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In this school we are a family – Visiting Knapp Elementary School

In the beginning of our visit to Knapp Elementary School outside of Philadelphia, the Principal Joe Mazza welcomed all students, personnel and us visitors to begin the new school day through central radio.  The announcement included birthday wishes to all having birthday at a current day and because of becoming vacation, birthdays on summertime were also mentioned. Students were involved in the announcement and in the end of it they said their pledge to the day: “I am a smart, special, valuable person. I respect my self and I respect others. My words are kind and honest. I accept only my best in all I do. I am PROUD to be me!”
We began our school tour in the concert made by the school orchestra. They surprised us by playing our national anthem “Maamme”. What an awesome moment! It was really a pleasure to meet all the students and answer their questions. We were happy to tell them some cultural and other information about Finland and were asking the questions about their schooling. They were happy to hear about the possibilities to peer collaboration next fall with Finnish students.

After the school tour Knapp leadership teams shared comprehensive efforts on the part of the school teams. Teachers in Knapp may choose their team in the beginning of the term and there are approximately 7-9 teachers in a team. Sounds very familiar to us: we have same kind of shared leadership and teamwork idea also in Koulumestari School in Espoo. Sharing more specifically these practices and experiences could be very rewarding in the future.

In Knapp they use social media and web based tools to share the information needed. As the school is multicultural having about 22 languages spoken in the students’ homes, they have translated the most important information at their website into all languages by using Google translator. Also various other home school partnership practices was highlighted. This is also our common goal – developing home, school and community partnership and practices and the use of technology in this collaboration.

Warm thanks to Knapp personnel, students and parents! It was great to meet you and feel the family-like atmosphere at your school.

Tip of the day: How about recycling your children’s books? At Knapp they had a bookshelf where you can bring your old book and take a “new” with you.

Minna, Kati and Tiina, Koulumestari School/Learning Center Innokas, University of Helsinki

Caring for youngsters – A Visit to Science Leadership Academy (SLA)

Our school, Koulumestari is a normal Finnish elementary school, where we focus on child-centered teaching strategies, inquiry, project-based learning and the use of technology.

 

It was wonderful to pay a visit to the school, SLA, which shares the same thinking. Science Leadership Academy (SLA) is a public high school. It is a 1:1 project-based laptop school where all students and teachers use computers as a learning tool. There are a lot of similarities between our school and SLA and we would like to share a few examples of these practices with other educators. We think that the practices can be employed both with young kids as well as with older students. Internship At SLA, an internship is part of a student’s personalized learning plan. During their internship, 10th and 11th grade students work 2 hours per week every Wednesday in a place they have chosen together with their teacher. A few of the students interned at SLA as senior assistant teachers, one student described her job as an assistant in the medical museum. Experiences of these whole year internships were introduced to others as “capstone” presentations. During their internship year, a student can see if their intern job is something for them in the future. At Koulumestari school we have a similar practice, with the 4th, 5th and 6th grade students applying for an internship for a day. They apply for a job at the nearby library, day care center, the school kitchen, the school janitor’s or at the school as a tutor. After their work day they write and publish a blog entry about their day. Personal responsibility A key practice we observed at SLA was the development of self-image and self-regulation skills. On every grade the students’ reflection is guided by a few core questions (pictured below).  Posted on the walls, the questions are present in every school day.

Every person working in the building has access to every room. Students can spend their break in the teachers’ lounge and principal Chris Lehmann’s door is open for students, teachers or guests to pop in for a chat. The school presents a warm and caring atmosphere. Self-regulation skills are present also at Koulumestari School, on every grade level. We use various practices in order to encourage students in exploring themselves: Who am I? What are my strengths? We also use a lot of self-evaluation and goal-setting. During the past few years we have created learning places for students in and around the school. If a student has earned their teachers’ trust, they can choose their preferred learning place.  You can come across students working in the sofa group in the lunchroom as well as at tables in the hallway. It was great to notice so many similarities and get tips and new ideas during our visit.

