I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Copenhagen where my eldest son has begun a semester abroad. It was a funny thing to realize that for so many years we’ve been introducing our kids to the world but have reached the stage where they are off (or soon to be off) on adventures that are entirely their own. The timing of the trip was tricky – my husband and younger son both returned to school while I was gone - but despite the jet lag and the tight schedule (compounded by a narrowly missed connecting flight back to Boston), I’m glad I was able to go. Okay, it’s possible I cried at the Norwegian Air rebooking desk at Gatwick after that missed flight. I usually handle these types of situations with more equanimity, but first there was the stress of how close the connection would be after three delays. Then the pilot on the delayed flight told us they were holding the plane. Yay! Next, there was the adrenaline-filled race through the terminal to the discovery that the plane had already taken off. And finally, the news that the next flight was 24 hours later and fully booked. They wanted to put me on a discount airline the next morning to another airport where I would have had a six-hour layover before a flight home. But good news! In the end I got a seat on the Gatwick-Boston flight. It seems full flights can have a seat or two set aside for stand-by crew or criers. So I may not have handled the travel stress with the aplomb I would strive for, but it worked out. Let’s not dwell on that. I had three full days in Copenhagen, mostly on my own, while my son completed registration for classes and assorted orientations for foreign students. I want to write about a few things that stood out.
First, bicycles are everywhere. I’ve never experienced a city that accommodates bikes so expertly. On main roads, there is a sidewalk, then a curb to the bike lane, then a curb to the road, giving pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars each their own areas. I wouldn’t normally be comfortable on a bike in a big, unfamiliar city, but in Copenhagen I was. In fact, my three-hour bicycle tour of the city was a highlight of my visit. It wasn’t always this way. Our local bicycle guide, Mike, told us that only twenty years ago Copenhagen was noisy and congested with traffic. They wanted to bring bikes to the city, so they made biking as safe and convenient as possible. Now up to sixty-five percent of Copenhageners travel by bike
every day year-round. (It’s interesting to note that despite having a latitude similar to Juneau, Alaska, it rarely snows, thanks to the North Atlantic current and the Gulf Stream. You might be biking in the rain and in the dark, but it won’t be snowing.) Mike told us that by traveling at a steady rate of about 11 or 12 miles per hour, a bicyclist traveling in from the suburbs can ride the entire distance to the city center without having to stop once for a light.
Another thing the Danes are intentional about is green energy. After the oil crisis of the
1970s, Denmark set a goal to be independent of fossil fuels by 2050. The cycling culture is part of that effort. They are also a world leader in wind turbines. And Copenhagen’s new incineration plant turns waste into energy. In 2017 Denmark was ranked first on the Global Cleantech Innovation index, and their clean technology exports were the highest in Europe. A side note: The incineration building itself is fascinating. One side of it has been designed to be a nearly 2,000-foot ski hill and another side will soon host the world’s largest climbing wall. Incineration plants are not usually highlighted on tourist-y bike tours, but Mike was really proud of this one, telling us that all of Denmark (from the national government down to the community level) supported and invested in Denmark’s green energy goal. (He also proudly told us that Denmark has a balanced budget, a trade surplus, and no state debt.) A third thing that jumps out is the population’s extraordinary proficiency with languages. Eighty-five to ninety percent of Danes speak English. And they don’t speak English in the way many Americans, say, “speak a little Spanish” or “know some French from high school” (the kind of proficiency that allows you to sound like a five-year-old while asking “where is the toilet?” or “a cup of coffee please?”). The Danes I met, one and all, spoke English fluently, with idioms and no panic. In 2014 the Danes were named the best speakers of English as a second language in the world. (While learning English is mandatory beginning in their first year of school, students also have the option of learning a third language. In addition to Danish and English, forty-seven percent of Danes also speak German, and many others speak French or other languages.) But the Danes aren’t magical language prodigies. Languages are a priority.
And speaking of education, the Danes are all about it, from early childhood and throughout life. Though Danish children may be enrolled in child care programs starting at six months (all parents are guaranteed a spot for their child and pay only a portion of the cost), formal schooling doesn’t begin until age 6. In the early years, there is a strong emphasis on play as a primary path to learning. (Lego, a Danish company, gets its name from the Danish “play well.”) After high school, students may go on to university or a trade school, and throughout life, all Danes can receive additional education and training. Mike told us that many Danes go back to school in midlife and change careers (he had previously been in banking). We rode our bicycles by a “folk high school” - one of many - where adults sign up for residential learning programs ranging in length from two weeks to four months. How do adults with jobs have the time? we asked. Well, the Danish work week is 34 hours and everyone gets ten paid weeks off per year, and six “comfort days,” so those who wish to do a continuing education program have the time. A motto in Denmark, Mike told us proudly, is “if you do well, we all do well.” (It’s possible that Mike’s third career will be in Danish PR.) Needless to say, they invest in education. In 2014 Danish education spending topped that of all 34 OECD countries. I had a lot of time to consider what I’d seen on my very long trip home. What struck me was that their achievements in bicycling and language proficiency and green energy and education were all driven by great intentionality. These were big, hairy goals, not walks in the park. But over time, with steady progress – and almost certainly many missteps – they achieved them. As I returned home and to my own classroom (both jet lagged and energized if that’s possible), I was thinking hard about my own intentions for the coming year, both personally and professionally. I was also thinking about all the schools we’ve been talking to and visiting over the past several months in our work with the National Alliance for Engagement-based Education. It strikes me that intention is a primary driver in schools that are doing engagement-based and student-centered work. It is possible to achieve big goals. It is possible to enact real change, and there is not one right way to get there. But a crucial first step, it seems, may be for the whole community to clearly and with detail know and support the intention. photos by Kristin Blais