Should teachers put students to the driver’s seat?


One of the most recurring ideas in teaching concerns the role of students and teachers. Progressive teaching methods advocate student-centric approaches, whereas traditional models promote teacher-led teaching. Which one works the best?

Having read an article in Education Week, in which a teacher with 29-years of experience criticised overusing student-centric methods in teaching, I decided to tackle this topic. The article makes several claims about what happens with regards to teaching when students are put to the driver’s seat (marked in bold). In italics you’ll find my reflection on the claims.

  • Fun over function, cosmetic engagement over actual learning
    One might wonder do teachers test out various student-centric teaching methods focusing overly on fun rather than practicality?
    If students are seemingly active or busy in the classroom, how can we verify they’re actually learning? Is it just easy to believe learning is taking place then? (Related see also my post about teacher’s survival strategies).
    Then again, the idea behind motivating learning process is that it should be somehow fun as well. If we focus solely on substance, we’re not catering to everyone’s needs.
  • Using technology-based ‘gimmicks’ to keep students entertained
    Kahoot-games, tablets etc. Has technology become the goal instead of a means for learning? Is technology used only because it’s the paradigm of today and ‘should be used’ or is it used because it’s seen as a necessity in learning? Also, what’s the balance (and purpose) between substance and entertainment – are teachers competing with videogames or are we trying to associate learning with them in order to increase meaningfulness?
  • Skills are forgotten
    Students are encouraged in classroom discussions, but how often we really practise how to discuss? Same with group work: We just assume students know how it should be carried out. This is a constant challenge – it’s not only about information, it’s equally as much how to use it. 
  • Teamwork equals ‘cafeteria socialisation’
    Modern teaching methods put cooperation first. Students engage in teamwork, which might be hindered by uneven participation and not focusing on task at hand, though at the same teamwork might improve social interaction. You win, you lose, while trying to find the optimal method. 

There’s certainly much to ponder. Traditional teaching models have lately gained attention also in Finland, because self-directed learning skills differ from student to student and progressive teaching models are criticised for putting too much pressure on the student. And that might cause anxiety and excessive amounts of stress. Nevertheless, for some student-centric teaching allows flourishing and growing as an individual.

Perhaps rather than finding a definite answer to which teaching model is the greatest, the idea in teaching could be to find the best practice that works with a certain group. And each group or individual is uniquely different. As the teacher in Education Week’s article points out, each method may prove succesful, yet no single method is always superior to others.

Finally, happy new year! I’ve been busy as a beaver with teaching, hence the lack of more frequent posts 😉

Teaching in a diverse class

What are aspects to take into consideration when teaching in a class with lots of diversity?

Let’s check out.

  • Parents
    Sometimes a person’s primary source of sosialization (to what one identifies with) is with one’s parents. Various cultural conceptions and values might hinder learning. That’s why it’s beneficial for a teacher to get somewhat aquainted with parents. But a question lingers: How well should a teacher know students’ parents?
    In any case if parents don’t appreciate education that might severily hamper one’s learning process, and in ideal case a teacher should be aware of those kinds of obstacles. That’s why it’s crucial parents work for the same goal as teachers: to provide basis for learning.
  • Diagnostical evaluation
    A teacher could perform a diagnostical evaluation initally to determine the base level of a multicultural student (actually this should be done with everyone). Especially a new teacher lacks knowledge about students’ reservations and can not direct teaching optimally for individual needs. Though in a sense ignorance is a bliss, since new teachers also make observations with different bias than seasoned teachers.
  • Majority or minority?
    For instance in history teaching one needs to ponder the balance between ‘national’ and ‘international’ history. If the history teaching is excessively focused on national thematics, it could lessen the interest and make one feel exluded. Teaching involves identity-building and that should not be tied only to national interests.
  • Language difficulties
    In my opinion reading and writing difficulties are the biggest common denominator among students across age. Subjects such as civics entail plenty of concepts that might feel abstract and distant, that’s why much attention is needed that concepts are explained thoroughly and through practical examples. Students might feel scared to bring forward their learning disabilities, but a teacher should be sensitive to these issues.
  • Avoiding conflicts
    As noted in previous blog posts, discussion culture in schools is at times problematic. Students are undemonstrative when it comes to expressing their opinions publicly, because they are cautious of ridicule and judgment (perhaps a sign of times, where public opinions are sometimes quickly judged online?). Special challenges arise when there’s particular diversity in the class. Each individual is somehow different in terms of learning. Therefore it is essential that discussion skills as well as expressing and interpreting emotions are practised.

