Future challenges for education and learning outcomes

Hannele Niemi
University of Helsinki, Finland

The Pisa studies have been an exciting experience for all of us in Finland (V�lij�rvi et al., 2000; OECD, 2004). Finland�s good results must be attributed to a combination of many different factors all coming into play simultaneously, and an adequate understanding of these factors provides a very useful starting point when looking at the future. I would like to elaborate on them from the perspectives of Finnish society, Finnish culture and the people who live, work and attend school here. My remarks are not directed at accounting for Finland�s past successes in education; rather my work is to see to it that this pattern continues.

1.0 Future challenges to Finnish society

In a general way, we can speak of societies with a �stable� horizon as well as of those with �a moving horizon� (Niemi, 1999; 2000a). The term �moving horizon� refers to a situation in diverse, heterogeneous societies. In a homogenous society, the presence of a stable or fixed horizon is a unifying factor that helps those who live there to have a common understanding. In a familiar, predictable situation, the context creates safe guides for how to work and act. The fact that this horizon is increasingly in a state of flux illustrates the growing complexity of our life here in Finland. Continuously changing circumstances mean that the horizon loses much of its unquestioned and commonplace nature. Shifts and changes in the horizon are inevitably accompanied by difficulties in agreeing on how to interpret what we see.

Regardless of its past achievements, in order to meet the demands of the future, Finland as a small country, has to confront a moving horizon at national and global levels. The requirements of high-quality knowledge, a high level of competence of teachers and trainers and social cohesion in society are more important now than ever before.

1.1 Solid and flexible infrastructure for education

We need an educational infrastructure that provides all learners with opportunities to obtain an education at the highest level commensurate with their own growth and growth potential. The system must allow flexible routes to facilitate the continuation of education at any stage of life. A knowledge-based society needs all of its citizens to be committed to the pursuit of learning (Conceicao & Heitor & Lundwall 2003). However, learning does not happen in the context of uniform, excessively norm-based set of standards, but in the successful development of an educational infrastructure that is equal and encouraging to different learners.

We see that the danger of exclusion is growing everywhere (OECD, 2003; 2004; 2005). Whole segments of populations in different countries are in danger of being virtually shut out of the job market. The important message, as shown by many indicators, is that there is a link between education, employment and professional success. Those who are well-educated are able to find jobs that provide them with more training, while the uneducated are locked out of opportunities to improve their skills.

1.2 Social cohesion through education and learning

For us, social cohesion means equal opportunities and security. The welfare of society depends on the abilities and contributions of all its citizens. That new technologies are constantly producing innovations accelerates the processes of change in economic life, societal structures and production. The serious problem is that as our horizons shift, many people, young and old, lose their opportunities to put these new technologies to use . . . or they don�t have these opportunities to begin with. This is a serious threat to democracy and social cohesion. Technological innovations, together with social, political and cultural dispersion, are producing new forms of knowledge and culture. We must be aware of the dysfunctional aspects of the information society, and do everything we can to equip our children to enter into an uncertain future with hope and anticipation.

The Pisa studies have been an exciting experience for all of us in Finland (V�lij�rvi et al., 2000; OECD, 2004). Finland�s good results must be attributed to a combination of many different factors all coming into play simultaneously, and an adequate understanding of these factors provides a very useful starting point when looking at the future.

At the national level there is always a danger that education and training promote diversity even though these are purposed to advance equity. We have to face those problems and make education and training key factors in advancing social cohesion. The education system in our country offers infrastructures and social practices where people learn to work together. The essential element of social cohesion is interdependence and trust. A society characterised by mistrust and fear loses its integrity and productivity.

1.3 High levels of competency and high standards of learning as key elements in an innovation policy

The knowledge-based society needs to be able to innovate (e.g. Lorenz, 2003; Heitor, 2003; Blanke & Lopez-Claros, 2004; Commission, 2003). Innovation for the enhancement of productivity requires excellence in technological education, high levels of competency, and a commitment to helping companies remain technologically competitive. Innovation processes are often non-linear; complex and contingent innovative efforts require the active interaction and cooperation of different partners and stakeholders. Our educational systems should support people to develop their capabilities and competencies to promote:

  • the processes by which producers and users interact
  • high learning-to-learn skills
  • collaborative learning competences
  • working in a community and creating trust
  • crossing borders � developing openness
  • new ways to think and act
  • cross-disciplinary research
  • new leadership

