Teaching in Finland – Part 5: Where next?

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 an overview of 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.

The fourth post was the stage that most projects leave out: the post project review.

happy-face-2

Let us remember that this applies as much to successful projects, where there are nice lessons to be learned, as well as less successful projects which we can learn the not so nice but oh-so important lessons about what didn’t work and why.

Fortunately in this case the post project review was a happy one.

The positives heavily outweighed the few negatives and there was an unexpected bonus: the Finnish National Board of Education were so impressed with the project that they have asked me to present the project at their Internationalisation Event of Finnish Vocational Education in Tallinn in November.

I think we call safely call that “a result”

So, can what we learned be applied in other situations?

The big learning point for me was that the principle of using hands-on activities to embed technical or business learning can work brilliantly across international boundaries.

Similarly combining a technical or business subject with working in English can significantly enhance students’ English language capability and confidence.

Technical and business subjects?

So, what I mean by a technical or business subject? To me a technical subject relates to the students’ core learning. In the KAO example the technical subject was tourism.

Business skills are literally that: the skills needed to run or be a contributor to a successful and sustainable business.

This will include ideas topics like creating potentially profitable ideas, how to assess and evaluate options, identifying key market segments, developing profitable product/service offerings and developing and managing high performing individuals and teams.

These are underpinned by the harder business skills of understanding business finance (cash flow, profit, overheads, business taxation and the finance cycle)  and IT solutions.

Employability skills?

Quite a list isn’t it. No wonder that many students joining the world of work feel out of their depth. To me these are “business and employability skills“, the same ones that employers feel students lack when they enter the world of work.

The good news is that applying the KAO approach the vast majority of situations can help them learn about these topics in the course of their education.

This means that they are then better prepared for the transition from the world of education to the world of work.

How can the KAO approach help?

I knew from my work with undergraduates  in the UK that practical exercises, especially those addressing real world problems, really drive home even the most esoteric of subjects.

The same thing applied my own education. I was fortunate that the institutions where I studied my science and business masters degrees valued the same approach.

When I became a manager responsible for the development of my teams and team members I naturally took the same approach.

Initially this did not go down well with team members who were used to a much more directive style of teaching. However they quickly got used to it and it became the norm.

It may be that I was just very lucky with the teams I took over but each one went on to do remarkably well. Was it the training approach that led to this?

I don’t think for a second it was the whole answer but I do regard this approach to training and learning as an important element in the personal and  team development process.

A big claim?

Taking the KAO experience together with my teaching and industry experience I am now fully confident that this approach has the potential to work brilliantly in fairly well any situation.

Working brilliantly in fairly well any situation“?? That is a big claim to make, but one that I am more than happy to defend. My reasoning behind the claim goes as follows:

The key point is that this approach has two learning dimensions – the technical subject and English. Both are being delivered at the same time.

The factor that made the KAO project such a success was that I tailored the teaching approach for each dimension to the abilities of the students.

It sound simple, doesn’t it. However I probably spent more time researching these factors than on any other element of the course preparation. The way I look at it is this: if you don’t know what your target is you are very unlikely to hit it.

To turn this into a question: If I hadn’t developed a good understanding of the abilities and learning style of the KAO students how would I have developed the right kinds of teaching materials?

The learning learning point for me was more of a reminder: for any future project I would have to de exactly the same, building each one up from scratch.

I couldn’t just expect the KAO teaching material to work with a different group.

And how might it work elsewhere?

So, I had a really good pilot project in a vocational college situation, my experience of teaching undergraduates and a background in industry of developing high performing teams and individuals. The obvious question is almost “So What?“.

Taken as separate items none my experiences appear that special, yet I felt that I had something special, something that could formalised and applied in a range of situations.

To prove this I did some work  on how I might approach doing a similar project with a range of learner groups. After a fair bit of brain scratching I came up with this model:

matrix-1-model

The model is matrix with two axes. The first axis describes  the level of English and the second the level of the technical or business subject in a given project.

Both axes used descriptors taken from an accredited curriculum. Any project can be positioned on the matrix by comparing its desired outcomes against the descriptors.

As an example I positioned the KAO project like this:

matrix-3-intermediate-intermediate

I find the model useful in helping clients articulate their priorities for the technical/business subject and English language components of a proposed course.

