New roads to learning

What does everyone need to know? That’s a tough one, seeing as no one really knows what the future has in store. Work is changing rapidly. Children starting out at school now may end up doing work that does not yet even exist, while many of our current occupations may disappear entirely. It is not easy for schools to keep up with all the changes. Researchers of learning at the University of Helsinki would prefer to see a thorough revamp of education and say bye-bye to classrooms, textbooks and the rote learning of facts.

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Premise 1 | One-sided knowledge transfer is not enough. Teaching must affect the emotions and take the students’ own interests into account.

What would the school look like if pupils could study whatever they were interested in? Pretty good, in fact.

“There’s no need for everyone to do the same things,” says Professor of Education Kristiina Kumpulainen of the University of Helsinki. “Teaching must take children’s own interests into consideration.”

If pupils are motivated to learn, they are also willing to make an effort even if everything isn’t easy and fun. The ideal is a child so immersed in playing – and learning on the side – that she loses all sense of time and place.

Kumpulainen wants to incorporate this same feeling into formal education. One way to do so is through phenomenon-based project work that crosses disciplinary boundaries. It is something also recommended in the new curriculum, which will take effect next year.

Kumpulainen has studied pupils in pre-primary, comprehensive and upper secondary schools, who have been allowed to choose a project topic based on their own interests. The pupils have worked alone or in groups and have received support from teachers in various subjects, sometimes also from outside experts.

In one upper secondary school, the pupils decided to study the condition of cycle lanes and routes in Espoo. They made observations and interviewed decision-makers in Espoo and cyclists in the Netherlands. In addition, they submitted a letter to the editor to a local newspaper. Some even travelled to the Netherlands to conduct comparative research. At the end of the project, one of the participants stated that cycle lanes would never look the same again.

Everyone is interested in something

Are there topics that even the most adamant anti-school teens would study passionately?

“An interest in things is inherent to us humans, but it may be suffocated by the circumstances,” Kumpulainen notes. “If you’re used to school forcing everyone into the same mould you may not find anything of real interest to you.”

The school has traditionally focused on knowledge, giving emotions less attention, even though emotions regulate learning. The background and culture of pupils also affects how useful they consider school to be.  If they don’t find the topic taught to be meaningful, learning will be more difficult.

However, it is possible to kindle an interest. At the schools that Kumpulainen has studied, everyone has found a source of inspiration. In one case mathematics and physics were taught in connection with moped repair, and this helped expand the pupil’s interest into other fields.

In many schools, pupils have taken part in setting the rules and planning the teaching environment. According to Kumpulainen, involvement in decision-making improves commitment and the sense of responsibility.

Some of the major questions concern what knowledge everyone needs to acquire and what fields can be taught based on individual interests and abilities. It is difficult to anticipate the skills and knowledge needed in future work, which is why Kumpulainen considers diversity, growth as a person and control over one’s own life to be more important than facts.

“What does the school aim at?” she asks. “I believe it should educate creative, skilled, persevering and happy people.”

Professor of Education Kristiina Kumpulainen heads the Playful Learning Center at the University of Helsinki, which studies and develops novel learning solutions. The Center involves kindergartens, schools and the learning industry. The Tekes-funded project was launched in February 2014.

Kumpulainen also leads the Play, Learn, Heal project, one of the Helsinki Challenge semifinalists, which is developing digital solutions to provide child patients with fun and meaningful pastimes, learning and wellbeing. The project also aims to promote children’s right to active engagement, involvement and learning while hospitalised.

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Premise 2 | The school should teach more interaction and creative thinking. They are needed in tasks that cannot be outsourced to artificial intelligence.

The world is becoming increasingly digital. How does this show at school? Usually as discussions about pupils’ digital skills and the schools’ technology equipment.

“That’s not enough,” says researcher Katri Saarikivi of the University of Helsinki Cognitive Brain Research Unit.

What we should be talking about is what schools need to teach in the first place. Computers are becoming more and more efficient. Soon artificial intelligence will be able to handle the bulk of repetitive tasks. This is no vision of the distant future: people are already left wondering what to do next after machines have taken over their work.

This is why schools should focus on teaching abilities that machines don’t have, such as interactive skills and creative, adaptable thinking.

