Kirsti Lonka: Without science, the Finnish school system will fall into decay

Kirsti Lonka, professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki, asks decision-makers to trust Finnish research and have courage to fund also research projects, which may appear risky. “The Finnish school system is a not a cultural museum. It will not develop without continuous scientific research,” says Lonka.

General knowledge and meaningful learning are topics Kirsti Lonka likes to talk about when it comes to Finnish education. In her opinion, it is a strength for the whole society that education is appreciated and the development of learning and the school system is based on long-term scientific research.

“We know a great deal about learning and how it can be improved, both from the perspective of the individual and in social interaction. When reforms are undertaken, a wide spectrum of experts are consulted,” says Lonka, who works as a professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki.

Lonka says that appreciation of education traces back to the educated classes of the 19th century. Lönnrot, Runeberg, Topelius and Snellman were all professors at the University of Helsinki. Lönnrot created the Kalevala and reformed Finnish language and culture, while Snellman was instrumental in bringing teacher education to Finland.

Lonka asks that also the current generation of politicians trust science and researchers.

“Science studies its subjects from a variety of perspectives. It is not the researchers’ job to tell whether any specific method is good. What we can tell is what kinds of elements of learning are likely to be useful.”

Science overturns misconceptions about technology

Kirsti Lonka is part of the strategic multidisciplinary research project Digiconsumers. The project brings together research and practice, as the collaboration between researchers and teachers is intense. The focus is on young people's future skills, such as entrepreneurship and participation in the digital community.

The core issues concern technology and learning and how both traditional face-to-face and digital technology meetings can be used in schools to develop a new learning pedagogy for discovering learning.

Bridging the Gaps project also studies how technology is linked with success at school. At the same time sleep, physical exercise and general wellbeing of general upper secondary students are measured. According to Lonka, the assumed effects of technology on the teenage brain is a source of heated debate.

“However, no single study can ever tell whether an activity is bad or good for you. For example, active use of technology may be related to an active sports hobby, when young people share their successes in sports online. During the corona crisis , those students who have already studied at school with the help of a smartphone and at the same time learned to regulate the use of their phones, have received a huge advantage. We are looking into this issue in more detail right now.

She emphasises that sometimes science may also dispel unnecessary prejudices. For example, earlier on, computer gaming was thought of as solely detrimental.

“Brain research has shown that gaming teaches strategic thinking, motor coordination, social skills and concentration. Few people play alone, it is often a social activity.”

Towards meaningful learning and good learning opportunities

Lonka stresses that the Finnish school system is not a “cultural museum.” In order to remain one of the best, it requires continuous science-based renewal.

Teachers are at the core of this and they are also studied. The recently completed Learning2be research project studied the link between teachers’ interaction training and how pupils learn in five European countries.

“We already know that bad interaction between a teacher and a pupil creates conflicts. It weakens the possibilities to learn at school. The project provided new insights into what kind of training could contribute to this."

Lack of funds has meant that interaction training in particular has been reduced. Lonka says that this is the worst place to cut costs.

“Research has shown that training of just a few days helps teachers learn how to build constructive interaction. However, this is not learned during lectures, but by using interactive methods.”

A message to decision-makers: More trust and courage

Lonka wishes that politicians would show more trust towards researchers and grant funding also to research the end result of which is not a foregone conclusion.

“Scientific research is not done to advance your own agenda, but to come up with as truthful an understanding of matters as possible. When new information is unearthed, the overall picture may also change.”

Kirsti Lonka considers education an important factor in the formation of general knowledge. If education falls into decay, it will increase inequality and even threaten world peace. Education is also key to helping developing countries and curbing population explosion.

“General knowledge includes the capabilities of interacting with people, broad thinking, the ability to use technology in a sensible manner and constructive self-expression. If these are lost, we’ll be living in a Trumpian culture, where you scream, argue and are constantly afraid.”

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Text: Venla Seuri

Kirsti Lonka

Kirsti Lonka is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki.

Her current research interests include teachers’ learning, wellbeing and interaction skills, meaningful learning among young people of various ages, innovative learning methods and the many ways of using technology as well as their connection with learning.

Current topics of interest in the field:

“I wish to continue developing together with my team the kind of technology that is pedagogically meaningful and supports creative thinking, face-to-face interaction and collaborative development of new ideas.”