Margrét Pála on teaching kids to be resilient

Icelanders are a famously hearty lot. Norwegian Vikings trying to escape the rule and taxation of Norway’s king first inhabited the land that is now Iceland in the 9th century. So they had pluck from the start. But you simply have to be resilient to survive in such frozen, forbidding territory. 

Margrét Pála (PopTech 2012) is a groundbreaking educator from that rugged country. Starting back in 1989 she was first somewhat infamous, and later more famous, for developing her own rigorous pedagogical model for educating young Icelandic kids. Pála emphasizes resilience, in part, because it is a key component to surviving and thriving in a challenging world. 

It's all very Icelandic, and her ideas can seem a bit rugged to the uninitiated. But that makes sense, given that since the Vikings arrived on that isolated island in the North Atlantic, Iceland's history has been marked by wrenching poverty, volcanic eruptions, poor farming conditions, avalanches that wiped out entire villages, and repeated economic collapses.

"We are hard-wired in our resilience," Pála said in her 2012 PopTech talk, which is now available online. "'We have seen it worse,' we always say."

In practice, this means emphasizing decision-making and creativity. Rather than traditional toys, classrooms are populated with open-ended, natural materials that require children to improvise. Exercises include instructions about breaking norms and rules: "Go through the window," Pála exclaims. "Why are you always using the door?" And her kids get a bit of tough love. "Go out with your bare feet," she says to them. "Maybe it hurts a little bit. That's great."

Classrooms are also segregated by sex, children are required to wear uniforms to encourage discipline, and the curriculum includes exercises in jumping off cushions to help very young children learn the value of a little courage in life. That's something every Icelander has needed since at least the 9th century.  

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