Tip of the day: “If I want the teachers to take care of students I have to take care of teachers” (Chris Lehman, Principal/SLA)

Kati Sormunen, Minna Kukkonen and Tiina Korhonen, Koulumestari School / Learning Center Innokas/ University of Helsinki

What about leadership?

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

By Susan Feibelman

When fellow UPenn doctoral student @Joe_Mazza hatched the idea that we should stretch our qualitative researcher wings and take to the road, Finland’s famed schools (thank PISA and Pasi) was the “just-right” destination.  Anticipating the trip, I knew I would use this exploration to extend my interest in the intersection of school leadership and social identity with in the context of Finnish schools. More specifically I was curious about our Finnish colleagues’ construction of leadership as a gendered endeavor. Coming from the independent school world where the majority of headmasters are Caucasian, male, and in their 50s, I wondered of more than 20 years of progressive educational reform might result in a different construction of gender and leadership for Finnish school principals?

After four days of non-stop conversation with Finnish and US educators about teacher preparation, student voice, curriculum development, special education and parent engagement, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I know so little about the habits of leadership that have grown out of Finland’s self-named education “miracle.” Did I not ask the right questions? Were my own biases and assumptions getting in the way of what I was hearing? Or—perhaps my lack of clarity is emblematic of the state of Finnish education when it comes to formal leadership roles Finnish schools today.

Throughout the week our Nordic colleagues have been quick to remind us that just like US educators, they continue to grapple with the complex work of building an equitable educational system. This includes wrestling with the responsibilities of school principals, as well as the ways in which school leadership is enacted by teachers and students across each school community.

I continue to be impressed by the value Finns place on education and the ways in which the role of teacher has been privileged. Not only is acceptance into university teacher education programs a highly competitive process, the autonomy, professional engagement of teachers is evidenced in their development of teaching materials, use of collaborative planning time, and the organization of professional spaces on school campuses (see Jen b.) Within this environment why would a teacher ever choose to take up the mantle of headmaster or school principal?  (Note to self—for the health and well being of all our schools we should be exploring the answer to this question!)

What I think I understand is Finnish teachers can choose to be educated as a school leader and PhD studies are not required.  Aspiring headmasters/principals emerge from the faculty of schools and must complete a series of professional development offerings from the Finnish National Board of Education:

A person is qualified as a principal, when he or she has a higher university degree; the teaching qualifications in the relevant form of education; sufficient work experience in teaching assignments; and completed a qualification in educational administration in accordance with requirements adopted by the Finnish National Board of Education or studies in educational administration with a scope of no less than 25 credits organised by a university, or otherwise obtained sufficient knowledge of educational administration. (Finish National Board of Education, 2012)

It also seems to me that as a result of educational reforms headmasters/principals are in the process of re-defining how school leadership is being enacted across the country. This re-framing served as the subtext for each of the conversations we have had this week:

  •  Thirty-five year veteran of upper secondary school leadership, Atso Taipale met with us at the University of Helsinki on Monday, thoughtfully described efforts to work side-by-side with teachers and emphasized his trust in their professional skills.
  •  Principal Jukka Tanska and Vice-Principal Jukka Niiranen at SYK http://www.syk.fi/info-en included the #PennFinn13 team in their Wednesday,12:30 faculty briefing on the day of our visit. Although I understood not a word being discussed, the mood was collegial and welcoming, giving us a lot to think about how we approach faculty meetings in our own schools.
  •  Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ not only described the collaborative culture of Koulumestari, but also modeled these principles as she worked with faculty throughout our day together.
  •  Aki Puustinen @puustin headmaster of Muurame Senior High School and Coordinator of Finnish Entrepreneurship and Social Media Networks drove for three hours with colleague and teacher-counselor, Timo Llomåki @llotimo to be with us at the University of Helsinki for Edutopia’s Global Hangout on Finnish education.  The two have undertaken a multi-year exploration of technology integration and both men model leadership as connected educators through their use of social media.

