How to turn young people into active citizens
“The world is Burning” is the title of a half year course at a Danish folk high school. By way of games, debates, travels and action learning, the teachers want to turn the young participants into world citizens who take a stand and try to make a change.
This article explains the activities and didactical methods of “The World is Burning”
About twenty young women and men in groups of 3-5 are placed at tables in a class room. Some of them are cutting triangles in paper. Others are bargaining about a pair of scissors for a ruler with shrill voices and stressed movements. Still others almost run to a table and hand over their neatly cut geometrical figures to three only slightly older persons.
They play a game. By playing the game they learn about the realities of world trade, international division of labour and global inequalities. The trade game is one of many elements at a half year course at the Danish residential Folk High School, Krogerup, 30 kilometers north of Copenhagen (see box for information on folk high schools in Denmark)
Knowledge – inspiration – action
”We want to make the students able to analyse society, take a stand on what they see and act. We want the students to leave with action competencies,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl, 31, says. She is one of the teachers at Krogerup.
“The world is Burning” is divided into three stages: 1) Knowledge; 2) Inspiration; 3) Action. In a course concept paper, the teachers describe it like this:
“The first stage is educational, and the aim is to give the students a transdisciplinary knowledge and approach to a changing world. The second stage is a longer study visit, and the third stage is a project in which the students act in public life in order to leave exactly that mark on the world that they think are important.”
During the first stage the students are introduced to theories of authors like Ulrich Beck, Hardt & Negri and Zygmunt Bauman. Based on this theoretical introduction, they learn analytical tools and concrete knowledge.
“Already early in the process, we try to give room to an action dimension and to “social fantasy” – that is the ability to imagine and produce something which is linked to praxis and which is able to comprehend something new, something potential,” says the course concept paper.
Example: The trade game
The trade game, described in the introduction to this article, is also a part of the first stage of the course.
“Participating in the game, they get the chance to experience personally and emotionally the mechanisms of world trade,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl explains.
The students are divided into groups when entering the class room. Each group is allocated different resources of raw material (amounts of paper, quality of paper), different technology resources (scissors, liners, protractors) and labour resources (number of students in the group).
They are told to produce geometrical figures – squares, triangles, rhombuses, etc. – as commodities for the world market. The figures have different values that the group can cash in by handing the figures over to the World Market, impersonated by a couple of teachers. To put the students under pressure, there is a 10 percent interest on their account every five minutes.
To be able to produce they have to negotiate and trade: how much paper equals one liner? Some groups lack absolutely necessary tools. Emotions are high when bargaining, and students are very innovative in trying to cope with what they have got. Also a lot of fantasy is invested in trying to fool the other groups and the World Market that strictly controls the correct dimension of the figures.
Changes of rules and jokers
Suddenly during the game, the rules are changed:
“At the world market, demand and supply changes all the time. If lots of triangles are handed in, I stop the game and announce that the value of triangles is lowered. This really frustrates the group that are about to hand in another ten triangles,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl explains.
There is also a real joker. At some of the tables there is coloured paper in addition to ordinary white. Half an hour into the game, Sigrid quietly informs two groups that “it’s gold”. If they paste a small bit of it on their figures, the value will triple.
Other groups notice that something is happening, but not exactly what. They realise that it is about value – so maybe they hand in a figure all in coloured paper (wasting their “gold resource”):
Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl says: “In this way, we try to show how lack of knowledge can weaken the position of a country and why a country with many natural resources still can be poor.”
After an hour the game is finished. The accounts are settled, and a winner is announced. There is a round of statements about the game by the students. They describe their frustrations and their way of acting.
“You can read about world trade, you can understand it cognitively, but it is difficult to be motivated for action by statistics. That is why we want to move them emotionally. If you are indignant or angry, there is a better chance that you act on it.”
At the end, teachers and students discuss the link between the micro cosmos of the game to the macro world of the real world market.
Challenge of preconceptions
At the second stage of the course, students are divided into two groups and travel to two different countries in the Global South. In recent years Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl has taken her group to Myanmar, while other teachers have travelled to Mexico.
The study visit is based on the concept of “society as a class room”. The concept paper states: “An intensive month of travel is a unique room for learning: being part of a community of praxis, a substantial and identity changing project of transformation.”
