Lasse Leponiemi, Head of Operations and Partner at HundrED.org, discusses the importance of individualized, self-determined, lifelong learning in the 21st century, as well as ways of encouraging innovations that will help to achieve that goal.
Sabine Gysi: What is your vision of the ideal classroom for the 21stcentury?
Lasse Leponiemi: Classrooms should be constantly changing, based on such factors as learning needs and the subject that is being taught. Flexibility is key, as is incorporating the digital world into the physical classroom.
Moreover, learning should take place both in the classroom and in the surrounding environment. Ideally, learning should be part of our everyday lives. How can we be lifelong learners if learning happens only at school?
SG: That’s an intriguing vision, but I would assume that it works only for learners who are really engaged and motivated, right?
LL: All of us should all be able to find things that motivate us, things that are important to our lives. Whether we are learning science, or art, or music, it is important to recognize how we can connect the subject matter to our lives and make it more relevant.
A major problem right now is that children, especially boys, see no connection between what they are learning at school and their actual lives. And girls, for their part, may believe that some professions are out of reach. It’s still relatively uncommon for girls to study engineering, for example, and as a result they may not even consider what could be an interesting and motivating career.
So the biggest challenge is to preserve curiosity and open-mindedness throughout childhood and into adulthood, so that individuals remain engaged and motivated to learn.
“Of course we want to offer children with special needs the kinds of environments that will allow them to learn more effectively – but that should not be at the cost of social relationships and collaborative learning with other students.”
SG: Let’s stay with this ideal learning environment for a moment: How can we make sure that we are serving diverse learners, with differing needs and approaches to learning? How can we ensure that all of them feel comfortable and are able to reach their full potential?
LL: Let’s not forget that learning is challenging. Expanding what you know and modifying your beliefs is part of the learning process; it is challenging, and it can also be frustrating.
Having said that, I should also note that it’s very important to make sure that different kinds of learners and those with learning disabilities can be part of the system. Including everyone in a classroom is a big challenge. We need to make every effort to combat the social exclusion often found in schools today. If you have a learning disability, you’re often put in a special classroom – and that is not a wise decision.
Of course we want to offer children with special needs the kinds of environments that will allow them to learn more effectively, but that should not be at the cost of social relationships and collaborative learning with other students! So, let’s think of how we can keep all learners together while also providing individualized support.
More and more smart devices and algorithm-based approaches to learning are being developed, which will help teachers provide more personalized learning experiences for each student. But despite such technologies, teachers still play a crucial role as facilitators and navigators for students through the learning process.
SG: With your organization HundrED, which seeks and shares innovations in education, you identify and disseminate ideas that will help achieve the goals you just mentioned. How long is the road from an idea to its implementation?
LL: When we started the HundrED Project in 2015/2016, in Finland, we were looking for idea-level experiments. But we soon realized that this takes too much time; we needed to find larger and more advanced projects to promote, so that innovators could spread the word more quickly and efficiently around the world. So about a year after we launched our project, we decided to focus on innovations that were ready to be scaled up.
SG: Looking at your website, I was intrigued by the wealth of ideas and projects I found, but also a bit overwhelmed. If I were in a position to change how learning takes place at a school or in a city, I wouldn’t know where to start. Do you offer help?
LL: Yes, we do, with a service called “HundrED Plus.” If a school district or a school wants to determine what kind of innovation is right for them, we’re happy to help. But our fundamental approach is to include many different kinds of ideas on our website, and we want to keep it that way.
SG: What are the criteria for adding an innovation to HundrED’s collection, and who takes the final decision?
LL: It’s a combination of a few different things. All of the innovations we find through our research are added to our HundrED database. The next step is to apply our three main criteria – innovativeness, scalability, and impact – to assess them. These three criteria are divided into 14 sub-categories, which are then used to create an overall score.
Every year we choose 100 new innovations. For the 2019 list, we have already examined almost 1,700 innovations. Out of these, we have compiled a short list of about 200, which is sent to the HundrED Academy, a group of roughly 100 people (educators, educational experts, principals, students…). After examining the short list, they select the final list of 100. The role of the Academy is important, because it keeps us removed from the decision-making process and from being carried away by our own enthusiasm. We can say to a candidate, “Hey, thank you for contacting us, but it is the Academy that makes the final decisions.”
“We need evidence showing the actual impact observed in the classroom.”
SG: How do you know whether an innovation will work in very different cultures?
