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Singapore can learn a thing or two from the Danish approach to education

We’ve all heard about the wonderful Scandinavian lifestyle – free and easy, relaxed, with a focus on community. Well, Singaporean mother Adrienne Goh who moved to Denmark in 2014 decided to share her experience of the Danish school system as experienced by her now 8-year old daughter.

In an article on Sassy Mama SG, Adrienne said, “My daughter is 8 and she is in third grade. She does not understand the concept of exams. Nor grades. Nor “studying”. She is still trying to get through her times tables (horror of horrors); she looks forward to her homework, and she loves school.“

Adrienne goes on to describe how the Danish approach to pre-school is focused on play. There is no pressure to learn, just to enjoy. When students start formal education, they enter into Grade 0 first, which is basically more play but in a school environment. It’s a transition grade to allow children the time and space to adjust to a more formal education.

Even in formal education, the Danish place a strong emphasis on empathy and emotional development. Their approach is predicated on the joy of learning instead of competition.

“There is no drill approach, there is no rote learning, there are no Danish spelling tests to memorise. The curriculum does not feel rushed or compressed, and sufficient time is given for the learning to settle and sink in,” said Adrienne.

Even homework is a rarity. When a child does get homework, though, it usually come with a long deadline and it isn’t the same kind of homework you get at a typical Singaporean school. In Denmark, homework are often mini tasks that the children have to do like playing a family board game, doing an outdoor activity or setting the table.

Adrienne says that as the children progress into higher grades, they’re allowed to choose the homework they want to do from a list they’re given alongside a few compulsory ones. A teacher explained to Adrienne that this allowed children to take ownership and responsibility for their work which allows them to be motivated and interested to complete their assignments.

In classrooms, learning is often done in groups and the class is set up in a such a way to encourage this – tables are arranged in clusters, children sit in swivel chairs to encourage group work, and seating is assigned based on abilities pairing kids with different academic abilities together and even different personalities. The teachers also change up the seating arrangements every 8-12 weeks so that the children all get to know each other.

Adrienne also mentioned that exams in Denmark are also done very differently. In Denmark, the objectives of national exams are not to stream or sort students but to evaluate how effective the teaching has been, and to identify children who require more academic support.

Adrienne said, “When the test objective is “to help” and not “to differentiate”, it brings about a completely different response, from both parents and children (who take their lead ultimately from their parents). Children do not feel overly stressed out, or demotivated by these tests; they do not view grades as a reflection of self-worth or as a point of competition.”

Beyond academics, the Danes also focus on developing empathy. Children are taught how to identify and express their emotions via mood boards. They also have ‘Class Time’ where children are encouraged to be open, to engage in discussions over hot topics, and sometimes get things of their chest. Adrienne noted that no topic is ‘shushsed’ or taboo.

The Danish have extended the concept of hygge – a togetherness that is cosy and underscored by feeling connected with one another – into every aspect of life including education.

Adrienne admitted that this was unusual for her at first as she came from Singapore where personal achievement reigns supreme. “This emphasis on “togetherness” came as a bit of a cultural shock to the individualistic nature I was more accustomed to. I had grown up placing a huge premium on self-reliance, self-achievement, and the self-made man.”

The Danes encourage this sense of togetherness with events called ‘coffee mornings’ where parents have a relaxed hour with other parents and their children in the classroom. It’s a way to create class unity and building a school community.

As a final note, Adrienne also mentioned that there are no prefects or monitors in Danish schools. “I have discovered that Danish teachers much prefer children learning why a rule exists, and subsequently internalising the rule as a value. They do not want children to obey for the sake of obeying; they believe that building up their core set of values is much more important in the longer run.”

After reading Adrienne’s account of what Danish education is like, it makes sense now why the Danes are among the happiest people in the world. The objective of the formal education isn’t to create high-achieving individuals but to create a community of well-adjusted, well-rounded human beings who are confident, empathic, and happy.

On the other hand, Singapore’s education system – the outgoing streaming as well as the new incoming banding system – are both focused on individual achievement with a strong emphasis on academic ranking and scores. Schools in Singapore do very little in terms of teaching empathy and emotional development. And since the focus on individual achievement is so strong here, there is a disconnect when trying to encourage teamwork among students in Singapore. How do you teach the importance of teamwork when you’re also placing such strong emphasis on competition with your peers?

On top of that, we all know the arguments about how the current education system in Singapore has created a social rift between students of different streams which carries on into their adult lives. Being told you are better suited to the ‘Normal’ or ‘Express’ stream can affect your self-worth in ways both visible and invisible.

In Denmark, this isn’t the case because resources are directed towards those who need help. Every child, regardless of background have access to the same resources, which effectively levels the playing field. Tests are adaptive to the child’s understanding of the material. Without streaming, children often stay together in the same class as they progress through school which creates a community where helping each other is the norm.

Perhaps Singapore can learn a thing or two from the Danes.