I want to believe we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our Finnish colleagues as we grapple with the ways in which school leadership is enacted in the US.  Certainly the inspiration for this practitioner-based inquiry to Finland is an example of what’s possible when like-minded educators make a commitment—based on mutual trust and collaboration—to interrogate their leadership practices.

That Look I’ve Most Certainly Seen Before

“The young cherish people and places from which they receive the skills and the emotional support which enable them to make it in the world or to meet their basic human needs”  -James P. Comer

Yesterday we visited an elementary School in Finland, a small learning community focused on innovation. From the moment we entered the learning community we could see that the environment was organized as a space respectful of the stakeholders who would call that particular facility “home”. Through focused observation we gained a sense that we were in the midst of a child centered community taking note of some of the same promising practices we observed during our Finish school visits.

Our experience was peppered with exemplary examples of intentionality, highlighted by a professional learning community focused on student achievement by way of targeted teacher development. There was tremendous “buy in” from all stakeholder groups as one interviewed parent expressed her allegiance to the school, its mission and the faculty members who worked committedly to ready her child for collegiate study and a productive life thereafter. This was an awesome school with a culture designed for learning and once again a place where “trust” was an essential component of school development. However, even in the most successful of places, we find that challenges exist and during today’s visit, one particular challenge spoke loud and clear.

While observing what I considered to be an innovative activity highlighting the intelligences of participating students, I became somewhat distracted by a young girl whose face looked somewhat different from the many faces I observed throughout the past four days. Uncertain as to whether my observation was justified, I proceeded on with my note taking but couldn’t help but continue thinking about the young girl’s face and the question of inquiry that followed me over four thousand miles, from New York to Finland. How does race and culture (among Finland’s minority) factor into this now understood culture of Finish “trust and tradition”. Is life the same for students who look, sound and think differently. Enter a young Finish student named Aira. She hesitantly walked across the room and initiated a conversation. This young sixth grader struck up a conversation with me about New York City, Times Square and her desire to “one day see the bright lights.” I decided at that point to take the opportunity to informally interview the young 6th grader to gain a perspective that had only been afforded me on one other occasion during my tenure in Finland. Similar to the young ninth grader I interviewed the day before, Aira was of African descent. Her mother was from Finland and her father from Central Africa.

During my time with Aira we talked about school and her feelings concerning her teachers and her peers.  She affirmed her teachers as she described the degree of support she receives from them.  Unfortunately, according to her, the same could not be said about her peers. “I don’t have many friends”, she expressed. I immediately asked, why?  It was at that moment she looked down at the floor, pointed to her skin and whispered something which fell short of my range of hearing. I asked Aira to repeat what she said, she looked up, surveyed the room, and with “that look of shame” on her face (of which I am all too familiar), she pointed to her skin once again and said, “my color”. At this time multiple thoughts raced through my head.  I’m not exactly sure why, because it was a question I had on my mind since first reading Finish Lessons. I proceeded to restate what I thought she expressed while simultaneously pointing to my own skin and she signified with a quick and definitive “YES”. I subsequently asked Aira to sit and there began a conversation that reciprocally served the both of us throughout the day. We talked about the friends she does have, her interests in dance and music.  We talked about her travels abroad. We discussed her being a highly expressive individual in a place where “that’s not good”. She mentioned that all too often people interpret her behavior as loud or rude. I couldn’t help but enjoy Aira’s smile, her openness and energy throughout our conversations.  She was that same individual that I see in my school each and every day whose desire is nothing more (whether pre-adolescent, adolescent or adult) than to feel a sense of safety, belonging and acknowledgement. It was clear to me that this was something Aira was in need of attaining. Unfortunately, her reality left her far from her desired destination.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow shared his theory of a hierarchal order of needs. As such we have become clear that there are certain physiological and psychological needs that must be addressed if we are to experience an affirming affect of self-belief, self-trust and ultimately self-actualization. There are millions of Airas in schools throughout the world who are not on course to experience personal actualization simply because they are not engaged in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to them. They are not receiving the requisite support needed to embrace that feeling of belonging. If it is our goal as educational advocates to ensure high levels of achievement for all learners, it behooves us to remain ever cognizant that there is a prerequisite work that begins with first seeing our students as they are and subsequently creating and developing environments that address the most basic of our student’s needs. Years ago, I remember viewing a TED talk hosted by Ken Robinson.  Prior to completing his talk, Robinson shared a story of a young girl who found herself on the right side of misunderstanding. This position which was taken by teachers and ultimately her mother could have ended in misdiagnosis ultimately leading to a life unfulfilled.

