Teaching in Finland – Part 2: How we went about it


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 this post is the way that the project moved from idea to something more concrete.

This is post is an overview of the more technical considerations like lining up the course structure with the requirements of a range of curricula. Yes, it’s at least as much fun as it sounds……..

At the time of writing I plan two more posts: One looking at how the course went day by day and another on “Lessons Learned”.

The latter will try and answer the question “with what I now know having run this course, how should I have run it“.

Keeping it simple 

As is often the way with development work many hours and days of work eventually boiled down to nice simple course specification document.

This set out all the traditional stuff like aims & objectives, risks and issues, and learning outcomes.

However it also gave guidance on the approach that I thought would be required to keep a class of 16-18 year old vocational students interested and engaged over a a five day course.

In this case the whole course specification took just 10 pages.

The “mother” test

I was pleased with the clarity and simplicity of the course specification. My rule of thumb is that if such a document is complex and hard to follow it probably hasn’t been thought through as well a it could have been.

Mum swimming with dolphins in America
Mum swimming with dolphins in America

The test I like to apply is “could my mother have understood this”.

This might seem like a bit of a strange idea. After all, what could a lady well into her 80s possibly know about what I am doing?

This is the point. Often such documents are read by busy people who may not have a detailed understanding of the topic.

The job of the writer is to make it as easy a possible for the reader to find and make sense of the information they need to make a decision.

The way I look at it is this: if my late mum (Hi Mum – I’m still thinking of you) could understand what I wrote then so could a busy Chief Exec.

Payment by the page?

I have heard some contractors arguing that all reports and such like should be long and complex to give the client a greater impression of value for money.

I totally disagree. My clients pay me for Insight (what’s going on and why) and Solutions (what can we do about it), not words, charts and tables.

In this case Risto Virkkunen, the Manager of International Affairs at KAO, was well pleased with the document.

He was pleased to the extent that he shared it with a number of their departmental heads, not just the one it was intended for. This, I think, proves my point.

Hopes and fears
This project was in very sense a pilot. I had never done anything quite like, the college had never done anything quite like it and nor had the students.

The list of questions seemed endless. While confident that we would find good solutions we really were groping in the dark on some issues.

The Students’ English  skills were a concern. We were not worried that they didn’t speak a good standard of English, because they did. It was more around how they would cope with working in English over a five day period.

My main thought was that if I had had a similar opportunity in French when I was at school I am not at all sure how well I would have coped.

Would entrepreneurship be interesting to the students. Thinking back through the mists of time to when I was 16 I had no real idea of what I wanted to do, never mind whether I wanted to run my own business.

A lot of time went into working out how to present the ideas required by the curriculum in a fun kind of way.

This of course brought up another issue: would their sense of fun be the same as mine.

I think it was around this point that the headaches started………

Would I be able to hold their attention for five days. These are students on vocational courses, essentially learning their trade by doing it.

They are also, with one exception, 16-18 years old.What sort of attention span could I expect???

A fresh supply of headache tablets was ordered……

Would I be able to deliver all the technical components  that would be required. These included:

  • Being able to understand at least four different Finnish curricula
  • Developing a week of teaching material that mapped to the curricula and would work for a class of foreign students
  • Delivering the material in a way that would hold the students’ attention
  • Developing an assessment strategy for the course
  • Developing the test papers
  • Marking the test papers

Did I mention that I mention that wasn’t sleeping to well at this point……….

My approach

My two key words for this course were “Visual” and “Practical”.

Consulting with two colleagues who have ESOL teaching experience (Thanks guys, you know who you are) confirmed what I though – graphics are good, text is terrible.

OK, that’s probably a bit over the top but the idea is sound. So yes, I had a PowerPoint, but it was more a framework to talk around than anything else.

Practising the practical

So, we had “visual” – a PowerPoint with lots of graphics and plenty of whizzy special effect – but what would “practical” look like?

Remember that the core subject is entrepreneurship, a seriously ethereal subject.

Thinking back to the March 2011 study visit hosted by Risto and KAO I had a memory of hearing about the increasing number of Russian visitors coming to the Kainuu region.

Checking back through my notes this was indeed the case.

From there it didn’t take too long to come  up with the idea of the student applying some entrepreneurship learning to a real world project.

In this case the aim of the project was “to find practical ways of increasing the value of existing Russian visitors to the Kainuu region”.

When I ran this past Risto he threw in the additional thought that they didn’t get many UK visitors and that this would possibly be a better topic for the practical work.

We kicked the ideas around and eventually settled on the idea of splitting the the students into two teams and give each team one of the issues to work on.

Presenting the results

With the practical approach and topics settled, the next question was that of getting the student’s to present their work.

My thought was that we should get the students to present their findings to some kind of panel on the Friday morning.

Risto seemed to think that this would be OK. so that’s what we went for.

