Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cross-curricular by Nature: (eTwinning) Learning Projects in Spotlight

As one result of the new curricula in Finland the goal of learning and a school culture is to enhance cooperation and to apply more diverse perspectives on contents that are being taught. When phenomena are studied in their real life context, complex concepts and formulas feel real, and even the most complicated problems/ideas become understandable and relevant. By nature, authentic learning leads to exploring things as part of the world, using a multidisciplinary approach and looking at thing from the vantage points of different school subjects.

Contrary to common belief, cross-curricular approach brings more time and space for implementing the curriculum as it provides an opportunity to learn many things at the same time. When, in typical textbook-based learning, we tend to proceed in accordance with the objectives of one subject at a time, in multidisciplinary project learning many different subjects can be studied and goals be pursued simultaneously. For example, the results of surveys designed and carried out by the students (math) can be combined with significant social phenomena (civics), ethical reflection (R.E. and philosophy), as well as linguistic expression, interaction and presentation (native and foreign languages, art, ICT).

In practice, therefore, learning process should start with, together with the students, choosing a theme, problem or phenomenon to be studied in the project. After that you can start thinking which subjects and what kind of learning activities are to be included. When the process begins to take shape, you should take a look in the curriculum and find the corresponding objectives and contents of the school subjects, as well as the objectives of different transversal competences (e.g. ict, critical thinking, communication, team work, creativity etc.) and explore which concrete objectives this learning project supports. When you write them down in the project plan, it becomes obvious that the objectives of many different subjects are mutually supportive and are more natural to learn simultaneously than successively.

Topics Relevant for Global Citizenship Education

One example of a very topical issue and a possible theme for project learning is gender equality. In Finland, all schools are required to have an updated equality plan, which entails studying gender equality related themes, exploring and revealing attitudes and stereotypes as well as enhancing equality-based school culture. Gender equality is a very topical theme also from European and global perspectives, as recent studies have shown that differences between the sexes have, somewhat alarmingly, begun to increase again.

Last fall, I designed and built a multidisciplinary education project plan Girls are Playing Home, Boys Are Driving Cars? to support education for gender equality. It was planned, in particular, to be used in eTwinning projects. However, the project kit can be applied to different age groups and implemented with or without European partners. The learning project can be carried out in a couple of weeks or during a longer period of time. Instead of carrying out all the different activities, you can also choose just some of them. You can find the project plan here: Girls play with dolls, boys play with cars?.

Another interesting integrative theme in relation to the new Finnish curriculum is language education in the sense of multilingualism, language awareness and the language dimension in all subjects and areas of knowledge. This aspect is being raised in Girls are Playing Home, Boys Are Driving Cars? project plan (gendered words), but even more strongly in Many Stories of the World project kit. In it, the objective is to learn to see the world from different perspectives and critically examine our own interpretations, which are culturally determined and shaped by our own language(s). During the project, different activities are carried out to illustrate how the spectrum of interpretations of the world are produced by languages and cultures expressed in the shared stories of the surrounding society. The Danger of a Single Story video has a particularly eye-opening effect. It elucidates how strong and biased interpretation one single story can give and how unaware we can be of the bias. You can find the project plan here: Many Stories of the World 

Multidisciplinary approach opens a new world for the teacher as well. When it is combined with the multi-cultural dimension developed in international co-operation, transversal competences and expertise develop by leaps and bounds: thinking skills, interpersonal and intercultural skills, multi-literacy, ICT skills and feeling of inclusion and engagement. Our new curricula in Finland open paths into the future and meaningful learning.

Read more about language awareness:
Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures (by European Centre of Modern languahes) - key concepts
Language Grid by Grade (CARAP/FREPA) - development of language awareness

Thursday, October 6, 2016

What’s changing? – (Foreign) Language Learning in Finnish CoreCurriculum for Basic Education

One of the basic principles of the Finnish core curriculum for basic education (FCC) is the idea that every teacher is a language teacher. This refers not only to the multiple languages and mother tongues that co-exist in a multicultural school, but also to the fact that each subject has its own language (discourse), terms and even signs (like math or coding).

We acknowledge that “the limits of our language are the limits of our world” (Wittgenstein) and thus the limits of our language are the limits of our learning as well. So, one critical way to improve learning, is to raise language awareness and start considering language as the means of and prerequisite for thinking and learning.

