Teaching In Finland – Part 4: How I should have done it

Background

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 a post on the more technical considerations like lining up the course structure with the requirements of a range of curricula. Necessary? yes. Fun? no. Such is life.

By way of an antidote the third  post had was a not entirely serious day-by-day look at the ups and downs of the course and the final student presentations.

In general the ups far outweighed the downs, which was great, but at least one of the downs made me wonder if I’d made a big mistake taking on this project……..

Looking back

One of the great rules of projects is that you only really know how you should have done them once they are completed. This is especially true of a pilot project like this one.

In this post I look at what KAO and I learned from doing this pilot with each learning point presented as topic. In each topic I reflect on how a particular element of the project turned out against expectations and how in the light of experience I would do it next time .

The topics start from the time that Risto Virkkunen, the Head of International Affairs at KAO, confirmed that we should going ahead with the project up to the time I sent back the final student assessments.

There is one other development that I will share with you further on,one that shows that the Finnish National Board of Education were really impressed with the project. But more on that later.

So, what did we learn?

When reviewing a project it’s always useful to remind yourself of what you set out to achieve.  In this case we have to consider the objectives of three stakeholders: KAO, the students and me.

The college was looking for ways to help their students learn to work in English and to learn about Entrepreneurship, in that order.

The students were all volunteers. Before the course I had asked them to send me a half page mini-CV as part of which they were to set their aims for the future.

All of them wanted to work abroad at some stage and most were thinking about ways of developing their careers. They saw the course as helping them do this.

For me this project as a way of expanding my business portfolio. The fact that it promised to be great fun to do was just big bonus.

The headlines

There is a danger in these review exercises that focusing on small issues can make a great project come across as unsatisfactory. To avoid this I will start with my overall assessment of the project:

kao-student-feedback-2

OK, it’s not the most sophisticated assessment scheme in the world but I think that it tells you what you need to know.For those who prefer something a little more precise I would rate the project as around 9/10 .

9/10? That’s a very high mark, especially for a self-assessment. Am I being biased? It’s a fair question and to answer it I refer you to the students’ daily feedback sheet.

I picked this to demonstrate the rationale for my assessment because ultimately this project is about helping them to find their way in the world of work. If it works for them it works for me.

I used the smiley face scale to get feedback from the students. At the end of each day we spent ten minutes or so reviewing the activities.

We looked at three areas: the Project work (P), the English work (E) and the Teaching style (T). Each topic was graded with this very technical system:

“Thumbs up” = Smiley face

“So-So” = Straight face

“Thumbs down” = Sad Face

The results for each day were recorded on the flip chart in the photo below

kao-student-feedback-2
Happy Students? You decide.

I think we can safely say that they liked it.

In addition Risto and the KAO teaching staff gave me lots feedback. At the end of each day Heli Luhtaniemi, the KAO Education Manager, spoke with the students about the course.

She was delighted with the students’ comments and spoke of how excited KAO’s English teacher was by this teaching approach.

I rest my case on my assessment of the project.

The technical bits

Aligning to curricula. Like any teaching project this one had to align to a curriculum. For an professional teacher this is probably as natural as breathing.

Not being a professional teacher I was concerned that I might not be able to map the content of this rather experimental course to the various curricula.

documents

Note the plural. The students were drawn for two different courses(two curricula) and were studying two entrepreneurship and English in parallel with these (two more curricula).

Just to help things along curricula in Finland are set at a national level by the Finnish National Board of Education and at a local level by the teaching institutions.

Those of you blessed with good maths skills will have worked out that I had eight curricula to contend with, which is an impractical number. To address this I had to simplify things.

The first simplification I made was that I would concentrate on the national curricula.

The rationale was that if this teaching approach was to be useful in other counties we needed to show that it could align to national curricula. Tailoring against a local curriculum could always be added later if required.

