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When principal Lasse Reichstein stands on the wide, wooden staircase in the middle of his school, he can see and hear more than 650 students — kindergarten through ninth grade — at work all around him. On each of the school’s three stories, teams of teachers huddle to discuss new pedagogies, while some students chitchat and others present their latest projects, all under the bright, clear light of the atrium windows. No classroom walls divide them.
“It really builds, in my view, a special feeling that this is a community,” Reichstein said.
Reichstein works at the Hellerup School in the suburbs north of Copenhagen, Denmark. Hellerup is an open-plan school. There are no classrooms but rather a series of contiguous, multipurpose spaces arrayed around the central stairs, which themselves double as social meeting areas or lecture seats. Furniture and temporary folding walls form moveable enclaves and nooks.
The innovative building, which allows teachers and students to create spaces together, is just one manifestation of the Hellerup School’s vision. Compared to children at a traditional school, students at Hellerup have a tremendous amount of freedom in how they work. Although their schedule is punctuated by brief periods of teacher-led instruction, much of the children’s day is flexible. Students carry out coursework in the manner and pace that suits them — whether it’s sprawled on a sofa in a quiet corner or within a gaggle of talkative classmates sharing a common computer. As a 2013 report from the EU Joint Research Center put it, the school emphasizes “learner choice and empowerment in every possible area.”
The school’s aim is to foster an environment in which student and teacher together are jointly responsible for learning. That heightened sense of ownership, which some research suggests could strengthen students’ desire to learn, is one of the many facets of an educational approach called “personalized learning.” Although definitions vary broadly, personalized learning endeavors to design educational experiences that suit an individual student’s abilities and interests. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction as technology offers new tools for both tracking student learning and customizing classwork based on past performance.
Hellerup, now in its 16th year of operation, is like a living laboratory for these ideas and one that has inspired other schools to take similar steps. Over time, the community has made adjustments, including increasing its emphasis on social development and collaborative work, in part to address concerns that personalized learning might be solitary learning. As the school continues to find its footing, it can offer lessons for other schools to follow, even if they do so on a smaller scale.
In many ways, Reichstein insists, Hellerup is “a completely normal public school, with the same goals as everyone else.” Like traditional schools, Hellerup’s student body is divvied up into grades; students are assessed based on projects, portfolios, and standardized tests; and teachers follow the national curriculum.
Teachers at Hellerup also prioritize developing their students’ interpersonal and social skills, a longstanding tradition in the country. In recent years, schools across the Nordic countries have also agreed to emphasize a set of “21st century skills,” such as creativity, metacognition and tech literacy, that should serve students as they become workers and citizens in a rapidly, changing knowledge-based society.
But on the ground at Hellerup, the school looks anything but ordinary. The 10 grades are each split into groups with a designated base (analogous to a homeroom) and teacher. Each morning, students check in with their teacher to discuss their strategies and goals for the day. When a class period begins, students assemble in an agreed-upon area and the teacher gives a brief introduction — often just 15 minutes — to the day’s lessons before students disperse to tackle the associated coursework.
“At first it looks really chaotic, but it’s not,” said Søren Lønstrup, a teacher by training, who is currently a counselor and parent at Hellerup. That’s because teacher-student dialogue, both in the morning and throughout the day, allows each teacher to negotiate with the student how he or she will handle schoolwork. Teacher and student agree in advance where and for how long the child’s work will be conducted — and the teacher helps students make decisions (work alone or in a group, for example) based on the individual skills and the assignment at hand.
Through questions and prompts, the teacher also tries to help students develop greater insights into their individual abilities and the skills they need to build. Teachers might, for instance, help a student think through the stages of a group project or they might greenlight a student’s request to work outside, provided the student agrees to make progress reports at regular intervals. While older students typically enjoy the most autonomy, teachers have to attend carefully to students’ performance and struggles at all grade levels to make sure they are coping well with the added responsibility the freedom brings.
Another major component of the school’s curriculum is project-based work. Several times throughout the academic year, other classes are suspended, and students focus exclusively on their cross-disciplinary projects while working on small teams. At the end of a week devoted to a given project, groups present their work to teachers and peers.
