Jorn West Larsen: “A learning environment that helps children’s learning styles”

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership February 01, 2014

If the school of the future is a place with few walls, then it already exists – at the Hellerup School in the Gentofle Municipality near Copenhagen. This modern public school, built on a former factory site, is a spacious, progressive learning space for up to 750 students and 65 teachers and assistants. 

The unique school design is the result of collaboration between the architects, school staff, parents and even a few of the students.  The goal was to ensure that the physical design of the school could support the school’s learning philosophy, which is rooted in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (see This led to the creation of a range of fun and flexible and learning spaces. This open-plan school was tailor-made to enhance “learning by doing” and creativity. 

WISE interviewed Jørn West Larsen, the school’s headmaster – who has been an educator for 30 years – and the text below provides his interesting insights into how this creative learning place is used and what makes it so special.

The Soul of the School

Mr. Larsen joined Hellerup School in 2009 and believes the soul of the school is unique. As he explains “Each child learns in a different way so learning spaces are very important. You have to find a learning environment that helps children’s learning styles.”  

Student-Centered Learning 

The school, which serves students between 5 and 16 years of age, follows the national curriculum in Denmark.  As is the case throughout Denmark, learners are actively engaged in defining their specific learning goals in consultation with teachers, while teachers give feedback and support to each learner help ensure that he or she achieves these goals. More than in other schools, however, children work independently or with peers on projects.  Teachers see themselves as consultants for learning, rather than as classroom authorities.

Lessons start with all the children in a class sitting together for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then they find a space in the school where they feel at ease and start working. They may choose to work alone or with their peers while sitting at a table, on the staircase, or the floor – anywhere they feel they can work well. 

For the most part, there are no classroom walls – although classes like chemistry and woodworking where special facilities are necessary – do have enclosed spaces.

For other classes, teachers may use flexible walls and furniture to arrange spaces. They may also wheel in a blackboard and create a more traditional classroom – although this is not the typical approach at the school.  There has also been special attention to acoustics of the school, so groups of children may work without being disrupted by noise from other areas.

What Makes it Work?

Academically, students at the Hellerup School perform well, as measured by their marks and on national tests.  But these tests don’t measure social competences, which is where Larsen says the students really shine.  Children work in constantly changing environments and collaborate with others. For two weeks of every year, children of all ages work together on a special creative art project, providing opportunities for mixed age learning and reinforcing the school as a whole community. 

Larsen also notes that there are fewer disciplinary problems at Hellerup than in more traditionally designed schools. This is, in part, he says, because there are always adults nearby who can help children to deal with potential conflicts. Children are able to develop communication skills and to address disagreements more effectively. 

According to Larsen, the success of this school is built on excellent relationships between teachers and pupils. Teachers in the school believe that if you feel good then you learn well. Children are respected and enjoy being in the school.

The teachers hired at Hellerup are often young, and high performers in their subjects.   All teachers at the school work in autonomous teams of five to six staff. They are able to learn from each other as they share good practices and provide peer-based feedback.  They also cooperate with university-based teacher training programs.  Teachers change teams each year, ensuring ongoing development and fresh ideas.  

The school has a waiting list, and is unable to take in students from other municipalities at this point.  At the same time, Larsen says the neighboring schools in the municipality are successful. Teachers at Hellerup are very aware that they need to ensure that their students have the same strong foundation as provided at other schools, and will be able to perform well at the upper secondary school level.

Future Challenges

The coming years involve three major challenges for the school. Firstly it needs to move further into a digital world. At the moment it cannot give laptops to every child. However, students come to school with their own laptops or i-Pads. Secondly, students need to be better prepared to live, work and succeed in an increasingly  globalized world. Finally the school has to develop a strategy to meet the demands of climate change and the future of our planet.

This school is an inspiring example of how to use learning spaces creatively. It breaks down traditional classroom barriers between teachers and learners while providing children with the skills they need for the rapid changes and complexities of the modern world.