The second simplification was that the course material would only align to the most relevant parts of the national curriculum. It was an obvious step but one which for some reason took me a while to arrive at.

With the two simplifications in place it wasn’t a big job to map the course content to elements of the national curricula.

So: Would I do it the same way again?

Yes – fairly well exactly the same.

Assessments were potentially an issue.Under Finnish law all assessments have to be carried out in Finnish. As the total extent of my Finnish is “Hei” (hello) and “Hei hei”(goodbye) this could have been a bit of a problem.

assessment

The other issue that I couldn’t get my head around was exactly how an English language course could be assessed in Finnish.

This caused a fair bit of head scratching until Risto came up with the idea of using the Ecvet framework.

Finland is a supporter of Ecvet and the framework allows a variety of assessment methods. Problem solved.

With that decision made there was just the small matter of  deciding how to assess a two subject English language vocational course…….

The eventual solution was a two part approach: a short written test on entrepreneurship and observation of the student group presentations.

In both parts marks would be given for their understanding of Entrepreneurship and their fluency in English.

It wasn’t the work of ages to knock up the written test and the student presentations were videoed which made the observation scores easier to check.

The combination worked well with the student getting marks from 58% (satisfactory) up to 92% ( Excellent). Not a bad result at all.

Seeing it written here makes it seem simple but in reality it took a lot of thinking to get the detail right.

So: Would I do it the same way again?

Yes – fairly well exactly the same.

One passing thought: I wonder how many readers of this post could manage a mark of 92% on any one week course, never mind one delivered and assessed in a foreign language.

The teaching approach

Let me see; I am proposing to teach entrepreneurship, a rather ethereal subject, to a group of 16-18 year old students, a group well known for their limited attention span, on vocational courses, so no fancy academic terms thank you, in English, not even their second language, in a five day block, when they are normally taught a range of subjects in 45  minute slots.

Just how many ways were there for this project to go wrong?

However, where there are challenges there are solutions. In this case I had a fair idea of how I would address each of the challenges and I had the good fortune to know a couple of people whom had taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

Talking the challenges through with them was extremely helpful (thanks guys – it was appreciated) and I eventually settled on the following:

The students’ attention span: Use the KISS principle – Keep it Short and Simple. In practice this meant breaking the day into sessions of about an hour and having at least two activities within each hour.

The 5 day teaching block:  In the same way that each day was broken up I made each day a bit different. While in general mornings were given over to learning the principles of entrepreneurship and the afternoons to project work I made a concious decision that this was just a framework and that we would “go with the flow” as required.

Vocational students: No problem. Vocational education is “learning by doing“. From this idea it wasn’t a giant leap to base the course on the idea of the students doing a practical project.

To keep it relevant the topic was to be based on tourism, their core subject, and an issue in their local area.

An ethereal subject: The way I approach this kind of issue is to reverse the normal teaching process. Rather than introduce a topic, say doing a SWOT analysis, and then showing how it is used, I start from the everyday view point.

Using the SWOT example I start a conversation with the students along the lines of “What are you good at?” and “What sorts of things might people want to buy from you“. This conversation naturally leads into the principles of SWOT. The SWOT framework, if used at all, is only brought in right at the end.

English: This was a bit of a leap of faith. From my experience of talking to Scandinavian students I intuitively felt that the student would be able work in English.

However I have learned over the years that while intuition has a valuable role in decision making it is also good to to have some practical assurances in place.

In this case I had two practical assurances. The first was that KAO only invited  students with an appropriate standard of English to come on the course while the second was more personal.

Over the years I have developed a way of speaking that is easy to understand. I believe that the starting point for this was learning to speak from my Swiss mother.

She spoke, and still speaks, that beautifully correct English of fluent second language speakers. It was a great grounding in being easy to understand. Thanks Mum!

This grounding was polished by many years of training and presenting. This might not seem to have much connection to speaking English to non-native English speakers but in both situations you are trying to get a new idea across to someone in a limited time.

