Teaching in Finland – Part 3: How it went, Day-by-day


In my first post on this topic I wrote about how a chance conversation with the host of a study visit led to a really nice teaching project with Kainuu Vocational College (KAO) in Finland. The main topic of that post was the way that the project moved from idea to something more concrete. This was followed by an overview of the more technical considerations like lining up the course structure with the requirements of a range of curricula.

This post gives a day-by-day account of how all the preparation and planning worked out in practice, warts and all.

I plan one more post, one on the Lessons Learned. In it I will try and answer the question “with what I now know having run this course, how would I run it now“.

Monday: Put up or shut up time

This was it. All the planning and preparation had come town to me and 12 students in the same room, them waiting for something to happen, me desperately trying to remember my opening lines.

Nervous Speaker
Nervous? Who, me?

After what seemed like an age, but was probably only a few seconds, we were away. My opening gambit of confessing my own nervousness seemed to go down well.

Happily it lead quite naturally to a chat about the mini CVs that they had sent me ahead of the course and what they hoped to get from the course.

This was followed up by a discussion of my own career – 11 jobs in 33 years – and why it developed that way.

Within a few minutes my first concerns were addressed – the students’ English was more than good enough and they were all volunteers and so were interested in the subject.

One huge sigh of relief later we launched into the meat of the morning, a couple of nice icebreaker exercises.

Moving on

Coming back from lunch the message “Hello Bob” on the blackboard suggested that the ice was well and truly broken! The rest of the day was spent working through a series of group exercise.

In these I lead the group through the topics required by the Finnish National Curricula. Suffice to say that ideas, images and discussion featured rather more than textbook definitions.

With this approach we were able to work through ideas as diverse as defining entrepreneurship, business models, extreme case analysis, meeting customer expectations and how to understand the future. Not a bad list for the the first day.

So how did Monday go?

It was a brilliant day. How brilliant? Let’s say 9.5/10.

Hopes: completely met. Fears: What fears? What had I been worrying about?  With a day like this behind me what could go wrong tomorrow?

If I had known at this point how different Tuesday morning was going to be I would probably have given up and gone home. Am I exaggerating? Possibly, but read on and find out.

Tuesday: Pride before a fall?

Tuesday did not get off to a good start. I hadn’t realised that four of the students would have to miss part of the day in order to take exams. Taking four individuals out of a group of 12 for part of a course is never good.

My situation was made worse by the fact the the missing students were what I would politely call “the more lively ones”. Even with the best will of the other students the atmosphere in the room was somewhat flat.

If there was ever a good time not to make a big misjudgement in teaching styles this was it. So, somewhat predictably, I totally misjudged the level of the first exercise on  how to give and receive feedback.

Just to help things along I followed this up by setting a mind mapping exercise which one of the teams just didn’t get. Did I mention pride coming before a fall?

By the morning coffee break I not happy. With the benefit of hindsight I was probably being hard on myself but I so disappointed after the highs of Monday.

However I had the sympathy and support of the Finnish teachers in the staff room and a good strong Finnish coffee is a great restorer. Refreshed I went back to work on the delights of “Creating and Developing ideas”.


Happy, happy, happy
Happy, happy, happy

By the start of the second session I had a feel for how the smaller group was working and we launched into the delights of “creating and developing ideas” and “understanding your customers” with energy and enthusiasm.

Practical projects

I am a great believer in the Benjamin Franklin saying “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn“. From personal experience it applies as much to learning simple laboratory tests as is does to developing advanced managerial skills when doing an MBA.

From an early stage in developing this course I had in mind that the students would undertake a practical project to help embed the theoretical learning.

As I noted in my second post on the topic the decision was to divide the students into two teams and get each team to work on a different problem relevant to tourism in the Kainuu region.

The two topics chosen, based on real issues, were “How to increase the value of existing Russian visitors to the Kainuu Region” and “How to attract more British visitors to the Kainuu region“.

