Glömstaskolan: the school with just one rule

Karin Tyllström Karin Tyllström december 17, 2018

Just south of Stockholm, off the main road, there is a school surrounded by forest and greenery. This is Glömstaskolan. We are visiting in June so most children have left for the holidays and those remaining are enjoying summer school. We approach the school, narrowly avoiding the stream of a sprinkler which some little girls are playing in. A friendly teacher leads us into the main entrance to meet our guide for the day, social sciences teacher Magnus Blixt. Already we can feel it: this is a very special kind of school. This is different.

Safety and freedom by design

We stand at the balcony admiring the huge atrium, featuring a staircase wrapped around a giant pencil. Magnus tells us that architect Åsa Machado’s vision was for this to be the heart of the school, like a big tree. One key design principle is safety. There are no corridors; toilets are individual and built into classrooms; there are narrow stairs and plenty of glass windows. All of this means there are no hidden spaces in which children can bully each other. As students approach their classrooms, they can already see into them and know what to expect. But Machado has also made sure there are some private, more closed spaces where children (and teachers) can go when they need to. The key is choice — students can move furniture around, choose to sit at a desk, or lie on the floor. Whatever works for them. An Australian architect, Peter Lippman, also visits the school twice a year to experiment and move furniture around based on what’s working or isn’t working in the space.

Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication are pillars of the school, Magnus explains. The music room, rather than being hidden away, is in the centre of the school (with soundproof walls, of course). Students have access to a green room to make films, 3D printers, and a concrete jungle outside where they can do parkour. “Don’t you get bruises?!” parents gasp when given the tour. “Yes!” the children beam, “We like bruises! We learn from them!”

With great freedom comes great responsibility

Glösmtaskolan opened in August 2016 with 200 students. By the end of the school year, it had accumulated 100 more. This August, there will be some 460 students starting, coming from 17 different schools. Many of these children have special needs. Many have found in Glömstaskolan the first school they don’t want to run away from.

There is just one rule at the school which is (roughly translated): I want it to be good for you and I will do what makes you good. 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.

A new paradigm of teaching

Teachers’ classroom practices have the largest impact on student learning and achievement, and teacher resilience studies (like this one) have shown that resilience resides not in the individual but in the capacity for connection. Glömstaskolan, therefore, is designed to catalyse social connection not just for the students but also for the teachers. The staff room is a friendly, inviting space, promoting collaboration and discussion. Class sizes can be as large as 60 students, depending on the activity, with one teacher leading, and others supporting where they can offer valuable skills or social input. This is effective because teachers can give each other feedback and share the responsibility of creating a positive learning experience for each and every student. So if a teacher has a challenging student in their class, they don’t have to struggle alone. It takes a whole village to raise a child — a cliché often spoken, but rarely lived.

As well as teachers, there are also social pedagogues. They greet the children each morning. “Before, if I noticed a child looked sad, I’d have to make a choice — do I talk to that child or ignore them and get on with teaching for the sake of the rest of the class? With social pedagogues, I don’t have to make that compromise,” Magnus told us.

Teaching in this way has been an adjustment, however. Glömstaskolan doesn’t allow for ‘Zlatans’ (as in the arrogant, Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović) and it has been hard for those teachers used to being the stars of the school to transition to a more egalitarian, collaborative way of working. Staff went through a half-day ‘Cooperation Coaching’ process with Tuff Leadership Training in which teachers shared their ‘moose heads’ (a metaphor for deeper, often taboo issues like relationship dynamics or people’s way of being) and made agreements about the kind of team climate they want to create. “Trust has been absolutely key,” Magnus explained. A few teachers have left, but those who have stayed get it and understand the power of working in this way.

Two simple questions

There are a lot of aspects of Glömstaskolan that seem radical but when you see them in action, make total sense. This is partly inspired by the school’s visiting architect, Peter Lippman, who has a great philosophy about the two most important questions we should ask in life: 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. And the same applies to children who like to learn lying on the floor, for example, instead of at a desk. “Try it and if it works, it works!” Magnus chirped.

Or take the time-honoured practice of parent-teacher meetings. These cause a lot of anxiety for both parents and teachers, cost precious time, and often offer very little value. So the staff at Glömstaskolan asked, “Why do schools have parent-teacher meetings?” It isn’t a legal requirement. It doesn’t seem to add much value. The answer seems to be: because they just do. So they decided to stop having them. They also abolished school newsletters in favour of sharing posts on Instagram — much less time consuming, much more accessible.

“We don’t want a school for all, we want a school for each and every one. There’s a big difference.”

We heard several stories of children who, failed by the traditional school system, were now coming back to life at Glömstaskolan. This model is proving that when you treat children like adults and give them freedom, they don’t become hooligans, but quite the opposite — they become engaged and responsible. I’m excited to see what will unfold in the future for this new school and I’m inspired by the courage, integrity and commitment shown by everyone who works there.

Can Glömstaskolan serve as a guide to new ways of working?

My two passions are reimagining organisations and reimagining education, and of course the two are interconnected. What lessons can we learn from Glömstaskolan in discovering new ways of working?

1. Workplace design — You may not have the resources to design and build a workplace around the needs of the people who’ll inhabit it, but the key here is choice. Give people a choice about where and how they work and you’ll see them thrive. Do you want an organisation for all or an organisation for each and every person?

2. Minimum Viable Bureaucracy — This is a phrase I learnt from Francesca Pick at OuiShare when I interviewed her for my podcast, Leadermorphosis. 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 — 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.

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. It seems paradoxical but as Peter Block wrote:

“Freedom gets confused with liberty (which means we are not oppressed). Freedom is not doing your own thing, but just the opposite. It means we are the authors of our own experience. It means we are accountable for the well being of all that is around us. It means we believe that we are constituting, or creating, the world in which we live.”

It’s a great tragedy that many employees who speak up or challenge the status quo are perceived as difficult and are pushed out of organisations. How much great talent has been lost as a result of this oversight?

5. Talk about what’s under the surface — The teachers at Glömstaskolan have learnt to talk about their ‘moose heads’, which has led to new depths of communication and collaboration as a team. Once the truth is up on the table, you can decide together what to do about it. (I’ve written more about talking about what’s under the surface in this blog on the taboo in teams.)

Lisa Gill/Tuff Leadership Training