Juulia Kivi: "We are losing interest in the concept of teaching"

Finland, the country rumored to have the best education system in the world. The slogan has a nifty spin to it, but is it true? Juulia Kivi, fourth-year student of the Teacher Education Program of the University of Helsinki, takes a critical stance towards excessive innovation and reform for reform’s sake.

Q: Who is Juulia and how is she making the world better?

I’m studying in the department of teacher education for my fourth year. Quite recently I started my minor in ethics and philosophy, an alternative to religious teaching for students who do not belong to a specific faith. The discipline ponders on how to construct your personal moral foundation, provides an introduction to ethics and digs deep to the science of religions.

I find ethics and philosophy to be one of the most important educational disciplines for young students, alongside history. Students get valuable analytic tools to utilize in making sense of an unequal, polarized world. They understand forces behind global problems, how they may be caused by social and historical structures. It provides them with a bigger picture.

Q: You’ve studied other disciplines before entering your program. Has that been an asset?

Yeah, I’ve graduated as a drama instructor from a university of applied sciences in Helsinki. At some point during my previous studies I started longing for a more theoretical approach and applied to the University of Helsinki.

I personally find that having completed another degree before starting at the university has provided me with meaningful skills. When you’ve engaged in other fields, you understand other perspectives more thoroughly.

Especially for teaching, you need perspective, you need authority. This maturing process is not something you can fast forward. You need to live, you need to experience in order to gain that maturity. Freshmen today are so much younger than they used to be. People have to start so soon!

Q: You’ve entered your studies during a time when there is a lot of conversation about digitalization/innovative learning/intuitive learning. What is your view on this?

Ha! I guess I’d like to start with the negatives [laughter]. One of the most alarming things in today’s society is the fact that we are losing interest in the concept of teaching. A teacher’s role has shifted towards someone who gives a little nudge in the right direction, feebly inspires or motivates.

There is a certain mania of focusing on spontaneous learning. The phenomenon is called learnification: we are highly uncomfortable with the concept of teaching. There seems to be an idea going around that we need to somehow ’trick’ students into learning, through things that don’t feel like work. Teaching is seen as ’pouring information’, passively feeding students the ideas of the teacher. I disagree.

Q: Do you think this model may benefit ’well-off’ students more than the struggling ones?

Yes, exactly. This pinpoints the dilemma with the individualization of education. There is a view that every student has a super talent waiting to be unveiled. But you should provide children with options. If you don't show them the multitude of possibilities, they will be lost.

Background plays a huge role. Some kids will have wonderful parents to help them out with their numerous options. Others will not. Some will be constantly aided in the search for their talent, and they will be supported in the process. Others will have a huge burden to carry if they are simply expected to ’find their thing’ in a highly individualized educational environment.

If you simply pile responsibility on the kids, you will see intense polarization between those well-off and those less so.

Q: What do you personally find to be the single biggest obstacle in future learning?

We cannot value reform for reform’s sake. We need to consciously search for a stable system, focus on what we consider important. Private interests have entered the conversation on education. There seems to be an idea that one can order certain kinds of students from the education system: digitally apt, industrious, market-minded. But education is mysterious, it doesn't work like this!

I also quite dislike the positive spin put on the rhetorics of life-long learning. One must adapt, time after time, to changing conditions. Sure, obviously. But we need to realize where this demand comes from: the market, not education itself.

Q: Would you say you’re critical about private interests having a say in future education?

Oh, absolutely. Private business language is utilized even on a governmental level when discussing education. The language of organizations, the language of firms, the language of efficiency. But we should not give our kids away to the economy [laughter]. Children have value not as pawns in a future economic game but as themselves. We should always remember where these demands come from, and why.

Q: Can you see benefits in these reformatory rhetorics?

Obviously, yes. Digitalization and innovative forms of learning are an excellent addition to current schooling. It’s practical, it’s fun, it’s a fantastic tool for the future. Programming, too, that’s a good thing to incorporate in school. But it just isn’t that simple.

Q: Are there some specific skills all children should master once they leave school?

I’d like to see some basic knowledge and skills of everyday adult life emphasized, already in school. I don't mean social sciences, but practical skills, ’how to file a tax return’ kind of stuff. Or how to write a CV which actually helps you display your talents. Sure, we learn how to write a CV. But in a future where we probably will apply for a job more than once in our life, good skills are nearly a survival tool. Again, some learn these skills at home, but many do not.

Also, there are other kinds of skills than programming or writing a genius CV. School is also about the soft values. Teaching kids how to interact with kindness, with peace. Making sure students are happy, healthy, content. School is not only about learning useful traits, it’s also about the process of growing. The process of becoming a person.

Q: How do you see your role in the future of education?

As you see, I’ve already professed myself as a critic! I find myself questioning a lot of things, it’s always about ’hmm, who is behind this reform?’ I want to balance out the buzzwords, I want to be the one to ask who is benefiting when it’s not very obvious.

So I guess I’m interested in the grand scale of education, not only teaching. I want to see the bigger picture, examine the ongoing trends and the social environment where all these ideas emerge.

Q: Is that a very political way of saying you want to be in politics?

Haha! I do want to teach as well. I wouldn't consider myself a plausible policymaker had I not taught at all. But there can never be too many critics, so many people like going with what sounds good. I want people to remember that kids have value as what they are, kids, and they do not necessarily have to serve the economy or the society quite yet.

Q: Does Finland have the best education system in the world?

I think it does… and it doesn't! Concerning equality, oh yes. But, even in that field, nothing is quite done yet. We need to both develop education and analyze previous events. How and why we got where we are now, and which ideas or innovations aided the genesis of our grand education system.

Some try to mold education policy so that it would encourage the birth of a ’new Nokia’. But we seem to forget that the original Nokia creators were the children of the old system, not the new one.

All in all, we have to accept the uncertainty of education. It cannot give us promises or guarantees of the results. Education is mystical. We should always focus on why we are doing something – and we need to always have the best of intentions.


Photos by Satu Isokääntä