As a current Principal I wholeheartedly understand the danger in drawing definitive conclusions from a one day visit, however that look that I observed is universal and the conversation, quite the same. I must however, commend my Finnish colleagues of the school as during my exit conversation with administrators we discussed my findings (as they themselves observed Aira continuously seeking me out throughout the day).  We talked about the creation of a formal structure/forum that would extend to students like Aira opportunities to express her thoughts and feelings. We further discussed the importance of extending efforts beyond the one day celebrations highlighting cultural foods, garments, etc. as a result, we are forging a partnership where my school, Riverton Street Charter School, will engage their school in a Skyping collaborative so that Aira and the members of her community can enjoy authentic opportunities to converse with children of different backgrounds, interests and experiences.

In the final analysis, our work to develop global citizens begins with helping children feel good about themselves and others.  All stakeholders have a role in ensuring that students develop holistically across physical, cognitive, social-interactive, speech-language, ethical and psychological pathways.   I’ve observed many examples of healthy development during my week here in Finland.  It is clear that school leaders are beginning to work intentionality/strategically to address the holistic needs of their students as evidenced by the structuring of child welfare teams, tasked guidance counselors, social engagement facilitators, etc. However, as in America the question of “all” continues to surface and according to my observations and discussions this week, I believe there’s much work to be done developing cultural competencies here as well.

The Voice of the Finnish Parent

2nd Grade Mom, FINLAND

2nd Grade Mom, FINLAND

By Joe Mazza

“I deeply trust the schools here in Finland.” 2nd Grade Parent, Koulumestari Elementary

One of the areas I’ve noticed written about the least in Finland’s education system is how schools engage families. As someone who is constantly looking through this lens, I was anxious to get to Helsinki to look for answers from students, teachers, leaders AND actual parents sending their children to school.
The videos embedded below (apologize for video quality) is a two-part interview with a 2nd grade parent at an elementary school we visited this week. It’s important to note, that like reflections on all of our team’s posts, our visit to Finnish schools was very exploratory in nature. Our takeaways come strictly from what we saw, heard and experienced walking around the schools for a week in Finland.
Part 1/2
Part 2/2

5 Things that have me thinking…

  • Trust: “We have it pretty easy,” said the parent.  Trust is embedded throughout. It is ubiquitous. Student, teachers, parents, leaders, policy. You do what you need to support what’s best for kids without all the red tape. The teachers spend a great deal of time with the students, even eating lunch with them each day. The parent went on to say, “When my husband and I trust the teachers, my children trust the teachers”.  Schools are safe. Many schools are KiVa Schools, but generally students were very well-behaved, and bullying of any form was not tolerated. I came away feeling like I was leaving a warm and caring family’s house.

  • Home-School Communications: Varied and not one size fits all. WILMA and other varied communications are offered to families to support face to face relationships. WILMA is much like many student information systems (SIS) back in the US. Parents can log in, see performance, attendance, behavior, etc.

  • Parent-Teacher Relationship: What kind of people they are. What do they think about education, pedagogy, our children. They are very qualified. Proud and know their profession very well. I can always contact them, and email them.

