[This is an English translation of the introduction found in my new book in Swedish about value creation pedagogy, see image and on link here]
Actually, it is a bit too early for me to write a book on value creation pedagogy. After many years of research on the subject, I still do not think I understand the phenomenon well enough. Too many key questions remain unanswered. Too many powerful moments I myself have experienced and been able to observe as researcher amaze and confuse me. When I was first asked a few years ago if I wanted to write a book, I therefore said no thanks. It did not feel right. For sure, we clearly saw the strong light from the glow of value creation pedagogy succeeding in lighting up many students’ motivation. But our understanding of the fervor of learning felt like on an 18th-century level, much like how scientists of that time understood fire as a phenomenon. The chemists then believed that there was a magical substance called phlogiston, which contained all combustible material. During combustion, the phlogiston flowed out of the matter, and only the ashes remained. Today we know that phlogiston was a flawed theory, albeit useful in practice. It is instead oxygen the fire needs to take off, an element that when it was finally discovered was called “fire air” and “elixir of life”.
However, a primitive understanding of why fire burns has never stopped man from making fire and taking advantage of the heat. Therefore, I have now dared to write a book, even though we still have a lot to learn about value creation pedagogy. I now intend to take the risk of spreading a primitive phlogiston theory around students’ learning. Because even if we do not fully know why something works, we can still let ourselves be warmed and rejoiced.
In the book, I will describe the effects we see of value creation pedagogy, explain why we think they arise, and describe how teachers on their own can achieve these effects. The focus will be on the latter. If there is something that now feels important, it is to spread the knowledge about how teachers with the help of value creation pedagogy can light the fire of learning in the classroom and make students passionate about school work.
The three basic principles of value creation pedagogy
Value creation pedagogy is about letting students learn by trying to create something of value for others. Learning is still the goal, but value creation for others is a powerful means that enhances learning. Students are strongly motivated by the feeling of meaningfulness that this way of working creates. They learn more in-depth and take greater responsibility for their learning. At a collective level, the class community is strengthened and leads to fewer conflicts between students. The teaching profession also becomes more fun and more meaningful.
Value creation pedagogy is based on three basic principles. Later in the book I will go into them in more detail. But let me first briefly introduce them here:
1. Value creation for others that results in feedback. First and foremost, value creation pedagogy is about students being allowed to try to create something of value for at least one person outside their own group, class or school. It is the attempt that counts. The value the students try to create can be social, cultural or economic. The attempt should preferably result in some form of feedback from the party or parties the student tried to create value for. Because such feedback is like rocket fuel for a space rocket. Full throttle ahead in their learning.
2. Interaction with real individuals in the outside world. It is possible to create value for others without meeting them, but the personal meeting gives the learning even better momentum. Value creation pedagogy derives much of its primordial power from social and emotionally charged encounters with other people, preferably people whom the student does not know very well or not at all. Therefore, social interaction with people outside one’s own group, class or school is absolutely central.
3. Fine-grained mix of learning and value creation. When theory and practice are mixed, we get in-depth learning among the students. But theoretical learning and practical value creation are unfortunately like oil and water. They separate spontaneously. Therefore, teachers need to constantly strive for as fine-grained a mixture of the two as possible, preferably every week. So that it becomes something like a vinaigrette or even a tasty béarnaise sauce. This requires value creation pedagogy to be integrated into regular teaching. Otherwise it will probably not be a rocket ride, but more a kind of isolated sparkler that will soon go out. A nice break from an otherwise rather boring school day.
Let me give a small example. Imagine a student writing a letter to a famous author of a book the class has just read. The student writes the letter with the hope of getting an answer and therefore makes a little extra effort to write so the author gets something out of the letter (basic principle 1). Here, however, it is far from certain that there will be any feedback. But if an answer still comes, perhaps because also authors like to get feedback, then there will be euphoria for the student (rocket fuel). If the author also takes a liking to the class and wants to come and visit, physically or digitally, the feeling is strengthened that something special is really happening (basic principle 2). If the letter is also written as part of formal education, rather than in a book circle outside the teaching, then the emotional bubble also leads to core teaching being strengthened (basic principle 3).
