Conrad the Contrarian: Relax, it’s education

Too relaxed? Or the global best? Danish education is a hot topic in Europe. Have these Scandinavians optimised learning or do they have a lot to learn?

Culture shock

The Danish education system is what brought me to Denmark all the way back in 2012 – a different time before COVID and rejsekort, when Brexit was still just an idea for a few rebellious English politicians.

I was fresh from my BA in the UK, having worked very hard to get the top grade. My education was a ‘kandidat’, a master’s degree in the exotic city of ‘Aarhus’. Landing in chilly Denmark, I must admit my new student life shocked me in a couple of ways.

It felt very ‘slappe af’. No longer was a teacher over-my-shoulder, checking I was doing the readings and working hard. Suddenly the response was “Do what you want, it’s your education”, which came as a new and terrifying thought. 

Denmark is very good at handing over responsibility. It is almost like a good parent: “Didn’t do the homework? I am not angry. I’m disappointed.” After much resistance, I slowly learnt to motivate myself and make the most of the opportunities.

Mutually fun learning 

The teachers were suddenly young and fun and… I learnt their first names! At university in the UK we addressed the teachers as ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’ like we were in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. You felt like they knew stuff just because they were old and mysterious. 

Not in Aarhus. Suddenly a young bouncy man in his late-20s was leaping around the classroom telling me I could teach him things! Strangely enough the words for ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ are both ‘lær’ på dansk. 

So either there is a relationship between passing-on/gaining knowledge – or Danish teachers are very good at putting a positive spin on their failings: “It won’t just be me teaching you, but we are going to learn a lot together.”

Freedom to rock out

The biggest revolution in my educational journey came when I got to go behind-the-scenes of the system. After graduation, I landed a temporary job teaching at the very university that brought me to Denmark – an incredible experience that also rocked my world.

Again, very slappe af! First lesson I was trembling about my superiors marching in to review me. It did not happen and it never happened. Which was actually wonderful. Because you think it will make you go full School of Rock and do ridiculous things, but actually you create some fantastic lessons with all that freedom.

I mastered the ability to spin my failings into gold. I was teaching and learning! And perfecting the answer “That’s a very good question! Something you can explore with your exam project and tell the class about later.”

Examined on desert islands

I have only been through higher education in Denmark, but from those I speak to, the Danish school system also sounds better than my experience in England. The British system is in desperate need of an update – it is draconian. 

You are examined whilst sat at a desk in silence: no internet, no phone, no talking, a long list of complicated questions in front of you and just your memory to rely on. It’s the poorest representation of lived reality. 

What scenario does this portray? Stuck on a remote desert island, a genie pops out of an old lamp and says: “I’ll let you travel home… but first accurately solve these math equations.” And it’s ruthless; you have one chance. Taking my exams at 16 I felt like my whole life was on the line. You fail, you die.

Responsibility is key

My friends in the Danish education system instead speak of a very relaxed attitude. Students can fail repeatedly without repercussions. And they’re given the aid they need to do the best they can. 

The authoritarian Brit in me becomes outraged, feeling they should be punished at the first fall. But after two years as a student and four more as a teacher, I better understand that we actually do great things when given the responsibility to do our best.