Languages are inherently linked to the learning of most of the transversal (21st century) skills defined in the FCC. One can’t think a way to enhance
FCC tree
 intercultural competence or communication and interaction skills without developing and applying language skills. Same goes with developing multi-literacy (reading, writing, understanding and creating multimedia) and ICT skills.

Building on strengths is one of the key principles of FCC. Thus, learning languages should also be built on individual strengths and be a process of empowerment, full of joy and creativity. According to FCC language teachers are obliged to apply diverse student-centered learning methods that build capacities to join (global) networks and work together with people around the world for sustainable future.

In future language learning will more and more take place in authentic environments and make use of authentic learning materials closely linked with students’ own interests, partly created by students themselves. Learning will focus on real life problems and real world phenomena and it’ll be inquiry-, project- or problem-based. Language learning will be one part of cross-curricular multi-disciplinary learning projects designed together with students and teachers.

In using diverse learning methods the focus is on pair and team work which naturally enhance communication and collaboration skills. Learning methods that make you move around and use your body (like drama, playing, singing, exploring…) are applied as well as the use of diverse communication methods and channels and, of course, information and communication technology, even students’ own device (BYOD).

Students are encouraged and guided to set their own learning goals and take responsibility of their own learning, become the owners of their own learning. At the end of basic education they’ll be self-confident and self-regulated learners who can cope and thrive in the unpredictable future.

The focus of assessment is changed from what has been learned to learning (process) itself. Assessment reflects the changes in learning methods. It develops from teacher-centered to student-centered practices (self- and peer assessment), from pointing out failures and weaknesses to focus on strengths, from standard to individual, from one-way to dialogue.

Ultimately, it’s our objective to help the students find their own voice to speak in many languages, be heard and be respected, stand-up with their feet firmly on the ground and with their heads in the clouds.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The new curricula – from text to classroom practice

Teacher training workshop
The new Finnish curricula came into effect at the beginning of August. It’s been a three year process including endless discussions, commenting rounds, writing regional and local contents, teacher training and coordination of the local process. However, at the moment, I only see half of the process accomplished.

550 pages of the national core curriculum + additional 300 pages of regional and local content is not an easy task for any teacher to read, think through, comprehend and put into practice. Only the volume of it is overpowering. And when each sentence is loaded with multi-layered meanings, it becomes a mission impossible. For the ordinary teacher the natural solution is to go on as nothing had changed and hope that nobody will notice. The final source of confidence are the text books. To rigorously follow text books equals following the curriculum, or does it?

One of the basic changes in the new school culture (defined in the core curriculum) is to strengthen students’ engagement in and ownership of their own learning. In practice this means more individual learning paths instead of the old way of everybody trying to learn the same content the same way and at the same pace. Students search, produce and present texts, photos and videos that they find interesting and valuable. They become conscious of their strengths and thus build their confidence. The ultimate goal being a self-sufficient and self-regulated learner, who can set realistic goals for her/his learning, works responsibly towards them and is willing to take on challenges. I’m afraid text books or exercise books or rigorous anything are really not a way to go.
Students creating "dream school"

In the new curricula the emphasis is not in the “what” but in the “how”. If learning skills, achieving competencies and learning to learn are the main objectives of learning processes or activities, student-centered learning methods are admittedly superior in efficiency. This often requires cross-curricular and real life approach. So, instead of dividing the learning content into 45 minutes long subject based units in which things are learned separately (and chronologically), real world problems or phenomena are studied in their natural environment from many different perspectives. This way, many skills and contents are learned simultaneously and in such context that is natural and comprehensible to the students.

As for the students, even the very young, teacher has to trust and appreciate their creative abilities and own way of seeing things and help them to recognize and use their talents and strengths.

To put the 800 pages of curriculum into a nutshell:

  • from what to how
  • from performance to interaction, team work, and collaboration
  • from assimilation of knowledge to critical analysis of, constructing and presenting knowledge
  • from text books to authentic materials and problems and phenomena in real life context
  • from isolation and alienation to engagement, active citizenship, global networks and connectedness
  • from tests, (sticks and carrots) to continuous feedback, self-assessment, learning to learn, self-regulation

For the majority of teachers this means a giant step outside their comfort zone and a leap to unknown. It won’t happen without the unconditional support of the head teacher and the cooperation of the whole school community. And, fortunately, in black and white in the core curriculum, we are all, both teachers and students, given the right to make mistakes and learn from them. Experimenting and failing are inherent parts of a learning process.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Friendship and caring across borders

The international education developers’ team at Tampere region organized a poster and logo competition for pupils across different schools in the region. The themes for the work were internationalism, education for peace, refugees and global responsibility. The learning activity was well suited for developing pupils’ global citizenship competences and skills at using multi-media and implementing multi-literacy.

