From the camp to the classroom: seeking dialogue between innovative foreign language pedagogy and conventional practices

On 13.11.2014 the Jyväskylä University Language Campus along with Jyväskylä town received a European quality label award for organising active language camps for children. The week long language camps have been exceedingly popular. In 2014 all of the available places were taken within 8 minutes of registration being opened. The teachers at the language camp are future language and class teachers, as well as Language Campus staff. English, Swedish, German and Russian language camps have been held to date, with French joining the camp for the first time next year, 2015.

The language camps are an important initiative in Finnish second and foreign language education for many reasons. In Finland the learning of languages other than English has been problematic for a long time, but at the camps children eagerly sign up for and greatly enjoy learning through different languages – with arguably far more learning going on than the children could possibly imagine. The blogs written by the student teacher and teacher educator participants following the camp glowingly report the range of activities, the level of engagement and the positive quality of the camp on many levels. As one of the blogs notes: “The week went quickly, but so many different things were included: games, songs, sports, acrobatics, baking and of course the cherry on the cake – the learning of the German language!”

It is wonderful that students and staff are prepared to invest time, creativity and effort into this venture. It is fantastic that children are ready to enter into this opportunity so eagerly and the official recognition from outside authorities is another “cherry on the cake”. Let’s hope that the camps continue and expand, but is it also possible to hope for something more, for positive language learning experiences to go beyond the camps and to enter foreign language classrooms? Another comment from the blogs particularly caught my attention. It is a reported comment from the student teachers, “in the camps it was possible to do all kinds of things it is not possible to do in school.” My question is why? Why is this the case and why is this possible in Finland with the most beautiful curriculum of open-ended possibility?

I would like to suggest that it is possible to take inspiration, if not activities, from the language camps to renew foreign language education in classrooms. Why is this the case? According to the Board of Education key areas for development in language education include: enjoyment of school, experiencing language learning as useful, the integration of school-based tasks with spoken practice of the language, more regularly engaging students in innovative tasks linked to authentic materials, language use and life beyond the classroom. These areas for development are based on evaluations of high school students. I would suggest, however, that it is way before high school that the real seeds for language learning are sown or spoilt. On the whole, young children enter into foreign language classroom with enthusiasm and good intention, yet this too easily dissipates and becomes negative. Speaking with teachers in and around the locality, this is enough of an issue to be taken seriously and if we really believe in the egalitarian basis of Finnish education, it isn’t enough that those with native speaker backgrounds succeed in foreign language classrooms. Successful foreign language learning needs to be a viable option for all Finnish pupils.

What I would like to do here is to outline how the camps differ from the school context. My ultimate aim is to debunk the myth that classroom-based foreign language education has to be, well – in comparison to the language camps – dull. I’m not suggesting that every day in foreign language classrooms should be a party, but yes, it should nurture positive learning experiences fostering further language development. So, what is different about the camps? One key difference is the reduced yet intense timeframe. The camps have a concise, intense timeframe with significant flexibility whereas conventional foreign language education is located in designated “spots” of time in the midst of other timetabled activities. Furthermore these “spots” of time are often follow an identifiable pattern: checking homework, theme of the day, assigning homework. This three-part-pattern is discernible in other subjects as well. In the camps there are concrete short-term goals shared by children and adults – to experience as much of the language as possible within the available time and to share in an event together at the end of the week. In conventional classrooms long-term abstract aims are broken into a seemingly endless stream of targets. For children who tend to live within the immediate present, it is perhaps little wonder that targeting travel abroad as an adult fails to inspire after some time.

Another wonderful feature of the Language Camps is the welcome range of roles and repertoires contributed by different participants. The primary school children are not just from one grade, they are not all expected to be at the same level, and the adult participants have different roles creating the overall experience. Finnish foreign language teachers prepare the way for native speakers to enter the learning community and they take delight in the children’s questions and interactions with the guest speaker. Throughout the camps, available resources are creatively used. The Language Camps make the most of technology as well as traditional games such as paper, scissor, stone. Space is also used creatively with the teachers and children going outside, visiting different parts of the campus, using the sports hall and cooking facilities. As I compare these different features of the language camps and conventional classroom-based language education, I find myself questioning which features of conventional settings are obligated. Is it necessary to follow the three-part-pattern in classrooms, when successful language learning can take place through a whole range of different activities? Might it not be the case that the challenge of only having designated spots of time stretched out over a longer period requires even more creativity and ingenuity in language education than the camps?

I don’t mean to suggest that foreign language classrooms are devoid of creativity. Indeed, I would like to share here some examples of wonderfully creative activities from Finnish foreign language classrooms. I recently saw a fantastic lip-dub based on Pharrell Williams’ Happy hit. This lip-dub was produced by ninth grade pupils, yet the whole school pupils and staff joined in with the recording creating a celebratory video – a video celebrating learning together through a foreign language. In another school ninth grade French pupils produced videos of themselves tasting and describing different candies – using more French than several formal lessons combined. I have heard of teachers taking upper comprehensive school pupils to the gym for foreign language lessons providing greater space for playing with and through the language. Outdoor education lessons can be used, for example, to create activities for foreign language activities. One innovative teacher inspired by outdoor education gathered together cardboard boxes and Duplo blocks for sixth grade pupils to build towers and to complete tasks through English. The pupils did the planning through Finnish using dictionaries and other resources. Once they stepped out of the planning zone, they only used English as they worked together to complete the challenge. In addition to these initiatives, GoNoodle, Kahoot and Socrative all offer different types of resources for foreign language teachers to draw on.

My reason for sharing these examples is to suggest that we can hope for and even expect more in Finnish foreign language classrooms. I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy, but a wonderful quote comes to mind the more we can share in the experiences of others, the more resources we will have for dealing with our problems, and hence the more intelligent our collective problem solving will be.[1] Of course alone we are incomplete, but we’re in this business called life together J We might not get it completely right at first, but if we don’t try, we certainly won’t get it right! John Dewey insisted that the starting point for action doesn’t involve knowing what the problem is, but rather sensing that something is problematic – and that is what I am saying here.

The language camps are a wonderful success and a great initiative. Whilst I also offer my congratulations to the organizers, I feel a sense of sadness – why does conventional foreign language education not already meet this need? As the coordinator of JULIET, a programme specialised in English foreign language pedagogy for young learners, I would like to extend an invitation to those involved in foreign language education in schools, in governmental administration and at the university. Together we could make the exciting reality of the language camps part of daily reality in foreign language education. The key themes of the new national curriculum require teachers to integrate across subjects and to build links beyond school. Now is the perfect time to think about what more we can do.

[1]Biesta and Burbules, 2003, p.70

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