Finland’s Me & MyCity occupies a unique space in education. It’s a miniature town where children learn about micro- and macro-economics through role-play. The 12 and 13 year olds who visit the learning environment are each allocated a job for the day, such as CEO of the post office or customer assistant at a logging company. They’re tasked with a series of objectives they have to work with their co-workers to complete, earning a virtual salary to spend at the town’s scale versions of local businesses. The programme has over 20 partner businesses including Helsinki Art Museum, Nokia and Samsung.
We spoke to executive director Tomi Alakoski about how he founded the learning environment, what he hopes children gain from their visit and his plans for taking the idea to other countries.
How did you found Me & MyCity?
I was a teacher in Helsinki for two years before moving to the Finnish Economic Information Office as School Officer. While in that role, it occurred to me that we had a lack of programmes teaching elementary school pupils about economy. I started to think of solutions and had the initial ideas which would lead to Me & MyCity. In 2008, I visited the US to see some American learning initiatives which teach children about working life and entrepreneurship. I also went to lots of science museums in Finland for research.
After developing the idea further, we took it to the owners of our office. They said ‘this is the craziest idea ever and it won’t work’. But I didn’t listen. After 18 months of development, we got our first round of funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture. We started with a two-month pilot of 800 students in 2010.
I then had a few phone calls from people in other Finnish cities who wanted to try the concept in their city: we agreed, on the provision that every student from the age group would attend. We then got the first companies on board. After six years, we have eight sites across Finland and 70% of the age group attend our programme – that’s 45,000 children every school year.
What are the main benefits of visiting Me & MyCity?
The most important thing is learning how to work as part of a team: we try to teach the children that there’s no profession that doesn’t require that skill. We also tell them that they have to be active: the world is changing quickly, and as a result, you have to prepare for uncertainty. In addition, we try to teach the children how to be responsible with money: how loans work and the role banks and taxes play in society.
We’re always thinking about how we can improve the experience. Me & MyCity is like a real society, in that it will never be ready. We’d like to implement coding into the learning environment. I’m also thinking a lot about how to get the whole age group involved – to increase from 75% to 100%.
Do you see the concept travelling outside of Finland?
We’re planning to open in Sweden at some point in the future. We had the first pilot in Stockholm last Spring and had very good feedback. Swedish is one of Finland’s two mother languages, so we have all the materials in Swedish and that makes it easier to work with Swedish schools and companies.
We do plan to move into other regions as well. I think the learning environment and the digital system we use would work elsewhere just as they do in Finland. You could easily make the learning environment look like an English city, for example. The lessons about economy, banking and working wouldn't have to change too much because those things are quite similar across the world. We would need assistance from the local organisations, though. They know their schooling system and national curriculum and they can help us implement the project in their region.
Finnish education is perceived to be particularly innovative. What do you think makes it distinctive?
We have quite a democratic system which tries to give every child the same possibilities, regardless of their background. There’s also a consistent level of quality across the whole of Finland, and you have highly qualified teachers in every school – particularly in elementary schools.
Finland is such a small country that we need everyone. Retirement-aged and elderly people make up a large part of the population, so we really need to activate young people. I think Me & MyCity is one way to help people and make sure they don’t drop out of the system.\
To read more about Me & MyCity, see our blog Finland’s miniature town where children learn to work.
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