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Finland: The Lighthouse of Progressive Education and Divergent Learning

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By Kavan Yee

It has been a number of weeks since my trip to Helsinki. In this time, I’ve had many opportunities to go over my observations of the Finnish school system. As I spoke more and more often about their pedagogy, I could not help but think about David Kolb’s Learning Styles Model and his Experiential Learning Theory. Tweet after tweet, blog after blog you can read of all the #pennfinn13 examples of how our Finnish counterparts put Kolb’s theories into practice. From the teachers, administrators, and students we spoke to, it resonated with me that the commitment to understanding the whole-student was an integral piece to development of the type of learners (or the type of citizens) they want to be. This was quite apparent to me when I visited Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (SYK) and noticed that one of the school’s core values was: “Learning by Doing”. At another school–Innokas Koulumestari–creating innovators is the goal where technology is purposefully integrated with team teaching to support the differentiation of their students. Vice Head Tiina Korhonen believes that “mobile learning is and should be personalized for everyone.” Kolb states that the divergent learnerlikes to gather information and observe everything around him. Because of these traits, the learner is viewed as someone who is creative, open-minded, respectful of other people’s perspective, and has a greater awareness of the perceived affordance.

It is from these examples, I am confident to believe that the principles of the Finnish education system are based upon the promotion of progressive values to create divergent and innovative learners. The true success of this system is not their PISA scores–high stakes testing of facts and statistics is not the goal. Their true success is to create educated citizens–a population that is curious, innovative, creative, open minded, and respectful. Friends, isn’t this the purpose of any educational system? The creation of life-long learners? A community that wants to help each other by solving problems and learning more?

In a previous blog, I questioned if the progressive model translates in the Finnish system– I believe it does. In a conversation I had with Pasi Sahlberg, Director of the Finnish Ministry of Education Centers for International Mobility, he agreed: “If John Dewey was alive today, he would see his words on child-centered and problem-based learning put into practice in Finland.”

Understanding the Whole Child and The Importance of Building a School Community

At SYK, every student in the upper secondary school is placed with an advisor. The advisor and the advisory class “loop” together each year until the student graduates from the school. The advisor acts as the liaison between the parent and the school, monitoring the student’s academic, social, and emotional welfare. The advisory class acts as a microcosm to the larger school universe. To help develop personal introspection and leadership, a Big Brother/Big Sister Program was installed to help with the mentoring of younger students in the primary school. The program begins in 7th grade when a student is paired with a 3rd grader. The relationship grows as the students advance each year together until the mentor graduates from the school. The mentee then becomes the mentor for another 3rd grader, completing the cycle to build a stronger and closer community. “It is so nice to see them grow and mature over time. It’s cool to see them in the hallways and they become your biggest supporters during your last year and at graduation.” – Maria Puolakkainen, 17 year old student at SYK

Development of experiential, hands-on, problem-based units that promote skills in communication and collaboration

“Learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience.” (Kolb, 1984, p.38). I saw examples of problem-based learning in all of the schools we visited. As a Science Curriculum Coordinator, one lesson in particular stood out for me. Calculus students at SYK learn the meaning of knowledge application by finding the volume of an oil spill–using the chain rule and determining the change in the radius with respect to time. Students were asked to question and teach their classmates on how to find solutions to the problem using a document camera.

In the hallways, student work was hung to exhibit the integration of thematic-based units: easels of oil painted cell structures, 3D bird models that show adaptations of evolution, and clay figurines of Angry Birds created in math to help with a lab in physics. At Innokas, popsicle stick homes designed in an architectural unit were first used as the framework to teach students a basic understanding of electrical circuitry in their homes. From this, the application of skills and knowledge promoted some innovation by asking students to design products that would improve their lifestyles–-making a shoe with miniature electrical fans to prevent sweat or lining the inside of a purse with LED-lights to help find objects (which my wife could really use). Students then created ads in iMovie to convince their fellow students to buy their products.

Trust in Our Educators

Establishing an environment of trust was the predominant theme throughout my visit. In the book, Finnish Lessons, Sahlberg speaks of curriculum driven by teachers and students, collaboration between teachers, cooperation between administrators and parents, and the shared leadership of teachers and administrators as the driving forces to create or sustain the trust in a school system. He believes that teacher “isolation and competition contributes to the promotion of a rented policy– prescribed curricula focussed on a standardized test.” Sahlberg suggests that the current American accountability policies pits teachers against each other to create “lemmings racing to nowhere.” In Finland, teachers are given the opportunity to create lessons (or even textbooks) to promote the best practices in thinking and learning for their direct and diverse audience. Sahlberg continues to say that “the irony of education reform is to standardize and make everything uniform. We are doing exactly the opposite, we’re individualizing for our students. How? We invest in creating competent teachers that know how to encourage individual responsibility and promote students wanting to ask more questions.”

Side bar

One issue that I’m still having trouble with is the belief that “the investment in creating competent teachers” leads to creating equality between ALL the schools in the country. University of Helsinki professors at the School of Education believe that there is no competition between schools because “they are all the same”. In a utopian society, this would be ideal– all of the students receive the same education because all of the teachers are highly skilled, selected, and trained “the same way”. It’s hard for me to believe that this is possible. If all the schools want to hire the best teachers, the best professionals go to the best schools. The “best” schools can be determined by many x-factors: school mission, administration, tradition, student admission requirements, etc.. So these best schools produce the best students and gain public attention. With publishing houses in Helsinki reporting school rankings, neighborhoods and property values begin to change. Families begin to move to these top ranked school communities to gain access (or increase the chances for admission). Better neighborhoods have the better schools that send their kids to better universities to prepare these students for a “better” life. Isn’t this what we’re struggling with here in the U.S.? The best education can only be obtained by a select few? I completely believe and agree with placing the trust into competent and well trained teachers– teacher autonomy proves to produce more creativity and differentiation for the students they work with. But I always struggle with absolutes.

