Last month I
was invited to participate in the OPPI
Festival in Helsinki. Described on the website as “a
not-for-profit festival”, this was a clever and inviting way of representing a
gathering of leading international educationalists to celebrate all the best
and all that needs to change within our global education system.
was a real success. The two days were skilfully constructed to create an
informal, stimulating environment where learning, participation and
exchange were actively celebrated. Claudia Barwell (Co-Director
of Suklaa, the
organisation that curated and delivered OPPI) opened the two days with a
challenge to all delegates: "Learn something new from
someone you have never met before". Suklaa, by the way, is the
Finnish word for chocolate.
It was cold,
misty and the sky was grey, I hadn’t brought a warm enough coat or a scarf. I’d
forgotten how northerly Helsinki was – there were no buds on the trees and the
only sign of spring was a few snowdrops emerging from the ground.
On the first
day I wasn’t feeling massively sociable (truthfully I was a tad anxious as I
had been asked to run a session on “failure” – and I was feeling nervous about
sharing my failures in a new context), but I was seduced by the whole OPPI
energy and had two brilliant days. I learned so much about Finland’s education
system and its culture and acquired lots of new ideas from an array of people I
had never met before. This blog is a collection of some of my random OPPI
Simon Breakspear from Learning
Labs anchored and grounded all the key note presentations on
the main stage. He was a charismatic and clever speaker. I really enjoyed his
humour, positive energy and his Australian directness. He launched the festival
with a provocation that we (and our education systems) are better by being
different, and encouraged a more co-constructed and bottom-up approach. He
challenged us to think about what really creates the conditions
that enable learning ecosystems to be developed. More and more I
hear people talking about the concept of educational ecosystems and this is
something we really need to think more about at A New Direction – what is the ecology of Cultural Education in London?
message was that "Relationships are still the killer app
of learning". The relationship between the teacher and student
is everything. Young people enjoy learning when they are excited by what they
are doing, and they want to belong to the place where that excitement is taking
place. The best teachers and schools facilitate that excitement.
Krista Kiuru, Minister of
Education and Science, talked about the place of Finland in the PISA system. A
key challenge for her and her job is obviously that Finland is no longer at the
top of the league table – the Premier League. In the 1960s the Finnish
government committed to establishing a basic free comprehensive education
system. But key findings from the recent round of PISA scores showed that
Finnish secondary school students are not engaged or excited about learning. 16
-19 year olds didn’t do well, either, in OECD scores, so a key area of focus
for future policy will be how best to motivate young people (particularity
teenagers) to be interested in their learning.
design and layout of schools has also not changed in 50 years, they all look
the same. Another new area of policy development will be how to make schools more attractive and exciting as 21st century
learning environments. I was really surprised to hear that another
priority is digital technology. Finnish schools, and teachers in particular,
are not using digital technology effectively.
Sahlberg, a distinguished and charismatic Harvard Academic, shared his thoughts
on the OECD PISA scores. He described how recently Finland has become a place
for educationalists across the world to visit, observe, scrutinise and
experience a new kind of learning holiday through ‘edu-tourism’. PISA has
created a new global competitive market, and Finland is still one of the top
five, particularly in maths, reading and science. South Korea,
Japan, Canada and Estonia are in the top four. But for Parsi the key future
issue is not the league table but equity. Equity and equality was a recurring
idea of the two days and a significant theme throughout OPPI.
people I met talked openly about equity as an important value of their culture
and society. I squirmed in my seat when I was reminded that the UK education
system is average in terms of equity and equality – we are in the middle of the
PISA league table. Average feels so ordinary – and it seems that the more money
you spend on your education system, the worse things get. We spend more (pro
rata) on our education system than Finland.
challenges include gender inequality and high learning outcomes, but also a
significantly negative attitude of young people towards learning. This is a
paradox as there is no apparent joy of learning, particularly with teenagers.
Parsi also reinforced that Finland has a low level use of technology in school
and yet is one of Europe’s most technological societies – I can vouch for that
– everywhere I went had free fast good Wifi. Ironically the UK is doing well on
the use of technology in schools. Phew!
Tim Walker is a
teacher from the USA. His wife is Finnish and he and his family moved to
Finland at the start of last academic year. He has a blog where
he writes about his experiences. In his first week in school he was amazed by
the independence of his students. He described them as "Students having their own agency". He was
surprised by the freedom teachers have to interpret the curriculum. Unlike in
the US, teachers in Finland are trusted and valued. There is serious focus on
the wellbeing of students and staff, an example of this being that there is a
15 minute break after each 45-minute lesson. The number of hours for Finnish
teachers to teach is incredibly reduced. It was refreshing to hear his
perspective, his experience and his passion for his job.