2.0 Future challenges at the cultural level

2.1 The promotion of excellence in teacher education and the teaching profession

In Finland, responsibility for providing education to prospective teachers at primary and secondary schools was transferred to universities in 1971. Subject-teacher education at the secondary school level has also reformed by expanding the scope of pedagogical studies. The purpose of this modification was to unify core aspects of elementary and secondary school education and to develop an academically high standard of education for prospective teachers. In the late 1970�s, university education for both elementary and secondary teachers was planned in the form of programmes requiring 4 to 5 years to complete. The basic qualification for secondary and elementary school teachers was defined as a Master�s degree. Teacher education for comprehensive school teachers and senior secondary school teachers, as well as for those teachers who teach general subjects in adult education and vocational education, is provided at eight Finnish universities around the country (Niemi, 2000).

Teacher education in Finland will move to a two-tier degree system on 1 August 2005 following the European model of higher education degrees (Jakku-Sihvonen & Niemi, 2005). The combination of a three-year Bachelor�s degree and a two-year Master�s degree in appropriate subjects will qualify teachers to teach in primary and secondary schools. The groundwork for Finnish academic teacher education was laid in the late 1970�s. Since then, typical features of teacher education in Finland have been a research-based orientation, continuous national and international evaluations (Niemi & Jakku-Sihvonen, 2005; Buchberger et al., 1994), and the requirement that regardless of specialisation or future assignment, all teachers must complete a basic core curriculum. Teacher education has proven to be a very attractive option for talented students.

The Bologna process is seen more as a phase involving joint national analysis and evaluation of the teacher education curriculum than as a fundamental structural change. Teacher education must be included as part of the European Higher Education Area and its status should be equivalent to that of other higher education studies. This entails that it meets high-level academic standards which take into consideration both declarative (what) and procedural (how) knowledge of what is needed in the teaching profession. The necessary prerequisite is that teacher education rests on a research-based foundation with three basic conditions:

  1. Teachers need knowledge of the most recent advances in research for the subjects they teach. In addition, they need to be familiar with the newest research on how something can be taught and learned. Interdisciplinary research on subject content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge provides the grounds for developing teaching methods that can be adapted to suit different learners.
  2. Teacher education in itself should also be an object of study and research. This research should provide knowledge about the effectiveness and quality of teacher education implemented by various means and in different cultural contexts.
  3. The aim is that teachers can internalise a research-orientated attitude towards their work, which means that teachers take an analytical and open-minded approach to their work, draw conclusions based on their observations and experiences, develop teaching and learning environments in a systematic way.

Teacher education should prepare teachers to respond to the evolving challenges of the knowledge society, but also to participate actively to prepare learners to be autonomous lifelong learners. They should, therefore, be able to reflect on the processes of learning and teaching through an ongoing engagement with subject knowledge, curriculum content, pedagogy, innovation, research, and the social and cultural dimensions of education. Teacher education needs to be at a higher education level or its equivalent and be supported by strong partnerships between higher education and the institutions where teachers will gain employment.

The European Commission has convened a small group of experts ( Prof. Sonia Blanford, UK, Prof. Bernard Cornu, France, Prof. Hannele Niemi, Finland, and Prof. Pavel Zgaga, Slovenia) in the field of teacher education to elaborate common European principles for teacher competences and qualifications. They have submitted their recommendations in December 2004. The Finnish teacher education should promote the following principles, which are the core ideas of the recommendations.

Teachers should be able to:

