Phie Ambo: Reactive Education

Phie Ambo: Reactive Education

Phie Ambo, a notable Danish documentary filmmaker, has uncovered a new story. She thinks it's critical to understand the challenges of modern life and help children find ways to face them. We talk about the changes in Denmark that paved the way for a new school focused on environmentalism and sustainability, and where Denmark stands in the global challenge to develop diverse thinkers to address these serious issues. Ambo believes emotional development is just as important as academic pursuits in preparing children to cope with the impact of this new world as it evolves.

Why do you think people are more interested in your approach?
I think that in Denmark, the whole education system has moved in a very destructive way the last five to 10 years. If you look at Finland, they are doing the exact opposite. They have kids in school for very few hours, they encourage them to play much more, and their kids are thriving. In Denmark, we keep the kids in school for longer hours and give them a lot of homework. It’s a way of thinking that we in Denmark are so small that we need to be aware that we are not getting run over, but we are doing it in the wrong way. 

Is the interest in your school, Den Grønne Friskole, part of a broader cultural shift in Denmark? 
I think so. Because we are such a small country so if we really want to make a change it’s not that difficult. In this school that is so small, we have a huge waiting list. I call the public school and say we have a very big waiting list and I want the kids to come to your school because it’s much bigger. We work together and maybe make public school more project-based and green because that’s what the parents want. We consider ourselves sort of a motor for that development.

Classroom with children
We want to take the curriculum we develop here and make it open source for any school to use. If you are just open with things it will create change because what we have now is not working well enough.

Was this a reaction to the school system in Copenhagen? 
It’s not really a reaction to the public school system. It’s really a reaction to the thinking about education. It’s a reaction to the way we divide students into certain ages, we give them grades, and we think they will be better if we test them, but it doesn’t work that way. 

You are not going to teach a generation to experiment and be inventors according to how many mistakes they make. They need to make tons of mistakes.

It’s a reaction to the whole way of thinking about education that everyone has to be alike. Kids are so different and they need to be taught in different ways. We don’t need a lot of people who are alike. 

We need many different people to face the challenges we have. It’s really a reaction to the challenges we have in our culture than to the public school system.

Is the school private? 
We are organized a little bit differently than a private school. It’s called a free school and with a free school you can look for funds, so eventually, you don’t pay very much to go here. Because we are not a business, we are not supposed to earn any money. In Copenhagen, 25 percent of students go to free schools. 

Does the government support you? 
When you open a school like this you get 73 percent of the payment from the state. And the parents pay the rest. So the state supports it.

How is your school unique? 
This one is unique because everything the kids learn is about sustainability in one way or another.

It can also be social sustainability, to learn to be a good friend and to accept that people are different from you.

They have two hours of yoga and meditation a week. We do spend a lot of time working on the inner connection that you can make peace with yourself even though things are changing. We are going to go through a lot of difficult changes, environmental change, so if they panic, we have a problem. We need to teach them how to emotionally work their way through these problems and how to dance with it instead of rejecting it. 

Is there a general cultural shift in environmentalism and sustainability in Denmark? 

There is, but it’s not something that the journalists cover a lot. But I go to the countryside and I see Dutch farmers that are encouraging people to come to their land and make permaculture or biodynamic which is a complete shift in how you think about farming. It is happening, but a lot of Danes don’t know it yet. 

Student doing the dishes.
We teach the kids that these materials are so valuable. We recycle of course in the school but they probably don’t recycle in their homes. Our biggest struggle is how can they bring what we teach them in school into the environment also.

The consciousness of the average Dane is way too leaned back. They don’t understand the scope of what we are facing and the kind of resources they are just throwing out. It’s just a question of habit. 

What’s interesting is these kids recycle everything, but they have to take it to bigger bins. When they open the one for paper, a lot of times you can see that someone has thrown metal into it. 

Coat rack
The children are like, ‘What, grown-ups? They don’t even know how to recycle!’ So they have to go around to the companies, to the grown-ups, and say, ‘Don’t put plastic in the paper bins!’

Are the students Danish or are they international? 
They are Danish. They come from all over the city. There are students from Ukraine and France and Ghana but mostly they are Danish. Maybe 10 out of 100 are foreign. 

What are the children working on now?
They go outside by the nearby beach and in the natural surroundings. They have this project called “harvest.” They have a garden by the ocean that they go to and harvest. Now, they are making different recipes from what they harvested. They are also preparing for a stall so that parents can buy things from the garden. So in making the recipes, they learn math. 

We don’t have a math lecture or a writing lesson. We use everything in projects.

What kinds of families have supported this school? Do they have a certain kind of outlook?
I think it’s really a diverse group of parents. As far as socioeconomics, they are the same types of people who would choose the public school. It’s not people who are better off than the average citizen here in Copenhagen because it’s not that expensive. So what they chose is a different way of teaching the kids and the green part of it. So we have people from the upper class, the lower class, and in the middle. 

The school is built on goodwill from parents and a lot of engagement from the kids. The kids also built the whole construction here. We teach them how to transform things. Nothing was there, so they can see how we can change things. Just little by little.

How many teachers do you have? 
We have 11. The ratio is around 10 children per teacher. We produce our own books. We don’t buy any books at all, so we spend all the money on teachers. Also, there are no books that are available about teaching sustainability to kids. 

And are you media free and screen free like Waldorf? 
No, we do have computers but we only have 10 computers for the 100 kids.

We use it as a tool the same way you would use a power tool or like a saw.

We don’t have any of these smart screens on the walls and stuff like that because it’s so easy to fall into the trap and use these tools because they are there and are a quick fix. It also really hinders the kids on how to learn in slow processes, which is a strength when working through a crisis. 

Can you tell us a little about how the school is constructed? 
Everything is from flea markets and things kids brought from their houses, which also makes it more like home. We don’t use any materials that resemble an institution. 

The floors are really supposed to be linoleum, but I had this feeling that linoleum is too much like an institution, like a hospital or something, so we changed to this type of tile that make it more like a home.
Student cleaning

What you see on the wall is clay and beneath the clay is the wooden wall. The wall is soft and transpires. In the winter, you can see it ventilates naturally so it’s another way of building where you don’t have these plastic membranes that keep the humidity in and out. Everything is made from natural materials and there are no toxic materials. The land the school is built on used to be a place where they shipped lacquer. Really, really toxic things. 

We want to teach the kids that you can go to a place that is really toxic and you can transform it.
Phie Ambo in front of a classroom
Phie Ambo: Reactive Education & Sustainable Copenhagen

Photography by Robiee Ziegler, unless otherwise noted. Interviews edited for flow and clarity.