At present, teaching at school emphasises a good memory and logical and rational reasoning. While these are easy to measure, their importance at work is decreasing. You obviously still need your memory, but memorising things by heart is no longer the main indicator of learning. It is more important to know where to find information and how to evaluate its reliability.

Key interaction skills include the ability to identify your own and others’ emotions, express emotions and put yourself in the shoes of others. According to Saarikivi, a narrative approach works well when teaching skills like these. It helps children understand that there are many perspectives besides their own.

“Education will become increasingly important in the future,” she points out. “We need to understand why the world is the way it is. If problems that can be solved in a routine-like manner are transferred to computers, people will be left to deal with those that don’t have an easy, off-the-shelf solution.”

Artificial intelligence as a teaching aid

Artificial intelligence can be a great help to people with learning difficulties. For example, should you suffer from reading difficulties, an AI application can read texts out loud or if you have trouble remembering things, the Internet can serve as an extension to your memory. Artificial intelligence could also be a great friend by reminding you to stick to the essentials when your concentration wavers.  

“It could be very useful for adults, too, reminding you to focus on tomorrow’s deadline instead of watching cat videos, as you’ve been doing for the past ten minutes,” says Saarikivi, chuckling.

Part of the teachers’ work can also be delegated to computers. If lectures are watched on video, teachers have more time to support individual learners and help them find subjects meaningful to themselves.

In Saarikivi’s opinion, the school’s main task is to teach people to learn. It is a skill needed throughout life.

Katri Saarikivi leads the Natural Emotionality in Digital Interaction project, which is one of the Helsinki Challenge semifinalists. Its goal is to facilitate interaction and the expression of emotions online. While still in the early phases, the group is already developing devices such as regulators and applications capable of conveying emotions. It also plans to conduct a study on ways to support children’s interaction skills jointly with the Pikku Kakkonen children’s programme.

Saarikivi’s own research is related to the neuroscience of music. She is working on a dissertation about the impact of music and dance on the brain. Saarikivi is also preparing a study to determine how artificial intelligence supplements people’s thinking at work.

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Premise 3 | Teachers should cooperate more with educators outside the school. Excursions and virtual material open the school to its surroundings.

A model pupil is no longer one who sits quietly and answers when asked. Today, the goal is to bring up children to be active, skilled citizens.

“The pupil’s role is changing, and this brings changes to the teacher’s role as well,” says Professor Leena Krokfors of the University of Helsinki’s Department of Teacher Education.

Krokfors’s research indicates that children benefit from learning experiences outside the school. Such experiences boost the children’s self-confidence and belief in their own abilities in a way that traditional classroom teaching is unable to do.

The teacher’s task, then, is to tie the learning that takes place outside the school to the curriculum, which still defines very specifically what children must learn. However, there are many different ways to acquire the skills and knowledge.

The new curriculum requires teachers to engage in greater cooperation and create teaching modules that span several disciplines. Krokfors also encourages teachers to seek collaboration partners outside the school.

For example, teachers often feel they can’t visit museums because then they won’t have time to discuss everything in the textbook. Krokfors believes in putting the books aside. Why not do math at the market place? Excursions aren’t just extra entertainment.

“Textbook-oriented pedagogy has come to the end of the road,” she says. “It prevents teachers from making use of the incredible opportunities outside the school.”

Excursions are rarely free. Municipalities have come up with different solutions to funding, and some have given up excursions altogether. Instead of talking about the money that individual schools have for excursions, Krokfors says we should talk about educational policy. If the diversity of learning environments is valued, then funding also needs to be set aside for it.

Freedom of teachers

These days children use media a lot everywhere else but at school. Media can teach a great deal, and the skills pupils learn elsewhere should be harnessed in school education as well.

Krokfors has examined ways in which schools have reformed teaching. At a school in Hämeenkyrö, in western Finland, pupils worked under the guidance of a local forest association, a women’s club and a 4H youth club. In Lohja, in southern Finland, pupils taught IT skills to their teachers, and at a school in the Jollas district of Helsinki pupils taught one another. All of these approaches worked well.

