Life skills approach in the Danish context: building a community spirit and creating flexible learning pathways

I meet with Jette and Stine during a study visit in Copenhagen, intended to prepare EAEA’s upcoming Annual Conference on Life Skills and Participation in Adult Leaning.

“We have a special openness to everyone,” tells Jette, who is an educator at Kursustrappen. Kursustrappen is a Copenhagen based day folk high school that fosters life skills and mental health, especially among adults who suffer from depression, social anxiety or chronic pain, and who find it difficult to go back to employment or learning.

“I’ve been working here for 22 years,” says Jette. “12 years ago we started a special project for people with depression. From there we moved forward in this area.”

Kursustrappen offers a set of courses, each lasting 13 weeks, with a holistic approach to learning. Alongside fitness, yoga, mindfulness, art workshops, discussion groups and other courses, the school also organizes activities outside, such as visits to museums or excursions. The key principle is flexibility and freedom of choice.

Jette Borgstrøm, educator at Kursustrappen

“We have about 40-50 participants, and we have a weekly schedule, which we always discuss when we start. Not everyone is interested in everything. I think it’s very important in our tradition, that you can choose what is important to you. Some are only in art workshops, and they work there every day, they don’t want to go to other subjects. But then you can invite them, and say – ‘Hey, we’re doing something very interesting tomorrow, why don’t you come?’.

“We have the freedom – it’s a luxury really – to design what’s best,” explains Jette. “We don’t have a curriculum. We don’t have exams. We only have what the participants are telling us: Was it helpful? Did you grow? Did you get further in your life?”

Breakfast meetings and drawing together – the group acts as a mirror to the learners

The learner-centred approach means that in some cases, schedules and courses have to be adapted on the go. “For example, we organized a class for people with chronic pain. At first we didn’t know what to do, because we noticed that many of them weren’t talking – and normally that’s what you mainly do, you talk and talk about what you’re feeling. So instead, we explored this with drawings,” recalls Jette, before adding another example.

“When we started a project for people suffering from depression, we were very careful to be as professional and prepared as possible. But then our participants said: ‘Hey, we don’t need yoga at 9:00 am on Monday morning! We don’t need to come here with our eyes still half-closed. Let’s first have coffee and talk’. So now on Monday morning we have breakfast instead, and then we can have yoga in the afternoon.”

The Monday morning breakfasts have proved very popular, and Jette underlines that social activities and building a community spirit are the key. “They talk about their experiences, and they have this mirror in the group. They tell us that what is most important is to be mirrored and to feel alike, to feel that you’re a member of a community,” she says.

“A group means a lot to us, we always look at groups. In our tradition it’s also very individual. We can put light on your interests and your talents but the group is very, very important. People here get friends – for the first time in many, many years – and have a social life after they leave. Some of them will go together after the class and do something.”

Art classroom at Kursustrappen

Jette also emphasizes how important it is for the members of the group to support each other. “We try to find out about people’s talents, because if someone in the group has something extraordinary, then we need them to support the group. You can organize a trip to a place you know. We’re very good at finding help within the group.”

This mutual respect translates into horizontal structures at the school. “We try to make the process as equal as possible – we don’t even talk about ‘students’ or ‘learners’ but ‘participants’. They are grown-ups with a lot of life experience. We try to take their experiences and values, and build on them,” says Jette.

Such a holistic approach to learning would not be possible without a good team, and Jette emphasizes that the contacts between the staff are also based on a spirit of cooperation. “We’re a team, we gather and we talk together; we also get external help when needed,” says Jette. “Each of us specializes at something different – for example, I’m a psychologist, one of my colleagues is a psycho-motoric therapist – and we can help each other”.

Life skills capture the essence of non-formal learning

Still under the impression of what I have heard, I wonder – how common is this in Denmark? This is the first question I ask Stine Hohwü-Christensen, Development Officer at the Danish Adult Education Association, when we sit down to discuss the life skills approach in Denmark.

“It’s what the non-formal adult education system is built on, on the freedom to choose, and also for the participants to enroll on a voluntary basis. And you don’t get any exams at the end of the course,” clarifies Stine.

Stine Hohwü-Christensen, Development Officer at the Danish Adult Education Association

DAEA has worked together with us on Life Skills for Europe, a project that aimed to upscale the life skills approach in adult learning. The project has already ended, but Stine confirms that the interest in life skills has continued.

“I think life skills actually has captured the core of the skills that are developed in the non-formal adult education sector. We embrace the concept and we’ve been using it in many of our activities, because it fits well with what all the different organizations are doing.”

As part of the project, DAEA has collected different tools used by its members. Jette’s use of drawings with her group is part of the database; another example comes from a handicraft course for Danish and refugee women, called Recycling Design.

“The overall purpose of the course is that women meet each other because of their interest in needlework and in using recycled materials,” says Stine. “But a lot of other things happen during the course – they speak Danish, they practice the language, and they get a sense of how society works. They talk about kindergarten, they talk about how to go to a dentist…  This turned out to be so interesting for women that at some point the teacher even considered inviting a dentist to speak at the course – a course that was initially about needlework! The women also spontaneously decided to organise a tour to the parliament together. All these things added to the course – that’s giving the life skills,” reflects Stine.

Recycling Design, developed by DOF Allerød Fritidsskole, targets refugee and native Danish women with the aim of developing their literacy, civic, personal and interpersonal, environmental capabilities.


Life skills yet to be recognized at the policy level

While I knew already that the Life Skills for Europe project has mapped the different capabilities that a life skills approach can foster, I am curious to learn how it was adapted to the Danish context. As Stine explains, DAEA has developed a “flower of competences for life”, adapting the Life Skills model designed in the project. Alongside literacy, numeracy, digital or civic capabilities, which were already defined in the project, DAEA has also included creative competences. At the root of the flower – “what makes it stable,” as Stine tells me – DAEA incorporated critical thinking and action. “Combining the two things give you the ability to take action and to empower yourself,” explains Stine.

Having heard about the impressive work done by adult learning providers, I can’t help but wonder whether a life skills approach is already understood by the Danish policymakers. Obviously such flexibility and freedom of choice would not be possible without an adequate support at the policy level. Stine explains that the value of non-formal adult education is generally recognized, but the concept of life skills has yet to become part of the public discussion on education.

“We keep talking about social competences and personal competences, and also learning to learn, personal development areas. But the term ‘life skills’ is not used. We have been implementing it, letting people know what it is, trying to visualize its added value”.

Join us in Copenhagen on 27 June to discuss the life skills approach in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe! Register by 31 May.