What are we allowed to teach?

A team in the Helsinki Challenge competition is searching for taboos at the University of Helsinki.

Does the University of Helsinki have banned teaching subjects? This was what was on Katalin Miklóssy’s mind after the Aleksanteri Institute researcher encountered restrictions in her teaching cooperation with a Belarusian university.

“We westerners tend to be full of smug complacency even though we don’t really know how democratic our own university is. That’s why we decided to find out,” she explains.

Miklóssy is in charge of the Helsinki Challenge competition team Higher Education Unbounded, a project focusing on developing new methods for teaching difficult and sensitive topics. For the Belarusians, such topics included democracy and human rights. What about for Finns?

Miklóssy and her colleagues drafted a survey which was distributed among teachers at the University of Helsinki. The end of April was the deadline for replies, and the analysis is now underway. The team received a total of approximately 100 responses from all faculties.

Most respondents felt that no restrictions applied. However, some topics relating to politics and gender were pointed out. Challenging the dominant paradigm is not encouraged in certain fields.

“I was most shocked by how prevailing paradigms restrict research and teaching. If professors force new perspectives into the margins, science will be stuck in old patterns and innovation will die,” Miklóssy claims.

Researchers in the mainstream of their field also tend to be more successful in terms of funding applications, publications and recruitment.

“You could say that it’s irresponsible to train doctoral students to think independently if doing so means they will fail in the academic world. On the other hand it’s worth asking how the academic world expects to survive if this is how it operates,” says Emilia Palonen, a team member from the Department of Political and Economic Studies.

Restrictions can be dodged

The Higher Education Unbounded team seeks to create teaching methods that will encourage students to become active, socially responsible citizens. Such methods would be as applicable in Finland as in authoritarian countries.

It is impossible to bring democracy into a dictatorship from the outside, but teaching methods based on dialogue and active participation can be shared. Many teachers are willing to flout the restrictions placed on teaching; they are just looking for ways to do it.

“We want to inspire and support teachers in all countries in their work. We want to emphasise that every issue has many perspectives,” Miklóssy says.

The teaching methods that the team encourages include debate courses, role-playing and cooperation with NGOs. The team is working on a teaching method toolkit called WeQ, which represents the strength of the community, in contrast to IQ-based thinking, which focuses on the skills of the individual.

“The intention is to think together, not just follow the teacher’s thinking. Lecturing from a Powerpoint presentation is not going to create active citizens,” Palonen states.

Taboos in Tbilisi

In mid-May, Miklóssy, Palonen and their colleague Anne Nevgi piloted their project at the Tbilisi State University in Georgia. The week-long intensive course of inquiry-based learning included students from two universities in Georgia and two in Belarus as well as the University of Helsinki. The programme featured a workshop, a debate course and a café organised by NGOs.

Next autumn, the University of Helsinki will organise a course in university pedagogy focusing on the team’s methods; the course is open to all interested teachers. The team will also conduct a new survey about taboos with a new, improved set of questions.

“To teach taboo subjects, we must know what they are,” Miklóssy says.