From machinist to professor of education

Learning researcher, psychologist and professor Kai Hakkarainen wants to shake up the notion of learning as a permanent, intrinsic ability or talent which predetermines the level of achievement attainable for a person.

“When they encounter insurmountable obstacles, people often think that there’s something wrong with them. This assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, if they then begin to avoid intellectual challenges,” says Kai Hakkarainen.

Hakkarainen’s own school and university years are an encouraging example of victory over learning difficulties. He had to repeat a class in school twice, due to problems with learning languages. Many of his classmates had the same experience.

After dropping out of school, Hakkarainen enrolled in the Vallila vocational school to become a machinist.

“I couldn’t even dream of upper-secondary education.”

At vocational school, he rediscovered his joy of studying.

“I finished my secondary education through evening classes, and during the day, I was a prototype machinist at the Nokia cable factory.”

Hakkarainen began his university studies at 25, the typical age at which his current doctoral students embark upon their doctoral dissertations. His own doctoral dissertation was completed approximately 15 years ago at the University of Toronto.

Appointed to the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, Hakkarainen will give his inaugural lecture at the University’s Main Building on 3 December.

10,000 hours to exceed yourself

The experience of conquering his learning difficulties and an interest in the psychology of learning led Hakkarainen to study collective creativity, communal learning and exceeding oneself – the phenomenon where the seemingly impossible becomes possible.

Instead of idolising geniuses, we should focus on the psychological and cultural background processes of exceeding oneself, believes Hakkarainen. 

Top-level achievements require tremendous practice, regardless of any natural tendencies, the professor emphasises. Psychologists who have studied this phenomenon call it the 10,000-hour rule.

“Extraordinary achievements are reached by ordinary people with extraordinary opportunities and resources. The brain is a superadaptable system. In long-term training, it adapts to the challenges set by the individual. There is no predictable limit to how much skills can be improved.”

Encouragement is a valuable inheritance

Persistence plays a major role in learning.

“Top achievers are often stubborn – they keep going even when the work feels like they’re hitting their head against a wall.”

The study of extraordinary achievements also helps us understand the problems with everyday work and studies.

“The study of learning has strategic significance in our contemporary society. The demands of the job market are difficult to predict, constituting a new kind of challenge. During their life span, people may have to keep learning things they thought were impossible for them.

We inherit more than our genes, Hakkarainen points out, as the parents are also responsible for the environment in which the child is socialised, and consequently, for the child’s learning opportunities. Recognition for strengths is important.

Children with well-to-do, educated parents have this privilege – and consequently dominate our universities.

Meanwhile, experiences of failure accumulate for children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds or broken families already at the comprehensive school level. This means their personal strengths are barely recognised.

“Humans are extremely social, and feel incomplete if they lack a sense of contributing significantly to their society.”

Climbing up from the slum

Hakkarainen describes an intervention where lower-secondary school pupils from slums, whose reading skills were clearly below the average of their peers, were invited to tutor second-grade pupils assuming that they could help the younger children.

“This empowered many of them to successfully address the challenges in their own learning, and even to seek out higher education.”

Hakkarainen’s own research focuses on technology-supported communal learning environments which guide students to work like experts: by solving problems, constructing knowledge and sharing information.

“Such environments and the related model of investigative learning can be applied to any level of learning, from primary schools to higher education.”

Intelligence and creativity are housed more in communal information practices than individuals, emphasises Hakkarainen.

“Like the American Nobel prize laureate Herbert Simon has said, geniuses are made, not born.”

Professor of Education Kai Hakkarainen will give his inaugural lecture on 3 December from 14.45 in the Runeberg hall. The Finnish-language lecture will focus on collective creativity, communal learning and exceeding oneself.