Christiane Daepp’s “Bureau of Ideas” helps children use their creativity and idealism to become active problem solvers in their communities. Through extracurricular activities in schools, kids independently work to develop solutions to the problems their peers, teachers, and neighbors face, and change their neighborhoods for the better.
The New Idea
In Swiss schools, teachers are often over-burdened and many students are frustrated by a hierarchical system. Through her Bureau of Ideas, Christiane has developed a curriculum for kids to be more engaged in society and independently create solutions to challenges they face, like bullying, vandalism, and strained teacher-student relations. Christiane empowers kids to take responsibility, be empathetic, collaborate with their peers, and to see the obstacles they face as challenges rather than problems. With children contributing equally to solutions regardless of their previous standing in class, social tensions are greatly reduced.
Christiane also accounts for the fact that adults could benefit greatly from the unique assets children bring to problem solving by changing kids’ role in society from recipient of adult advice to givers. Parents and citizens are continually impressed by the maturity of ideas the youngsters propose, helping deconstruct strong cultural concepts of authority and rigid intergenerational barriers in Switzerland.
Thus far Christiane has brought the “Bureau of Ideas” to thirty-four schools in Switzerland, and has been met with continuous high demand. Her program is easy to replicate, and as she brings it to more schools, the growing pool of young advisors tackle increasingly complex challenges, such as reforming the school system. The concept of reversing advisory roles can also benefit other institutions that are in urgent need of bottom-up participation. As such, Christiane is also working to transfer her idea to companies and state institutions.
Compared to the American education systems, Switzerland has a very hierarchical structure in which teachers impart knowledge and children react passively. Due to the lack of opportunities for participation, childrens’ unused energy and enthusiasm tends to be channeled into disinterest or resistance. Within the current system, there is little room for students to work independently and make the best use of their creativity, ultimately leading them to adopt this hierarchical system in their interactions with others. At the same time, classes have become more socially and ethnically heterogeneous, and performance expectations continue to rise. In regions of Switzerland that are strictly separated by language, this exacerbates social tensions between German and French-speaking citizens, and contributes to the prolonged frustration and stress kids feel over time.
Teachers, on the other hand, are over-burdened with the responsibility of making school a better place. Faced with social tensions and restrained by a hierarchical, highly structured education system, they find it very challenging to shape their class plans as to promote a peaceful, interactive atmosphere in school.
Adults in Swiss society tend to perceive children’s education through the lens of charity for individuals in need. As such, proposed improvements to the education and support of children do not typically take children’s opinions into account, despite the fact that they are the ones who are most affected. Children are highly innovative, unbiased, creative, and open-minded, and thus natural problem solvers, yet they are not included in the decision-making processes that involve them as stakeholders. Currently, few programs in Switzerland address this issue. Of those that are in place, they tend to be offered in private schools and are very resource-intensive, requiring a great deal of training and teacher involvement.
Through her program, Bureau of Ideas, Christiane gives students between 10 and 12 the opportunity to interactively work with other students to address challenges facing their school. She has focused her program on kids in their last year of primary school since their social skills are beginning to take shape during this time, and they are used to working together in groups. Additionally, since they are the oldest students in their school, younger students see them as particularly appealing collaborative partners.
The Bureau of Ideas is based on a simple but effective concept that requires little training to get started. Younger pupils fill out a form to express their concerns and complaints—including what has been done to tackle it already and what stopped or prevented them from solving it thus far—and they drop it into a letterbox in front of the room of ideas. Typical problems include social conflicts (“Peter tells everyone I am a thief”), performance problems (“I can’t concentrate”) and community concerns (“the school yard is always full of trash”). Once a week, the letterbox is emptied and the newly arrived problems are discussed. Depending on the nature of the problem, the team of young problem solvers invites the child who submitted the issue to their meeting as well as other students, and informs the teacher of who will be missing in class that day. During the session, the kids work together to solve the problem, following a step-by-step procedure that allows them to try out solutions, then come back for feedback sessions until the problem is solved. After the problem solving is finished, the team writes a summary report, assessing the complexity of the problem, the action taken, the results yielded, and forwards it to the teacher.
Having presented her concept to the teachers, Christiane visits the class, inquiring who wants to participate in the “Bureau of Ideas” and training the kids for six hours (in two days) in the presence of the teacher on how to conduct peer-to-peer problem solving. In 90 percent of cases, the whole class chooses to be part of the program, with the children dividing themselves up in teams of six pupils who then hold parallel sessions.
A recent evaluation of Christiane’s work in ten schools has shown that children participating in the Bureau of Ideas consistently score high grades, and report significant improvements in social skills and subjective well-being. Teachers, on the other hand, reported fewer discipline problems and noted an integration of “unpopular” or weak students in the class.
Thus far, her concept has spread to thirty-four schools and at least 1,000 children. In order to become independent from the school in her scaling efforts, she founded the “Bureau of Ideas Association” in 2004, funded by a 50,000 CHF (US$441,500) grant from UNICEF Switzerland. As her program grew in popularity, Christiane began to expand the reach of the Bureau of Ideas both in the topics covered and in the groups advised.
Christiane is currently finalizing a standardized do-it-yourself toolkit, including a handbook and film to assist the Swiss government’s proposed 2010 law to introduce mandatory integration/participation programs. She will also focus on training her participants and older youth: 6th graders participate in the Bureau of Ideas for one year after which they move on to Secondary School.
Christiane is also working with the Swiss Academy of Development on transferring the concept to war-torn countries such as Iran, Burundi, and Bosnia, where the Bureau of Ideas could be of great help to resolve conflict. Her vision is to train institutional intermediaries who bring the Bureau of Ideas to other places and train local multipliers themselves.
Christiane grew up in a small village with her four sisters, her father who was a priest, and her mother who was a housewife. Her middle-class parents were both very socially active and often encouraged their children to express themselves. When Christiane was young, she loved to make art and write journalistic pieces, and her parents supported her interests by emptying the family cellar so she could have a space to actively pursue her interests. This sharply contrasted with the hierarchical school system she was a part of that did not allow for any input from the students.
Appreciating diversity in study, and wanting to change the system from within, Christiane decided to become a teacher when she was sixteen. Her approach to teaching was apart from the Swiss norm, however, and during her examination placement, the university threatened to hold back her diploma because of how much she let children participate in lessons. Put off by this lack of openness, Christiane set out at the age of twenty to travel for five years, living in Greece, Italy, and Egypt, only returning to Switzerland occasionally to work as a substitute teacher.
At twenty-five, Christiane was back in Switzerland and looking for a job position that allowed her to implement her ideas, and was ultimately hired by a small private primary school as the only teacher of children ages six to ten. She soon began to weave in participatory methods into her teaching, and her ideas were considered so revolutionary that the largest TV station in the country produced two documentaries on her.
When the community was forced to close her school down because of financial reasons, Christiane took up work in a larger institution. Unable to continue with her participatory teaching, she created an “alternative school system” in which parents would bring their children in on weekends to learn collaboratively, express their creativity, and initiate projects.
In 2002, Christiane established the Bureau of Ideas, which was enthusiastically received by children and supported by a handful of progressive teachers. UNICEF together with Orange Communications rewarded her with the Integration Award in 2004 for her work.