Establishing this understanding early in a project is to me the most important element of the project.

Why is this?

The understanding of client requirements sets the overall tone and approach that I take when turning curriculum and organisational requirements into teaching material.

As I said, to hit your target you first have to know what and where it is!

Some examples

While models can be a valuable tool some people find them a bit abstract. To help with this I have developed some examples that show how I would initially position a given student group when discussing a project with a client.

I will repeat myself at this point: the examples are an initial assessment, not a final answer. In each project I would expect to review my assessment with the client and agree exactly where their project should sit on the matrix.

As a note of caution: while it is useful to be able to position a project on the matrix the exercise is ultimately only a guide to the teaching and learning approach that should be taken.

I would be very concerned if my client started arguing for for a project to sit half in one sector and half in another. With all the uncertainties in any such project trying for such a level of precision at the outset is unhelpful.

Experience tells me that there will be plenty of time for making adjustments and tweaking as the project progresses…………..

The examples cover three cases:

Every category of project would certain similar characteristics: an appropriate pace, very visual presentation, the use of a practical project and a final presentation.

In each case it is also important for the teacher to monitor how well the class are coping with the teaching approach and material and to adjust the programme as required. However each category has key differences:

Basic – basic projects are most likely to be undertaken with students who are in their final year of secondary education or their first year of college education.

I would expect them to be able to converse in English providing the topics are kept simple and we don’t rush.

I would not expect them to have much understanding of business culture and what will be expected of them in the world of work.

Knowing this I would structure a course with a very steady pace, giving plenty of time for students to understand the material and get into the swing of working in English.

The key ideas of the course would be introduced using everyday examples rather than any kind of “business-speak”.

My feeling is that I would have to take even more care than usual to be sure that all students were involved and contributing.

Ideally the presentation would be given using something like PowerPoint but it could equally be done using acetate film, coloured pens and an overhead projector, or indeed coloured pens and a flip chart.

Intermediate – intermediate projects would typically be undertaken by student in their final year of college education or first year of university education.

I would expect such students to have a degree of fluency in English and some understanding of the challenges of the world of work.

The pace of the course would be faster that than that of a basic-basic course, but care will still be needed to ensure that all students are included and contribute.

Key ideas could be introduced in a more abstract form but my preference would still be to work from everyday questions towards an understanding of business concepts and how they can be applied in a practical situation.

At this level I would be looking for students to use PowerPoint or similar for the presentations. However it would be entirely possible to make the use of PowerPoint part of the learning material if required.

Advanced – advanced projects would typically be taken by students in their final year of university education or who are studying a post graduate qualification.

I would expect such students to be comfortable speaking English in everyday situations and to be able to work in English without great difficulty.

I would also expect to be able to work at a higher pace than with the other groups and to use more abstract concept.

However, as before, I would still favour my approach of working from everyday ideas towards an understanding of business concepts and how they can be applied in a practical situation.

At this level the ability to use PowerPoint is expected and in general this is what I would ask for.

However it can be quite instructive to give each group six overhead transparencies and some coloured pens, and require them to give the presentation using these……..

And so?

You have just read about three examples of how the idea of teaching a business or technical subject in English can be tailored for different student groups.

In each case the key outcome is to help the students develop their business and employability skills.

Given the success of the KAO pilot an my experience in industry and training I have no doubt what so ever that it can be equally successful in a range of teaching situations.

If you think that a project like this would be useful to you, please drop me an email (bob@windmillinsights.co.uk) or give me a ring (+44 7554 994855). I’m always happy to have a chat.

Finally

I hope that you have found this post interesting. If you would like to say something about it or start a discussion please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Thanks again for reading my blog

Bob Windmill

2 thoughts on “Teaching in Finland – Part 5: Where next?”

  1. I’m very interested in developing something similar at our college and have some ideas…
    I’m also looking forward to your presentation during the international conference in Tallinn.

  2. Hi Susanna,

    I pleased that you found the post interesting and I would in turn be interested to hear about your thinking on the subject. You have my contact details and I’m more than happy to kick ideas around by email or over the phone.

    I’m looking forward to Tallinn as well. It will be great to share my experiences and hear the experiences of the other attendees.

    Regards

    Bob Windmill

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