Pure oxygene for students’ motivation
It is not easy to describe in words the effects we see of value creation pedagogy. Perhaps, however, through metaphors we can approach a description that does the phenomenon justice. What we see is that value creation pedagogy ignites a fire within the students that burns so strongly that teachers and other adults are often surprised, sometimes even amazed. It may be a student who has previously been diagnosed or judged to need special support due to school fatigue, but who then suddenly and unexpectedly blossoms and becomes among the most productive and committed students in the entire class.
Just as oxygen accelerates the fire, value creation pedagogy can make many students’ motivation in their education begin to glow intensely. For teachers, it is then a joy to see the flames of learning flare up in students, or even in whole school classes, where it was perhaps previously most resembling an extinguished fireplace. It is probably not an exaggeration to call value creation pedagogy distilled learning oxygen, or even a kind of elixir of learning.
I myself have strong memories of the moments when I got to enjoy this elixir in my own schooling. The first time was probably when my French teacher at Burgården’s high school sent me on a two-week exchange trip to Burgundy in France, followed by an equally long visit to my family by a living French guy my age. I especially remember the dinners in France with his parents. I could really see how happy they were when I tasted the mold cheese and drank the table wine. Amazing how happy adults can become from seeing minors drink alcohol! It’s also amazing that a little mutual cultural value creation could make me learn French with completely different eyes. My view of language skills changed fundamentally in Chalôn-sur-Saône.
The second time was at Chalmers University of Technology in my hometown Gothenburg, when we in a simulation course in year one got to help Swedish roller-bearing corporation SKF in analyzing their production line for roller bearings. No simulated production line then, but the living real-life production line that spat out thousands of shiny steel sausages every day. My memories from the traditional workshop floor in the Old Town in Gothenburg are still strong. I see myself committed to standing there with the timer clock in full swing, fantasizing about how much more efficient the production might be thanks to us. I don’t think the production manager got any benefit from our diligent work in the end. But that was not how it felt for us. We really helped SKF! I got the highest grade in the course, which was not so common for me at university.
The starting point of my life-long interest in helping others
The third elixir was in 2001 and is still on-going today, twenty years later. Value creation-based learning is not only a strong elixir, it can also be quite addictive. I if anyone know this, because I have overdosed it on myself. For you as a reader, it can be good to know that I myself have taken the highest possible dose of the medicine I recommend to others in my book. For me, this medicine led to an inverted career and a year of sick leave, but also to a lifelong interest in creating new kinds of values for others. I’ll explain shortly. But let’s take it from the beginning.
In 2000, it was time for me to choose a master’s program at Chalmers. I had heard from my fellow students who had not taken study breaks for language studies (in France for my part of course), that there was a master’s program that was extremely fun. Students had to work “for real”. The cohesion in the class was very special and also included the teachers. Based on a technical invention, the students were commissioned to try to make a difference in the community, far outside Chalmers’ safe campus area and in close collaboration with the researchers who had hatched the idea. Everything was apparently called entrepreneurship, a word I myself had no relation to at all. But it still sounded fun, so I applied and was admitted to the program.
Little did I know then how this education would completely change my life path. I had thought that I would become a technology consultant in the industry, just as many of my classmates became. Instead, I graduated and then continued working on the invention we had had to take care of in our student project at Chalmers. My first job was as a low-paid CEO in the transport industry at the small start-up company we started ourselves, which had difficult financial problems. The only glamorous thing was my fake title. I was director of almost nothing. But I was very happy. The classmates called us the diesel rats. Our mission was to help truck drivers save diesel in new ways. We built new digital technology that gave drivers feedback on their driving patterns. After many years of frustrating work, we got it to work, and today Ecodriving Challenge is the world’s largest competition in eco-driving for trucks. Never before in my life had I done anything as insanely motivating. But I also got to taste the reverse side of commitment and passion.
Warning for overdose and language confusion
One day I could not get up from the plush sofa we had in our office. For real. It was not possible to get up. So in the spring of 2004 I had to go home and rest for a year. The doctors called it exhaustion. The elixir had made me burn so much for what I did that I only had ashes left in my head. Not a speck of phlogiston remained. Another month after the crash, I remember walking in disbelief and in slow motion at the train station. Why are all people in such a hurry, I thought.
