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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Reading, writing and empathy: How Denmark is a leader in teaching social skills | Christian Science Monitor

A PATH TO PROGRESS - The country's status as a leader in teaching social skills is one reason it’s often ranked as the world’s ‘happiest’ country. Do Danes know something the rest of us don’t?

Jennifer Larsen teaches social learning...
Photo: Christian Science Monitor
Jennifer Larsen, a soft-spoken Danish teacher, strides into the classroom undeterred. She tells the 12- and 13-year-old students to put away their cellphones and fidget spinners. Some continue to goof off. But as she starts her weekly lesson in “social learning,” which begins with a “check-in” to gauge how each child is feeling, they quiet down. Ms. Larsen’s main lesson of the day involves taping two signs to different ends of the classroom with the words “I agree” and “I disagree.” She then reads a series of personal statements: “I want to be better at solving problems with my friend.” “When I get angry I want to hit someone.”

The students in the sixth-year class at the Møllevang school in Faxe, a municipality in rural Denmark southwest of Copenhagen, have answered these questions before. But that exercise was done anonymously: Their heads were down and they responded by raising their hands. This time they are told to move to a side of the room that best characterizes their answer, publicly staking positions that even some adults might find hard to be candid about.

“I have friends who help me when I’m sad or mad,” Larsen continues. The children shuffle around the room, but, in the end, only one boy stands at the “I disagree” wall. With a nervous laugh, he notes his solitary position. “But you are very honest – that is very good,” Larsen says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have any friends.”

As rudimentary as it is, the lesson in this kinetic classroom of students in hoodies and track pants is designed to teach social awareness and instill empathy – and in the process make Denmark and perhaps even Europe a more civil place to live. It is part of a mandatory course added to the curriculum in this municipality in the hopes of teaching students to care for one another at a young age, a quality that school leaders worry is being increasingly lost in modern society.

Around the world, the importance of empathy as a character trait is garnering increased attention in an age of rapid technological change that experts worry is breeding narcissism and physically cutting people off from one another. This is to say nothing of the polarized politics that has deepened a sense of “us” versus “them” in many Western democracies, including the United States.

At its deepest level, encouraging empathy is seen as a step toward moving away from the ethos of individualism that characterized 20th-century societies toward a greater tolerance of other cultures in the interconnected world of the 21st century.

Numerous pilot programs are under way in the US to foster emotional intelligence in students, including an $11 million experiment in Kentucky called the Compassionate Schools Project. Other initiatives are taking root from China to Finland.

In Denmark, empathy has long been a part of the zeitgeist of the nation, taught and valued everywhere, from preschools to corporate suites. Many parents consider their children’s kindness in the classroom just as crucial as their math or science scores.

But here, too, pressure is mounting for the country to do more. Debates about immigration rage domestically and across Europe amid the refugee crisis and a wave of terrorist attacks. At the same time, access to the internet is increasing the chances of cyberbullying and the isolation of young people. As a new school year starts in Denmark, teachers and academics are refocusing attention on some of the country’s oldest methods of empathy education, and establishing new programs such as the one in Faxe, which they say is crucial to countering all the negativity and division.

“Empathy is very important for democracy,” says Mette Løvbjerg, Møllevang’s headmaster. “You can’t have a democracy that is functioning if nobody puts themselves in another one’s shoes.... If we don’t teach our children that, then we don’t have a democracy in 50 years. It’s under pressure already.”

In Denmark, the tension between academics and well-being is less pronounced, even if it is growing. Developing the “whole child,” not just good students, is a mantra heard from the Ministry of Education on down. Teaching is understood to entail both uddannelse and dannelse, the first being the classical concept of academic training, the other the formation of good citizens and their ability to morally relate to the world.

“What comes first, academic skills or well-being? We can’t answer,” says Jonas Borup, who works on the inclusion team at the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen. “You have to feel good in school to learn something. For us, you can’t have one without the other.”

Recently some academics in the US have proposed that schools should integrate such instruction into daily teaching, rather than offer weekly or monthly SEL classes.
In other words, do what’s de rigueur in Denmark. 

On a recent morning, first-year teacher Helle Eskesen at the Øster Farimagsgades school in Copenhagen receives a visit from a young student who has injured her eye. The girl tells her instructor she is concerned that other students will make fun of her because of the swelling. 

So Ms. Eskesen makes a quick decision: She calls a “class meeting” to talk it through to prevent any teasing.

Later in the class, the teacher spends time with each student before they break for recess, going over what activities they plan to do and ensuring that no one is left out. Both moves are classic Danish empathy education, moves fused into normal instruction and going beyond just holding an occasional class on the subject.

“It’s not Empathy 101 in Denmark,” says Jessica Alexander, an American writer who co-wrote “The Danish Way of Parenting,” which looks in part at how empathy is taught in schools, with Danish family psychotherapist Iben Sandahl.

Danish schools are staffed by “AKT” teachers (the initialism stands for behavior, contact, and well-being in Danish). Larsen, the teacher at Møllevang, is one. Like her, other AKT teachers often have their own classrooms, as well as the responsibility for addressing social conflict as it arises. They help students work together and engage those who feel lonely or left out.

Klassenstime further buttresses character education. It is an hour traditionally set aside for teachers to deal with the social side of their students. The concept has recently been revamped, but it is so ingrained in the culture that there is a cake named after it.

Sometimes klassenstime works almost like mediation to tackle a problem. Girls and boys might be separated to deal with specific issues. Other times instructors teach emotional awareness with programs such as Cat-KIT, a communications tool to help students navigate many different situations – for instance, when a child gets angry during recess, says one of its founders, Annette Nielsen...

At the Hedegårdenes school in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen, one-third of the 400 students, from the first year of school through the ninth year, come from immigrant backgrounds, and another third from what administrators call troubled homes. The school has received 50 Syrian refugees as well. As a result, says Thomas Brinch, vice principal, “the work with empathy is more important than ever.” 

“The kids need to treat each other with respect no matter where they are from, what their religion is.” But it’s also important, he says, that children from other countries learn how to fit into Danish society. 

Schools see empathy as a way to deal with another challenge as well: the saturation of social media. The impact of technology on young people’s behavior is being carefully monitored in Denmark, simply because it is one of the most connected countries in the EU, says Camilla Mehlsen, who writes about education and technology (and whose 9-year-old has an iPhone). According to EU Kids Online, an international research network, 81 percent of Danish children use the internet daily, compared with an average of 60 percent in Europe overall. 

Social media is the subject of klassenstime on a recent day in the classroom of Ida Nielsen, a fifth-year teacher at the Hedegårdenes school. The class has drawn up social media user guidelines together and is now discussing what they mean in practice. One of the first rules sounds simple enough: Don’t say anything mean.
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Source: Christian Science Monitor


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