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Eliisa Leskisenoja: a PhD on enjoying school

21.10.2016

Eliisa Leskisenoja defended her thesis in education at the end of September. She is among the first to finish a PhD in one of the University’s new interdisciplinary doctoral programmes. In her research Eliisa investigated how one can get children as excited about school as they get about hobbies or friends.

Eliisa finished her master’s in 1997 at the University of Turku’s teacher training school in Rauma. She was interested in doing a PhD early on, but right after graduation went to work in comprehensive school. The topic for her thesis gradually took shape during her years as a schoolteacher in Espoo, Ulvila and Sodankylä.

Eliisa recalls: ”I became concerned when I saw the widening gap between school achievement and school satisfaction among Finnish schoolchildren. School did not seem to generate the same degree of excitement in them as hobbies, friends and other important things in their lives. And I wanted to do something about it.”

In looking into how to promote happiness at school, Eliisa drew on psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of well-being. The findings were concrete and straightforward. She concluded that satisfaction with school is the product of many different, simple ingredients, such as the teacher’s attitude, variety in the teaching methods used and warm and caring relationships.

Making school easy is not what makes pupils happy. School involves challenges, setbacks and disappointments. It is the responsibility of the school and the teacher to see to it that when children encounter these, the environment is one that gives them a feeling of security and encouragement.

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Audience of the doctoral defence.

Doing the degree is a complex process of growth

Embarking on a PhD always means embarking on a process of growth. Doing the thesis not only produces insights that benefit science but also develops the author’s skills as a researcher. In Eliisa’s case, the PhD also had a direct impact on her work as a schoolteacher.

As she points out, ”The heart of my research journey – my year of action research with my sixth-graders – was the greatest and most enriching year of my career thus far.”

She observed that creating happiness and motivation among pupils are much less a matter of material resources than of everyday choices. The decisive element is the kind of relationship teachers build with their pupils. Professional detachment is not an option: the pupils have to feel that the teacher genuinely cares about them.

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Interdisciplinary programme gets her there

Eliisa finished up her thesis in the multidisciplinary programme Communities and Changing Work. Her status was that of junior researcher, which gave her the opportunity to focus on her research and engage with a broad academic community.

She comments: “The doctoral programme gave me the chance to immerse myself in writing up the thesis. It also offered me a multidisciplinary perspective on my topic and the chance to delve into subjects I probably would not have looked into otherwise as part of my postgraduate studies.

Eliisa says she has much to thank her particular programme for but also cites the joint courses for all the PhD candidates at the University, which give a good foundation in the philosophy of science and general researcher skills. She sees room for improvement as well:

“Coming from the Faculty of Education as I do, I would naturally like to see more education-oriented content in the doctoral programmes. This would attract more doctoral candidates in the field into the thematic programmes.”

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Eliisa defended her thesis at the University on 30 September 2016. It was titled Vuosi koulua, vuosi iloa – PERMA-teoriaan pohjautuvat luokkakäytänteet kouluilon edistäjinä [A year of school, a year of joy – classroom practices based on the PERMA theory in promoting happiness at school].

Images and original text in Finnish / TN

Translation / RF