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A story about transformative education in Denmark

Women’s entry in the labor market

In the 1970’ies, Denmark needed the stay-at-home housewives (the “intelligence reserve”) to join the labor market. Many of these women never finished school with an examination, they had left before to get married and have children.

A new institution had been established to give people in general a second chance – VUC, i.e. Adult Education Centers which offered free and flexibly organized tuition. The women rushed to these adult education centers. In a typical class there would be 20 women and 2-3 men.

The women’s husbands could see the advantage of an extra income to the family in near future, but they unfortunately expected their wives to do all the same chores in the home as before, for instance, have dinner ready at 6 pm. The women, on the other side, wanted to do their homework and expected their husbands to help with the chores. This was  turning point in many marriages.

Furthermore, the women loved to go to school and learn. They encountered a much larger world outside the family, including fellow students and new friends in the same situation as themselves. Now (unlike in their teenage years) they had the maturity to understand e.g. literature and poetry. Lat, but not least, their teachers (among which were many emancipated women) represented a new, attractive lifestyle and behavior. The old school husbands did not understand their wives’ enthusiasm and the meaning of the stuff they learned. Therefore, many women started to look critically at their husband and arrived at the conclusion that they were smarter than he. A tsunami of divorces followed.

Informal learning in a formal setting

At the Adult Education Center, I was responsible for German language classes leading to an examination after one year. The level was comparable to the exam after the first nine years in primary and secondary school. The students mostly didn’t know German at all or had a bad experience from their teenage years. We started from scratch. Students feared German because of the grammar. Admittedly, one could say that German should not be an obligatory subject, bearing in mind that many of the students would end up as social and health care assistants in hospitals and nursing homes, where German is not required. But in order to get the 9th class diploma which would open the doors to vocational schools and later higher education, the students had to pass an exam in German language.

In the formal system, many young students get lousy grades in German and never understand the grammar or learn to like the language. Frustrated, teachers are inclined to give up in advance. I have known German and math teachers who never expected more than 2-3 pupils to really understand and let “the devil take the hindmost”, i.e. left the unfortunate to their destiny.

I chose another attitude, saying to myself:

  • This is adult education, mature people with a life goal. They are committed, I should not destroy, but build on this commitment
  • My class must be a treat, a strong and fulfilling life experience for the students
  • The atmosphere must be intense and exciting, with discipline and hard work
  • The class environment must be friendly, caring and humorous, like a good family where everyone is appreciated
  • They must all experience that they can actually learn the pronunciation and the grammar
  • The students must talk German with each other in fun and serious dialogues
  • Most of the talking will be done by the students, not by me
  • We will not just be sitting down, but also stand and walk around while learning.
  • We will sing German songs, perhaps in every session
  • Every student will learn a German verse by heart
  • They must feel the beauty of the language and find Germany interesting
  • They must end up feeling successful and competent and say to themselves: “If I can do it here, I can do it everywhere”. The German class is about self-efficacy and building trust in oneself
  • They must feel that I like and respect each of them and care about them
  • In every class, I’ll be in dialogue with each of the students
  • They must look forward to every German class

Many of these parameters were my secret plan. But this I did say to the students, when we started:

“I have heard some you saying that you are afraid of German, that the grammar is too difficult. Some sound as if they give up in advance, and say they’ll never need the German language anyway.

I promise you that in this class, each of you will definitely learn German. It will not always be easy, but you can do it, and I will help you, each of you. No one will be lost. I expect a lot from you: You’ll get a correct pronunciation and grammar, you’ll be able to talk in German about things you are interested in. We’ll compare Denmark and Germany, and all of us become more knowledgeable about both countries and our societies. We’ll work hard – and have a lot of fun together!

Please look at German as a task. Every time you manage a task well, you grow as a person. You’ll grow in this class!”


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