The learning process started with a classroom discussion about authentic international and global education related themes. Students expressed their opinions and worries, and solutions to different real life problems were sought together. After that the students chose the special themes or problems that inspired (or worried) them most and which they wished to influence.

It is important that the message contained in the work comes across clearly and boldly. When creating a logo message the design is simple and clear. It is based on a picture and 1 - 5 words. A poster may contain a bit more text, pictures and details, but in it, too, the message has to come through lucidly. In the competition the technique was free: the pupils could draw, write or paint by hand or by computer, they could use their own or freely accessible online photos, which they could edit, add text to or make into a collage.

The activity integrated ethical education and learning by doing. The results were awesome. They represented the pupils' strong commitment to friendship and peace, and their wish to help. In addition, issues related to immigration and refugees were strongly expressed.

Best designs and art works are printed and they are made into stickers and posters. That’s how they can be spread around the community to help make global responsibility and internationalization at home visible in school classrooms, corridors and websites. The good-will video below is a compilation of various pupils’ work and spreads the message of friendship and caring. A warm thank you to all participants!

P.S. This could be a wonderful eTwinning learning task! I sincerely recommend a similar activity to be carried out in all schools around the world as part of global citizenship education.

Monday, November 30, 2015

UN's Sustainable Development Goals and Transformative Education

The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals were approved at the UN 2030 World Summit of Sustainable Development at the end of September. These objectives include ending poverty and hunger, as well as promoting health and welfare.

The fourth goal deals with education.The most important thing is to ensure that all girls and boys get completely free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes (4.1). Goal 4.7 is aiming to change the curricula and learning goals and contents both in developed and developing countries
By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
According to the general theme of sustainability seven out of the total 17 goals deal directly with sustainable development and global responsibility from the environmental point of view. These goals are regarded as major challenges in respect with the quality of life and the future of our planet. Failure to reach these development goals would hinder achieving the other goals as well.
In the new Finnish Core Curriculum of Basic Education it’s stated that
The global education within basic education creates, for its part, the foundation for equitable and sustainable development in line with the United Nations development goals. p. 16
The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are perfectly suited to be used as authentic learning material. For example, in learning English as foreign language they offer current vocabulary and lots of support material for discussions and for presenting one’s own opinions. In cross curricular learning projects the goals can be divided to be studied in different grades and school subjects. Learning outcomes and created guidelines to promote sustainable development are shared and brought into use. Everybody at school work together to achieve the goals and implement the guidelines in the spirit of active citizenship and transformative learning.

In Finland UNESCO ASPnet schools work in the vanguard in implementing the UN goals in local curricula. The aims of the ASPnet school network focus on two themes: Global Citizenship Education and Education for Sustainable Development. GCE deals with human rights, education for peace and global responsibility. It’s transformative and empowering and its goal is to give learners the opportunity and competencies to realize their rights and obligations to promote a better world and future. ESD aims at reorienting education worldwide, so that it provides everyone with the opportunity to acquire the values, attitudes, skills and knowledge that are needed to contribute to sustainable development.

The aims of ASPnet schools are to integrate GCE and ESD in the school curricula and learning processes as well as to experiment innovative approaches and learning methods in global education. This implies strong commitment to implementing the new curriculum in the spirit of the UN 2030 Development Goals.

As the UN's Climate Change Conference starts today, I think we all share the same concerns and fears and hope that decisions will be made for a better future for all.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Authentic Learning and eTwinning

Authentic learning is, in many ways, inherent in eTwinning.

1. eTwinning and learning foreign languages

eTwinning projects and cooperation between schools, classes and individuals from different countries entail communication in foreign language. This happens even if the project theme is dealing with something completely different. Planning and working together, sharing ideas and experiences are at the core of eTwinning. At the same time your foreign language knowledge and communication skills develop significantly in an authentic learning environment, using foreign language to communicate with people who don't speak your mother language.

2. eTwinning supports project-based learning

Learning in eTwinning is almost always project-based. When learning together across borders, you learn to know each other, create confidence, share and, finally, collaborate. This forms a project structure that is based on shared goals and collaboration, student engagement and learner-centered learning, which are also core elements of authentic learning.

