again’ and you had recognised that at this point in history with the climate emergency that we have, that what was most important was not to focus on innovation and economic innovation but was to focus on imagination and having a focused attempt at boosting imagination across education, and business, and public life and politics, and everything. So in the same way that you might have been elected in the past to say we’re going to turn this economy around or we’re going to put this country on a war footing, or whatever you say, “We’re going to make this place as imaginative as it could possibly be”, what might you do in your first year in office?
Totally off the top of my head, I would create in that first year, five or six national holidays, and each of those national holidays would have a scheme that functioned as a framework for people to go and explore and do things, together, or maybe alone, and use their imaginations. I might even make it just that free. I would say, “We’re going to have a national holiday to boost our imagination and the framework of the first one is ‘Do something with your neighbours’.”
You’d give people little challenges each time?
I would say give them a frame because if it’s too loose, then we all get overwhelmed. But ‘Do something with your neighbours’ is like, “Oh I have to use my imagination to figure out something we could do with our neighbourhood or in our apartment building together”, and of course because it’s me, I would say that the overarching theme of those national holidays could be something like, “Sustainability” or “Transition” or “Green” and then I would narrow down each national holiday and give people a framework to work within.
When you look around the world or in Denmark for other examples of schools that are really nurturing imagination in very creative ways, who are your heroes? What are the places, other projects that you look to?
Nurturing imagination? Well I do think that the Waldorf schools nurture imagination, really, really well. There’s a little school in Romania, ‘The Green School’, that I admire for their work with imagination. The places that inspire me are mostly the early childhood, the forest kindergartens, yeah. That’s what I’d say. Forest kindergartens and Waldorf schools, and then the Green School in Romania.
In your experience or what you’ve seen, or with the kids who come through the door at your school, where would you say that conventional schooling goes wrong? In terms of its handling of the imagination of the kids it’s charged with educating?
Some of it is the dulling of the senses. The imagination needs the whole body and all the senses. Sitting still and having to pay attention and only use some of your senses, it gets kids out of the habit of feeling the world and themselves. That’s a really, really important component in restoring imagination when the kids come to us. That they return to being able to feel themselves and feel the world around them, experience the world around them.
Then I would have to say the other thing is the fallacy of the correct answer. It’s not that the world doesn’t have facts, and that there aren’t factual answers to some things, but to inculcate children in the idea that the entire work of children and henceforth the work of grown-ups is to find the correct answers to things, it’s a great disservice to the faculty of imagination.
When I do talks now about this stuff, I always start by getting people into pairs and then I show them an object, a paper cup or something. And I say, “You’ve got two minutes to come up with as many different uses for this as possible, go.” And then the whole room fills up with bright eyes and laughter and connection, and it always feels to me that’s what it feels like when you invoke imagination into the space. I wonder in terms of teaching and working with young people, what for you does it feel like when imagination is in the room? What does that feel like? How would you describe that? How do you know when it’s there?
I have to say it takes so many different forms. Some children, when their imagination goes racing, they sort of close down, and they focus in on the thing they’re drawing, or the piece of soapstone that they’re carving. Then other children, it’s definitely an interactive thing and it’s like there’s this buzz, and their eyes are bright and their cheeks get kind of red and they’re buzzing with each other. Actually for some people, someone like me, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that I was creative, because I might be off in a corner, doodling, or knitting, or going for a walk. And so the very many creative thoughts that are clicking together inside my head wouldn’t be visible from outside.