A few years ago Mustakivi elementary school in Vuosaari, eastern Helsinki had a bad rap as an institution with rowdy pupils who had a tendency to get into trouble. At the time, teachers like Pekka Hummelin and Jyrki Karjalainen wondered how to channel the students’ excess energy into less disruptive avenues.
“We had quite a lot of problems with aggressive students. We wondered how to teach them cooperative skills, group work, and so on,” said Jyrki Karjalainen.
At their wits’ end, teachers decided to launch a programming club and invited students with social difficulties as well as others with an interest in creating their own computer programmes.
“We picked certain types of students. We picked those who had quite a lot of problems and then we picked some socially skilled ones and we mixed them. We didn’t know what was going to happen but it was surprising. Students started to interact with each other constructively – there was no argument. Of course there was more talk and noise, but in a positive sense,” Karjalainen explained.
“A few kids have of course got a self-esteem boost. Lots made new friendships and became more social. We decided to introduce programming into the school curriculum,” added his colleague, Pekka Hummelin.
City project to promote game-based learning
With the early success of the experiment, the school decided to introduce programming as part of the curriculum from the fourth grade and upwards. Mustakivi became one of 16 schools to join a game-based learning project spearheaded by the city of Helsinki.
City officials managed to secure government funding for the project, which aims to find new ways to implement the core curriculum – now updated to include concepts such as cross-disciplinary and phenomenon-based teaching to provide learners with more integrated knowledge and skills about real-world issues.
Coding games, role-play and augmented reality
When Yle News visited Mustakivi School, teacher Katariina Söderholm was taking a class of third-grade students into a virtual game world that each child had created independently. The students had completed a written description of their game worlds and were adding images before saving the documents and submitting them to a panel for peer review – in a "Voice of Finland" -style vote.
Söderholm said that contrary to what many might think, using technology and games in learning doesn’t isolate kids; rather it provides a completely different avenue for collaboration.
“We’re trying to learn different ways to interact with one another and to be social and help one another and learn different perspectives and different ways of thinking. And computers and tablets are very good tools for that,” she commented.
Teachers to carry the baton
In spite of its popularity and successes among the participating schools, government funding for the game-based learning project will run out in 2016 – that’s next year, when a new curriculum focusing on non-traditional learning methods will kick in. Chief consultant with the city of Helsinki, Petri Eskelinen, said that once state funding dries up, it’ll be up to the 30-odd teachers involved in the project to keep the ball rolling.
“I hope that the practices stay alive and that the teachers may become colleague trainers and continue to train other teachers in other schools, as has already been the case,” he said.
The game-based learning project was implemented in Finnish- and Swedish-speaking schools among students in the third to sixth grades. Some schools have also extended the coding project through grades seven to nine. According to Eskelinen, researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have been involved in a study to assess the impact of the project and should turn in their findings in 2016.