So after  lunch I introduced the students to the idea and let them loose to develop their ideas and thinking.

One of the key tasks for the projects was to produce a mind map of their ideas. The situation was complicated because I had to leave them to their work while I went to a press conference.

I need not have worried. It was not a surprise that the students were fine with being left. Most students are more than happy to have the opportunity, politely speaking, to relax and chill without a teacher around.

What was pleasing with this class, and this was a credit to the students, was that they were happy with the idea of completing their work unsupervised and showing me what they had done the next morning.

And they did!

Wednesday: bouncing back

With a full class again the energy levels in the room soared. By this time the students and I had really grown used to each other. I had a good feel for their learning pace and style while they were coming to grips with an very different learning style to the one they were used to.

As important, working in English for days at a time meant that their fluency in English, which was already good, became even more impressive.

I kicked off with a catch-up session of the previous day’s activities, both for the benefit of the students who had been absent and to make sure that those present had understood yesterday’s learning in spite of the difficulties.

From there we whizzed into the topics of “building a business case” and “presenting a business case“. By lunch I was once again a happy bunny.

Presenting the results

With the last two taught topics out of the way the focus was now on developing and rehearsing the presentations.

When preparing the course I would have been entirely happy for the students to prepare their presentations on acetate film using coloured pens. Once again I was worrying unnecessarily.

The student were brilliant with PowerPoint. How brilliant? How about: selecting imaginative backgrounds, employing page transitions, using graphics to illustrate their text and text transitions to make the slides more engaging.

The only advice I could give them was that it is not actually compulsory to use every special effect available on every slide.

We spent a happy afternoon practising the presentation and refining the slides. It was great fun.

One of the important messages for them was that in business it is quite normal for an idea to developed and refined in the light of experience rather than expecting everything to be right first time.

Seeing the idea work in action with the presentations meant that they picked it up fairly well straight away.

Another result!

Mid point review

Up to this point I had finished each day with a short round-up session. In this session we looked back at what we had covered during the day.

In this session they would give me their opinion of how well the day had gone in terms of the project work, how well they had been able to cope with the English, and how well my teaching style had worked.

When looking back on the day we used a very sophisticated assessment system*: for each topic “thumbs up” meant a smiley face, “thumbs down” meant a straight face and “so-so” meant a straight face.

My aim was to have a smiley face for each of the three topics noted above for each day. Whether I succeeded or not you will find out at the end of this post.

(*I lied about the “very sophisticated assessment system”. It was simple, straightforward and worked, which is all it actually needs to do)

Anxious to know how well the students had recovered from the previous day’s difficulties I gave a full half hour to the end of day assessment. Without giving too much away my concerns were once again groundless.

Thursday: a change of pace

From the beginning I had planned that Thursday would be a different kind of day for two reasons. the first was that the emphasis of the course would be changing from learning to practising and refining the presentations. The second reason was simple – I just figured that after three solid days of learning about an ethereal subject in a foreign language the students would be ready for a change.

From the student’s reactions I don’t think I was too far off. From the start there was something of an end of term feel the day. Not that every one wanted to bunk off, just the feeling that were were on the homeward stretch.

A little revision

For the  first part of the morning we went back of some of the learning points of the week, and talked about how they fitted into their presentations.

My feeling is that there were a fair number of “aha” moments in that session as the practical outcomes of the various tools and techniques became clear.

For me it was a great session to lead, one which made the ridiculously early starts (remember the two hour time difference between the UK and Finland) and long days more than worthwhile.

Ringing the changes

While I wanted to allow plenty of time for the students to practice their presentations I equally didn’t want to overdo the practice. To break up the day I alternated between practice sessions and some open discussion sessions.

To focus the discussions I produced a list of topics and allowed the students to pick their favourites. This was a fun exercise in it’s own right.

The topics were things that I thought they should be thinking about. The three they picked were:

  • Personal presentation: How should you dress?
  • What was my role in the classroom?
  • How can you increase you chances of getting a job abroad?

