Photo by Note Thanun

The city is the new school

Learning about the origins of homo sapiens in the park, knowing when an ‘x’ tends to infinity in the city hall or understanding how bees are engaged in photosynthesis in a bookshop may describe a typical school day in Vilnius. 

The system of having a couple of dozen children sitting in a room listening to a teacher for around five hours a day, five days per week, has its days numbered in the Lithuanian capital. The council came up with a better idea to boost children’s attention and invest in dynamism after the pandemic: a versatile system integrating lessons around the city.

Out of school lessons 

Natural surroundings, historical buildings and vibrant businesses are all available in the capital of Lithuania, now going beyond standard usage and contributing to an excellent education atmosphere.  

The more successful we are, the more creativity we will have in 10 years
— Remigijus Šimašius

“It is not such a big innovation to invite the children out to nature, to learn something about the environment,” says the Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius. A laboratory can host a biology lesson; a museum can accommodate a history class, companies can teach about their businesses. The streets can showcase examples of architecture; parks can exhibit nature. Children can go to the cinema to watch movies in the original version to improve their language skills. 

Streets of Vilnius

Furthermore, places will host lessons that may not relate to the building’s purpose. One of the participants is a big bookstore chain where children will have language or economics courses since fewer clients come in during the first half of working days. The mayor will be hosting math lessons in the council hall.

Some partners, explains Šimašius, “are life science companies that produce new things in their laboratory, some are companies that invite children to learn about business. Others may be restaurants.”

In three years, the city expects school children from primary to secondary education (from 7-18 years old) to benefit from around 10% of all lessons outside school buildings. 450 places should be up and running temporarily or permanently during the school year to achieve that. The goal for this autumn is to have no less than 100.   

Towards creativity

For Šimašius, the concept of creativity involves both original lessons and nonstandard surroundings. “The idea is to use the city as the education platform. We should generate creative lessons, but also environments, instead of having children locked in a school building,” he says.

The council organises an open call to ensure public buildings, public spaces, and private institutions can participate in the endeavour. Not only will the idea change the way of learning for every child, but it will also transform the capital of Lithuania.

We should generate creative lessons, but also environments, instead of having children locked in a school building
— Remigijus Šimašius

The new lessons enter the education system as an alternative to standard school classes, says the mayor, “not like an excursion after serious lessons, but rather integrated into the core curriculum.”  

This update in the local programme seeks to adapt to each student’s individual learning needs and reduce the pandemic after-effects on children.  After the last two years, parents, teachers and students wanted to avoid digital classes.  

Nevertheless, the system takes advantage of “unavoidable aspects of integrating the hybrid learning,” Šimašius explains, but reduces all online lessons to a virtual library incorporated into the programme. 

However, in-person lessons are significantly associated with the building, “instead of with a process of being and learning together,” explains the mayor. To ensure consistent innovation, Vilnius also works on the classes that will be delivered inside the school building.  

A new concept of school

Vilnius has developed its own architectural principles for designing schools. Closed classrooms, long corridors and separate areas for different functions are over, ready to be replaced by collaborative spaces.  

Children in a school class
Children in a school class.

The structure of lessons is also being reshaped to adapt to those lessons outside the building. This could involve a combination of classes, their extension or adjusting breaks. 

Finally, teachers are receiving additional resources. “If you get an innovative teacher, everything goes smoothly. But the question is, do we always have the most innovative teachers? Or are the innovative teachers encouraged?” Šimašius wonders. 

The municipality understands that educators are essential resources for innovative education and decided to boost their involvement through financial incentives and author recognition. Money is expected to encourage teachers to come up with creative lessons and author recognition to strengthen knowledge sharing. 

When children become grown-ups  

The project also indirectly affects young families, who consider the quality of education when choosing where to live, along with other elements such as cost of living and career opportunities. Vilnius’ population are growing 1% per year, even 2% during the past two years.

Do we always have the most innovative teachers? Are the innovative ones encouraged?
— Remigijus Šimašius

“The more successful we are, the more creativity we will have in 10 years,” says Šimašius. “Then, those children who are 15 years old today will be in the labour market or entrepreneurs in the grown-up world. That’s why creativity is essential.”

The education proposal in Vilnius won national and international recognition. It received $1 million from the Bloomberg Philanthropy award to put it in place. Šimašius maintains the decision of its implementation was taken before knowing the results of the competition since “it’s not just money, it’s also about encouragement. Money does help, but we would have done it anyway.” According to the mayor, what the prize has done is “boosting the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of everybody. And it really contributes to the final success.”

Inside the country, the Ministry of Education is interested in expanding the method to other cities. Šimašius insists that after testing it all, all the details will be available, open data and open source, for a much broader application. 

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 10%

    of the lessons will take place outside the school building
  • 450

    places should be up and running temporarily or permanently during the school year
  • 100

    buildings is the goal for this autumn