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Teach-it-yourself Finnish education

By Peter Marten, August 2012

Photo: Peter MartenPeer-learning, Demos Helsinki, Helsinki Festival, FinlandDance evolution: Vilja Parkkinen (right) leads an exercise in a peer-learning workshop called “Find Your Own Dance Style by Listening to Music and Your Own Body Language.”

Play the ukulele, repair your bike, manage global crises, discover the usefulness of doing things wrong, or make tortillas: An event run by think tank Demos Helsinki includes dozens of peer-learning workshops, part of a growing trend towards education with a do-it-yourself twist.

Finland is widely known for its successful education system, which repeatedly wins top marks in international surveys and global comparisons. How does this dovetail with a workshop called “The Basics of Playing Ukulele,” held recently at one of the country’s premiere rock festivals?

We found the uke users at Flow Festival in Helsinki in mid-August 2012, along with other classes including “Doing Things the Wrong Way and the Joy of Doing Things Wrong,” “Learning Mathematics using Tic-Tac-Toe” (also known as noughts and crosses), and “Find Your Own Dance Style by Listening to Music and Your Own Body Language.”

They provide a preview of a larger event, Koulu, which means “school” in Finnish and forms part of the Helsinki Festival. Demos Helsinki, which bills itself as “Finland’s leading think tank,” is behind the Koulu peer-learning weekend.

Anyone can sign up

Photo: Peter MartenPeer-learning, Demos Helsinki, Helsinki Festival, Finland
Ukulele rocks: With a chord chart on display, Juho Karjalainen teaches a class in “The Basics of Playing Ukulele.”

The teachers aren’t necessarily qualified educators or experts; they’re regular people with a desire to pass on their enthusiasm and knowledge. “Anyone can sign up to teach,” says Demos Helsinki’s teacher coordinator Oskari Niitamo. “It’s about how to live life well, however each individual interprets that. Classes range from how to give advice to how to dance flamenco, and from cuisine to music.”

How do potential teachers decide what to teach? They think about a fun hobby, a personal role model, an inspiring subject, a new discovery that they’d like to share with others or an area where they have valuable experience. The class might describe tips, good-to-know tricks or a step-by-step process. It can last from 15 to 90 minutes, or it can be an all-day drop-in workshop.

The big weekend takes place on the venerable premises of Lapinlahti Hospital, a former mental institution in downtown Helsinki. “It’s a cool environment,” says Niitamo. The dozens of courses on offer include “Starting a Text” and “How to Write a Book,” as well as “Finnish Folkdance” and “Caring for Leather Boots.”

There are too many to list them all here: How about “Find Your Inner Motivation,” “The Skills of Happiness,” “Improv-Theatre Drawing,” “Nietzsche’s Relativism,” “Bike Repair for Complete Beginners and the Slightly More Advanced,” “How to Solve the World’s Crises” or, last but definitely not least, “Tortilla Workshop.”

Wrong is right

Back at the Flow Festival preview event, cleverly called “Esikoulu” (preschool), I move from learning ukulele chords to trying to understand how tic-tac-toe can help me comprehend mathematics better. Then it’s time for a workshop that must be easy: “Doing Things the Wrong Way.”

Photo courtesy of kantapaankautta.fiPeer-learning, Demos Helsinki, Helsinki Festival, Finland
Miika Peltola (left) and Tuuti Piippo wrote a book about creativity and doing stuff “wrong”: “Kantapään kautta – Kirja rohkeista epäonnistumisista” (The Hard Way: A Book about Failing Courageously, Tammi 2012).

It’s not that simple, though. “Welcome to a lesson in doing things wrong,” says Tuuti Piippo, who is leading the class together with her colleague Miika Peltola. “We’ve been studying creativity and creativity management at Aalto University. That’s how we got into this subject.”

Doing things “wrong” can lead to creative solutions, and fear of doing things the wrong way tends to dampen creativity. To illustrate the point, Piippo gives the class a drawing exercise: Draw the main performer of the festival. But dozens of bands, if not hundreds, play Flow Festival – and “performers” can include other people or things. So the participants resort to varying degrees of impressionism, abstractness, visual puns and other solutions. Anyway, the point of the assignment is “to understand it wrong,” says Piippo – so if it’s not “wrong,” it’s wrong.

Next Peltola has everyone bring up a text message on their phones and tells them to rearrange the words, punctuation, syllables and letters to form a poem. “Remember, the goal is to do everything wrong today,” says Peltola. In part, the workshop also shows how you can establish an environment where making “mistakes” is OK, in contrast to a typical school or workplace. “You learn to see the possibilities in situations where everything doesn’t go as expected,” Peltola explains.

Doing things wrong, ukuleles and the other Flow Festival workshops reappear at the Koulu event during Helsinki Festival. The Finnish capital’s thirst for knowledge continues in the autumn with more peer-learning opportunities at WÄRK:fest, where “creative individuals and communities” share skills and inspiration.


Koulu (School) by Demos Helsinki, August 25–26, 2012
WÄRK:fest, October 20–21, 2012


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