For a while I was actually a little bitter too. An educational effort had led me into a career path where, after only a few years, I both reached my level of incompetence and was on long-term sick leave due to over-engagement. Certainly a voluntary education, but hardly properly declared. For how could Chalmers describe what awaited their students, when I, as a researcher and teacher in the same education twenty years later, still cannot find the right words? Today, I think it was not the education that caused over-engagement, but entrepreneurship. Fatigue is now a known side effect of entrepreneurship. Therefore, I regularly ask my students to reflect on various stress symptoms.
I was lucky. Not everyone returns after such a crash landing. I returned as CEO and sales manager for our growing business. But in 2009 an unlikely opportunity arose, and I left the company I had co-founded, which by then had grown to about fifty employees. Instead, I returned to Chalmers as a project manager and later a doctoral student at the master’s program where I myself had been wrapped in a kind of crazy but wonderful space rocket and launched into a shaky orbit around the earth. My inverted career was thus complete: from CEO to sales manager to project manager to student. Back in the same old pale yellow former palliative Vasa hospital. Was it now time for me to receive care in the final stages of my career? No, a new journey as researcher began. My research question was of course:
What did they really do with (people like) me in that education?
This has been my main research question now for almost twelve years. And the initial bitterness has been transformed into a fascination that only gets bigger and bigger every year. But also in semantic frustration. Because when I try to describe what we see that students experience, it rarely goes well. We can not even use the word I once learned that this was an example of – entrepreneurship. This word often leads to various misunderstandings, especially in primary and secondary schools. Many teachers believe that we mean economic value creation for the students themselves, that the students should learn to earn quick cash. Or that we mean that all students must now start a business and learn to do accounting.
But we meant something completely different – to let students learn knowledge and skills more in-depth by trying to create all sorts of values for everyone but for the students themselves. Without focusing on money or starting up any new legal entity. So we instead called it value creation pedagogy. Then people listened more attentively to what we had to say. I certainly learned as a doctoral student to never introduce new words when there are established words that can be used. But that was not the case here, the established language apparatus was crashed. Despite this new semantics, we still find the phenomenon’s roots, primordial power and concrete methodological support in the field of entrepreneurship. Although we sometimes need to put different entrepreneurial methods in a kind of semantic washing machine and wash away the economic connotations.
It’s the emotions that do the trick
Early on in my doctoral journey, I found a perspective with great explanatory value around the power of value creation pedagogy, namely the crucial role of emotions for learning. There is probably nothing that burns knowledge into the brain stronger than a really emotional storm. When we think back on our own moments of crucial learning, it’s probably often about highly emotionally charged moments. It can be one of life’s many frustrating moments of failed attempts. Or maybe a moment of euphoria over having learned to ride a bike, swim, read or play the piano. In the high mountains and deep valleys of the emotional jungle, we often find learning in its most colorful form. This is not to say that all learning must be equally deeply emotional. But the biggest source of emotion in our studies turned out to be to do something for another human being.
One of my own most emotionally charged learning moments is again about language. After studying French in Pau in southwestern France, I had decided to learn a new language, whatever. The elixir had certainly intoxicated me. The choice fell on Spanish. I prepared myself by reading up on the first two years’ words, phrases and grammar, on my own, as the theory-loving reading nerd I am. Finally, it was time for the long-awaited on-site learning for four months. On a rainy April day in 1999, I landed in the middle of the center of Madrid and was looking for temporary housing. Ten identical attempts at the telephone booth at Puerta del Sol to call on advertised rooms all ended in the same way – with a click in the handset. I started with the phrase “¡Hola! Quería alquilar una habacation, por favor ”. A simple question about renting a room. Each time, a customary Spanish harangue came up with answers that I did not understand at all. To which I replied “Do you speak English?”. Click.
What then became my vital lesson from this very emotional failure? Well, that theory without practice can work very poorly. I had prepared meticulously with all the theory I could come across. Then I still could not order a sandwich – “un bocadillo, por favor”. Not to mention finding a roof over my head.
