The Experimentation Lab – Finnish schools and education government exploring complexity together
Even though the Finnish education system still ranks highly among international comparisons, it is under pressure to reinvent itself. The Innovation Centre based at the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) has carried out a year-long, facilitated process, The Experimentation Lab to support teachers, school leaders and local education administrators to co-create local solutions to address complex challenges and simultaneously inspire transformation in education governance.
The Innovation Centre at the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) has launched a year-long, facilitated process, The Experimentation Lab to support teachers, school leaders and local education administrators to create space for experimentation and co-create local solutions to address challenges in education. Simultaneously it aims to transform educational governance and inspire cultural change to better respond to complex challenges in education.
The first iteration of the Lab, launched in the fall 2018, consists of a cohort of 12 teams from different municipalities across Finland. It is designed to tackle the need for a system-level change simultaneously from two perspectives:
1) build capacity (skills, competencies, mindsets) among teachers and school leaders to actively develop teaching and learning through experimenting, trialling and co-creating solutions at the local level,
2) explore, test and develop new approaches to enhance interaction, dialogue, and shared understanding between national level steering and local level implementation to better respond to the complexity of challenges in education.
The first participating 12 teams were selected among 70 initiatives that received government funding from EDUFI in a funding cycle modified to better enable experimentation. The teams work on a wide range of local challenges from developing approaches to foster pupils’ wellbeing or social emotional skills, to teaching digital capabilities through playful adventures, to leveraging AI to increase pupils’ physical activity.
The 12-month facilitated learning process has built-in scaffolds along the way, to help teams not only create better solutions to local challenges, but also serve as a powerful way to build the participants’ innovation capacities. The Lab was, therefore, designed with two simultaneous goals in mind: the aim was to create a longer term “community of practice” and on the other hand have a strong focus on practical development at a local contexts. The process started with an accelerator phase, where the teams learned to develop, prototype and experiment solutions. They deepened their understanding of the challenge they are working on, learned human-centred design approaches and gained courage and skills to test their ideas in practice. There were several “clinic” days with regular intervals throughout the programme. The clinics are a chance to share learnings with others, get expert advice, and engage in dialogue around important themes that affect all teams. Between the clinics the teams ran, evaluated, and collected evidence from experiments independently. As a part of the process a multiperspective, human-centred approach to evaluate the experiments was developed. It is applying both new forms of multi-party dialogue methods and software tools to facilitate participatory evaluation. Throughout the process, the Lab’s participants have been involved in co-creating the programme. Experts and leadership of EDUFI have been systematically engaged both to share their subject-matter expertise as well as to deepen their understanding of educators’ realities across Finland.
The Innovation Centre’s observations about unmet needs and tensions in their current education system have paved the way for creating the Experimentation Lab. Even though the Finnish education system still ranks highly among international comparisons, it is under pressure to reinvent itself. Designing of teaching and learning from the perspective of the learner, leveraging the potential of the digital age, and ensuring equity in education are crucial challenges in a world of growing complexity. Schools and municipalities find it difficult to live out the vision of learner centered and more skills-based 2016 national curriculum. The current support offered by EDUFI -- mainly training, professional development, and guidance through information -- seems to be insufficient. Fragmentation of the big picture, innovation trapped in pockets and the difficulty of spreading good practices coupled with rigid and heavy development project framework have created a need to find new approaches to national development and steering. A need for transformation in education governance is well understood but creating the open, dynamic and strategic governance systems necessary for governing complex systems is not easy. Through The Experimentation Lab experimental culture is used as a vehicle for improving the interaction and building feedback loops between national level steering and local level implementation.
One of the key learnings of the project is that collective learning does not happen by accident, you need tools and methods to facilitate it. The Experimentation Lab is the first national scale attempt in Finland to apply adaptive innovation in the rapidly changing operating environment of education sector. It brings together stakeholders from all levels of the system to learn by doing and focus on what is important.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
There are no ‘silver bullets’, but rather building capacity and agency in the system: instead of focusing only on creating solutions like innovation labs often do, this one strives to systematically build capacity, empower educators as change agents, and support learning across the system.
Collective learning does not happen by accident, tools and methods are needed: Experimentation is used as a vehicle for improving interaction and feedback loops between key stakeholders to build a stronger bridge between strategy and implementation. A multiperspective, human-centred approach to evaluate the experiments developed as a part of the Lab is a tool for that.
The Experimentation Lab strengthens adaptive innovation in Finnish education: the sector, with a long tradition of rigid, top-down development projects, has yet to empower teachers and school leaders as designers of solutions to local challenges - and as role models to pupils in fostering a culture of shared learning, experimentation and innovation.