My new school

Here’s a quick look into the school, where I currently work as a subject teacher. It’s been rather hectic lately, that’s why the lack of new blog posts.

My new classroom with a smartboard. Currently I’m streaming content via Chromebook to it. Additionally, I emphasize group-work.
Students have decorated many of the walls, so that it doesn’t look so mundane. Good inclusive initiative for students to improve school atmosphere with art and knowledge.
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Colorful public space for students to read, discuss and hang out.
This is where students can spend time between classes and enjoy playing pool or drinking coffee.
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The concept of gender neutrality hasn’t reached these toilets 😉

Power of grades



In Finland’s system of  basic education and high school grading is in general carried out numerically from 4 (disqualified) to 10 (excellent). Although most elementary schools give grading as verbal evaluation until certain age. Still, most students start receiving numerical grades latest from the end of elementary school around the age of 12 onwards. Vocational schools give grades from 1 (worst) to 3 (excellent) and universities apply grading from 1 (worst) to 5 (excellent).

Grades hold great power on the students, even as far as in terms of identity building. Actually in Finland there’s a gender-specific concept of ‘ten girl‘ (kympin tyttö) suggesting females are better students as well as the highest grade 10 is an ideal norm everyone should pursue. Grades are therefore a means to categorize students to ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones. Consequently, some students start pursuing after the highest grades with mixed motives. That begs the question have grades become an end itself and has actual learning become secondary?

Another dilemma with the paradigm of grading systems lies with their motivational aspect. They’re constructed upon the idea of external motivation since grading is enforced through curriculum, which students usually have minimal impact on. My ongoing concern with the current grading system is due to students not caring for school not aiming for better grades either. Are there ways of motivating students more evenly?

Perhaps there is. Lately I have been reading a book about ipsative assesment (Latin: ipse, “of the self”) by Gwyneth Hughes Ipsative Assessment – Motivation through Marking Progress. It’s an inclusive and individual assesment method originating on internal motivation, in which students set the evaluation criteria themselves. That can be a learning goal, numerical grade or whatever one prefers. Also one’s performance isn’t compared to others – only on their own (setting it apart from the basic self-evaluation). I’m not proposing the current grading system to be scrapped per se, but instead complementing it with advanced and individual grading mechanisms. Sure, implementing them takes time and effort from the teacher/educational staff, yet may yield in better learning results.

Additionally, one could wonder perhaps the root cause isn’t grades itself but the way they are applied by teachers. Ideal scenario is that teachers review students’ performance through tests, essays, portfolios and so forth. And based on those curriculum-set criteria they evaluate each student individually. Problems arise however when:

1) Students don’t know exactly how they are evaluated
e.g. how a grade is formed and how to improve it?
2) Teachers assign grades arbitrarily
e.g. is there a pedagogical reason for a student to gain a higher grade? Is someone favoured?

To conclude, there’s much work to be done in creating truly transparent and motivating evaluation mechanisms 😉

How to handle smart devices in the classroom?


Perhaps we’ve all been there. Getting swept into the world of internet and its infinite-appearing sources of information and media for countless hours – while the rest of the world awaits. Due to their ease of use, availability and cost-effectiveness smart devices are these days de facto method when connecting to multitude of sources and people.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as is evident by an article e.g. from The Sydney Morning Herald titled ”‘Schools need to react quickly’: Education expert urges smartphone ban“.
Let’s inspect the smart device phenomen more in depth.

For some students smartphones and tablets offer a way to shield oneself from the noise of the classroom. One may even escape reality. Additionally, listening concentration music while carrying out an assignment appears common. Some just play games during a lesson for the fun of it. There are certainly times when teaching can’t compete for the interest of a student.
Others search information with a smartphone when their laptop’s/tablet’s (or vice versa) battery has run down, but even then one has to question the ergonomics of a 5″-6″ screen compared to a device with double or triple the screen real estate.

In my experience teachers are divided into two camps on how to deal with the matter. On one hand there are those who ban mobile devices for the duration of the class. They have for instance trays in which everyone can put their mobile device. I’d say these teachers are in the minority.
On the other hand there are those who simply accept the existence of smart devices as part of the students’ everyday life. In this case, they’re the majority. Both camps might however utilize the devices in teaching if there’s an academic reason for it.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to ban smart devices altogether. At least it depends on the school. There are always teachers who somehow would slip from the agreed policy. Especially in Finland where teacher’s liberty is in particularly high esteem (pedagogical freedom). Also a lot of time and effort is consumed when trying to prohibit the use of smart devices.
Is it all in vain?

