‘Everyone is figuring out computer science’: Finland’s take on computational thinking in schools


Finlands exceptional education system and thriving technology scene are both well documented. But how do they fit together? London CLC’s co-director Sarah Horrocks explored the Finnish approach to computational thinking in schools in a week-long trip to Tampere, and shares her findings.

  • Companion podcast: listen to an interview with Linda Lukias, Finnish creator of the Hello Ruby computer science resources.

Finland is always going to make for a thought-provoking research trip for any educator and even more so for an international group exploring computational thinking. For a country of just five million people, it has a technology sector that punches far above its national weight. Think Nokia, Linux, Angry Birds…all Finnish. Technology is the country’s most important export industry and around 30% of Finnish workers earn their living either directly or indirectly from the technology industry.

As for its education system, Finland is renowned for an unorthodox and highly successful approach that has been pored over by experts given that, until the last few years, it has been one of the very top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which tests the reading, mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-olds.

View of Tampere, Finland

I was fortunate to spend a week in Finland, based in Tampere (the neighbouring town to Nokia!), with my CLC colleague Rowan Roberts, as part of the Co-think Erasmus project looking at inclusive teaching of computational thinking approaches in different European countries. We visited three schools with the group, observed lessons, chatted to teachers, saw how technology is used in class, and delved more deeply into the Finnish approach to computational thinking.

Open, social

The whole visit was framed by a day of workshops with Linda Liukas, the Finnish children’s book illustrator, computer scientist and creator of the wonderful Hello Ruby resources. She set the scene for understanding the Finnish take on computer science and how it, along with the rest of the education system, is deeply rooted in the country’s social democratic philosophy, right down to the use of open source educational resources in schools.


Linda Lukias talks to the Co-think group.

“Everyone is figuring out computer science and every country feels behind. Each country needs to have its own discussion. In Finland, we are having that conversation in relation to open source, equity, citizenship and democracy skills. It’s always about the context rather than computer science in a vacuum,” explained Linda.

Swords and irons

Sword making skills!

One of the aspects that I was really struck by while observing Lielahti School in Tampere was the high value placed on design technology and handicrafts throughout the school, which ties in with Finland’s reputation for innovation and inventiveness.  We visited a workshop where children were creating beautiful hoodies, and another where a boy was making a sword in a metalwork class. Quite a culture shock coming from a context of London schools and concerns about knife crime…

School laundry lessons.

There’s a laundry room, complete with irons, so that pupils can learn some basic life skills and wellbeing is high on the agenda. Each school in Finland’s fully comprehensive system has a welfare wing with an educational psychologist, social workers and nurses.

In light of the increasing knowledge about the dangers of sitting for too long, the municipality of Tampere is seeking to “make movement a way of life” by adding it naturally to the rhythm of the day. Lessons last a maximum of 45 minutes and breaks between classes have been lengthened to 15-25 minutes. Again, this is in stark contrast to English schools, which have seen steadily decreasing breaktimes: primary children aged five to seven have lost 45 minutes of play time since 1995, while 11- to 16-year-olds have lost over an hour.


Finnish schools are ‘shoes off’ – except for outdoor break times.

Finnish teachers were initially resistant to the change as it gave them less time to teach, but the ones we spoke to said that the pupils are able to get more done in the time they do have when they are given regular breaks and opportunities to go outside. However, the culture in Finland is one of encouragement rather than obligation, so although children can go outside they don’t have to, and schools are finding that teenagers are sometimes happier to stay inside.

Computational thinking

But what about computational thinking? We discovered that Finnish schools focus on problem solving, developing logical skills and digital competence within what they call ‘transversal competencies’ as part of every subject. They have adopted a blend of teaching computational thinking through both a cross-curricular and a single subject approach linking specifically to maths. Schools use an elective approach and we saw this at Lielhati school where students can opt into short computational thinking and programming courses.

Teachers are encouraged to use technology and to develop digital competency across the curriculum. The municipality of Tampere supports teachers through its curriculum agent programme where specialist teachers have dedicated time each week to support other teachers in teaching digital skills.

Problem solving

Over the past few years, Rowan and I have come to realise that ‘computational thinking’ has different interpretations and contested definitions. In Co-think’s first training event together in London we explored these with the help of Jane Waite from Queen Mary’s University London. Jane encouraged us to be clear about how we interpret computational thinking in our project.

According to this report (p10), in Finland, and the Nordic countries in general, the interpretation is

  • Computational thinking is a thought process, thus independent of technology;
  • Computational thinking is a specific type of problem solving that entails special ways of analysing problems which can be solved computationally and of developing solutions to them.

Linda explains computational thinking clearly (on this great poster for teachers on her Hello Ruby website) as:

“Thinking about problems in a way that allows computers to solve them. Computational thinking is something people do, not computers. It includes logical thinking and the ability to recognise patterns, think with algorithms, decompose a problem, and abstract a problem.”

Learnathons

Exploring these different approaches to computational thinking in countries where it is either very recently (in UK, Sweden and Finland) or not yet (in Netherlands and Denmark) integrated in the primary school curricula is one of the most valuable elements of our Co-think project.  Together we are crossing the borders of national education systems to gain a deeper understanding of how computational thinking can be taught in new, inclusive ways and implemented in the school curricula. The theory is then put into practice in learnathons – events that use hands-on creative learning activities drawn from the work in each country.

For the first Learnathon we invited students from the participating countries to create a set of symbols to represent their own dance moves. They programmed a dance routine using their symbols; their very own dance algorithm. The younger children were asked to record their performance as a video, while the older children could create a Scratch project including images of themselves performing each move.  Students from each country received a dance algorithm created in another country and performed it (without seeing the original video/Scratch project). They practised and filmed this performance, which was then watched by all the other pupils on the website. In our second learnathon children built 3D models of their home towns or cities and used robotics, storytelling, programming and video to share what life is like is like where they live.


That most Finnish of symbols: a Moomin outside Tampere town hall

It’s a great way to connect teachers and primary school students from all the partnering countries to explore and learn computational thinking approaches with other European students. It’s also fun and playful – which, we discovered, fits perfectly with the Finnish ethos of how learning should be accessed and enjoyed.

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