Getting the balance between project-work, which allows students to tackle complex problems that draw on diverse skills, and lesson-based instruction can be tricky. When Reichstein joined Hellerup in 2015, project weeks exceeded regular instruction weeks. At that time, however, Reichstein also noted that students, despite performing well across subjects in their final exams, showed some weaknesses in reading and writing. In response, teachers have opted to increase the number of instruction weeks versus project weeks (it’s now roughly 50:50). “We still want to be a project-based learning school,” Reichstein said, “but we need to make room to learn the basic skills.”
Related: What’s school without grade levels?
When the school opened in 2002, it made headlines not only in Denmark but across Europe for its daring design and pedagogy. Education researchers flocked to visit and observe teachers and students at work. The central staircase, meanwhile, has become a reference point for architects around the world.
Hellerup is not the first or only open-plan school (a concept that’s existed since the 1960s). Nor was it the first school in Denmark to explore philosophies to support personalized, student-directed learning (Reichstein previously worked in another Copenhagen school with similar goals). But the Hellerup project was noteworthy in how ambitiously it combined new teaching and architectural ideas.
Speaking of the building itself, Prakash Nair, an architect and president of the school-planning firm Fielding Nair International, called Hellerup “an adventure in change.” Nair, who has helped design many open-plan schools, explained that these buildings resemble contemporary working environments, but also enhance student autonomy and teacher collaboration.
In fact, Lønstrup, the counselor, points out that the open design at Hellerup requires cooperation. Without walls, the space creates total transparency: Everyone always knows what colleagues are doing and all must coordinate to share common areas. (No one would yell at a student in this environment, he explains. The teachers have agreed that is not a practice they want in their school — and everyone would know if someone broke that rule.)
That style does not appeal to every teacher, Lønstrup acknowledges. And it takes time for people to adjust. The week before school starts, therefore, is a crucial time for teachers and administrators to review, discuss and strategize for the coming year. Teams spend time firming up their techniques and approaches, to prevent backsliding into more traditional methods.
Students also have to adjust to the school. In Denmark, families have “free choice”: Parents can select, and children attend, any public school, provided there is room for new students. “I’ve been here since kindergarten and I like it a lot,” explained Anna, an eighth-grader, but, she added, her brother did not enjoy the school’s unusual space. He transferred, preferring a traditional classroom with assigned rooms and desks.
Hellerup is still, in many ways, a young school. But it’s already had an impact. Louise Tidmand, who is studying personalized learning as part of her graduate work at Denmark’s Aarhus University, points out that Hellerup’s scale of innovation has inspired other communities and educators. “Hellerup School was all out there, changing rooms, everything,” she said. “Now baby steps are being taken in other schools.” Other Danish schools have since adopted more flexible Hellerup-like student schedules, for example, and project-based learning is increasingly popular.
Hellerup has also had to wrestle with challenges familiar to those who’ve experimented with personalized learning. For instance, critics question whether hyper-individualized learning experiences deprive students of opportunities to interact with each other.
Reichstein believes the school has already made shifts to alleviate this issue. “We have also moved a little bit away from the very individualized perspective and now we are focusing on building strong learning communities,” he said.
In practice, this change has been gradual. When the school opened, building on then-current trends in education that emphasized the idea that each child has a learning style, teachers used daily dialogues to help students identify their preferences and make the most of their personal style. As research challenged the ‘learning styles’ concept, teachers turned to newer ideas, guiding students in identifying strengths and targeting weaknesses. Today, teachers spend a significant amount of time encouraging students to develop interpersonal and collaborative skills, which are strengthened through team-based work.
Overreliance on technology is a recurring concern about personalized learning. Apps that serve up classwork based on student ability, for instance, risk putting each child in a separate learning bubble, isolated from others.
“It’s quite a dilemma,” Tidmand said, noting research suggests that too much time online could hurt social development.
The Hellerup School, meanwhile, has always emphasized student access to technology, although it has adjusted policies over time. Students spend much of their school day on computers, which they use to conduct research, work on assignments and, occasionally, communicate with each other.
Until recently, many students were also free to use cell phones. Initially, the school tried to reduce phone use, by allowing phone access only to students in grades 7 to 9, for example. Last year, however, a ban on smart phones was extended to all students, a decision driven by the desire to decrease student reliance on virtual interaction.
“We are always making changes here,” Lønstrup said. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back.” He added, however, that this flexibility is an ideal mindset for students and teachers alike, “We’re learning all the time.”
This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.