Krokfors has also done comparative research on school networks in Finland and the US. In the latter, parents’ competence is used much more in schools. Krokfors believes that this will become more common also in Finland.

Teachers have the latitude to choose the form of teaching best suited to their pupils. Differentiated instruction is necessary these days, because pupils’ skills vary greatly.

When learning about, say, World War II, one group may collect information by interviewing veterans, another by watching a film and a third by visiting a museum.

“All roads lead to Rome. Teaching methods need to be changed, because the world is changing so fast,” Krokfors summarises.

Leena Krokfors, Professor of Teacher Education, leads the five-year OmniSchool project funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture, which will conclude this year. The project has given rise to a community and online service, which are to remain in use even after the project ends.  The idea is for them to build bridges between the school and society, in addition to supporting everyone working with teaching.

Krokfors is also a member of the Engaging Future Workplace project, a Helsinki Challenge semifinalist team led by Professor Kirsti Lonka.

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Premise 4 | Learning environments must be made inspirational. Facilities solutions and technical devices support teaching, but they should not govern its development.

If you ask Professor of Educational Psychology Kirsti Lonka of the University of Helsinki, children shouldn’t have to sit in the classroom as if in church pews, their eyes firmly fixed on the teacher’s desk. A much better image would be that of a campfire around which the teacher and pupils gather.

An inspiring learning environment features light furniture which can be moved around as needed. A functioning wireless network enables the use of mobile devices. The environment encourages pupils to be active instead of giving the teacher the role of information distributor.

Most Finnish schools were built in the decades when teaching was mainly based on lecturing. How can such facilities be adapted to learning in the new age?

“It’s important to improve the acoustics,” says Lonka. “Old facilities often echo, and any kind of interactive work causes an infernal noise.”

Lonka dreams of a project in which old, protected school facilities could be made more conducive to learning.

It isn’t impossible. Lonka talks about her visit to UBIKO, a project of the Oulu University Teacher Training School, which involved remodelling a school building from the 1980s to provide spaces for collaborative learning and nooks for silent work. After starting the class together, the pupils spread out around the school with their tablets.

“The atmosphere was extremely peaceful and focused, yet enthusiastic,” Lonka describes.

Boredom causes stress

New furniture solutions can also make studying easier for people with learning difficulties. Children who are overly sensitive to stimuli benefit from the possibility to work behind a soundproof curtain. A child with ADHD may find it easier to concentrate if sitting on an exercise ball, which allows the child to move some.

What is most difficult for both special needs pupils and others is to sit still and listen.

“Normal human beings don’t learn by just listening to someone talk,” says Lonka. “Plus, passive listening doesn’t teach you to work.”

According to Lonka, boredom may be one of the lead causes for classroom disturbances. It raises stress hormone levels especially in young people, who react accordingly. This is why detention is such a disagreeable punishment.

Lonka believes that problem-based learning could help prevent boredom. It is used, among other things, to teach medicine, but it is also suited to small children. An intense question arouses the pupils’ interest, offers them a challenge and activates previous knowledge.

According to Lonka, the construction of learning environments should not focus first and foremost on furnishings and technology but on the needs of teaching. A well-planned space allows for modification. The first step is to arrange the desks so that pupils don’t have to stare at each other’s necks.

Something else to keep in mind is that technology is not an end in itself, but only a tool:

“It makes no difference if a textbook is converted into an electronic version and left at that.”

Use of the pupils’ own devices is often objected to on the grounds of equality. Lonka finds this to be poor reasoning. The pupils’ own phones supplement the school’s tablets, and their price is not important. Even the cheapest mobile phones have sufficient features.

Says Lonka: “Of course the school can invest in expensive devices that are quickly outdated, but it isn’t sensible. It is more important to consider the content of teaching and what the devices will be used for.”

Kirsti Lonka, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Helsinki, leads the Engaging Future Workplace project, which is one of the Helsinki Challenge semifinalists. The project aims to develop workplaces based on the data collected from research on learning environments.  The research laboratories which the group uses include its own new work space, the facilities of seven start-ups, a school in Tapiola, Espoo, and possibly the new office of the City of Helsinki Education Department.

Text: Reetta Vairimaa Pictures: Riikka Hyypiä