  1. Work with knowledge, technology and information. Teachers are able to work with a variety of types of knowledge. Their education makes them able to access, analyse, validate, reflect on, and transmit knowledge, making effective use of technology where this is appropriate. Their pedagogic skills allow them to build and manage learning environments and retain the intellectual freedom to make choices over the delivery of education. This also allows for innovation and creativity. Their confidence in the use of ICT allows them to integrate it effectively into learning and teaching. They are able to guide and support learners in the networks in which information can be found and built. They also have a high level of knowledge and understanding of their subject matter and view learning as a lifelong journey. Practical and theoretical skills enable them to match a wide range of teaching and learning strategies to the needs of learners.
  2. Work with fellow human beings. Teachers work in a profession that is based on the values of social inclusion and nurturing the potential of every learner. They are able to work with learners as individuals and support them to develop into fully participating and active members of society. They also develop collaborative types of work to increase the collective intelligence of learners. They have knowledge of human growth and development and demonstrate self-confidence when engaging with others. They co-operate and collaborate with colleagues to enhance learning and teaching.
  3. Work with and in society. Teachers contribute to preparing learners for their role as EU citizens and help to ensure that learners understand the importance of lifelong learning. They are able to promote mobility and co-operation in Europe. They understand the contribution that education and training make to developing cohesive societies. They have an understanding of the balance between respecting and being aware of the diversity of learners� cultures and identifying common values. They also understand the factors that create social cohesion and exclusion in society and are aware of the ethical dimensions of the knowledge society. They can work effectively with the partners and stakeholders in education � parents, teacher education institutions, and representative groups. They are aware that good education and training provides learners with more and diverse employment opportunities. Their experience and expertise enables them to contribute to systems of quality assurance.

2.2 Cross-disciplinary research on learning and teaching

Research on learning has been identified as an emerging and critical area of research in many European countries. There is an urgent need to discover how to facilitate the learning of various different learner groups and to help organisations create fruitful environments for innovation and competence building. Finland has been in the forefront of developing national research programmes on learning and teaching. A determined effort has been made to introduce schools and working life to the most recent research on learning. Learning is seen as the instrument for the economic progress and for improving quality of life in our knowledge-based society. Knowledge creation through learning is an important force not only in empowering individuals and groups, but also in enriching society as a whole.

The Academy of Finland has launched the �Life as Learning� Research Programme (LEARN). The themes of this multi-scientific national research programme include the development of teaching and learning in the school system, new challenges of learning in the working life, new forms of learning, as well as new teachership and teacher education (Academy of Finland 2005). The aims of the research programme are to:

  • Encourage the development of a new research culture and new research partnerships and the creation of interdisciplinary and international research projects around the problems of learning;
  • Find a way of managing the challenges of lifelong and life-wide learning in order to avoid new forms of exclusion;
  • Create a solid interdisciplinary research base for developing teaching and learning in different educational and working-life contexts; and
  • Anticipate future learning needs from the point of view of society, culture and the individual

The programme has five research themes: Redefining the concept of learning, the social and cultural context of learning; knowledge creation; work environments; and new teachership. This programme is the Academy of Finland�s flagship in educational research. It has been reviewed internationally and has already established strong international links. We also need new approaches to learning research. We place our trust in the ability of cross-disciplinary research to show us how to make learning a real resource in people�s life and add well-being at national and individual levels.

2.3 Values in schools and society

Teachers are key actors in advancing human potential and competence, and they have a strong influence on communities and societies. As representatives of a profession with high ethical standards, teachers have an important role in the implementation of democracy, social justice and human rights (Niemi, 2000a; Carr & Hartnett, 1996).

European and global aims: The work that teachers do is always very context-bound, depending on the age levels of learners, cultural conditions, available resources and the contents that they are mediating to learners. Teachers and teacher education are also clearly connected to national goals and purposes. The welfare and economy of a society is decisively dependant on educational outcomes, and these, in turn, have a strong relationship with teachers� competence.

Besides having national and local community-based goals, teachers have more general aims as well. Teachers make sources of open cultural enrichment available to their students, and they help them understand other human beings and their cultural contexts. Teachers play a key role in promoting human rights, justice and democracy in a global world. In Europe teachers have an important role in advancing intercultural understanding and mobility.

Preparing for changing contexts: Teachers also have a key role in preparing not only each new generation, but also adults to meet changing conditions. The global world is becoming increasingly interdependent, and changes in technology, economy, politics, and security have immediate consequences for everyone. Everyone should be given the tools to analyse and manage changes they confront in their life.

3.0 Future challenges at an individual level

A country�s educational system is its most important means of providing its citizens with opportunities for lifelong learning. However, it cannot guarantee empowerment by itself. Learners are expected to take responsibility for their own progress. They need to develop active learning strategies and skills that further their ability to work together with others.