Democratic Values: Validation of Student Voice and Choice

Students at Innokas were encouraged to form clubs based on their passions of interest. At the start of a term, students would propose “Innovo Clubs” to gain peer interest. Proposals were presented with the integration of communication and technology skills. If a minimum number of interest was reached, a faculty sponsor and a budget was provided to the group. Time was reserved each week for the clubs to meet, discuss or work on their choice. Interest groups ranged from traditional Finnish weaving to watching the Simpsons. At Helsinki Normal Lyceum, students call their teachers by their first name to eliminate the mystery or superiority of their teachers. It is understood that teachers are viewed upon as “professional experts” of their subjects. However, mutual respect is gained not by a title or name, but by the actions of each individual. Creating a safe and respectful environment that allows for the validation of ALL voices promotes the comfort to take risks and share individuality and thought.

It saddens me to read a few weeks ago that the voices of 8th graders in a South Bronx middle school were oppressed. Students protested the excessive practice and act of taking standardized tests with a peaceful demonstration and signed petitions. According to the petition, they are sick and tired of the “constant, excessive and stressful testing” that causes them to “lose valuable instructional time with our teachers.” School Administrators instead of using this as an opportunity for learning (on many levels) decided to place the blame on the student’s social studies teacher for “actions [that] caused a riot at the school.”

More than 160 students in six different classes refused to take last Wednesday’s three-hour practice exam for next month’s statewide social studies test. Instead, the students handed in blank exams. Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

“We’ve had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year,” Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. “They don’t even count toward our grades. The school system’s just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams.”

School administrators blamed the boycott on a 30-year-old probationary social studies teacher, Douglas Avella.

“They’re saying Mr. Avella made us do this,” said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. “They don’t think we have brains of our own, like we’re robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests.”

Several students defended Avella. They say he had made social studies an exciting subject for them.

“Now they’ve taken away the teacher we love only a few weeks before our real state exam for social studies,” Tatiana Nelson said. “How does that help us?”

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/bronx-8th-graders-boycott-practice-exam-teacher-ax-article-1.330981#ixzz2R9DG2Azq

Is this how we promote democratic values? Is this the “robotic” society we’ve become? Is this the new formula on how to create innovation with oppression? Does a three-hour practice for a standardized test promote critical thinking? Who are we accountable to–-the students or the companies that make the exams?

In Closing

As you can tell, I left Finland with so many take away thoughts and questions. If we are really interested in changing the U.S. education system, we have to move from this prescribed philosophy of industrialized education. We are living with an educational model that is supposed to teach “common information” at predetermined grade levels to produce what?  Little robots that can recall information without any sense of how to use or to apply that knowledge? Lemmings racing to nowhere? How is this approach helping to create individuals that are passionate about learning? A population that can think for themselves? If Sir Ken Robinson taught us anything about Changing Education Paradigms, it is that we need to rethink our educational model. We need to take the risks of doing something different. Maybe we should follow Finland’s lead. Finland has become the beacon of light, signaling us to embrace the ideals of student-centered learning and creating a society of caring, respectful, citizens. Because of this, I will gladly follow.


8 Comments

  1. [...] is proving to be invaluable to some of my thinking and dot connecting. Thanks to this blog post: “Finland: The Lighthouse of Progressive Education and Divergent Learning,” by Kavan Yee, shared by Chris [...]

  2. Pasi Sahlberg says:

    Well said, Kavan! Many other observers of Finnish education in practice have concluded like you. It was the late Seymour Sarason with whom I had a privilege to spend a week here in Finland in the mid-1990s said it as well. He reminded his Finnish audience then that if John Dewey was alive and with us here today, he would have probably said that “This is close to what I have been writing about progressive education”. I think the Finnish strength really is that these values and that philosophy of education is so wide spread within the system. It is not just some lab schools that are like that but most schools. This creates the ethos of schooling among teachers and leaders of education in Finland.

  3. How is it that progressive education is taught to new teachers, or do they learn it by experiencing it in school? Can progressive education be taught?

  4. […] Finland: The Lighthouse of Progressive Education and Divergent Learning « Penn-Finn Learnings 2013 […]

  5. Buenas tardes, os ha dicho alguien que vuestro blog puede ser adictiva ? estoy preocupada, desde que os recibo no puedo parar de mirar todas vuestras sugerencias y estoy muy feliz cuando recibo uno más, sois lo mejor en español, me encata vuestra presentación y el curre que hay detrás. Un beso y abrazos, MUCHAS GRACIAS POR VUESTRO TRABAJO, nos alegrais la vida.

    Saludos

  6. cthebean says:

    Have you read these reviews and rankings of Finnish Schools by publishers in Helsinki? Is it true that demographics are changing and house values going up in neighborhoods with publicly recognized schools? Or is this just a concern of yours-that it could happen?

  7. Decci says:

    Reblogged this on The Life of Decci and commented:
    second note-to-read on Finland’s education system

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