The students meet people who are actively engaged in changing their society: workers, farmers, students, artists, politicians.
Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl explains why: “Many people from Europe travel to Third World countries basically in order to teach and to help solve problems there. We want to turn that upside down.
The people, we meet, talk from their own perspective and their own experiences. The students learn from their stories about how to take part in one’s society and to change it for the better. They learn from the methods of those activists, they meet. What make people dare to commit themselves, and what have they sacrificed?
We push them into situations they have not experienced before – in order to bring them out of their comfort zone. They must see things that they did not expect, that they cannot learn from reading. We want to challenge their preconceptions.”
A physical understanding
Part of the time the students live with local families. They take part in everyday life, fetch water, work in the fields, go to the market.
“They experience a physical understanding of what it is like to live in such a society. It is challenging, but they end up with increased self-confidence,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl says.
Several times the students have a special writing exercise. Sitting in the same room, the students are asked to write freely for five minutes, completely un-edited, a kind of stream of consciousness. About fearful situation or about a person that impressed them. Afterwards they read their texts aloud.
“It provides both an individual and a collective room for reflection,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl says.
From opinion to action; that is the crux of the third stage: the project.
“This is the point where we really differ from traditional education. Action learning gives the students a room to act, to try, to fail and to try once more,” Sigrid Lauenborg says.
Returning from the study tour they make a collective brainstorm, called a “future workshop”, contemplating on every possible part of society that they would like to be different.
Through a thorough – and time consuming – process, the students narrow down the number of cases. Not just by debating pros and cons about the issue, but also by developing campaign and action ideas for each issue at stake.
”The intention is to have the students themselves identify the problems they find most relevant. We want them to choose a campaign that they all feel is important.”
Having made the final decision they develop a fully fledged campaign plan. They divide into subgroups such as research, media, social media, action and legal aspects.
“Of course, this is an exercise in activism, but it is also an exercise in cooperation and in the ability to use the specific competences of each person,” Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl explains.
Into public space
After weeks of preparation, they move into public space implementing the campaign in relation to the media, to people on the street and to politicians.
One campaign had the aim to make politicians listen to the citizens. By sheer luck the campaign coincided with national elections. One campaign element was a sofa debate. Instead of having the candidates talk to the voters, the students placed an interim living room at the square in front of the Parliament. They invited some candidates to join in the sofa, and they invited ordinary citizens in the street to come and tell the candidates about their concerns.
The starting point of another project was a specific young Iranian man who had been denied asylum by the authorities. First he was invited to live at Krogerup until deportation. The student group planned and implemented a campaign for his right to stay and for “a dignified asylum policy”.
Limits of legality
In some instances a project may test the limits of legality. In a campaign about the fear of foreigners and the linking between foreigners and terror, the students produced and posted fake, ironic posters of a major insurance company called “Tryg”, in English: “Safe”. The company threatened to sue them. Left wingers did not catch the irony and started pulling down the posters from the walls of Copenhagen. But the students were interviewed two major TV channels, and the company accepted an apology afterward.
Yes, we can
“When they have finished the project, they are exhausted. But they are also “high” on success. They leave the school with a straight back and the feeling that they have accomplished something.
And this is our ultimate purpose for the course; that they get the feeling “yes, we can”, that it matters, that it makes a difference what they do. No eight week campaign fixes all problems. But they feel that they can change the world,” says Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl.
What is a Danish folk high school?
Danish Folk High Schools are a 150-year-old tradition. Folk High Schools are residential. They offer 4-5 months long courses in all kinds of subjects. The students don’t get any grades, there are no exams, and they do not leave with any kind of certificate. This is non-formal learning, based on the personal interest in learning and socialising.
“This creates a unique learning space, because I don’t have to evaluate the students, and they don’t have to impress me. We can talk more eye-to-eye. I don’t have to pose as an authority. Instead, I take part in their life as a human being, both inside and outside the classroom.” (Sigrid Lauenborg Dahl, folk high school teacher).
Folk High Schools are funded with two thirds by the state, but unlike most other education in Denmark, the last third is covered by a participants’ fee. There is a law on folk high schools but each school has a large degree of freedom.
This short documentary is a part of video series “Live&Learn”, telling the stories of adult learners and educators.