3.1 Active learning strategies

Active learning strategies emphasise constructivist qualities in knowledge processing. These include the abilities of independent inquiry and the structuring and restructuring of knowledge. In active learning, the processing of information and knowledge also requires a problem-solving orientation, a critical approach, and the ability to evaluate information. The ultimate goal of knowledge processing is that the learner can elaborate on applications of knowledge and produce new knowledge using cognitive processes. According to the newest learning theories, the quality of learning also depends on the ability of learners to guide and determine their own learning orientation, to develop skills of inquiry and to learn to reflect on and control their own learning processes. Metacognitive skills are key tools here (Zimmerman, 2000; Pintrich & Ruohotie, 2000; Niemi, 2002).

We need new research on more complicated learning spaces and on problems that people confront in their lives. We also need more knowledge about bootstrapped and maladapted forms of self-regulative learning. It seems that some learners adopt destructive forms of self-regulative learning. For instance, some learners use a self-handicapping strategy, such as choosing not to study. So there is already an excuse for academic failure. The knowledge of how to overcome this problem would be important when targeting competence building in Europe. Also, we need more knowledge of how metacognitive strategies and skills can be instructed and mediated for different age groups in working organizations and educational institutions.

3.2 Co-operative learning

In the construction of knowledge, social attitudes and skills have emerged as very important. How we learn and comprehend knowledge depends on our beliefs, attitudes, values and our self-concept as a learner. According to the sociohistorical tradition, the human mind is distinctive from the minds of all other species in its capability for developing language, tools and a system of education. Knowledge is seen as the catalyst of social cohesiveness: it engages individuals and groups in daily interaction and praxis and, in so doing, helps them adapt to and transform the environment around them. Learning is increasingly being seen as embedded within a social context and framework. Social perspective theories have been variously called social constructivism, the sociocultural perspective, sociohistorical theory and socio-cultural-historical psychology. Despite the diversity of the views expressed by social perspective theorists, each one of them posits that learning occurs through the mediation of social interaction. Knowledge is not an individual possession, but socially shared and emerges from participation in sociocultural activities.

Learning also requires social skills. This means that learners will need skills that make them capable of effective social interaction. The ability to learn is related to deeply ingrained sociocultural patterns and the ability to interact with other people. Active learning theories stress the social elements of learning, e.g. the importance of co-operative action, collaborative problem-solving and sharing as tools for attaining deeper processes of learning � and in many cases also for achieving better results. This means participation in discussions, dialogues and mutually shared reflections, working in responsible cooperation with other learners. Learner participation is fostered by a supportive atmosphere and equal partnership among the learners, based on mutual respect. European scenarios of learning emphasise teamwork and networking as important tools for bringing people closer together.

4.0 Towards the future

Advancement of learning is a key social, political and economic objective in the global world. Learning is an important force not only in empowering individuals and groups but in enriching society as a whole. As knowledge production has become diffused throughout society, there have been remarkable changes in the way learning opportunities are created and accessed. No longer does any one institution or group have a monopoly on knowledge. While it continues to be available in educational institutions such as schools and universities, it is located increasingly in work places as well as in everyday life, accessible through media and technology-based environments. Open access to knowledge creates new requirements for learners and learning research.

We would need more knowledge of how metacognitive strategies and skills can be instructed and mediated to different age groups in working organizations and educational institutions. There are research results that show that the learners were able to gain a sense of personal autonomy through training strategies (McInerney & McInerney & Marsh1997). But we also have information that learners may not receive instruction that is explicit enough about metacognitive knowledge and skills in schools and in working life settings (Winne 1996; Boekaerts 1997; Niemi 2002). How metacognitive skills can be thought and learned at different ages, and in complex learning and working situations, is key in competence building.

Learning is a holistic process, which touches learners� emotions and also has a social component. We may ask why people want to learn and why they do not want to learn. There may be many individual reasons based on earlier learning experiences that are either encouraging or depressing. But meaningfulness also comes from the social atmosphere in companies and educational institutions. We need a continuous restructuring of learning environments. This means moving towards encouragement and sharing within a culture that promotes risk-taking and open collaborative problem-solving.

To build new competencies we have to evaluate critically system-level conditions. A supportive and flexible infrastructure is needed. We need system-level structures that respect humanity and the real needs of people. Learners need a lot of human support and encouragement. We must inquire about renewing our systems to support learners to become empowered by learning.

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Hannele Niemi
Professor and Vice President
Helsinki University, Finland