What is the current status of your innovation?
After the first Experimentation Lab, the realisation of the next iteration is already underway. Current challenge is to evaluate and identify the aspects of the entire process that could be implemented more widely in education government. The first iteration of the programme has served as an invaluable testing ground for new approaches, yet it is not self-evident that EDUFI should start providing this kind of service as such. Some aspects of it could be easily replicated nationwide and some, such as more intensive mentoring could in the future be more targeted to part
Collaborations & Partnerships
The model for the Lab was built together with Demos Helsinki, a Nordic think tank, with prior experience in using experiments to inform national governance.
Benchmarking and peer support: network of government innovation/experimentation organisations in Finland
A multiperspective approach to evaluate the experiments: developed together with researchers from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, using Inforglobe’s digital tools.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Stakeholders and users
Experts and leadership at EDUFI, engaged throughout the process
Participant teams (teachers and other school staff, headmasters, municipal education directors, partner companies, NGO’s)
Education influencers, innovators and intermediary organisations
Schools and wider school communities; in many schools e.g. pupils and families participated in school development for the first time
Local education providers and coordinators of development projects
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Broader participation to form understanding of reality on the ground: teams were selected based on motivation rather than showing the most “innovative” project on paper.
A start in building a missing feedback loop from locally implemented government funded projects to understand their impact.
New tools for steering and supporting development projects. The learnings have already influenced plans for a reform in funding.
The teams have influenced the municipal strategy or the local curriculum with their findings, and the systemic approach to evaluating has improved dialogue among key stakeholders.
The Lab has inspired plans to develop local experimentation labs.
All teams finished the process and many plan to continue the work.
Teachers and school leaders feel more engaged working on solutions to better teaching and learning.
Participation of pupils and families has created powerful learning opportunities and strengthened communities.
Challenges and Failures
The idea and concept for the Experimentation Lab, was born out of a misjudgement of how much room and capacity there is for innovation and experimentation in the current culture of schools and municipalities. Before the Lab, the Innovation Centre had initiated innovation projects and workshop-type gatherings where organisers brought together educators and professionals from the social sector to collectively identify problems and ideate solutions.
However, these interventions ran against a wall when the participants were pushed from conversation towards prototyping and experimenting in real-life. Moving from an idea to application in real-life does not happen organically. Rather, it requires supporting structures and scaffolds. This was the impetus to design the Lab as part of one, “more experimentation friendly” EDUFI development funding cycle organisers co-created together with EDUFI experts. It created the needed structure, timeline, and resources for the participating teams.
Conditions for Success
Since 2015 Finland has taken policy level measures to foster a culture of experimentation and innovation to build capacities among civil service to respond to complexity. The Innovation Centre at EDUFI is the first agency-level innovation, experimentation and development unit and represents a continuation of this larger transformation effort. EDUFI management’s strong commitment to experimental culture has been one of the prerequisites of success.
The momentum was right for a new kind of way to develop education: Traditionally there is not much room for testing, iterating and failure as part of the progress. Instead there is a strong tradition of developing education through 1-2 year-long development projects that are funded from the national to the municipal level. On all levels there is an increasing disillusionment about the impact on better teaching and learning of many development projects that also generate a considerable amount of bureaucracy.
The model for the Lab was built keeping in mind that it could be repeated and all the tools are easy to use and modify. After the first Lab, the realisation of the next iteration is already underway.
The current challenge is to identify the aspects of the entire process that could be implemented more widely in education government. The first iteration of the programme has served as an invaluable testing ground for new approaches, yet it is not self-evident that EDUFI should start providing this kind of service as such. Some aspects of it could be easily replicated nationwide and some, such as more intensive mentoring could in the future be more targeted to participating municipalities based on need.
Communication about the lab has been open and active in social media and other channels that are relevant for the sector. In videos and blogs the voice has been given to participating teams to showcase and reflect their learnings and experiences of co-creating solutions.
1. The Lab has proven a need to intentionally design for enhancing both technical skills and deeper learning in participant mindsets to be effective
Accelerators or innovation competitions in private and in the public sector often focus on adopting new tools and methods, such as service design, to creating better solutions. The barriers to successful implementation of new approaches go far deeper, and require shifts in people’s mindsets and organizations’ culture. A longer duration of programme, intervals of experimenting in the local context and days when teams share lessons are all important aspects of the innovation.
2. Finding the right balance between enough structure, yet enough room for flexibility and co-creation in the programme is important.
The Lab has been designed with the idea that it would leave room for exploring together with the participants what is helpful and what should be changed. This was made explicit in the beginning, and has built a shared commitment to the process.