Building A Self-Learning School System

After meeting with Tiina Korhonen from the University of Helsinki, I’m closer to understanding the secret of the Finnish education system.

Left: Tiina Korhonen, Head of Innokas Network, department of teacher education, University of Helsinki

Tiina runs the Innokas network that develops and tests best practices for schools in Finland in collaboration with teachers and students. She believes that in order to enable continuous innovation in Finnish schools, it is crucial to arrange targeted support resources, research, and professional development programs for teachers.

Whereas it is not difficult to argue why a national school system in the middle of the most pervasive technological transformation needs continuous innovation, it is challenging to figure out how to organize this kind of collective, nation-wide learning effort in practice. Here are some learnings from the Innokas network.

  1. Autonomous schools and teachers develop local best practices

In Finland, the national curriculum does not dictate the local curricula. On the administrative level this means that the national curriculum framework forms the value basis of the local curricula, which is then in detail prepared at the municipality and school levels.

For teachers this means that since there is no standardized teaching or testing framework, it leaves them with more freedom to develop local methods and practices that work best with their own students.

2. A network of developer teachers document and share these practices with others

Here comes the critical part: if the schools and teachers can choose and develop their own methods for teaching, how do you know what works and what doesn’t? There needs to be a mechanism to learn from each other, to document, test, and share these practices within the network. This is exactly what the Innokas network does. It feeds new themes and technologies (such as robotics or AR/VR) to a wide network of teachers, collects examples and learnings, and shares them again back to the network so that everyone can learn from each other. Over the years, this is creates a practice of constant reflection and innovation on the local level by the members of the Innokas network, while maintaining a connection with their colleagues across the country. When you think of it, this is a wonderful example of distributed innovation in education, the result of which is a kind of self-learning school system.

3. New technology is introduced through innovation education

The Innokas network wants to specifically focus on developing 21st century learners for “innovation education” that combines several subjects requiring creative and critical thinking, problem solving and inquiry applied to developing novel solutions to the problems of an increasingly technology-based multicultural society.

According to Tiina, the purpose of innovation education is to free teachers and students from the constraints of their traditional relationship where the teacher is expected to have all the answers. In the Innokas Network, a teacher does not need to be a robotics or programming expert in order to tech it; teachers just need to think how they can explore the area together, and how they can facilitate the learning.

4. Innovation education relies on a strong maker mentality

The current innovation education in Finland leans on subject that has a long tradition in the Finnish curriculum: handcrafts.

Traditionally students in Finland start learning handicrafts already in the first grade. After a couple of years of general studies, they can choose between “technical crafts” (woodworking and metalworking) and textile work, which they will attend at least 2 hours per week for the next 5 years (totaling to about 500 hours of handicraft education during elementary and middle school). This means that every Finnish elementary and middle school comes equipped with their own maker studio.

To give you the right idea, let me just translate here how “handcrafts education” is defined in the Finnish national curriculum:

“In handcrafts, belonging to basic education in arts, a student learns to express themselves in the various areas of crafting including product design and manufacturing, textile and fashion design and production, as well as environmental planning and building. Crafts, and the ability to express oneself though crafts, is based on the knowledge of cultural heritage, cross-disciplinarity in arts, and nature. The student learns to respect handcrafting skills and understands the cultural meanings of crafts. The studies create a basis for further studies, lifelong crafting leisure, as well as contributing to the development of the visual culture.” (Source: Finnish National Agency for Education)

What does this mean? First, it means that the school gives every child in Finland an opportunity to see themselves as makers, designers, and crafters. This experience is a great starting point for innovation education and cross-disciplinary phenomenon-based learning. Secondly, it means that we can learn a lot from the tradition of handicrafts teaching, which includes creative planning processes, teamwork and projects transcending traditional boundaries between school subjects. Crafting and innovation go hand in hand.