Smartphones etc. do offer ways to improve learning. It’s just that sometimes we don’t even fully understand how to utilize them more effectively. Case in point a company called PhoneLabs (see the short video) and their take on learning physics. Even though it’s not only about showing an application, it’s also equally important to teach how to use it (following the lines of Vygotski’s famous and often quoted ‘zone of approximal development‘).

If teachers only approve smart devices, without any indication of trying to utilize them in learning, their potential is wasted and in the process their causes for distractions maximised.

In the end these questions reflect the changes in our society. Today’s parents might be avid gamers, hyperactive social media users and keen music fans – and it all centralizes around a smartphone. Kids copy the aforementioned behaviour concept (transfer effect) and eventually display it in schools as well. It’s our job to seek a balance of smart device usage, be it in school or anywhere.

Behaviorism vs. constructivism: Comparing two leading approaches to learning

Let’s take a look on two most influential theories that have affected today’s learning and teaching styles.

  • Behaviorism (theory related to ‘passive mind’)

-Teacher teaches while the students remain relatively passive
(interaction is limited)
Teacher tells ‘facts’ which are then linked with students’ earlier knowledge (memorazing facts is also promoted)
-Learning happens individually in the classroom as a teacher-led process (80 % of the talk in class originates from teacher)
-Teacher knows everything
Making mistakes isn’t encouraged, in fact mistakes are quickly overlooked so that they wouldn’t leave a permanent memory trace

  • Constructivism (theory related to ‘active mind’)

-Teacher supports an active learning environment
(where students work together and discuss)
-Learning is based on understanding what has been learnt and processing that information
-Learning happens inside or outside the class
-Teacher as an expert, who encourages learning
-Teacher guides students to find solutions to problems
(main responsibility of learning lays with the student)
-Emphasis on learning strategies and creating new knowledge

Finally, many teachers combine these approaches. Based on the situation both of them prove useful in teaching – trick is to find the suitable balance 😉

Teaching empathy: why and how?

Empathy is an important skill in todays interconnected and interdependent world with vast cultural diversity. Understanding others helps one to define oneself as well. That’s why teachers should emphasize empathy skills during teaching also subject teachers, who in my opinion ever so often rely too much on their respective subjects.

In best-case scenario teaching empathy…

  • Prevents exclusion and enhances team spirit (you become aware about how no-one should be left alone)
  • Prevents bullying (you don’t feel the need for bullying because you realize how others feel about it)
  • Improves multiperspective thinking and broadens cognitive skills (you learn to inspect e.g. global phenomena on multiple aspects)
  • Develops anti-violent behaviour (e.g. naturalistic first-person shooter videogames blur the lines between fact and fiction and don’t usually pose moral questions for the players, but practising empathy helps one to see the deeper question of cause and effect)

How to teach empathy? Some examples:

  1. Practising emotions and how to express them
    The first step is attaining self-knowledge through inspecting one’s emotions. Too little time is spent dealing with various emotions inside a classroom. Especially those as a result of a conflict. In any case, knowing yourself preceeds the greater understanding of empathy.
  2. Historical empathy
    For instance teaching about world wars is difficult, since in many ways they remain distant – even story-like – for youth of these days. But if we include microperspectives and let students investigate world wars through a historical character (farmer in Soviet Union, young woman in Nazi-Germany) we can actually bring the world war reality closer to the students.
  3. Writing a letter
    Students can write letters e.g. for immigrants (could be fictional characters) and share their perspectives. Writing something is always a useful exercise and also helps to develop abstract thinking due to the fact that there are no model answers.
  4. Simulations
    Simulations offer a venue for argumentation and empathy. One can organize e.g. a United Nations simulation in which students need to represent someone else or another country and perhaps see things differently, through an unfamiliar ideology (also prevents xenophobia).

Another glimpse on schools in Finland

Last year I introduced ‘the most modern school in Finland‘. However, the variety of schools is broad so it might be interesting to check out another kind of a school –
one I deem to represent more generic school environment in Finland. Let’s go!

