The Finnish School takes Nepal by storm


Koulu School in Aalto University News (in Finnish see here):
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 / Aalto University, photos from Nepal by Aada Harju / FCA

Learnings from Black Rock City

It has already been more than two weeks since we took down the tree of knowledge and prepared the Koulu on Fire to be burned down with the Man. About time to summarize some of our thoughts on the experience and learnings from Black Rock City. 

In a nutshell, we designed and built Koulu School, in one of the best spots on the vast and dusty festival area: directly next to THE Man. Our team from Finland was given one of the eight 120 square meter guild spaces right at the Man Base. There, we ran a four-day learning festival. In practice, we helped people to discover their skills and knowledge, turn them into lessons, and gift them forward using our own Five Finger method for teaching excellence. During festival, teacher training was organised multiple times a day and about hundred new teachers were certified. All in all, Koulu on Fire gathered together thousands of enthusiastic visitors and new educators, and more than hundred lessons were taught. 

For all of its participants, Koulu on Fire was a place to learn and discover. The feedback from teachers and students was ecstatic. In particular, it was fantastic to see how people who had no idea what they could teach, came up with brilliant lessons, and how education professionals were turned into Koulu School advocates. Even a representative from the Finnish Consulate General came by and got excited about what we were doing.

Nothing is permanent and Burning Man is a manifestation of this. According to one of the Ten Principles, we left no trace to the Black Rock Desert. However, hopefully, the learnings from Koulu on Fire will stay around for longer. At least for us makers it taught many valuable lessons.

First, we learned how to build a Finnish school, an inspiring and engaging learning space where everyone feels welcome, in the middle of the desert. During the building phase, many things failed, were fixed, and finally aced. Koulu School did not come out totally as planned, but it was magnificent. 

Second, we learned how to make Koulu School work better. For Burning Man, the Koulu School concept had been tweaked to respond to the needs of this demanding audience and extreme conditions. Every day we learned how to make it work better. Now, after Burning Man, we will modify the concept to match with needs of other temporary settlements and challenging locations such as refugee situations in Europe, Middle East or East Africa, or sites with low and undeveloped infrastructure. Based on our experiences, we will be able to better help our teachers to discover and share their skills and knowledge as well as to make our schools more fun and attractive for students.

Third, in the course of the project, we learned to know each other and even ourselves better. Just to give a few examples, solving problems with delayed materials in a foreign country, or working together with a tight schedule in a sandstorm are some of the most powerful team building activities one could think of. After this, many smaller challenges will feel less significant, and, well, smaller. Can’t wait to see what is the next thing we can accomplish together! 

Finally, Burning Man as an experiment of temporary community taught us about the potential of people. Indeed, it is amazing how it is possible to have 70 000 people to abandon 'the constants of default world’ and embrace the 10 Principles of Burning Man - and what amazing outcomes it produces.  See for yourself! 


Koulu School is going to Burning Man and beyOnd

Everyone has something to teach and everyone is excited to learn. This is the basic thought behind Koulu School. The mission of Koulu School is to make education more accessible in low-infrastructure and low-resource environments by promoting the skill of peer-learning. And of course, to spread the joy of learning and teaching. 

In Koulu School, anyone can teach anything – a skill based on a hobby, something they love, an activity they have been doing a lot, or something they are in the process of learning. Koulu School is based on simple five-finger method that turns a skill into a full-blown lesson. Indeed, the new teachers can be trained in less than an hour – and have the school up and running in no time.

Despite its simplicity, Koulu School is backed by theories on learning. First, enthusiasm is catchy and people learn best from someone, who is excited. Second, people who are themselves also in the process of learning are best teachers. That way, those who teach can tell about what learning feels like – what’s difficult, what’s easy, and so on. Moreover, a successful learning experience is made up of doing together, inspiration, fun, and creativity – the main ingredients of Koulu School.

First Koulu School was organized in 2012 with more than 700 students attending classes run by 200 peer-teachers. List of topics was diverse; Ukulele playing, Socratic dialogues, open fire barbeques, swimming techniques, stay-home fathering, lace making, map drawing, empathy, and many more.  After this, the peer-learning concept has been applied and further developed in schools and universities as well as in a variety of events, most recently in Borderland festival. 

Burning Man and beyond

The mission of Koulu School is to spread education where it is needed the most by developing a teacher training system that is simple and easy to disseminate. In the future, growing number of people will be living in temporary dwellings in low-infrastructure and low-resource conditions and with no access to traditional education. Koulu teacher training is low-tech and scalable, and that is why it can be easily applied in these challenging environments such as refugee camps and slums. 

We are embarking this journey in Burning Man, where the Koulu School concept is piloted. To do this, we are organizing a week-long peer-learning festival during Burning Man. In our Koulu on Fire guild space located on the main playa, you can become a teacher and gift your skills to others – or come and join the classes to learn new skills. 

Later this year, with the learnings and experiences from Black Rock City, we will, then start spreading Koulu School around the globe. To do this we are cooperating with the largest Finnish organisation for development cooperation Finn Church Aid and Finnish Teachers without Borders network - and maybe you, too!

Please come and join us in the Koulu on Fire Guild space on the piazza at the Man Base at 9:00! Koulu School is open from Monday to Friday, 10 AM-2 PM and 7 PM-10 PM