Not just crocheting and wood turning – Finnish craft education advances project management skills and a sense of competence

In Finland, at least the basics of knitting and power drilling are familiar to everyone. This is thanks to a century and a half of craft education.

For decades already, the Finnish comprehensive school system has taught pupils to count and write, but also to sew and use the most common tools. Earlier, children and youth were divided into woodworking and textile crafts and design classes based on their gender and, later, on their personal interests. In 2017, craft education was transformed. According to the new curriculum, all pupils now study both subjects for the first seven years of comprehensive school.

The redesigned craft classes in comprehensive school encompass various techniques, such as welding and crocheting, technology education, design and other skills useful in the 2030s.

“Multi-materiality is a new feature of the curriculum,” says Minna Matinlauri, a craft teacher at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum, or Norssi. She has been teaching crafts since 1992.

In the upper comprehensive school of Norssi, the new curriculum has meant that, from autumn 2017 onwards, all seventh-graders have climbed to the top floor of the school for craft classes held in the former textile crafts and design class, now serving as a studio.

This autumn, Matinlauri will involve her pupils in assignments related to industrial and interior design.

Instruction provides space for creativity to a spectrum of learners

Combining the instruction of two previously strongly gender-separated school subjects is not invariably a reform. The new curriculum focuses on pupils’ personal inspiration, ideas and experimentation, as well as documenting their activities.

The seventh-graders at Norssi will begin their studies by photographing different shapes and surfaces around the school. The photos will be turned into versatile printing plates, which can be used, for example, for cloth printing.

“I think it’s important to show the pupils that a single design assignment can lead to a wide variety of activities: both textiles and, say, copper work,” Matinlauri explains.

The subject’s premise is pupils’ independent planning and scheduling of their personal work. The process will be recorded by using a personal phone or a school tablet.

“The parents will also get to see what goes on during craft classes,” continues Matinlauri.

Times have changed. According to Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, professor of craft studies at the University of Helsinki, earlier curricula dictated to quite a precise degree what the children of a certain age group did at a certain time of the year. In textile crafts and design class, the autumn was dominated by socks, the spring by wraparound skirts. In lower comprehensive school, pupils had to learn to crochet, whereas in the upper comprehensive school they learned to make trousers.

“The new curriculum better understands that there are differences between those doing crafts. It emphasises each pupil’s personal crafts path,” Matinlauri says.

Manual work teaches and helps to learn

Finnish craft education has been designed to benefit pupils in the future – also in professional life. This is why the classes include software development and planning projects based on service design. Many craft teachers have studied technology education as a minor subject, and many also have the ability to link this knowledge with their teaching. Nowadays, there is a 3D laboratory equipped with printers and computers in the Norssi basement.

Minna Matinlauri and Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen both think that craft education in its current form particularly develops pupils’ personal creativity and their sense of competence.

“Craft education teaches pupils concrete skills, but what I find most important is that my pupils experience the joy of doing, as well as get that sense of competence through planning and assignments,” says Matinlauri.

Brain researcher Minna Huotilainen approaches the topic from a different perspective. She has studied the connections between physical work and learning, and she thinks crafts and related skills are important also in terms of learning.

According to Huotilainen, challenging manual work poses a task for the brain by itself, but the use of hands also benefits other learning: on the one hand, manual work can help relax and concentrate, for example, on paying attention, while it can also illustrate what has already been learned.

Huotilainen says that conceiving mathematics, for example, is made easier if calculations are illustrated with, say, balls transferred between two baskets. 

“Actions with a physical component, even a small one, convey to the mind the crux of the matter,” says Huotilainen.

Woodworking in Japan, design in Australia

Craft education in school should not be taken for granted. In America, for example, manual skills have their most prominent presence in afternoon clubs and after-school activities. In Australia, the instruction is focused on design and technology,

whereas in Japan, where craft culture is strong, schools mostly teach woodworking. Textile crafts are part of home economics.

“Outside Finland, Finnish craft education is highly valued,” says Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, citing an example:

“During his visit, Paulo Blikstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, was captivated by the facilities and tools available in Finnish schools.”

Blikstein was a pioneer of FabLabs, or workshop facilities equipped with digital tools. He was so inspired by Finnish craft education classrooms that he acquired sewing machines for the Stanford facilities.

Crafts is a subject well suited to be paired with several other school subjects.

“Crafts fits well together with history, consumer education, recycling projects... A wide variety of subjects. In my research project, we worked with, among others, physics and environmental studies,” says Seitamaa-Hakkarainen.

She says that phenomenon-based projects enable the linking of crafts with other subjects. As for such projects, they help pupils understand the application potential of manual skills.

Do Finns equal craftsmen?

In Finland, crafts have been taught to all comprehensive school pupils for 150 years.

 According to brain researcher Minna Huotilainen, many foreigners find it exceptional that every Finn possesses at least rudimentary skills in crocheting and sewing.

“What’s more, we have a great number of hobbyists involved in challenging crafts, such as lace-makers,” Huotilainen adds. 

Finland also has a large number of craft bloggers and active social media groups focused on crafts. Many share their hobby activities through, for example, Facebook groups or by gathering together to make knit graffiti.

“Often, crafts are connected with volunteer work,” says Huotilainen.

Cuddly squids and beanies have been crocheted for newborns in maternity hospitals. Traditional crochet patches were combined into blankets for homeless people.

Craft teacher Minna Matinlauri offers another point of view. Not all children today know how to hold scissors correctly, since tools are no longer used at home as they were before. Manual skills are not really needed to do or fix anything, since almost anything is readily available at the store.

“Pupils have varying interests, as well as extremely differing skills. Things are no longer done at home as before, but we are now doing those things in the school. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Matinlauri.

Even though not everyone knows how to darn socks, Matinlauri thinks interest in personal style and individual activities has grown thanks to the DIY movement. DIY, or ‘do it yourself’, puts emphasis on traditional manual work. For instance, pupils use a lot of recycled material. They also follow the world of crafts through Instagram and craft blogs.

“The older pupils compile entire collections of their own,” Matinlauri explains.

According to Huotilainen, it is important for children and adolescents to learn to use their creativity, express themselves and apply various tools and materials for their own purposes in school.

“Crafts should almost constitute a human right.”