Dialogues, Outi
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What we can learn from Burning Man

Outi Kuittinen designs and facilitates collaborative knowledge-creation. As head of “co-creation and open innovation” at the renowned Finnish think tank Demos Helsinki, Outi knows well both the fervor and the frustration of seeking to learn together how to solve a complex societal question. For Outi, personally and societally relevant knowledge creation happens not within typical courses but in wild and adventurous collaboration projects. Read on and follow Outi in how Burning Man might offer a glimpse of the future of lifelong learning.

Interview Björn Müller

How do you perceive the situation of adult learning in Finland at the moment?

Outi Kuittinen: Learning has its strong institutions. It is a wonderful system for both employers and employees. As employee you can go to a training, or you can take study leave and then go back to your employer. But we don’t award or recognize informal learning or people’s skills. While it seems different from an outside perspective, Finland is still a very degree-oriented country and nation. And these degrees narrowly define what you can do, they define a lot the professional pathways.

Not only in Finland, the “system” seems to be still living in an outdated world…

Yes, somewhat. The contexts of learning, of lifelong learning, have multiplied, especially in the digital world. Now we can, to certain degrees, choose our own channels and our “communities”. In our developed societies, we have so much choice in finding ways to develop ourselves, to flourish.

What are more adequate ways to enable and capture 21st century knowledge?

I give you an example from our own work. Many years ago we wrote a report on ‘international skills and know-how’ for the Center for International Mobility under the Ministry of Education. It started because Finnish employers were not valuing international experience – the very raison d’être for the Center for International Mobility. So we started to dig into this and asked what is behind international experience or know-how. In the top part of the iceberg you have your language skills, cultural skills and cultural context knowledge and so on that you acquire through international experiences. But under the surface, there is a whole lot of other aspects that a broader international context brings you. To summarize it, we chose the simple but compelling term ‘curiosity’ that international experience grows in a person.

Curiosity? Was this taken up?

Indeed, it resonated a lot in education circles. In the past years there has been a lot of talk about curiosity and how our educational institutions should feed people’s curiosity. For me personally, curiosity is a value – it is curiosity that connects us working here [at Demos Helsinki] for example. I think without curiosity, your path will cut short.

How do you see curiosity and life-long learning connect?

At the moment, I’m not personally so much interested in how we educate people, as in “education” and “formal education.” Taking curiosity as both driver and goal, learning is a more suitable concept. I think that some of the really strong experiences that people have, when they experience something that really gets them, they are connected to learning.

Can you give an example of what you mean here?

When we did Koulu School, a pop-up school based on peer-to-peer teaching, for the first time, people were very, very excited about it. The so called students of course, but especially the peer teachers. There is something, it’s kind of a vulnerable situation where you are opening up your knowledge and trying to share it with others. And then it’s exciting, and for some it was really nerve-wracking first. But then you get people to connect with you, and this is strong. For me, learning can forge a very strong connection between people, and that’s why it excites people so much when they do peer-to-peer learning. I’ve seen this with Koulu School with adults in Finland and with young people in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Personally, I’ve been involved in two projects at Burning Man event. First we ran the Koulu School there, and last year I was part of art project called Space on Fire. We put a 120 m2 architectural structure in the burning hot, freezing cold desert, with a station receiving signals from space and a light & sound installation inside. People put so much voluntary effort and money into this, it was crazy and amazing.

So some kind of collective curiosity?

Yes and pushing limits of your capabilities, together. I believe what lot of people miss in their lives is putting a joint effort into something. At Burning Man everyone has to do some sort of joint effort, building a camp they live in or an art installation. I think one of the most wonderful human experiences is striving for something together with others. And I see that many people lack that. And in this Space on Fire project at Burning Man, which was a massive project, people pushed their own limits, always asking themselves: “Can I do this kind of thing?” And then everyone was like “Shit, we can do this!?” I made friends with a carpenter and and he was like: “I didn’t really even know that I can do something like this.” So it was also individual learning experiences, where learning happened through doing such a massive project in such demanding circumstances that basically it shouldn’t have been done. So it’s been a huge learning experience for a lot of people, leading them to keep on saying: “I wonder what we are doing next, because it seems like we can do whatever!” It changed people’s perception on their capabilities and our collective capabilities. This is something that we need the lifelong learning to produce in people, in this world where everything seems to change all the time, and we are required to readapt continuously.

What can we learn from Burning Man then?

Burning Man and similar kind of learning environments are very interesting compared to “I go to a course” – which are mostly rather passive and boring (when it comes to courses to adults, I often have hard time believing that Finland is an education superpower.) What we can learn from Burning Man is the power of building something experimental but for real with others – while at the same time, there is safety. Because it doesn’t matter if the Burning Man project fails. So it’s not a matter of life and death, but it’s a purposeful learning environment because you want to produce this thing with your crew for other participants.

Purposeful learning environments sounds convincing, what is the challenge?

I once asked on Facebook: “If you had €2000 for learning, where would you use it?” Nobody suggested a course. They suggested things like: “I’d take two days off, go to countryside and read these books. Or I would do this on my own” None of them was saying: “Hey here’s a cool course for you”. But if you would suggest at your workplace: “I’ll use my €2000 training money for a trip to Burning Man, I take my own holidays, I’m joining this project and with the 2000€ I’m covering part of my costs going there,” which employer would say: “Yes, that’s what you can use your training money on”?

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