Monthly Archives: July 2016

Skateboarding as a Model for Student-Centered Learning

That's me, doing a handplant. Based on the fashion, I guess it is mid 80s, mabe a bit after. Photo credits probably Sami Knuutila or Samuli Holmala.

That’s me, doing a handplant. Based on the fashion, I guess it is mid 80s, mabe a bit after. Photo credits probably Sami Knuutila or Samuli Holmala.

If you haven’t yet watched Rodney Mullen’s TEDx talk, stop what you are doing (including reading this blog) for 18 minutes, and check it out below.

Ok, now we can continue. I hope you liked the video. If you are  a non-skater, I must emphasize that this is the man who has, maybe alongside Tony Hawk and Danny Way, invented most of the tricks and their key variations which constitute modern day skating.

When I was skating, virtually every day from early 80s to early 90s, these guys as well as Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales, Ray Barbee, Matt Hensley, Guy Mariano, and Jason Lee were my heroes. Many of them have since stretched their creativity beyond skating. Jason Lee has turned a Hollywood actor, Matt Hensley plays accordion in a popular punk band Flogging Molly.

And you must’ve heard of Tony Hawk who has built a hugely successful video game franchise on skating. Tony still rides, by the way, he just tried out whether he can still pull off a 900 on a vert ramp at the age of 48. Turns out he can:

So, skateboarding aligns with innovating, as you saw from Mullen’s TED talk above. I’d like to continue with this, drawing connections between skating and education, in particular student-centered learning.

Central concepts in learning are motivation, practicing/drilling, testing, and assessment. You have to be motivated to learn in the first place, then you have to practice, practice, practice, and finally test & assess whether you learned or not. And then iterate or move on.

In skateboarding, the motivating aspects are very intrinsic. You want to show yourself and your pals that you can land a trick. That’s it basically. It most likely hurts a lot before you can master it, but finally it is there. Then you can improve the style, create some variations, etc. But the bottom line is that there are very few external motivators, especially if you are a non-pro skater who doesn’t make a living from winning competitions and scoring sponsorship deals. The same applies to student-centered learning. The student really wants to learn something and this calls for…

Practice/drilling. Mullen didn’t mention it in the video but the saying goes that “innovating is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. This means that the heureka moment is only but a small part of coming up with the finalized innovation. For skateboarding, I would say that the ratio is even sadder, something like “0,1% inspiration and 99,9% perspiration”. It is easy to imagine all sorts of tricks, but really landing them is something else. I still feel sorry for my shins, although it has been 20+ years since they had several daily confrontations with plywood.

Assessment. In skating, most if not all assessment is self-assessment. Sometimes your skating buddies can watch you try something and then give hints: “you’re going too slow for the rail”, “put your front ankle like this”, “kick with back foot for the late shove-it”. These hints can help, but in the end it is up to you to implement them. While airbourne, you are supposed to do several things with your body simultaneously in order to successfully land a flip or a 360 or an ollie impossible. Only you can teach your muscles, hence self-assessment.

Finally, testing. In skateboarding, testing plays little role, if you don’t count the myriad of micro-tests you perform to yourself to try out whether your little plan to complete a trick works out or not. There are no standardized tests. Even competitions have no formal expectations of types of tricks that you have to perform in order to score well. This is what drastically separates skateboarding competitions e.g. from figure skating competitions.

Skateboarding will most likely enter the Olympics at the Tokyo 2020 games. This is one step towards the standardized testing model of skateboarding, of which I am not a big fan. And I am not alone. I am not one of those who deny skating of being a sport or a hobby, claiming that it is a way of life. However, I definitely think that you take something very essential away from it if you start to evaluate tricks according to some predefined and explicitly stated template.

By the way, I bought a deck last summer, to my calculations 21 years after I last owned one. I’ll leave you with your’s truly performing a 360 no-comply in summer 2015:







Will Pokémon Go Boost Location-based Games in Learning?

As I write this on July 15th 2016, the new game Pokémon Go has not even been officially released yet in Finland, yet pictures of Pokémon creatures have started to emerge in my social media streams.

pokemon go

Apparently the game is quite addictive. Augmented reality technologies and location-based games have been around for years (remember e.g. the cool Finnish game Shadow Cities?), but this is the first time they really break into mainstream. After a successful entry into consumers’ lives, they can also sneak into learning.

There are already several location-based games and platforms designed for learning, in Finland for example Citynomadi and Seppo. I hope that Pokémon Go’s success will accelerate their adoption in education, as well as generate many others!

I believe that majority of learning will be “stationary” also in the future, happening in places like the classroom, student’s own room, or library. That being said, the combined effect of BYOD, smart phones, and location-tracking will no doubt increase the relative importance of location-based educational games.

Nice thing about location-based games is that you can teach virtually anything with them. Of course it adds another interesting layer to the game if the augmented content is somehow related to the physical surroundings, for example questions about buildings which can be seen from the spot. This is not necessary, however, just like Pokémon creatures are not related to the surroundings where they can be found in the Go game.

I am an advocate of gamification and believe also in extrinsic motivators it utilizes in engaging the students. If embedding exercises on mathematics, foreign languages, and other school subjects increase the student engagement, I am all for it!

Flickr image CC credits: Eduardo Woo


The Truth About Finnish Schools – a Commentary

A promotion site of Finland, called this is FINLAND, just published a nice article about Finnish schools, going through some common claims and myths along the way. The article aims especially at the upcoming curriculum, set to kick in starting August 2016.