  • Overall Goals: It’s so important that parents and teachers get together regularly and build relationships with each other. We learned of things found in the US like parent nights, parent-teacher conferences, volunteer opportunities. The mom we interviewed shared her hopes for her child’s future: 1) Finds his way of living. 2) Finds his career and what he likes. She hopes he goes to the University and graduates. 3) The most important thing is that he trusts himself and knows what is best for him.

  • Homework: The elementary classes we observed received homework almost everyday mainly in the form of writing and math. However, there were no more than 15 minutes expected of homework. The 8th grade calculus class we observed ended with two words, “no homework.”  In another school, an upper secondary class spent 10 minutes of the 75 answering student questions on homework problems, so we know that it is given. This further illustrates the fact that there are a range of approaches with much of what goes on in schools here in Finland, but little homework seems to be the default.

In the end, one of the coolest things about this inquiry trip is that as more native Finns followed the #pennfinn13 hashtag, they chimed in with their own thoughts, thus expanding the depth of our visit’s perspective.  One of the Finnish teachers tweeting us from another region of the country shared how she used a Facebook page and blogs to provide a snapshot of the week ahead for the learners, then post captured learning moments/accomplishments later. We’re so thankful that Finnish teacher Hanna Graeffe shared her Facebook page for us here. You can follow Hanna at @hannagrrr on Twitter. Through this medium, we also learned that aside from being a rock star Finnish teacher, she is also a successful singer.

Below are the tweeted takeaways relating to family engagement from Hannah and the rest of the Twitterverse during our visits to Finnish schools.

[View the story "Finnish Family Engagement - Tweeted Takeaways" on Storify]

Have you heard the one about the Finnish extrovert? Part I

By Mike Johanek (updated)

Have you heard the one about the Finnish extrovert?  He looks down at the other person’s shoes when he speaks.

I first heard that joke told about physicists some years ago.  I just heard it again on Wednesday from a Finnish education expert during our visit at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum.

What does this have to do with our group inquiry into Finnish education?

SYK visit Helsinki group

We are visiting, and trying to learn from, our Finnish colleagues, at least what we can absorb in a week.  From a renewed perspective, we hope to improve the work we do in the US.   In the process, we look, naturally at times, for models to scale, miracles to bottle, promising practices to pursue.  “What can we learn?” often translates into “what practices can we adopt?”

  • Is it the later start to elementary school that does the trick, kicks out those PISA gains?  Perhaps, but child care does start earlier for most, with public support.  We heard a parent tell us today how her child started at age one in organized child care.  And other countries have similar patterns, including Nordic neighbors, with quite different results.
  • Is it the collaborative spirit?  Perhaps, but competition certainly seems to kick in by upper secondary, and in very selective admissions at some universities.
  • Is it the lack of testing?  Perhaps, especially in primary grades, but again, by upper secondary, one veteran principal claimed that roughly 20% of time went to testing; 500 hours of class sessions required, 100 hours of testing across the 5 8-week academic periods; and then getting to college means an additional testing battery, completing external graduation tests, the matriculation exam, and individual university exams.  Yet PISA results are gathered prior to upper secondary, so perhaps the lack of testing has a role?
  • Or the longer recess periods of 75 minutes a day, confirmed in our elementary school visit today?  Perhaps, and it does seem to highlight a more playful, exploratory and autonomous spirit we also saw.
  • Or maybe it’s the well-prepared lunches and crisp Nordic design knack so evident in school furniture and natural light-rich architecture?  I’ve certainly enjoyed both first hand this week, and you do feel reaffirmed by the thoughtfulness of the environment’s design.

