We met Damian Gsponer in Bratsch, on the road to Leukerbad, in Haut-Valais, Switzerland. Damian Gsponer is the founder and director of gd-Schule, a school that uses the pedagogy of the project daily to develop a mountain village.
You read correctly: a school that develops a mountain village!
The absence of grades and homework naturally makes the gd-Schule unique. Yet, the whole teaching is even more remarkable, for it is distinguished by an approach that systematically targets concrete achievements, mostly in the service of the residents of Bratsch.
In the podcast, Dominique Bourqui returns with Damian Gsponer on the journey that led him from the classroom to the foundation of a school.
At the start of the interview, Damian Gsponer explains that he holds his vision from his childhood. He describes himself as a bubbly child, disappointed to have to abandon his projects at the school door, not really happy to be satisfied to fill out papers.
This perception of a school separated from life became a deeper questioning during Damian’s studies at the HEP, interrogation which led him to search for another path, which would bring together school and life. Damian Gsponer gradually acquired the conviction that, in such a school, he would have learned more, he would have learned better.
Become the director of the schools of Leuk, Damian Gsponer tried to convince the authorities of the Canton of Valais that he could realize this school of a new form within the public service. Damian did not get the support he expected, but he did not give up on his goal: he created a business for a new form of education.
Taking the private route gave him a capital advantage: he had (and was able) to build everything new, without having to make any concessions. In Damian Gsponer’s school, long-term learning and motivation feed on trial and research as well as on error, which must be a source of reflection and not an acknowledgment of failure.
The whole history of the founding of gd-Schule is based on respect for fundamental entrepreneurial principles: the use of available resources, the exploitation of opportunities, the balance between the value proposition and the business model.
To carry out his project, Damian Gsponer had no money, so he built a network. On the micro-territory of the Haut-Valais economic and social landscape, he was able to find the right people, those who wanted, and had the means to help him.
The uncertain situation in the village of Bratsch before the foundation of the gd-Schule was also an opportunity. As in many mountain regions, the young people had left for the plains, the population was aging, the school was empty.
Where many would have seen an end, Damian Gsponer saw the possibility of a start. The opening of the school brought life back to the village. The village store and restaurant have reopened with the help of the children. A new bus line has been created. New residents have arrived.
The support of private partners allows the project to retain a strong social dimension. The Business Model makes it possible to adjust the price of schooling according to parents’ income. As the promise held by Damian Gsponer states it: “An elite school for all, not just a school for the elite. ”
Building on such foundations, Damian Gsponer’s vision is virally expanding: a secondary school has emerged in Zermatt, and further developments will follow.
As the interview progresses, the uniqueness of the gd-Schule becomes more and more evident.
You have to realize that ALL education is entrepreneurial. The convergence revealed in the Edupreneurial Pivot book between 21st-century skills, and the entrepreneurial mindset can only be better confirmed by the progress of Bratsch’s students.
“We have 48 entrepreneurs in the school,” said Damian Gsponer.
Professional entrepreneurs visited the school and validated the process. It’s not just about creativity, it’s about moving from idea to realization.
Sometimes it’s the kids who think about the community and run IT courses for seniors. Sometimes the community thinks of the children, and an experienced engineer comes to help the children create their garden. Tomorrow, the children may be able to say that they have built their village AND their school themselves. For the expansion project, they are already working with a parent who runs an architectural firm.
Not only do the projects lead to concrete achievements, but the children learn and acquire expertise in the areas they tackle. “The village is the school and vice versa, the school is the village,” summarizes Damian Gsponer.
Lessons for entrepreneurship
The most impressive thing in Damian Gsponer’s history is that he launched out without having made a plan B.
This does not mean that the entrepreneur must know how to take all the risks. He admitted that he was lucky because the school took off very quickly. Still, it was on another principle, particularly entrepreneurial, that he wanted to come.
Damian Gsponer wants to draw attention to a fundamental truth about resources: whatever the situation, there is always something you can do with it.
The concluding message of the interview on the subject is addressed to teachers, in whom Damian Gsponer wants to see “Menschenspezialist.”
The profession of teachers is indeed changing, but it is up to them to make the difference: “A bad system with good teachers is always better than a good system with bad teachers,” summarizes Damian Gsponer.
In this context, the freedom of teachers is their most significant advantage. In raising the problem, Damian Gsponer returns to the question of notes and admits that they represent an essential blocking element. Still, he rectifies, with his experience: “Everyone has room for maneuver.”
“Edupreneurial Pivot” shares this conviction. It writes: “The reality of their pedagogical freedom too often escapes teachers, who are often primarily concerned with doing right to do just. ”
Thanks to Damian Gsponer and his team for their welcome and their availability. More information on Bratsch and gd-Schule can be found on the school website (https://www.gd-vs.ch) and on the Edupreneurial Pivot blog.