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How can we learn to inspire?

How can we inspire our children and young people to learn for the joy of learning, rather than for just passing exams? Sari Laine from the Sustainability Leadership Institute in Cambridge University.


Sari Laine

Specialist, Resource-wise Citizen, Sitra


How can we inspire our children and young people to learn for the joy of learning, rather than for just passing exams? Sari Laine from the Sustainability Leadership Institute in Cambridge University.

My family and I recently returned from London, where we had been living for a couple of years. After being warned about low teaching standards in the UK, we were positively surprised.

Competition is tough for school places in London. Parents will do just about anything to get their children into the good schools. Many even relocate just to be next door to a good school and increase their child’s chances of getting in. We Finns found it difficult to get used to endless discussions about schools and exams. Almost every conversation we had at the school gates was about the choice of schools, tutoring and the books our children were studying. At first it felt a bit too much. Why should I spend so much time going over my child’s homework, or worrying about their school performance?

I did, however, begin to wonder whether we should take a bit more interest in the standard of teaching and atmosphere in our children’s schools.  Every parent should become involved in their child’s learning and demand a high standard of teaching.

Over the two years that we lived in London, we grew used to excellent motivational speeches by teachers, especially head teachers. Upon our return to Finland this autumn, the Finnish style of simply informing parents about their child’s teachers and student support services felt peculiar. Where were the speeches about the school’s vision, pedagogical methods and principles? When we were preparing for our move to London two years ago, our children’s head teacher advised us to return to Finland soon and warned us about the poor standards in English schools. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too arrogant – we might have something to learn from other countries.

Our eldest daughter attended the secondary school in England.  The school stressed the importance of self-motivated, open-minded study, and advocated continuous learning and inquisitiveness. It was “cool” to get good grades, and the head teacher led the school with soaring speeches and an inspirational approach. Authors, designers and artists visited the school. The French teacher took a class of students on a day trip to Paris, and the most hard-working maths students were rewarded with a playful maths excursion, where they used mathematical methods to solve for instance coded messages.

Every week there was a different theme, which featured in both lessons and assemblies. These themes, such as poverty, greed and altruism, reflected certain values and were explored innovatively and from multiple perspectives by the teachers, who encouraged the students to think about their own values. Every morning, the students met with a tutor to discuss the previous day’s news, which made them keen to follow what was going on in the world, study a range of issues and form their own opinions. The teachers also phoned the students’ parents if their children had performed particularly well. Only good news was ever delivered by phone.

One of my favourite examples of how this school had used simple changes to make teaching more inspiring is the subject “Design and Technology”, one of the specialist subjects taught in our daughter’s school. Design and Technology is sort of like our woodwork lessons, but the addition of the word “design” makes the subject contemporary and inspires both girls and boys. Each student had their own fabulous design notebook, which they used to sketch their ideas – Why do I want to design this product? What do the different design elements in this product represent? What is the product for? How have I taken the end user into account? The sketches were extremely detailed, more like an in-depth study of an innovative experiment than a quick outline. Only after this did the students begin to work on their actual designs. Finland has huge potential in the field of design and technology. Small, innovative changes could make our technology lessons a lot more productive. Technology lessons could be the perfect environment for promoting our contemporary buzzwords – entrepreneurship and innovation.

In November, The Guardian wrote about how the UK has been in awe of the standard of maths teaching in Shanghai. Teachers from Shanghai have been invited to improve the quality of maths lessons in London schools. One of the schools mentioned in the article was Fox Primary School, rated the best primary school in the whole of England last year. Regardless of this, Fox Primary School is continuously and proactively seeking out the best teaching techniques.

Although Finland has one of the world’s best education systems in many respects, we also need the humility to admit that others may have better practices from which we too can learn.

Sitra’s Education for a Changing World research project gathers insights from multiple fields to help inform the global debate about the purpose and future of education for a changed world. Interested in joining the dialogue on sustainability and education? Join us on Facebook, Twitter (#educationfutures) or get in touch directly.