“If you have (a) main target, everybody learns.”
Down a short and gentle wheelchair ramp I enter a wide corridor into Joensuu Normal School. This is one of the teacher training schools at the University of Eastern Finland. On my left is the school cafeteria and on the right, a stuffed Finnish bear — one meter tall and holding onto a tree. The bear is within reach but the fur is intact and in good condition. I have to restrain myself from touching it. At the end of the hallway are child-size book carrels and atop one of the carrels is a glazed piece of pottery shaped like a rabbit. I stop to look because the texture is smooth and the glazing soft, and reclined on the rabbit’s neck and back is an elfish-looking child reading a book, her hat tipped forward as if shading off the sun. On the far wall of the library is a fireplace with red couches and on the right, tables and computer stations. A singular wooden wall is on the left, decorated with windows crammed with wooden trucks, boats and toys. The room is empty but the room is not quiet. It sounds like a construction site.
I peek around the corner and find 9 to 10-year-old children sawing, drilling, and pounding nails, moving in excited, unrefined motions — getting tools, lining up wood, putting tools away; their actions are quick and purposeful and each child acts as if they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They open and close drawers and they leave tools strewn about on the benches; the room is a productive mess. The teacher looks at me and smiles and I ask if it’s okay to observe his class. He nods, smiles and looks down and back, as if he is happy to see me but shy to interact. The students are making something out of wooden dowels and bases but I’m so intrigued with the students’ intent and focus that I don’t even look at what they’re actually building. The teacher speaks to the children in Finnish and they stop working.
They proceed to open drawers and put tools away, a girl takes the hose of the vacuum cleaner and vacuums away the sawdust, children print their names on masking tape, label their projects, and put them into a cardboard box in no particular order. It’s time for their fifteen minutes of play. They throw on their jackets and boots and run outside to play in the snow. The room is clean.
When I return on another day to interview their teacher, Paavo Sivonen, students are making boomerangs out of plastic. I start by asking Paavo how he incorporates problem-solving into the handicraft lessons.
He begins his lessons by giving students a goal (like making a paper towel holder, a boomerang, or a miniature hockey game) but he doesn’t tell them specifically what to do to reach that goal. He doesn’t have a rubric and he doesn’t give them specific directions. Students struggle but he encourages them as they work and he tries to make them feel comfortable taking on new challenges. Paavo tells me his teaching philosophy is based upon the work of the American tennis coach, Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis: Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. I’m shocked; this book was on my parents’ coffee table when I was a child.
Can you tell me about how you use his ideas in your teaching…?
“Maybe his basic story to his methods is that you should learn some natural way, so… at the beginning you give them some problem. They try to solve it. You don’t need to tell (them) exactly what to do all the time. You don’t have to say, ‘This is the only right way to do (it.)’ You just … show some idea and then they start (to) try to do it and you .. give them some positive feedback. You don’t correct right away…. If they start asking all the time, ‘How to do? How to do?’ You give them self confidence. You just say, ‘Try more! Try more! Try more!’ and maybe a little bit help them but all the time don’t tell them, ‘Do it exactly like this – like I show you.’ But his idea of course is a tennis coach it’s a little bit different. But I think this basic idea is very easy … to apply it in other areas (of learning).”
Paavo explains that in tennis, each player has not one, but two opponents—the opponent on the other side of the net and the opponent in the player’s own mind. Paavo’s goal is to create an environment where students are comfortable and can face their learning obstacles without fear.
It sounds like what you’re doing is you’re trying to take away that internal obstacle.
“Yes. That’s very important because the children (are) afraid to do it…. If the children try too much to think how to do it they don’t learn. You … must let them do it, then they learn. If they try to think… all the time, ‘How? How? How?’ it’s impossible to learn. I think especially in sport skills but I think in craft, too. If you give them 20 nail(s) and hammer and …(a)piece of wood and say, ‘Okay, I show a little. Try to do it.’ And then … you start. Don’t think about … what kind of grip you have .. or you start telling (them), ‘This is very dangerous, this hammer. Be careful! Be careful! Be careful!’ Impossible! Their brain blocking out natural way to learn. Just give them a nail and a piece of wood and start, ‘Okay, your goal is (to) hit 25 nails to the woodl and oh, its very enjoying even (if) they hit sometimes to the finger. They learn! Yes!”
From what I can see, students in Paavo’s class are thriving. They seem to be comfortable taking on challenges, making mistakes, and trying again and again until they’re satisfied.
“But children enjoy it because the atmosphere (in) the classroom should be so that everything is right, what you’re doing – it’s not the wrong way. You don’t need to be afraid (of) anything there. The teacher shouldn’t be, ‘Don’t you do that, it’s wrong! You did wrong!’ and things like that. They start ‘afraiding’ and they’re blocking out … learning…. The mental things, the atmosphere, is very important….”
I ask Paavo if there’s anything else he would like to share about how he structures his problem solving lessons.
“So it’s very stupid to give …everybody do the same (exact lesson) because maybe there’s two children who benefit anything about this training. But if you have some main target…everybody learns.”