The former head of Mill Hill, Roedean and Heathfield Frances King on the Danish approach to education

“I hope you are all doing great and spreading KAOS everywhere.” This was the greeting sent by course creator Simon Kavanagh to the alumni of the three-day workshop I attended this spring which advertised itself as aiming to disrupt the thinking of those attending. The workshop was run by KaosPilot, a business and design school located in Aarhus, Denmark. The school aims to support individuals who are seeking to be change makers, whether as entrepreneurs, social activists or educationalists. Reflection, discussion, experimentation and feedback are central to their teaching methods. 

Among my fellow students were university lecturers, teachers, entrepreneurs and architects, all recognising that change is required within their sectors if they are to navigate and influence future trends successfully. Change should not be sought simply for change’s sake, however. Instead the KaosPilot approach is to develop trust and collaboration to ensure that the solutions to problems tackled are supported by all stakeholders. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that the founder of KaosPilot, Uffe Elbaek, is now an MP for The Alternative, a political party within the Danish Parliament working for social change within the country. The approach of KaosPilot is not unusual in Denmark. Over many decades the Danes have been well known for their design skills, and are now world leaders in environmental sustainability.

“Change should not be sought simply for change’s sake”

The global success of the toy brand Lego indicates that they also know a bit about play; the Lego Foundation currently invests significantly into play, design and child development research and has recently funded a Lego Professor of Play in Education at the University of Cambridge.

The workshop I attended was focused on curriculum design but used a set of innovative methods in its teaching. From unusual uses for yoyos through to trust building exercises using Lego, Kaos Pilot was certainly Danish in its recognition that creativity and innovation are more likely to flow if activities contain a playful element.

The more I read about the Danish approach to education and innovation, the more I wondered where this readiness to think outside the box came from. It appears that much of it derives from a series of unfortunate events in the 19th century when the country lost territory, revenue and, inevitably, national pride and identity. A way out of this national confusion was offered by Nicolaj Grundtvig (1783-1872), a scholar who presented a radical view for the time – that all Danes should be educated in order to engage meaningfully in the democratic process of nation building. Through his work all were encouraged to take responsibility for their own community, to debate the best way to run this, and to work together to shape the most efficient methods to aid communal life. Innovation, design and change were seen then as something that was to benefit everyone: this attitude continues today. This has led to the nation being at the forefront of developing sustainable responses to modern living with marked success; Copenhagen is expected to reach its target of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city in 2025.

The Danish approach to problem solving presented by KaosPilot appears to have much to offer teachers preparing students for modern world. Their attitude to learning gives prominence to independence, creativity and innovation as well as strong interpersonal skills. And they are not afraid of change, being ready to look it directly in the eye and assess the most practical response to the challenges thrown up by life. As their name suggests, however, they don’t leave you on your own – they seek, as Kaos Pilots, to teach you the skills which will assist you as you navigate a way through the choppy waters ahead. As an experienced Head, I would recommend this to anyone in education looking for some professional development with a difference.