Many of the points I agree with 100%, such as debunking the persistent misunderstanding that in Finnish schools there is no homework. This of course has never been true, nor will be in the new curriculum

I feel that some points deserve further analysis and commentary. Let’s start from the beginning. Ninni Lehtniemi, the author of the article, starts by treating the following claim

Claim 1: Students will no longer study in their classes at all. Teaching will be “phenomenon-based”, meaning that teachers will work “experimentally” with schoolchildren outside the conventional school setting.

and responds, with the help of Anneli Rautiainen, head of the Basic Education Unit of the National Board of Education: “yes and no”.

I think two things get mixed up here. Phenomenon-based learning (or project-based learning, which is more commonly used term in English), is more about crossing traditional subject boundaries than being in or out the classroom.

School projects are not new but they will indeed be more explicitly stated in the upcoming curriculum than they have been before. If the project benefits from going outside, of course it makes sense to do so. But in principle, projects can be conducted and phenomena studied also inside a classroom, with proper learning materials and technology.

The next claim:

Claim 2: Classrooms will be abandoned and replaced by open marketplaces where children will “buy” the subjects and courses they feel are suitable for them.

Response: “yes and no”. There are two things blended in this claim: abandoning the physical classrooms and making subjects & courses optional. Either can be done with or without the other one.

First the classrooms: they are already now a lot more flexible and modular than they used to be, so I don’t think that they will be altogether abandoned. Rather, we will see more innovative use of classrooms and technology in them.

Then the “buying” of subjects: this is a question which divides opinions. On one hand, we want to allow pupils & students to follow their passion and concentrate on the things they are truly interested in. On the other, we would of course like to preserve the general level of education across subjects. As the children progress to upper grade levels, they naturally get more choices to specialize.

Claim 3: Schoolchildren will make “bad” choices that will affect them into adulthood – for instance if they opt for more mathematics instead of a language course, or vice versa.

Response: “no”. I agree here totally with Ninni and Pasi Sahlberg, who commented on this claim. Although it might sound a bit idealistic to state that “here in Finland we treat all subjects as equally important”, there is a fair point to this.

My own justification to this stems from the life after school. Worklife and the skills needed in it changes so fast that no basic education can keep up. That is why we should give a broad education and organize careers so that people can engage in lifelong learning and professional development.

Claim 4: Pupils will themselves decide which level of achievement they want to aim for, and they will be set assignments enabling them to achieve such grades. There is a risk that students capable of high grades will only aim for low grades, so they can have an easy time.

Response: “no”. Agree completely. Let’s again divide this claim into two. First, regarding who sets the “level of achievement”: as Anneli Rautiainen points out, learning goals are stated in the curriculum, not by the pupils.

Secondly, about the risk that the smart students would only aim at low grades and lay back after they’ve done. This can happen no matter who sets the goals. Some smart students want to go citius, altius, fortius, whereas others are happy with their minimum acceptable performance. And all the shades of gray in between.

It is the question of motivating pupils to give their best, not about who sets the goals.

Claim 5: Schoolchildren will no longer be divided into conventional groups of learners, but will instead hang out in their own cliques according to their interests.

Response: “no”. Agree and this is important. Differentiation takes place within a class. The classroom has a heterogeneous set of pupils with varying interests and skill levels. We want to unite rather than separate. This of course demands a lot from the teachers and learning materials, but it is something we just have to do.

Claim 6: The brightest students will no longer fare so well, because cramming will be neglected.

Response: “yes and no”. This is partly related to Claim 4 above, regarding what will happen to the smartest students after the curriculum reform. Again: “brightest students” is not a homogeneous group of people; some of them (like to) learn by cramming, whereas others use other methods.

Naturally, knowing things by heart becomes less and less important since information is at our fingertips. However, core information structures, causal relationships, and general knowledge are still needed for critical thinking, media literacy and other relevant skills.

Claim 7: All provenly effective teaching methods will be abandoned, and schoolchildren will end up just messing around.

Response: “no”. Of course they won’t, this is a weird claim. This is not a revolution where all good methods will be forgotten. It is rather an evolution, where old means will be complemented with new ones to produce the best ends.

Claim 8: Homework will not be set at all.

Response: “no”. Yep, mentioned this already in the beginning of this post. Homework has always played a role in Finnish education and will continue to do so.

Claim 9: There will be no more tests and exams.

Response: “no”. Yes, there will be tests and exams also in the future. But it is important to clarify just what kinds of tests. Matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary education (highschool) is the only large-scale national standardized test in Finland. Has been and will continue.

However, teachers conduct tests all the time while they teach. A test is a tool for learning as much as it is a tool for assessing. Teacher has a lot of freedom running her class. She can choose to test often or rarely, inform about an exam in advance or surprise the pupils, use ready-made tests or create her own, etc.

Claim 10: Teachers will have to be super-adapters, able to teach from this autumn onwards using completely different methods, and dealing with new subjects like coding.

Response: “no”. At the expense of repeating myself: this is evolution, not revolution. Nothing will be completely different. Still, there are plenty of new skills also the teachers have to adopt. But the change won’t happen overnight and resources must be allocated to train the teachers to keep them on top of their game.

Edit: I had missed the last two claims when I first published this post. You can find them below.

Claim 11: Learning difficulties will not be found, because pupils will be responsible for their own achievements.

Response: “no”. Of course in the end it is up to the pupil whether or not she decides to study. However, the role of the teacher is very important. The teacher, equipped with appropriate learning materials and tools, is capable of assessing the pupils and noticing potential learning difficulties.

Claim 12: The new curriculum will consign Finland’s excellent results in the international Pisa ratings for education systems to the dustbin of history.

Response: “maybe, but so what?” I’ve been in this business for five years now. One thing that has still amazes me is how different local curricula are. That is why I am not a big proponent of measuring children across countries in the first place.

Flickr image CC credits: Simon Doggett