Elina Koivisto, balancing on the white bench at the lobby of Design Factory, is bursting with enthusiasm – and gratitude.
The screen of her laptop flashes pictures from Kathmandu, Nepal. There, the team that had already conquered Burning Man festival with peer-learning concept Koulu School, had a chance to pilot the model among youngsters and professionals of education. In addition to Koivisto and the rest of the Aalto team, the group that travelled to Kathmandu included experts from the model’s creators, Demos Helsinki, as well as professionals from Finn Church Aid.
‘The Nepali people were great, and we received brilliant feedback. Being part of a project like this was fantastic!’, she comments with shining eyes.
One hundred metres of fabric
The essence of Koulu School concept can be summed up in two core ideas: anyone can teach once they identify their special topic, and five essential elements are enough for a good lesson. However, in Kathmandu, the team realised that it is also much more.
‘We discovered that the process starts already way before the actual school day. As we came to notice, the magic of Koulu School stems from doing things together, it emerges already while concretely building the inspiring learning environment in cooperation with the local community members. This is what inspires the enthusiasm and trust’, Koivisto points out, and laughingly admits that putting all the ideas to practice was not quite as simple as all that.
‘A hundred metres of fabric is – well, quite a lot fabric. This how much was needed to build a shade to shelter the Koulu School space from the sun as we had decided to arrange the lessons outdoors. Designing, measuring, cutting, and sewing it was quite some job, but together with the talented students of the UCEP vocational college (Under-privileged Children Educational Program), we overcame this challenge, too. The students’ help in designing and putting together the canopy was invaluable.’
The participants in first pilot were students, teachers and administrative staff of a vocational college intended for underprivileged children, as well as volunteers. During the day, the participants learned about peer learning and found their personal strengths, familiarised themselves with the five-finger method, and planned their lessons and how to market them. Finally, the actual lessons were held.
‘The lessons covered a range of topics from book-binding to combining work and family life. One of the most wonderful lessons was about folding a newspaper into a rubbish bag. This may sound simple, but in reality, it solves a big issue: the use of plastic rubbish bags creates a major pollution problem in Kathmandu, where all rubbish is incinerated, and the rubbish bags also offer an opening for talking about recycling and ecological issues in a wider sense’, Koivisto reflects.
‘At the end of the day, a long feedback discussion was held to involve the local participants in developing the model.’
Koulu School wrapped up in a package
In addition to the vocational college, the Finnish team organised another Koulu School session for the local education authorities. This second pilot, organised at Nepal Communitere, brought together administrative officials, educators, and experts from the ministry of education, universities, and other institutions. It was concluded with a lengthy discussion on other possible applications and suggested improvements. The feedback collected from both groups was enthusiastic and promising. The participants found the five-finger method effective and considered ways in which a more active learning model could be integrated into education system.
‘Can you imagine, they were totally convinced after just one day’, Elina Koivisto rejoices.
‘People in the educational administration were even wondering if these ideas should be included in the Nepali teachers’ handbook.’
The Nepali experience also pinpointed individual targets for improvement. According to Koivisto, one of these is the model’s dependence on the participating team.
‘It will not work on its own without enthusiasm, engagement, and inspiration of our team. In the future, we would like to make ourselves redundant in the sense of producing a tightly wrapped and well thought-out package that can be sent to any place where there is a need to make a community’s competence visible, to demonstrate how learning and school-going can be many things besides book-learning, and to offer psychosocial support for a community.’
In the late winter and early spring, the team will analyse the collected data and feedback in more detail to develop the Koulu School concept for a real test in the challenging conditions of a refugee camp.
‘From the beginning, our target has been finding a genuine way of using peer learning in fragile Education in Emergencies conditions’, Koivisto stresses.
‘More and more people lack permanent homes. In these situations, enabling active learning and interaction as well as recognising different abilities, play a key role in community development. Koulu School will not replace actual schools and education, but it will help to utilise the full potential of a community. This is what makes it so important. We are facing multiple challenges from language issues to logistics, and we are thus embarking on this road feeling very humble – and grateful that we have had the opportunity of being involved.’
Text Minna Hölttä, photos from Nepal by Aada Harju, photo of Elina Koivisto by Minna Hölttä