Esko Aho, a former
Prime Minister of Finland, was another articulate Professor from Harvard (OPPI
had loads of them!). He talked about governance and how he feels that existing
democratic decision-making processes are exclusive, inherently traditional and
based on a model that is out of date. The time frame for government
decision-making is slow, and his argument was that we need a new radical
concept of government. This was interesting and exciting particularly as he
talked about the new Digital revolution and its ability to fight and address
inequality. He believes that schools, education and the Digital world are
essential to creating equity and will play a significant role in the
democratisation of government in the future.
quite realised that as many as 7 billion people in the world have used a mobile
phone and that the 1969 moon landing was guided by the equivalent technology of
one phone. That is pretty incredible and I was quite shocked that I didn’t know
It’s hard to
capture the stories of Neil D Souza. He
runs a programme of learning labs and innovation in schools across India
through an organisation called Zaya. The scale of the challenge to deliver a
high quality education in India is unprecedented. There are over 300 million
young people attending some form of schooling across India and Neil is working
with a new emerging low cost private solution involving part time fee-paying
schools (10 dollars a month) in shopping centres.
background is development work in Silicon Valley where he created a prototype
to take the cloud into classrooms. It was captivating to see photographs of
children sitting on a rug (10 per tablet) in a former shop / warehouse all
focussed and learning, with about 100 children in the space. Neil has developed
a platform to support teachers with a consistent offer that supports a
relatively low-skilled teacher with a set of tools. He gave an example of a
teacher using an animation from YouTube to teach his pupils about space and gravity.
I was sad to learn that there is significant corruption in state subsidised
schools and the concept of low cost private schools is a way of parents
guaranteeing their children a quality education.
On Skype we
were joined by Sugata Mitra, winner of the
2012 Ted prize. He pioneered the “Hole in the Wall”
experiment to see what would happen if you created access to a computer for
young people who did not know how to use a computer or even knew what a
computer was. The experiment happened over 15 years ago and, as Sugata
predicted, the children began to explore, experiment and teach themselves how
to use the computer. Through peer learning, the children found solutions and
became incredibly adept and proficient at using the computer and its software.
Much has been written on this and the findings revealed that groups of young
people unsupervised for nine months were able to develop proficient skills in
computing. The key to enabling this to happen was collaborative learning. This
minimal invasive system of informal learning and self-organised learning is
Sugata Mistry’s argument that teaching and the way it is delivered is out of
date. Overall, the session was fascinating and a really interesting approach to
experimentation and enquiry.
two Sarah Brown introduced her charity: A World at
School. The purpose of the campaign is to get all children into
school and ensure that across the world every child's basic right to go to
school is realised. It sounded simple enough but the message and values behind
this initiative were incredibly clear and Sarah presented them with an elegance
and gravitas that was inspiring.
I got through
my session on “failure” and found that the experience of talking openly and
candidly about what hadn’t worked was quite cathartic and liberating. The
Wikipedia definition of failure is: "the state or condition of not
meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the
opposite of success".
I realise now
that my example of the Theatre Venture opening -
an outreach site in a former play hut in a public park in Beckton (21 years
ago) - would have never really been a financial and community liaison success.
This was a personal learning curve. The opportunism behind the initiative
lacked proper local community consultation and there was no real opportunity for
local ,ownership particularly for the young people it was targeted at. An arts
organisation doing what it felt was right but going about it in the wrong way.
Looking back it was hugely naive.
‘A celebration and
a real learning exchange’
OPPI Festival was clear, not naive and achieved its objective. It was a celebration and a real learning exchange.
Nothing captured this more than my personal highlight at the end of the two
days in Lily Kam’s presentation, where four young people
from the I.AM.ANGEL
Foundation in Los Angeles joined us via Skype. It was 5 in the
morning for them and they had organised a sleepover to be able to wake up in
time to connect with OPPI. They had worked on a robotics festival and as part
of I.AM.ANGEL’s STEM programme. The energy and enthusiasm of these teenagers
was a real delight. It was infectious – you could see the moment in their eyes
when they realised they were communicating their ideas to an audience of over
200 international delegates – it was powerful – and they were revelling in
it. It was a real pleasure to witness and participate in an
extraordinary platform where young people could share their passion and
excitement about what they had learned.
OPPI has lots
of meanings. It is an older Finnish word that means lots of things. But in this
context, its meaning was something like to “learn something new” and
to “transfer wisdom”. My conclusion from my Helsinki was
that there is never enough we can learn and we all need a bit more OPPI
in our lives!