Learning in an exam free and curriculum free school
The most radical thing about the folk high school, is probably that there is no curriculum. The schools have their autonomy to design the methods of teaching and plan the content of the education and the activities at the school, that they find suitable and accordingly to the schools’ set of values. Also, it is not a test oriented school, there are no exams, no grades and you do not get a degree at the end of the course.
While the content of the teaching at a folk high school is merely free, the law states that the education and teaching shall be of a broad, general nature. This means that the subjects taught need to be put into perspective towards a broader, universal meaning.
Of course, the students should acquire knowledge and skills from the teaching in certain subjects, but the main purpose of the teaching is not to acquire a specific skill set, but to open up the students’ - and teachers’ - eyes, minds and hearts for the human condition and the life that we are living individually and together.
Schools for life and society
Therefore, the educational purpose of the folk high school is wider than aiming for a specific education or career, instead it is aimed at enlightening and educating the individual to fulfill a meaningful life, to be able to take part in a free dialogue among people about the common good, and to become a responsible and active citizen in a democratic society (in the law described as: 1) Life enlightenment, 2) Public enlightenment and 3) Democratic education and training).
Grundtvig said that people should learn by talking with each other, learning that their voice counts, that they should speak up, have an opinion, and that they should be able to communicate coherently with other people in the community.
These thoughts regarding the folk high schools are just as important today as they were in the middle of the 19th century.
Living and learning together
With one single exception, all the Danish folk high schools are residential. They become microcosmic societies, with students and staff living, eating, and sharing the same daily routines together for the duration of the course.
For that reason, teaching and learning is not only taking place in class, but also in the dialogues at the dinner table or at the ping pong table, continuing a discussion from class. Teachers and students participate in common meetings planning various activities by discussing the scope and content of these activities.
There are many schools where morning assemblies are held to begin the day with a common starting point. There are community singing and sports activities. There are friendships, romances and break ups, parties and midnight discussions.
The fact that students and teachers live together and interact with each other, not only in class, but also at dinner, for a morning run or at a social event, means that the students and teachers get a special relationship that is more than just a student-teacher relationship. Being a folk high school teacher does not only mean being a teacher, but also being a mentor, a friend, a human meeting another human and together trying to find the way, and meaning in life.
Speaking with students it becomes clear that the fact that teachers see them, not only as students, but also as persons, is crucial to the motivation of the young people and hence crucial to the success of the folk high school.
There are no formal requirements for teachers at a folk high school. Some teachers have a formal teaching degree, but most teachers are academics or professionals in their fields of teaching. Generally, the teachers are passionate and dedicated and many teachers are still practicing their profession part time.
The subjects often reflect the teachers’ passion and interests and it is up to the teacher to make the subject relevant for the students. The student on the other hand has chosen the school and the subjects, and is present, essentially just to learn - because there is a desire, a will, an interest - not to get a degree nor to get a good mark.
This interaction between a passionate teacher and a motivated student, creates a unique learning space where the folk high school teachers are compelled to work with the students’ motivation, and the students’ involvement becomes a driving pedagogical factor. As a folk high school principal puts it:
To be engaged means to be dedicated and committed - and to be emotionally involved in something or someone. To be engaged is founded in, that we are intertwined with the world, and that as such has something to do with the world and each other. This helps make us who we are - it helps form us.