Classroom learning not for everyone – the Finnish case

Authors: Rebekah Rousi; Arttu Rousi; Jouni Åkerman; Jari Matikainen

Problems in the classroom have been around since schools have been in existence. Students have had issues with everything from sitting still, concentrating, to being able to understand what teachers are trying to explain. The fact is that classroom learning is not for everyone, and this is one matter that has been taken seriously in the Finnish education system.

It is called JOPO or Joustava perusopetus in Finnish, the direct English translation is Flexible Basic Education, but in actuality it is much more. What JOPO does is remove youth who are otherwise not suited to traditional classroom learning sand places them in the workplace, to connect national curricula such as mathematics, science and literature to real life scenarios. In effect, this programme gives a ‘face’ to abstract information. Not only is school learning reinforced through its direct application to the real world, but students gain valuable skills which assist in work life. These range from direct job-specific skills, to skills for life including interpersonal interaction, self-initiate and responsibility as well as the most powerful modern workplace skill of learning how to learn. It sets youth up for a future of life-long learning.

While the programme is designed for students who lack motivation, run a high risk of exclusion from higher education and display under-achievement in academic subjects, prospective JOPO students (JOPO-laiset or JOPO-ians as we may say in Australia), are carefully selected. JOPO students need to prove that despite their less than optimal performance in regular classroom settings, they are capable, reliable, trustworthy and dedicated to learning on the job. Students are carefully selected via an interview process during which the commitment of both student and his/her guardians to JOPO-mode of studying is tested. Additionally, students who will be selected for JOPO undergo a six week probation period. This process involves the teachers, students, parents, social workers, study counsellors and potential employers.

Despite the number of people involved, the process is not complicated, it is just all-encompassing. The programme recognises the age-old wisdom that learning does not just occur in the classroom, nor does it occur simply between the teacher and student. It embraces learning as a social phenomenon which takes place in every area of an individual’s life. The underlying driver of JOPO is motivation and seeing motivation as arising through life experience, thus, the JOPO slogan: “Motivation through experience”.

Concretely, during the JOPO programme students are exposed to up to 100 days of on-the-job learning per year. Before workplace learning periods, students and their workplace mentors are carefully prepared for the aims and objectives of each period. This combined with continuous monitoring of students’ workplace learning contribute to students increasingly gaining experiences of success, which in turn lead to higher level learning. In addition, students undertake functional learning activities which involve school camps of varying themes and sites (for example forestry, defence, conservation and physical activities/life skills), external courses, individual coaching to prepare students for Finland’s version of TAFE, excursions (industry, parliament, history, geology etc.) and “putting back into the community” (for example, assisting the elderly). Then, the programme goes on to students learning matters such as cause and effect, and what it means to be a constructive member of the community.

This matter of community membership is a vital element of the JOPO programme, as students learn how to be active and responsible citizens. By strengthening the student’s sense of responsibility and active citizenship, this mode of learning is seen as an investment in the society’s future. During the programme students become competent workers with increased employment possibilities through their various skill sets and the ability to acquire new skills. This strengthens not only the national skill pool of available employees, but enhances possibilities for local entrepreneurship. Also, during this programme students learn how to be responsible tax payers. Thus, while the programme requires resources from several areas of society, it also gives back and will reward the society of the future.

With this said, JOPO methods are not only suitable to students experiencing difficulties in the system, but they can also be applied for learning in mainstream education too. Thus, JOPO is not special education, rather it is education designed to meet the needs of the future learner and society as a whole. Inside and outside classrooms, the aim of JOPO is to utilise all learning channels of an individual. Learning by seeing (visual), hearing (auditive) and especially doing (kinestetic). History is full of examples of successful apprenticeships, and modern schools would greatly benefit by learning from history and incorporating them in their entirety into their curricula.

For a while now, Finland has held a high position in the Pisa-rankings, but there are signs that school satisfaction and well-being do not necessarily fare as well as the academic output. The learning methods applied in JOPO improve school satisfaction dramatically, which may be the key to future success in Finnish education. In 2008, the Finnish Ministry of Education confirmed that JOPO would be a part of the national curriculum, and currently work is being undertaken to broaden its reach in the education system through strengthening cooperation between schools, the Ministry of Education, employers and various sectors of society. Tight, lively and dynamic cooperation between these bodies is needed to optimise the effectiveness of JOPO learning. As Einstein once said, “time is just a stubbornly persistent illusion”, if we concentrate on learning fundamental life skills such as responsibility (for ourselves and others), social interaction and the ability to learn, we are ready to take on the future JOPO-style.


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