3. eTwinning is multidisciplinary and cross-curricular

In eTwinning, the perspectives to the studied topic are diverse and multiple. They vary according to the different learning and school cultures and established cultural interpretations. They also change when studied in their real life context instead of the text book context. More variables are brought in this equation by involving learning ICT, communication, team work and multi-literacy.

4. eTwinning supports exploration and inquiry

In eTwinning, as there are no ready-made learning materials and text books, students explore their surroundings and search information. They experiment, collaborate, document the process and share the information/knowledge they have produced. They use diverse techniques and multimedia creatively and in a personalized manner.

5. eTwinning and authentic assessment

In eTwinning, you can't use standardized tests to assess learning. During the learning process, you apply continuous assessment and reflection to monitor the project. Typically, the teacher may have a different idea of what direction to take and what to produce, but she/he is open to learner generated ideas and personal solutions. At the end, everyone involved in the project assess what you have learned and achieved and reflect on the process.

6. eTwinning, curriculum and real world relevance

The first thing to do when you start a new eTwinning project, is to check which competence development and content areas in your curriculum the project covers. Usually you realize that in one project you can learn much more effectively and develop simultaneously many more skills than in any ordinary textbook based learning.

When students study phenomena in the real world context and when they try to solve real world problems, learning becomes meaningful. Students get more engaged and become owners of their learning. At best, real world relevance will make students change their own way of life for better and act against injustice.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Towards authenticity - major trend and challenge in learning

One of the main transversal themes in the new Finnish Core Curriculum of Basic Education (FCC) is the opening of school doors and classroom windows to the surrounding community and the world. Learning can be linked to real life in many different ways.

When authentic learning approach is applied, instead of reading textbooks the students go out of the classroom to explore the surrounding nature, the built environment and their own local community or visitors from local organizations, businesses and other stakeholders, and local artists and experts in cultural heritage are invited to the classrooms to share their knowledge and experiences. A school that supports and strengthens lingual and cultural awareness appreciates and makes visible multilingualism and cultural diversity represented at the school and in the local community.
Students are roused to take the interest in linguistic and cultural diversity of the school community and the world around and they are encouraged to communicate in authentic environments. FCC p. 134
In authentic learning, phenomena and problems are studied in their real context in which they actually occur in nature, the surrounding community and in the world, where local and global overlap and merge. They are explored as they are, extensive and diverse from different and changing perspectives, crossing the borders of different school subjects. Authentic learning is an alternative approach to the learning of facts and skills disconnected from their true context and to cramming pre-chewed and, in the worst case, outdated information. Many of the world problems, such as extreme poverty, climate change, inequality and war, worry and distress children and young people. To discuss these problems together, search for solutions and act locally to promote sustainable solutions, is an important part of learning, prevention of social exclusion and the new school culture.
Well-functioning learning environments promote dialogue, participation and collaborative knowledge construction. They also enable active cooperation between the school and the communities and experts outside school... Learning environments have to provide opportunities for creative solutions, as well as the examination and exploration of issues from different perspectives. FCC p. 27
Authentic learning environments can be and very often are virtual. For authentic learning it’s essential that the sources of information are authentic and interaction takes place in real life (even if online), not drills, materials and simulated situations created for learning purposes. During a learning meaningful authentic texts (i.e. pictures, videos, podcasts, multimedia, articles, essays, presentations, cartoons) in which new ideas and innovative visions emerge are both studied and produced by students.

As for learning foreign languages, an authentic environment and genuine interaction across language boundaries inspires and motivates the students to express themselves and take part in real life conversations. Information and communication technology offers excellent ways to create a language learning environment that is appropriate for teaching and that supports interaction between students. All you need is a partner class for any part of the world and you can start face-to-face real-time interaction  using user-friendly free apps like chats, forums and video conferencing (e.g. Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime).
Information and communication technology offers a natural way to implement language learning in authentic situations and meet students' communication needs. This way of learning supports student active engagement and ownership of learning. FCC p. 131
Authentic learning emphasizes students’ engagement and experience of authenticity in relation to their own learning. The student’s own ideas and strengths are exploited throughout the learning process from planning to assessment. In authentic learning the students is the owner/subject of her/his learning, not the object. Thus, learning becomes meaningful and relevant and the school as learning environment supports individual growth and the development, interaction and learning of the whole community.