For me the key techniques are Pace, Pauses and Presentation. The first is obvious. the faster you speak the harder you are to follow. This is true in any situation.

The second is to put a longer than usual pause between each sentence. This gives the listener time to translate what you have said into their own language. Combining these two makes it as easy as possible for the listener to follow what you are saying.

Finally by “Presentation” I mean presenting one idea at a time, avoiding complex sentences containing multiple ideas.

In my experience this is a good approach in any communications but is absolutely essential when speaking with a non-native English speaker.

I know from my own experience that if a native language speaker does not do these things it is virtually impossible to follow them.

I know this because I am currently refreshing my French skills and learning German.

The two words I seem to use the most are “Doucement” and “Langsamer“, which in French and German loosely mean “speak more slowly“.

This experience reinforces my opinion that the speaking skills of the English speaker are a critical element in projects like this one.

This has been a long section, but in my opinion this is justified by its importance. Essentially if I had got this bit wrong I believe that the whole thing would have failed.

So: Would I do it the same way again?

Yes. Not only would I do it the same way, I wouldn’t really want to do it any other way without a very good reason.

I would do something very similar even if teaching undergraduates or MBAs. While in those situations I would probably be a bit more formal but the basic approach would be the same.

The practical project:  I am a great believer in the Benjamin Franklin saying “tell me and I will forget, teach me an I may remember, involve me and I will learn“.

This for me is the basis of vocational learning which we should remember applies as much to doctors and lawyers as it does to tourism students.

For this project I agreed the approach with Risto. We also agreed that we should divide the students up into two teams.

There was no great depth of thinking involved in that decision, just that this idea had worked well for me in the past and seemed like a good idea for this project.

From there we came up with a question for each team to work on that related to a tourism issue in the local area:

  • How can we attract more UK visitors to the Kainuu region?
  • How can we increase the value of existing Russian visitors

These question were based on statistics from the Kainuu tourism agency which showed only 0.03% of their visitors came from the UK and that Russian visitors were not spending as much as expected. As I said, real practical projects.

The final challenge for the students was that on the Friday morning they had to present their project to a pane. Quite a challenge, but one which they coped with brilliantly.

So: Would I do it the same way again?

Absolutely. Not only with vocational students but right up to MBAs.

In this instance the students had good PowerPoint skills which made things a bit easier. However it could equally have been done using acetates, coloured pens and an overhead projector.

As an aside: if you want to see confusion in action, just ask a group of graduates to do a presentation without using a computer. It’s a great learning exercise for everybody.

Not quite perfect

Clearly nothing is ever perfect, nor should me try and make things perfect. However there was one learning point from this project that stands out.

On the Tuesday four of the students had to go and take exams. Losing a third of a class on the second day is never good, especially as I wasn’t aware that it was going to happen.

The situation was made worse because the missing students were the more lively ones who helped spark debate and discussion in the groups.

As a consequence Tuesday morning felt completely flat compared to the energy of the Monday. It needed a complete re-think to get the day moving again.

The obvious lesson is to try and avoid losing students to other activities if at all possible. If it has to happen make sure that you know about it in advance and can plan for it.

Summary

This was by an standards a successful project. The students loved it, KAO loved it and I loved it. All the big decisions turned out well and there were only the everyday teaching issues to deal with.

So:

  • Would I do it the same way again? YES
  • Would I tweak and adjust it to make it better? YES
  • Can I see this style of learning being applied in other situations? YES

The Finnish National Board of Education

Earlier I said that the Finnish National Board of Education were really impressed with this project.

The news is that they are so impressed that they have asked me to present the project at their Internationalisation Event of Finnish Vocational Education in Tallinn in November.

Not bad for a project that came about from a chance conversation.

Finally

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.

Also if you think that a project like this could be useful to you please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a chat. You can email me (bob@windmillinsights.co.uk) or give me a call (+44 7554 994855).

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