Finnish Koulu School rises out of the Nevada desert

Everyone has something to teach.This is the basic thought behind Finnish peer-learning method Koulu School that captivated the crowds at Burning Man.

In August 2015, Anssi Laurila received a message from Roope Mokka of Demos Helsinki: what if next year we took Koulu School to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada?

Koulu School is a peer-learning concept which was originally developed in 2012 by Demos Helsinki. First Koulu School was organized in the former Lapinlahti mental asylum with more than 700 students attending classes run by 200 peer-teachers. Burning Man is a festival known for its creative madness; a kind of laboratory of the future where one may spot among the thousands of participants the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

‘We were just heading out for that year’s event with a six metre pike installation. I sought to calm Roope down, saying that let’s wait and see. After returning to Finland, my first thoughts were “never again!”. Then, two weeks later we were totally absorbed in the Koulu School project,’ Anssi remembers with a smile.

A compact scientific package

The main objective of Koulu School is to facilitate peer-learning. In practice, to help people in discovering the skills and knowledge they could teach, and, then, turning these into lessons.

‘Koulu School’s teacher training concept has condensed a vast amount of pedagogical research into a simple method. Put simply; people learn best from peers, and a great lesson comprises five essential elements’ explains Elina Koivisto, raising her thumb to start off the list.

‘We call it the five-finger method. The thumb stands for activation;  for getting people inspired the thought they can learn something, to awaken their interest in the topic with examples and activation. The forefinger stands for theorisation, such as summarising the topic into five points. The middle finger represents motivation, meaning the ability to encapsulate the reason why this topic in particular is important to master. This can be done, for example, by telling a personal story about the benefit gained from having the information or mastering the skill. The ring finger stands for engagement, getting people to communicate and interact. Finally, the little finger is for pinky promise, ‘to keep it real’, to find practical examples and real life applications for the knowledge. These elements apply to all teaching, whether the topic is the sailor’s knot or space technology, and whether it’s a matter of a 15-minute mini-session or a 5-day seminar.’

Because Koulu School is built around teachers, it does not necessarily require a separate physical space. In the beginning the idea was, in fact, to only take people to Nevada, but then, in the Burning Man European Leadership Summit held in Barcelona, the idea was born for the project to apply for one of the guild spaces that surround the Man, the towering statue in the centre of the festival area.

‘These spaces are very difficult to get – but we managed to get one. And then, we were once again in a familiar situation, wondering how on earth shall we do this, where can we find the people to make it happen, and how we will pay for it all,’ remembers Anssi together with Jami Sarnikorpi, who was also involved in the previous year’s project, the pike installation.

The power of social media and the grapevine came through, however, and a colourful band of experts were gathered from Aalto and elsewhere. With the combined efforts of economists, engineers, designers, teaching professionals, event managers, sound engineers, AV gurus, production designers, a set designer and a teacher of woodwork and handicrafts, the 120m² guild space saw the growth of a spectacular Tree of Knowledge made of cardboard and LED lighting, with hundreds of coffee bean bags and dozens of blackboards spread out underneath it.

‘In Burning Man, you can carry out lots of different kinds of projects, but only some people are crazy enough to try out something on this scale in the middle of the desert. Getting this kind of team together wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else,’ Elina Koivisto adds.

From tears of joy to adventures in space

Under the shade of the Tree of Knowledge, Koulu School festival of learning was run throughout the week. New teachers were trained, and they would, in turn, teach their lessons to the students. The time table for Koulu was built organically, based on the variety of interests of teachers.

‘There was all kinds of topics, ranging from labyrinth drawing to Finnish sauna culture, and everything in between,’ Elina says with a smile.

‘The best thing was that we helped people to see that everyone has something to teach. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something which you are very good at. For instance, if I have been learning to knit socks for five years and have only managed to complete one pair of socks, I can be a fantastic sock-knitting teacher because I know everything that could possibly go wrong in the process. Indeed, according to previous studies, this is precisely one of the key strengths of peer-learning.’

The feedback received for Koulu School has been thankful, encouraging and moving.

‘Some newly trained teachers were so happy to discover their skills and teaching abilities that they began to cry,’ Anssi Laurila shares.

In keeping with Burning Man’s philosophy of not leaving any mark on the desert, after the event, everything that had risen from the emptiness returned to where it had come from. The marks left elsewhere, however, can be significant.

‘Many artists have been born out of Burning Man, and it has given the impetus needed for many startups. It helps people to see their own potential and encourages them to do wild, crazy things’, the three team members conclude.

And the Koulu School journey continues. Already later this year, in cooperation with Finn Church Aid, the concept will be modified to match the needs of other temporary settlements and challenging locations such as refugee situations in Europe, Middle East or East Africa. In addition, there has been some interest in applying the open-source peer-learning model in business contexts. Also, the Koulu School on Fire working group already has new plans. In the beginning of December, a piece of Burning Man will be brought to Helsinki’s Suvilahti for a weekend-long Decompression event, and the group is already working on the next year’s project that aims to establish a connection between Black Rock Desert and outer space.

‘We will be shifting from terrestrial problems to universal ones,’ hints Jami Sarnikorpi, who is doing his master’s thesis as a part of the group led by Professor of Space Technology Jaan Praks.

More information:

Anssi Laurila
Tel. 040 721 5694
[email protected]

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