Lobby featuring lockers. Nothing too fancy 🙂
‘Welcome’ in various languages. Internationality is valued here (at least it’s prominent).
Second floor is equipped with a ping-pong table to encourage activity during recesses. The picture doesn’t tell, but it seemed very popular.
Art (not sure if it’s student-made). Plus pictures of a few old Finnish presidents. Modern art meets classic portraits?
Recycling point for bottles and cans (very common to recycle those in Finland). Also bins for carton and energy waste.
No smartboards etc. found here. This school isn’t on the edge of the newest digital trends (should it be is another question) 🙂
Teacher’s table. Document camera is a very common instrument in Finnish schools. It’s practical when displaying paper images and written texts to the whole class.


Where’s the fun in schools these days?

New year celebrations — this year has begun hecticly, but insightfully.

During the autumn term I taught mostly in the upper secondary school, but I also participated in team teaching in elementary school (method that was pioneered by J. Lloyd Trump in 1952, more about this in future posts!). Long story short, based on my observations elementary school pupils (and teachers) seemed happier — something that might be totally obvious to you also from your personal experience. Elementary school lessons appear more fun and engaging whereas in upper school levels learning becomes more serious and uneventful. But why and should it be like that? 

Reasons behind why school becomes ‘more serious’ originate for instance in human psychology. First of all, let’s inspect the stages of psychosocial development one in general goes through during adolescence, according to Erik H. Erikson (1959). During early school ages 6-11 a child compares ones worth to others, for instance among pupils in a school class.
As such one questions: How do I fare compared to others?
Learning might feel then so fresh and exciting, yet the opinion and acceptance of others is regarded as highly important. Erikson stresses that a teacher should be aware of this phase and make sure that children wouldn’t feel inferior.

However, learning becomes more complicated the older one gets. During ages 12-18 a child might face identity and role confusion (even an identity crisis). Information is pouring in lightning-fast speeds and processing it all takes more and more time and effort. One might ponder then: Who am I? And when puberty hits one might come across depression and black and white thoughts might invade anyone’s mind. As teachers we should recognise these phases and wonder:
Are we demanding too much in school?
Are we sensitive enough for the needs of each individual?
Do we really know how the students are doing?

Moreover, especially in history topics like wars have traditionally taken a lot of class time. And those topics are tough to comprehend. It’s no wonder if students get depressed if they already go through an identity crisis and we keep pushing wars and conflicts upon them. We shouldn’t avoid difficult topics, but especially subject teachers should broaden their mindsets and surpass their respective teaching subjects.
A teacher I deemed wise explained to me that it’s sometimes not of utmost importance if students don’t learn everything from the specific subject(s) one teaches — rather it’s more important if they learn skills to cope in life. And that’s perhaps the greatest lesson of them all…

Weak political discussion culture in Finnish schools?

According to a survey conducted by the Finnish Board of Education (2011) there’s a weak discussion culture related to political and social issues in Finnish schools. In fact the aforementioned has called for the society as a whole to provide prerequisites for building an identity that allows positive encounters, interaction and democracy between people. Even according to teachers, student opportunites to participate and have their say at school should be improved (Eränpalo & Karhuvirta, 2012). Students of all age should be able to form and voice their opinions safely in a school environment – what better legitimate forum to foster argumentation there is than schools? In my opinion a more open discussion forum also advocates inclusion, something that every teacher should ultimately strive for.

Another study made by International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (2009) suggests that young Finns have exceptionally good level of civicsknowledge internationally. Worth noting here is that young Finns actually evaluate their skills to be significantly worse than young people in many other countries. Low self-esteem or lack of self-knowledge perhaps? In any case while young Finns seemed to have proper level of civics’ knowledge in international comparison they weren’t interested in politics and participation (though similar results were also found in Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia).

Finland is relatively open-minded and a democratic society.
But are teachers unable (or unwilling) to evoke discussion inside a classroom?
And why brilliant civics’ information levels don’t equate to higher participation rates?

Couple of aspects come into mind. Let’s inspect them.

  1. Finnish tradition has been consensus and authority driven.
    Individual opinions have been secondary.
  2. Albeit discussion culture was vivid during the 60s and 70s especially among leftists, political activism seems to have dried out (in comparison). Did extreme level of political participation translate to saturated political thinking?
  3. It’s ‘easier’ to teach when you avoid conflicts and different opinions. It’s a case example of teacher’s survival strategies.
  4. Behaviouristic teaching methods have their place, but perhaps there’s still too much memorising facts instead of practising actual skills in Finnish schools?
  5. Finnish civics’ education focuses on formal political sphere (high level of policy-making) whereas young people are interested also in the unofficial and down-to-earth ways of influence. We should find ways to bridge the former and the latter.