News & Topics


The World’s Happiest Country, Denmark, and What They Could Teach Us About “Happy-Making” Education

What is education like in the world’s happiest country? Despite being known as a wealthy, educationally-driven country, Japan’s rankings in the World Happiness Report (by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network [SDSN], a UN affiliate organization) are dismal, with the 2019 edition putting Japan in 58th place out of 156 countries, and dead last amongst the developed countries. Denmark, on the other hand, ranks consistently near the top of this same ranking. Known as the happiest country in the world, they also have a very unique educational philosophy.

Namiko Takahashi, who has experience studying abroad in Denmark, says, “In Denmark, you start thinking ‘I’m me, and they’re them,’ from a really young age. Maybe they’re happier because they don’t compare themselves to other people.” In this article, we asked Takahashi to talk about the educational system in Denmark, and its emphasis on separating your own sense of value from that of other people.

Education Tailored to the Individual: Drawing Out Ability and Individuality

Takahashi currently works at a regular company, while using her experiences studying abroad in Denmark to give lectures and promote educational information

At age 23, while working as a wedding planner, Namiko Takahashi had developed an illness of unknown origin that would cause gradual muscle wasting throughout her body. She’d decided to study abroad in Denmark—with its advanced social welfare—for a year, starting January 2017, in order to come to terms with living the rest of her life with an impairment. She attended Egmont Højskolen, a folkehøjskole (fully-residential adult educational institute), learning about the mentality behind social welfare while also sharing her experiences through a web column. She spoke to us about how her visit to a joint elementary and junior high school alerted her to the differences between educational environments in Denmark and in Japan.

“The system there was the complete opposite of the kind of standardized education you see in Japan—that was the first big thing I noticed. For one, there were these adults in the classrooms who weren’t teachers, called ‘paedagog,’ or ‘pedagogues.’ These pedagogues observe the children in their classes, and propose styles of learning that they think would fit each individual student. Apparently, they have a lot of different kinds of textbooks, and they’ll choose the ones that they think are the best fit for the student, according to their level of proficiency. It wasn’t at all like the uniform education you see in Japan. Because the system would adapt to each student, it really did feel to me like the school was cultivating the individuality of each and every child.”

Takahashi with her Danish friend and teacher during her study abroad (Source: Takahashi)

Another difference, she said, was that the teaching wasn’t just about teachers lecturing at the students. The schools would have instances, for example, where one of the students would go up and “play teacher,” teaching the other students what they’d learned. Even difficult content, like the kind you wouldn’t be able to remember just by reading a textbook in class, would be etched into your long-term memory if you had to stand in front of the class and teach it to others. The collaborative efforts of teacher and pedagogue are most likely what allows for the creativity in some of these class formats.

Pedagogues Support the Development of Child Personalities, Sociability

A scene in a Danish elementary school (Source: Takahashi)

Though pedagogues are essentially care support staff, the job itself is highly specialized, with education provided only at national vocational schools. Pedagogues are actually employed in a variety of settings, from elementary and junior high schools to kindergartens, daycares, welfare facilities, hospitals, and more. Takahashi says that being a pedagogue in elementary and junior high school involves providing a suitable learning environment for each individual student, but also helping students develop skills like sociability.

“Let’s say there’s a child that can’t control their emotions. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t get mad’ or ‘You can’t throw things,’ they’ll teach the child places where they could release their emotion, or other methods of release, and create environments—for example, a sofa—where they can relax. They’ll also watch to see what each child is good at, or how they communicate, and will work to draw out each child’s individuality and sociability.”

Folkehøjskole: A School for Figuring Out What You Want to Do

The folkehøjskole, Egmont Højskolen, during a break (Source: Takahashi)

In Scandinavia, there are fully-residential adult education institutes called folkehøjskole. They first came into existence in 1844, when a Danish philosopher created an educational institute for farmers who didn’t have access to education. The concept later spread to Denmark’s neighboring countries. We asked Takahashi, who’d studied abroad in one of these institutes, about what folkehøjskole are actually like.

“Anybody can enroll in these schools, regardless of things like academic ability or nationality, as long as you’re over 18 years old. Each term is half a year, but you can extend your period of study if you reenroll in the school. The biggest thing that a folkehøjskole is supposed to do, is to have students figure out what they want to do in life by spending some time living with other people, and so most of the people there are there for their gap year after graduating high school. Each folkehøjskole school has its own strength, like business, handicrafts, art. There are all kinds of reasons why someone would choose a certain school, but people tend to go to the school that offers a lot of subjects in the field they’re interested in. The school I went to, Egmont Højskolen, specialized in welfare, so there were a lot of people there who wanted to go on to medical school.”

Folkehøjskole, which were created as an educational institute for farmers, tend to be located in more rural districts, like farming areas. So you get to spend time learning in an expansive campus, surrounded by greenery, all while living with other people. What’s more, the tuition subsidy system in Denmark extends to international students, meaning you can spend six months at the folkehøjskole for approximately 600,000 yen, including accommodations and food costs—a stunningly low price considering Denmark’s general cost of living.

Everyone is Equal, and Everyone Respects Everyone Else

An art class at Egmont Højskolen (Source: Takahashi)

In 2017, Takahashi went on her study abroad at Egmont Højskolen, a folkehøjskole with a special course for Japanese study abroad students. The school, which specializes in welfare, has a total of 200 students, about half of which have some sort of impairment. What kind of things did she learn there?

“It was less like lectures for long-term care or welfare, and more like these activity-based classes that you could participate in. And every class had a lot of us all talking to each other, either debating our opinion or sharing our opinions on things. I think with Japanese people you tend to spend a lot of time just trying to see what the others are thinking, but Danish people would just say their opinions without caring about any of that stuff, so the debates would progress really quickly. Even students with heavy impairments, who have to use a tablet to talk, would raise their hands and make their opinion known, and of course the other students would wait and listen patiently until they were done. Sometimes when I’d get overwhelmed and just be sitting there silently, they’d say, ‘Hey, just say what’s on your mind right now,’ and make sure they were getting everyone’s opinion. It made me realize that this culture of not comparing oneself to others, and respecting the individual, is what makes everyone equal there.”

text by Uiko Kurihara(Parasapo Lab)
photo by Takeshi Sasaki

  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Google+