The quick ones among you will have noticed the rather large assumption that I made at this point: that the students could work with PowerPoint.

Writing this the week after the course I can now confess that it wasn’t even an assumption, I simply didn’t think that bit through. The fact that it worked out OK was actually a fluke. Ooops.

The spice of life

Having “visual” and “practical” sorted that next question that reared its ugly head was that of how to keep the young students interested and engaged over four straight days.

I did briefly consider hand cuff and chains but, trying to be more sensible for a moment, the key was always going to be that very important word “variety”.

You will see later how I arrived at the idea of using the morning for workshops and tutorials, and getting the students to work on their projects in the afternoon.

Having made that decision the next question was  that of teaching style.

I am a great believer in the Benjamin Franklin quote “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”  so I was always going to use group exercises and discussions rather than lecturing.

Having considered this for a while I came up with two  thoughts. The first general approach would be to introduce them to subject, get them to do a group exercise and then do a feedback exercise.

The second was that regardless of any plans I would need to adapt my approach and methods on the fly depending on how well it was going.

As it turned out I had to do this on several occasions but the plan Bs worked fine. I have written about this and other moments from the course in my third post.

The highlight of the week was to be the students presenting their ideas to a panel. From what I had seen of Finnish students on the March 2011 Study Visit I was confident that they would be able to do this.

As it turned out I was actually blown away by how good they were. Yes, they were able to put across some quite complex ideas in a very good standard of English, which was what I had hoped for.

That they were able to talk around the PowerPoint headings with the help of a script was genuinely impressive.

I have seen English undergraduates and business leaders who couldn’t do it that well.

As I said: blown away!

Planning the plan

One thing I was sure of was that there was no point in trying to plan everything in detail at the start.

There were just too many variables and unknowns to make this a sensible approach. The solution eventually came from from a rather unusual source.

In another life I was responsible for delivering an annual research programme made up  of 20-30 separate projects.

It is clearly not possible to plan such a programme in detail at the start of the year.

The approach which worked for me for this programme was to start with a high level schedule.

This would give a broad indication of times, resources and outcomes, and would contain a series of project plans.

Initially a project plan might only be a single page of A4. This was OK because more detail would be added over time until at the project start date we enough to get the show on the road.

While this project was on a very different scale to the research programme it struck me that the same approach would work well: set out a framework  but develop the detail as and when it was needed.

My framework was very simple: I would do workshop style learning with the students in the mornings and that they would work on their projects in the afternoons.

With that in place I took the list of  learning outcomes from Finnish national curriculum and spread them across the morning sessions and lo, I had a plan.

As a side note a lot of the development work was carried out on my favourite planning tool: a whiteboard.

It is entirely possible to do project planning using sophisticated software my experience tells me that this often gets in the way rather than helping.

Using the whiteboard I can see all the learning objectives and where I plan that they will fit in. If anyone has a software package that can do this as easily I would really like to know about it……….

Who said project management was hard!

First impressions

A project like this one can be made or broken by the opening meeting. Get off on the wrong foot and you will always be playing catch-up, but get it right and the creative energy flows right from the first few minutes.

The big worry for me was literally the first few sentences that I would speak. I figured that I probably had ten minutes to set the tone for the week and start to gain their trust. If anything kept me awake at night it was this bit.

After a fair bit of head scratching I eventually settled on this: a very short personal introduction, an equally short conversation with them about whether they felt nervous about being on this course, and then to go straight into a couple of ice-breaker exercises.

This actually worked very well and I will say more about the first day in my next blog post.

The final challenge

When planning the project I made the decision that I would not try and write all the teaching material up front because there were just too many unknowns. The downside was that after each day’s teaching I had to sit down for a couple of hours and sort out the next day’s material.

Having to do this was a bit of a mixed blessing – doing the work straight away meant that everything was fresh in my mind, but after a day’s teaching I was not exactly at my sunny fresh best.

This situation was not helped by the fact that Finnish time is two hours of UK time and my body thought that it was getting up at 5 o’clock each morning, rather than the clock time of 7.00.

A two hour time difference may not sound like that much but by Thursday I was tired, but spelt with a “K”.

However, on balance, this was the right approach for this project.

Final thoughts

For all its uncertainties this was a great project to be involved with. When people ask me what I do for a living my standard reply is “I like doing things that other people find too hard to do”.

While I’m not sure that this project was too hard for others to do, the fact was that KAO were finding it difficult, in their words, “to find the right person to do this for us”.

I am absolutely delighted that they asked me to take it on and I have many happy memories from it. I will share some of these with you in my next post.

In the mean time I would be really happy to read and respond to any comments that you may have. 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.

If you think that a project like this could be useful to you please drop me a line (bob@windmillinsights.co.uk) or give me a call (+44 7554 994855)


Bob Windmill

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