Anyone can develop technologies – this is how the Finnish school system promotes the maker culture

20.5.2019
Technology is what we humans make of it, says Kaiju Kangas, assistant professor of technology education. In Finnish schools, many things are done differently than in other countries.

How many devices have you already used just this morning? This is how Kaiju Kangas, assistant professor of technology education at the University of Helsinki, usually provokes people into considering their relationship with technology.

So, let's give it a thought: the alarm clock on your phone, the light switch, the coffee maker, browsing the latest headlines and social media entries on your phone, flashing your travel card to the scanner in the tram. Technology has inched its way into our lives without us really even thinking about it, something that Kangas wishes to illustrate with her question.

As an expert of technology education, Kangas often gets to envision the future, but also to bring others back down to earth. As a rule, technology is very mundane and not something that comes about by itself; instead, we have to design it ourselves.

But how can you make people realise that it is precisely themselves who have the ability to design and develop technologies? According to Kangas, this is where school plays a significant role. In the Finnish system, this role is different than in other countries.

Finnish craft classrooms could be repurposed as maker facilities

In Finland technology education is not a separate subject but a cross-curricular and multidisciplinary topic studied within various classes, for example in science or visual arts education. However, it is particularly closely linked with craft education.

Craft is a compulsory subject to all pupils in the first seven grades of comprehensive school, in addition to which it is an optional subject in the 8th and 9th grades. This provides good preconditions for using one’s hands, experimentation and building. It is precisely learning by doing that resides in the core of technology education.

Kaiju Kangas uses the term ‘maker culture’: people come together to work, making use of the skills of all participants. They cross boundaries, with traditions and modern approaches going side by side. The maker culture revolves around children’s own ideas.

“Central to this is adopting a maker-oriented mindset; what can you do with what you know.  My students, who are studying technology education in university, organised workshops for children, among other activities, where LED lights are used to create glowing Easter cards or dinosaurs with gleaming eyes. At the same time, the children learn about the basics of electricity and building electric circuits.”

Craft classrooms where pupils can, for example, sew or do wood work have been a staple of Finnish schools already for 150 years. In recent years, they have been equipped with digital fabrication technologies, such as 3D-printers and laser cutters. Kangas dreams about having a space dedicated to creative activities as the heart of each Finnish school. Facilities that encourage diverse activities can be used for designing and making various physical or digital artefacts, playing games or just hanging with your friends.

“Learning by doing has been a topic of discourse for more than a century now. What is new to this era is the ease that new technology brings. The collision of digital and material things engenders new opportunities, and everything can be shared online,” Kangas says.

Maker culture supported by a flexible curriculum

In addition to crafts, an established school subject, and appropriate facilities, Finland has two other assets in technology education. Firstly, crafts – and all other subjects – is taught by subject and class teachers who have a master’s degree in education.

Secondly, the Finnish school system is based on the strong autonomy of teachers. The national core curriculum for basic education provides a fairly flexible framework, within which professional teachers are able to personally plan how to organise their teaching, enabling the freedom and playfulness that are part and parcel of the maker world.

As regards technology education, the current situation in Finnish schools varies. Enthusiastic teachers can cover a lot of content relating to the subject matter in their teaching, but the range of skills and interest among teachers varies significantly. Today’s students at the University of Helsinki can choose to complete a study module in technology education worth 60 credits.

“It’s important to also develop the skills of teachers already practicing their profession,” Kangas notes.

Different perspectives benefit the entire group

Currently, Kaiju Kangas is investigating children’s activities in co-innovation projects under the Growing Mind research project.

She is amazed by the inventiveness of modern children. The groups of pupils monitored in the research projects have been developing fun everyday innovations, such as cleaner robots and smart sportswear that light up automatically in the dark.

A range of thinkers and opinions also benefits the groups. Kangas still remembers a particular situation from years ago when she was writing her doctoral dissertation. For her research, she was observing pupil groups involved in maker activities focused on lamp designing. The groupwork mainly appeared to be on an equal footing; everyone was coming up with ideas and developing them further together. It was only later that Kangas found out that a number of the pupils in the groups had been individuals in need of special support. In creative projects, everyone gets to utilise their strengths.

Diverse technological competencies needed in the future

In her conversations with representatives of the technology industry, Kaiju Kangas has noticed that the interests of parties involved in the industry and technology education often meet. For instance, they agree on the need for diverse technological skills in the future.

“The aim is to broaden the general understanding of who and which fields place value in technological competencies. The question is how to make young people who are interested in, say, global challenges notice that these things can be solved in technological fields.”

As an example, Kangas highlights the efforts needed to curb climate change, something for which education in technology provides a good starting point.

“Technology also engenders entirely new challenges. In future, we will need, for example, people specialised in solving questions of ethics related to artificial intelligence.”

Kangas believes that visits to technology businesses in the upper secondary school could inspire young people to gravitate towards these fields.

Technology is what we make of it

While technology education could encourage young people to specialise in technological fields, Kangas perceives an even broader significance for her work.

“Comprehensive school provides skills for life. Everyone benefits from the maker mindset brought to the fore by technology education, the opportunity to be the maker and designer yourself.”

What vexes Kangas is the notion frequently expressed in public discourse of technology as something wicked prescribed to us from above.

“Technology is what we make of it. We have the ability to have a say in it. Consideration should be given to the values guiding that work. Is technology used only to increase effectiveness or do we wish to create a humane world?”

Read more about Finnish craft education