INTERVIEW by LAUREN RIGNEY | PHOTOGRAPHY by JONAS BORG
Imagine a school so beautiful and full of life that your adult self thinks, “If only I could be a kid again.” Few schools could boast provoking such thoughts, but if you were to visit Vittra Telefonplan School in Sweden, you would think nothing else. As the newest member of the Vittra school system, Telefonplan is a K-8 school that challenges how we view education. Instead of classes, students work in groups based on skill levels and learning development. And instead of classrooms, Telefonplan is composed of numerous open “learning spaces,” including the Mountain, the Cinema, and the Camp Fire. Jannie Jeppesen, Principal of Vittra Telefonplan, and Ante Runnquist, Head of Vittra’s Research and Development, tell us more about Telefonplan through an adult’s eyes.
Ante: We want to love schools. What else could be more important? We put the most valuable things that we have in them, so they should be beautiful places.
Was it difficult explaining the concepts behind Telefonplan to prospective parents?
Jannie: Since everybody has been to school, it’s very easy to explain what kinds of environments traditionally built schools look like, and if they are supporting certain learning processes. For example, reading is a core task of a school. Traditional schools have classrooms with thirty kids in one classroom. But when I read for myself at home, I lie down in my bed or sofa and I have complete silence.
What was the most common question parents asked when they came in to look at the school?
Jannie: Are the kids going to be able to focus in here?
And what was your response?
Jannie: The only response I can give is to invite them to join on a school day. You need to see it to see how calm the environment is.
Ante: The key factor to me isn’t the design, it’s the key confidence in the teachers. As always, it’s the teachers.
Teachers and students interact in unique learning spaces at Telefonplan
Can you walk us through a typical day of a student at Telefonplan?
Jannie: Everybody comes in and says “Hi” and takes a walk around. At 8:30 the assembly starts.
Ante: Can I just interrupt? Because this is one of my most favorite parts of the day. It’s just wonderful, and the design of the school helps here. It’s like you come to school and it’s quiet and you meet your friends, and there’s all these places they hang out. And the teachers are present. It’s the best start of any day.
Jannie: All kids have a place where they meet their teacher, so they always go to the same place in the morning. You meet your teacher and talk about the day and what sort of goals you have set up for that day and maybe evaluate what happened yesterday. After that, you go to your working groups and start your work. You have a structure in the day with your breaks and your lunch, but every day can be filled with different things, depending on what sorts of projects you’re working on.
One thing that is interesting about what the environment forces us to do is that when the teachers plan, they always need to ask the question, “So where in the house do we need to be?” Because certain areas won’t support that kind of process, and certain areas will.
Telefonplan houses a variety of learning environments to suit different learning processes
I know that at Vittra schools, student curriculum isn’t divided by age or year. How is it organized?
Jannie: Most of all, it’s a social grouping. Everybody knows each other, so it’s like we have a big class, and within that we divide them into different working groups. It’s not a division made by which year you were born — more a division by which situation would you develop the most in.
Ante: The kids don’t pay that much attention to if you’re in 3rd or 4th grade. Translate it to how we work as adults. On a project, it’s much more based on your level of skill and ambition. And age has nothing to do with that.
What year does the school go up to?
Jannie: We are growing organically. We will continue up to year nine, which is the end of compulsory school in Sweden.
Going back to the parents again… when most parents enter the school and see the space, what is most people’s reaction?
Jannie: We actually have quite a lot of American parents at our school. And it’s very interesting when you come from the American school system and come in. The questions coming are not logical, they are only emotional. The only thing they say is how they feel when they walk around. One dad said to his husband, “Do you understand why you feel happy when you walk around here?”
When the school was first opening, were you over-flooded with applicants?
Jannie: We started with 100 kids. It was our plan to start small. It went really well, and the parents and kids were content and happy and really had trust in what we did. So now we have very many who want to start. A bit too many, actually.
What is your favorite learning space at Telefonplan?
Ante: What I love most at the moment is the variety. The range of different spaces and places: it’s so much wider at this place than any other school I’ve been in, and that’s the beauty.
Jannie: I have one place I go when I want to refuel from my sometimes tedious office work. I go out and refuel by sitting at the cinema with whatever students are there. The communication in that environment gets to be very intimate, and you really have a connection with the ones you talk to.
The design of the Telefonplan Cinema
Is there anything else we didn’t talk about?
Ante: There is one thing. When we designed this place, we did it together with children and teachers, and I think that is so important. It’s so important when you make schools that you start from the other end. That function and pedagogy come first. Like, the custom furniture we have at Telefonplan has been designed by kids. And that’s why it works, I guess.
[note: Check out Ante's blog post about the ideas behind the design of the Telefonplan learning environments]
We ask at the end of our interviews, “How can our readers help support what you’re doing?” What would you say to our readers?
Ante: I would like everyone in every community to help schools by spreading the beautiful examples. When you see something beautiful, tell the teachers and spread the word, because this is just one example of a fine school.
Jannie: I agree with Ante — spread the word and ask questions of the educational system.
Ante: And demand beautiful environments for the kids.
Jannie: It’s a statement — how important is school and your learning?