As leaders, such distinctive features should cause us to consider our own work in these areas.  I did feel we entered spaces more respectful to children and adults, in design, temperament and disposition.  The live flowers on the cafeteria tables, fresh nutritious lunches at student-height buffet counters, sunlight pouring in through two-floor high windows as students huddle on corner sofas in self-directed student clubs … yes, that felt like quite a rich and exciting environment for the engaged kids we saw today.  Naturally we ask, “what of that can we can do in our schools?”

But individual practices only get you disconnected pieces, as well as tempt causal attributions from messy, complex correlations.   Singular ad hoc practices also don’t tend to sustain improvements over several decades.  But here is a system that has made dramatic shifts in educational performance over the last several decades, and across significant reform legislation.   So, what of that transformation can we glean today?  We need not, indeed we can not, evaluate that transformation.  But how might we understand it a bit more, so as to inform how we critique and improve our own practice?

Instead of searching for practices to adopt, I heard in our varied conversations this week traces of some fundamental Finnish decisions, some made decades ago, that weave persistent threads across various Finnish practices.  It is, I suspect, in these core decisions that we might fairly shed light on our own work in useful ways.

What are the core decisions echoed in the practices and pronouncements we experienced among our Finnish colleagues?  I’ll take my best shot at teasing these out a bit in my next post tomorrow, and then see what they imply for our own work.

Edutopia’s Global #PennFinn13 gHangout on Finnish Education (Video Archive)

Special thanks to Edutopia for providing the online forum for this global conversation. On Wednesday, March 28, 2013 a Google Hangout took place at the University of Helsinki’s Teacher Education Center (Minerva Plaza), bringing together US and Finnish students, teachers, parents and leaders from multiple timezones to articulate the core beliefs behind the Finnish Education System.  Follow the panelists on Twitter

When the inquiry trip to Finland was designed, the #PennFinn13 team made a conscious decision to make our learning as transparent and interactive as possible. We’ve been utilizing social media to bring our experience to a wide audience to create opportunities for people all over the world to “join us” as we learn. We’re proud that one of our partners in helping to share this learning experience is Edutopia.

Edutopia provides an array of online resources and expertise to help drive innovation and reforms in learning. Aside from hosting our Google Hangout chat yesterday they have also hosted several blogs posts that you won’t find on our #PennFinn13 sites . Please consider visiting their site to read more about our experiences in Finland and to take advantage of the truly impressive resources they provide to educators around the world!

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: How We Value Our Teachers by Brandon Wiley

Does Student Voice Translate in Finnish? by Brandon Wiley

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: A Journey of Inquiry by Joe Mazza

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: Setting the Stage for a Global Conversation by Joe Mazza

Honestly, I’ve seen these “Finnish Lessons” before…

Pictured from left to right: Aki Puustinen, Jennifer Botzojorns, Timo Ilomäki

Pictured from left to right: Aki Puustinen, Jennifer Botzojorns, Timo Ilomäki

By Kavan Yee

Honestly, I’ve seen these “Finnish Lessons” before… everyday in Chicago, New York, LA, DC, etc. I’ve observed some of the best teachers, students, administrators, and school communities all over the world. Putting aside cultural differences and priorities, the only difference between the Finnish Education and the American system is consistency. Throughout this frozen country, you will find warm hearts and passionate minds. You will find devoted trust and commitment in their professionals towards the development of the whole child. You will hear common vocabulary spoken from every facet of the institution. I spoke with an administrative assistant today about how she feels “just as much as part of the school as the teachers. The teachers trust me as much as I trust them.” The description of their values, practices, and community all resonate the theme of mutual respect of an individual’s development.

Tonight, I had the pleasure of sharing a forum with Finnish students, parents, and educators. My new colleagues Timo Ilomäki and Aki Puustinen drove from the outskirts of Helsinki to spend just an hour with us– “You travelled thousands of miles to be here, the least we can do is drive 3 hours.” This consistency of sacrifice was not only exemplified by this gesture, but it is quite evident in the passion each “cog in the wheel” displays daily in their system. A quote that stood out for me this evening was: “We don’t want to be #1, we just want the best for the development of each child.” That belief is the mantra I’ve been hearing over and over again. Do I believe in this? Do you? Of course we do, that’s why I’m here and you’re reading this! But for an entire nation to believe in this, that’s what stands out for me.