I have countless times in my research returned mentally to Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Because value creation pedagogy can come to the rescue for teachers precisely in the difficult but crucial question of how we in practice succeed in weaving together theory and practice. The value creation-based learning processes I have studied in my research often oscillate back and forth between theoretical knowledge and practical value creation. These two phenomena are then mixed in a fine-grained way, often on a weekly basis. The effect is a strong emotional experience that connects theory and practice, and burns the knowledge into the brain, in-depth. We see that many students then achieve the so sought-after in-depth learning for life, not just surface learning for the test.
Why I’ve written this book – anecdotes or research?
I would like to end this introduction with a proper explanation of why an engineer and computer nerd from Chalmers University of Technology here is trying to give teachers guidance on pedagogical issues. What can I reasonably help you teachers with? A question I myself have pondered a lot, not least on the many occasions my research has been criticized.
It has been claimed that my research on value creation pedagogy mostly consists of free fantasies and fabrications, a kind of anecdotal circus journey into the education sector and a stranger’s intrusion on pedagogical ground. But I take such statements with much calmness. The critics cannot have read the method chapter in any of our published articles. The content of this book is not based at all on my personal anecdotes, but on large amounts of carefully collected and analyzed research data from teachers and students in many educational institutions. Good research is often about, as an outside observer, holding up a mirror to those who are being researched. In our case, many teachers have nodded in recognition and liked the image they see of students’ value creation-based learning. However, some few people are provoked, perhaps because the image that is shown does not match their own desired image for education.
However, it is among my own anecdotes and emotional storms that you readers find the answer to why I wrote this book, and why for twelve years I constantly wondered what teachers did to people like me. To me, this is quite personal. My whole life has come to be characterized by value creation-based learning in various forms. First for a decade as a student, then for a decade as an entrepreneur, and finally for a decade as a researcher. Was I the only one who learned best when on a weekly basis I got to experience a fine-tuned mix of theory and practice in emotionally strong real-life experiences that involved real recipients of some kind of concrete value? The answer to that question turned out to be no. Still, today it is a rather uncommon experience for most students. Therefore, in the end, I felt a certain responsibility to write this book. My hope is that the book can contribute to many more students having a motivating school day with in-depth learning for life and with a strong sense of meaningfulness. We adults can probably agree that education is deeply meaningful, but unfortunately it is far from all students who feel that way.
The outline of the book
Part one consists of two basic chapters. First comes a detailed description of what value creation pedagogy is. Then I write about why this can be something really good for the education. After these introductory what-and-why questions comes the second part of the book where I go into more practical how-to questions. Chapter 3 is about sixteen different practical first steps that teachers can take to get started with value creation pedagogy. Chapter 4 describes eleven slightly larger steps to try afterwards. Chapter 5 is about more advanced pedagogical approaches and deeper emotionality for students, similar to regular professional practice. Chapter 6 describes various concrete tools teachers can use. The third and final part of the book is about some different perspectives that have proven to be important and promising. In Chapter 7, I go through various challenges teachers have told me they see with value creation pedagogy. A particularly important challenge is assessment, and it is dealt with separately in Chapter 8. In Chapter 9, I take a closer look at value creation pedagogy for sustainable development, and in the final Chapter 10, I take a closer look at value creation as integration. After the last chapter comes a short epilogue where I look ahead.
The focus has been on keeping the story concise and, above all, concrete. Therefore, I have also included a number of illustrative quotes and mini-interviews with teachers and principals who work with value creation pedagogy in their everyday working lives. These teachers and principals are also my teachers. Over the years, they have shown me what is possible to achieve with value creation pedagogy and how to overcome challenges, resistance and difficulties. Every time I give up, they are there and urge me to “hold on and persevere”.
Throughout the book, I will here and there give my highly personal experiences and perspectives on value creation pedagogy. It certainly goes against academic ways of writing, where the author should preferably be absent in the text. Now, my own stories may not be the most fantastic or interesting here, so feel free to take them with a pinch of salt. But they are mine anyway, and the purpose is to make the book a little more easy to read and entertaining. A little more fun, simply. It would be a shame if I wrote a dry and academically boring book on such a pleasing subject as value creation pedagogy.