For your interest the answers we ended up with were:

  • Dress like you want to be seen
  •  To help them to learn (they go this one straight off – very impressive)
  • Join an International company in Finland, develop a network of international friends and contacts

Stretching the point

As the day went on I was deeply impressed by how well they they stuck to the task of practising and refining their presentations. They did so well presenting what was on their slides that I decided to stretch them a little further.

In one of the breaks we discussed what made a good and a bad presentation. We all agreed that someone just reading what was on the screen was not that good and that it was better for a presenter to use the screen text as a prompt.

From their it was only a short leap using a speaker’s script as a prompt to help them do this.

Once again I was impressed. They took to the script idea really well. Within an hour we had new versions of the presentations and the teams had worked together to write a script for each team member. A couple of practice sessions later they were well into the swing of it.

By the end of Thursday there was an absolutely great vibe in the group. Yes, they were nervous – as I believe they naturally should be – but they had started to believe that they could make a good job of presenting their work.

Good, but how good?

It is worth a pause at this point to think just how well these students were doing. To recap: these are students, 16-18 years old, doing vocational courses in tourism. They are being asked to do a five day short course in an ethereal subject like entrepreneurship totally in a foreign language.

English skills

I wonder if any native English speaker reading this would would have fancied doing the same thing in French or German at the same age? Perhaps I am being a bit harsh but figures reported yesterday (21st June 2012) by the BBC support my position.

The EU commission report does not make pretty reading for the UK with only 9% of 14-15 year olds said to able to use their language independently and 30% not reaching the level of “a basic user who can use very simple language, with support.

This seems a very long way from being able to take a short course in a complex subject in a foreign language.

From this I think we can safely conclude that the students’ English skills were of a very high standard.

Understanding entrepreneurship

For many people entrepreneurship is about running your own business and making (lots of) money.When I was developing the course I agreed with KAO that was at least as much about an individual taking responsibility for their own career and developing a positive attitude to work.

These are not easy concepts to come to grips with yet by the end of the week the students really seemed to have got the hang it all.

I am obviously biased but I think at least part of this was down to the teaching approach: leading students to the answers and working towards the key principles rather than starting with the them.

I will write more about this in my next post which will look at how the project went and how it could be improved.

Friday: Judgement day

Friday was a tough day for me. After the class left on Thursday I was just too tired, physically and mentally, to prepare the slides for Friday.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had just found out that I would be expected to be Master of Ceremonies for the presentation event. Oh joy!

A beer and a couple of hours sleep before dinner helped and I was able to at least get the bones of a presentation together before crashing out.

Being up a 6 o’clock to finish the presentation was not one of the high spots of the week, especially when you remember that it was still 4 o’clock UK time!

However it all came together OK and by 9 o’clock the students and I were rehearsing the presentation event and having a final run through of their presentations.

And ……………

The presentation event went brilliantly. In front of an audience of teachers, fellow pupils and even a couple of members of the press they did themselves proud.

They came across as confident presenters, thereby obeying rule 1 of presenting: It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s how you come across that matters.

It helped that they has some really good practical suggestions for addressing the problem that they had been set and that they were able to talk about their ideas, not just read the slides.

I was so proud of them.

Feedback from the students
Feedback from the students

Rounding up

After the presentations I did a final review of the week with the students.

When they gave the course thumbs up and smiley faces all round all the various challenges of the week magically faded away and the world became a very nice place.

And next

In no particular order: do a formal evaluation, have a chat with KAO about doing it again with them, and see who else might be interested in putting on something based on this project. I’ll let you know how all of that worked out in another post.


If you have any thoughts on this post or the course please leave a comment. I’d love to know what you think of it. Did you find this post interesting? Would you like to say something about it? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or start a discussion.

Similarly if you would like to find out more about how a course like this could work for you, just leave a comment or drop me an email and I will get back to you.


Bob Windmill

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