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A Swedish School with One Rule Offers a Disruptive Perspective on the Workplace and Schools

July 24, 2017

Lisa Gill, a corporate consultant who reimagines workplaces, wrote a post last week describing Glömstaskolan, a uniquely designed and operating school located south of Stockholm. A schools whose pillars are “collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication“, Glömstaskolan is designed to provide opportunities for flexible learning spaces for large group instruction and tutorial sessions, and everything in between. It offers specialized spaces as well: a music room is in the centre of the school (with soundproof walls, of course); a green room to make films, 3D printers, and a concrete jungle outside.

As Ms. Gill writes, the school has one rule which is (roughly translated): “I want it to be good for you and I will do what makes you good.” From my perspective, it is roughly equivalent to the Golden Rule, which is a common thread through all religions: ‘Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.’ In the case of Glömstaskolan, Ms. Gill cites the inspiration as coming from elsewhere and can be applied as a means of developing a student directed self-imposed discipline code: :

It’s a mantra inspired by football coach Pia Sundhage, who led the US women’s football team from 2008 to 2012, resulting in two Olympic gold medals. You can engage students (and indeed teachers) in a thoughtful discussion about any behaviour by using this one rule. For example, as winter was approaching, children began to ask if they were allowed to have snowball fights in the yard. Teachers encouraged the students to think about it in relation to the rule and so they began discussing options — maybe it would be ok if there was a predesignated area where it was ok to throw snowballs, supervised by a teacher… Of course throwing ice would be dangerous so that wouldn’t be ok… And so on. It’s a very adult-to-adult approach, giving students the freedom to influence how things are so long as they accept the responsibility for the outcomes.

And the approach extends to faculty members as well, who need to change their approach if they hope to succeed in the unorthodox structure of the school. Ms. Gill cites the work of a “visiting architect, Peter Lippman, who consults in the operation of the school. Mr. Lippman’s philosophy about the two most important questions we should ask in life serve as an overarching governance principle. Those two questions:

1) Why?, and 2) Why not? Most schools (or indeed institutions) never bother to ask these questions yet children ask them all the time! This was how the snowball fight situation arose — why couldn’t they have snowball fights? Because they’re dangerous. So what if measures could be taken to make them safe? Then there’s no reason why not.

Ms. Gill shows how these questions applied to practices applied to children who like to learn lying on the floor instead of at a desk, and “standard practices” like parent-teacher conferences and weekly newsletters. As an organizational consultant, Ms. Gill offers several lessons she learned from visiting Glömstaskolan, which are summarized below:

1. Workplace design — Give people a choice about where and how they work and you’ll see them thrive.

2. Minimum Viable Bureaucracy — Could you scrap your rules and policies in favour of just one principle as Glömstaskolan have done? If that’s too radical, you could take inspiration from the WD-40 Company which asks each employee to take a learning maniac pledge and each year asks employees worldwide to vote for the stupidest HR policy. If the leadership team can’t justify or clarify a policy, they kill it. In other words, they ask Lippman’s questions: “Why?” and “Why not?”

3. Social pedagogues — Ms. Gill described “social pedagogues” as individuals who work with children who are out of sorts. She poses the question: “What would a social pedagogue look like in an organisation? As our work becomes more complex and dependent on collaborating with others, our social needs are increasingly important. Companies like Spotify or self-managing healthcare organisation Buurtzorg (14,000 employees, 0 managers) are choosing coaches over managers — individuals who support and liberate the potential of individuals and teams, rather than control or micromanage them.” What if schools did the same thing?

4. With great freedom comes great responsibility — There are so many stories of ‘difficult’ children failed by the rigidity of traditional schools who have thrived in alternative schools where they are given more freedom. What if ALL schools began with the assumption that children who are given freedom are more willing and able to accept responsibility?

5. Talk about what’s under the surface — The teachers at Glömstaskolan have learnt to talk about previously taboo interpersonal issue, which has led to new depths of communication and collaboration as a team.

Organizational theorists have much to offer public schools in countries like Sweden… but in our country, obsessed with test results and competition, it seems unlikely that concepts like “collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication” will gain traction and, alas, even more unlikely that the one rule we would follow would be: I want it to be good for you and I will do what makes you good. 


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