LL: There has been research on innovation in education and how it can be scaled. Professor Stijn Oosterlynck, for example, points out that innovations have to be adaptable and flexible if they are to succeed in diverse environments. So adaptability and flexibility are two of our main scalability criteria, and allow us to assess whether an innovation can be adapted to a different cultural context.
I believe that all of the innovations we have selected are able to produce results in different contexts, because they have already been scaled up. But since our team is small, we rely on the data and examples provided by the innovators, which we then assess.
We also have our network of HundrED ambassadors, which consists of over 160 people around the world. We can consult them if we have any questions about the innovations under review. We might ask, for example, “Could this actually work in your country?”
SG: Do many of the innovators submit evidence-based projects, or are most of the innovations still at the experimental stage?
LL: Anyone can submit an innovation to HundrED Open. But if it is to be added to our global list, which is our main feature, an innovation has to have been in operation at least for one school year, so that sufficient data are available for scrutiny.
This means that start-ups can’t submit untested ideas. We have observed that most new ideas in the education sector don’t work. That is why we are careful to determine whether an idea produces a positive outcome. Obviously, we don’t want to highlight innovations that might be detrimental to learning. So we need evidence showing the actual impact observed in the classroom.
Despite all of our efforts, we know that some of the innovations we have chosen will probably not be effective in every country of the world. It’s a balancing act: We don’t want to focus exclusively on promoting innovations that are already large and well known; instead, we want to concentrate on those that are on the verge of scaling up, or that have been in use over a substantial period of time as a local product or service, but are not yet known to the world. We’re looking for potential.
“We don’t want to focus exclusively on promoting innovations that are already large and well known; instead, we want to concentrate on those that are on the verge of scaling up.”
SG: How many teachers are using the community functions on your platform to share experiences or best practices?
LL: At the moment, the growth of our online community is primarily on Facebook. We now have an active community of more than 700 educators from almost 100 countries. They are exchanging ideas and asking questions. Our platform might be described as a kind of catalogue, where you can find inspiration and ideas to try. And then the conversation moves to the most appropriate platform.
SG: I recently visited HundrED’s Campus Seminar in Zurich, Switzerland, which is an event for teachers. How did you decide which teachers to invite to this gathering?
LL: Together with our Swiss partner, we tried to identify teachers who have been active, and who have been doing interesting things in their own local communities or schools. The idea behind the Campus Seminars is to create an experience for teachers, make them feel appreciated and give them an afternoon when they don’t need to worry about anything. Our attitude is: They are the ones who are doing the hard work every day at school. Let’s make it entertaining, let’s make it fun, let’s roll out the red carpet and let them be the stars of the night.
So far we have held Campus Seminars in six countries: Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, and now in Switzerland, too. In 2015, for example, we chose a stunning location in the heart of Warsaw. We rolled out a red carpet for the teachers, who started arriving after school was dismissed. We soon realized that everybody was trying to avoid the red carpet! And we said, “Hey, come on, this is your night!” We have to let teachers know that they are valued and that they are doing important work every single day.
“If we want our kids to be lifelong learners, we should be lifelong learners as well.”
SG: You’ve been working with teachers in many different countries. What is it that makes some teachers embrace change – and causes others to remain rather traditional?
LL: When I started working with educators 10 years ago, I thought new teachers would be most eager to try out new things.
But the longer I have worked with teachers, the more I have realized that’s not the case. In fact, new teachers may be especially traditional, because they are relying on what they have just learned in teacher training and still lack the confidence to try new things and combine different approaches.
Over time, they will naturally become more adventurous. Individuals who have been teaching for between five and ten years are usually most willing to include innovations in their teaching. If it then becomes a habit to try new things, they will continue to do so throughout their careers.
We encourage educators worldwide to make at least small changes to their daily routines every now and then. After five years, they may find that they have radically changed how they teach and how they provide learning experiences for their students – hopefully for the better. We are convinced that constant change is needed. If we want our kids to be lifelong learners, we should be lifelong learners as well.
HundrED.Org is a not-for-profit organization that identifies and shares inspiring innovations in K12 education. HundrED researches ideas from around the world and selects 100 inspiring innovations every year. All of our insights and selected innovations are documented, packaged and shared with the world free of charge. This allows anyone, anywhere to help improve education.
Lasse Leponiemi is Head of Operations and Partner at HundrED.org. Lasse has worked in education and career planning since 2003. Currently he is focusing on how to help innovators and educators around the world implement HundrED’s selected innovations. He is also a co-founder and chairman of Mentors of Finland, a non-profit organization that mentors unemployed young people to find a job.