Questions or observations I’ve received consistent answers to:

Do Finnish schools have challenges? Yes. Are they affected by budget cuts, core standards, and social issues? Yes. Do they have high stakes exams? Yes (Upper Level and IB programs). Do they believe in a child-centered approach? Yes. Do they instill a safe environment that promotes taking risks? Yes. Do they believe in protection of play and free-time? Yes. Do they find the importance of compulsory art, music, drama, and physical wellness? Yes. Do they believe in differentiation? Yes. Do they trust each other? Yes. Do they think their doing anything special? No. Do they want this attention from the world? No.

Jumping into the Baltic Sea

By: Jennifer Botzojorns

The image of a teenage Finnish boy launching himself off a pier into winter water, then a group of youth singing, riding the subway, criss-crossing Helsinki, inspired me.  These young adults are part of the Bass Camp free student program for youth.  You can view their video created to promote Helsinki in an earlier post on this blog.

In the state of Vermont, like the young man in the video, our youth often engage in invigorating activities to celebrate (and endure!) a long winter. There are similarities between my home state and Finland; we are small, rural and love skiing, hockey, and the cold climate.  I have received many questions from my colleagues at Chittenden East Supervisory Union where I work.  Blog posts will allow me to bring them along in my virtual suitcase.

The airport welcomes you with a freestyle skier jamming in Helsinki

I begin with questions about preschool, early literacy and numeracy. Concerning literacy, how specifically are children taught to read?  I look forward to visiting a classroom of young children to watch the approach to language.  What is the philosophy, pedagogy and practice, and how does this vary from teacher to teacher and school to school?  At what age are children required/expected to master particular understandings, and how is a child approached who is not within the normal range?  Similarly, how are children taught early math concepts such as counting, addition and subtraction? For example, are these concepts taught together or is addition understood fully, then subtraction taught as the missing part of an addition problem? What does a math classroom look like as students learn their basic math facts and problem solving skills?  How are children with a whole range of disabilities, such as dyslexia, downs syndrome or autism taught literacy and numeracy?

The second set of questions consider 21st century technology.  I am curious about everything from wifi and device accessibility to funding.  Who makes decisions concerning funding and availability of technology devices, infrastructure and personnel?  Who makes decisions about what and how to integrate technology into the curriculum? What is the philosophy about the use of technology and does this vary from teacher to teacher and school to school?  What about the physical infrastructure, how is this updated?  What are similarities and differences in Helsinki, Inari, Espoo and Rovaniemi—and throughout the whole country?

The third set of questions conerns governance.  Who “runs” the school?  There are day-to-day activities, plus larger questions such as the yearly schedule, the curriculum, programs, and budgets. (For example is it required for all children to take a foreign language or algebra? At what age?)  Who creates any requirements and who checks to assure any requirements are met? Who approves budgets and how democratic is the process? How do outside interest groups influence decisions about individual schools and national education policies?  What is the relationship between a principal, parent groups, and regional director such as a superintendent, a community or local school board, and the ministry of education? How do schools and/or the government involve parents or local individuals in decision-making concerning schools?  In considering these questions, I would like to understand funding streams.

On a meta level, I am curious how the structure of the Finnish language influences behaviors around learning and schooling.  From what I understand there are 15 noun cases in Finnish, far more than English, yet there are no exceptions, all structures follow a rule.  Yet in English there are exceptions to just about every rule be it grammar, spelling, or verb tense.  How does the structure of the language, embedded in everyday interactions, influence the way learning is realized?

I am very much looking forward to this inquiry week, looking at the schools, and perhaps jumping into the sea! Thank you to Joe and all our Finnish colleagues for your hard work and planning.

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