Finnish researchers are collaborating with international colleagues to help us understand how we learn.
HUMANITY has been learning from time immemorial. With ages of accumulated experience, one might think the art and science of erudition was well understood. But actually, we have a lot to learn about learning.
“We still do not know how people actually learn,” explains Jari Multisilta, the Director of Cicero Learning at the University of Helsinki. “The brain sciences can tell us how the human brain works, and it can also provide us new kinds of research and measuring tools, so that we could understand more about attention, for example.”
Cicero is an apt name, and it is an apt acronym. It stands for Cross-disciplinary Initiative for Collaborative Efforts of Research on Learning. Its namesake, the knowledgeable and influential Roman senator Marcus Tullius Cicero, brought together such fields as philosophy, political science and history in his writings. The modern-day network named after him does the same thing.
“We have researchers from behavioural sciences, brain sciences and technology, among others,” continues Multisilta. “It is important to bring researchers from different areas to solve problems on education. I think that researchers coming from different research backgrounds can solve the challenges we face with our education today.”
The members of Cicero Learning include Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, University of Lapland, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, and University Consortium of Pori. It also builds cooperation with research groups and units around the world.
Brain, learning and education
One of the research focuses of the group is Brain, Learning and Education. Sometimes called educational neuroscience or neuroeducation, this field seeks to understand the biological, neural, philosophical, psychological and social processes of learning. The University of Helsinki’s Teija Kujala is responsible for coordinating the research in this area.
She says: “Brain research carried out in Cicero Learning aims at determining neural mechanisms of learning and impaired neural processes which cause learning deficits, such as dyslexia and autism spectrum.
“Our studies have shed light on neural plasticity associated with language processing, for example, the effects of bilingualism on speech processing. Recently we acquired novel data on rapid automatic learning, suggesting that our brain constantly forms representations on novel spoken words. Thus, these studies have revealed both long-term learning effects as well as rapid learning mechanisms in the brain.”
Kujala says the dyslexia research undertaken by the group have shown a wide-spread auditory-phonetic discrimination deficit as well as impairments in audiovisual integration.
“We have shown that it is possible to improve the functioning of these neural processes with computer-based audiovisual intervention,” she continues. “Our results showed that these neural changes are accompanied by improved reading-related skills. Even a short training period, altogether three hours, improved these skills in preschool children.”
Finland is widely regarded to have one of the best education systems in the world, as well as special strengths in mobile technology, gaming and neuroscience. These assets can come together in novel ways: Multisilta points out that with new mobile data collection tools they can observe people learning not only in a lab, but also in real life situations.
Researchers around the world are interested in working with Finnish experts in these fields. Visiting researchers from Stanford have come to Finland, and Finns have gone to Stanford. Working with Eric Hamilton from Pepperdine University, Multisilta is helping direct research teams solve research problems, such as how to use games in learning.
Multisilta is also currently working with Hannele Niemi from the University of Helsinki on mobile video storytelling, using a social media video platform he developed. In the Finnable 2020 project schools in Greece, Finland and California collaborated on video storytelling.
“For example, 13 to 15 year-old students have created stories about their local history, recycling and the use of water in their daily life,” he says. “Imagine how much more interesting it is to learn about Greek mythology from the videos made by students of your own age, instead of only using books or videos made by a professional producer. In these videos there is a lot of space for the students’ own voice.
“I think that in the future, video will be more and more used for learning. I came to this conclusion by watching what kids do today. Our research also proves this. Teachers who have started to use video storytelling in the classroom observe that it really changes the way the class works. Collaboration, international co-creation and cultural understanding are just a few 21st Century skills that you can learn through collaborative video storytelling.”
Text: David J. Cord
Cicero Learning Network
Science Across Virtual Institutions