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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

Inspired by Finland – 5 Goals I’m Setting Now

Our morning wait at the bus stop en route to Finnish schools

The #PennFInn13’s team waits for the morning bus en route to Finnish schools

By Joe Mazza

Last week on my the flight out to Finland, I was lucky enough to sit next to a higher up in the Swedish educational system. The takeaways from that conversation were transitioned into my first post of the #PennFinn13 trip, entitled Six Swedish Lessons, One Flight. Little did I know that seven days later on the way back home, I’d sit next to a non-educator who would be just as thought-provoking, articulate and open to helping me continue unpacking my week in the Finnish schools. I’ll start with a quote that stuck out from this conversation:
“I’m on my way back from an (international) engineering conference in Sweden. In terms of conference takeaways, the trust, support and autonomy given to engineers only three months on the job really caught my attention. Back in North America, competition for jobs affects the level of support you receive within these roles, especially as a new employee.” -- Canadian engineer on flight back to the United States
And then it clicked. My week in Finland was not just a break from American education, but from the culture where I was raised in the land of red, white and blue. Knowing full well that Nordic people are individuals like everyone else, and that painting any “culture” with a broad brush is risky, I’ve witnessed enough cultural consistency across various lenses to express in detail my week of conversations with students, parents, educators, leaders, store clerks, taxi and bus drivers, strangers on the streets, restaurant servers, airline personnel and city workers in the northern part of Europe.
The following are a few broad claims with real examples of what I experienced this week in brief stays in Sweden and Norway, as well as in the schools and city of Helsinki, Finland. What I’ve witnessed goes much deeper than just a prestigious education system, and I believe we can learn a lot from Finland’s overall culture to be a better society now matter what country we live in.
Don’t be wasteful.
  • Everywhere we walked in downtown Helsinki there was ice due to the time of year. Icy sidewalks were kept safe with tiny pebbles, not rock salt. They are efficient and everything that you see has a meticulous purpose.

    Kids and adults are responsible to put liquid and solid wastes in their proper place now matter at school or in public places.

    Kids and adults are responsible to put liquid and solid wastes in their proper place now matter at school or in public places.

  • After eating lunch (whether in elementary school, the teacher education center at the University or the one McDonald’s we found) kids and adults are responsible for cleaning up after themselves, organizing trash into areas of silverware, tray, garbage and liquid disposal before exiting the eating area. By the way, on the menu board by the registers are pictures of small drinks and 4 piece McNuggets, with no encouragement or advertisement to “super size” your meal.
  • The physical space, whether in a downtown coffee shop or in an elementary or secondary school is flexible in nature, designed for a variety of people and teaching and learning styles. Each space has a purpose for teaching, learning and leading. More than anything, this jumped out to me across all settings we visited.
Develop trust in one another – from child to senior.
  • The first evidence of trust…We booked our trip to see various Finnish schools back in October without paying anything up front. Believe me, we tried to pay but they just told us we’d settle up after the experience. This was a complete foreign concept to us, but we respected their wishes. Those we booked the itinerary with had no prior relationship with our team members, nor the University. Invoices are sent out following the activities. The accommodations where we stayed was also not interested in sending us a bill ahead of the trip.
  • Students have a classroom that stretches to all areas of the school. They have the trust to be actively engaged in their work, and to produce evidence of their learning. Students & staff benefit when we can find ways to step outside our classroom walls to maximize every square foot of our buildings.
  • Teachers are trusted as the most valuable commodity in education. This I learned from the words and actions of Finnish students, teachers and parents (see previous Voice of Finnish Parent post). Below is a picture of a quiet teacher workroom at SYK designed to allow teachers to work, research and think deeply on meeting the needs of students. Other rooms designed for teachers included coffee rooms, computer labs and comfortable and collaborative staff lounges. You won’t see a teacher lunchroom, as teachers ate in the same eating spaces as students – further developing trust amongst everyone in the learning community.
At SYK, this teacher workroom is the quiet space designed for teachers. It lives next to the staff lounge and staff computer workroom.

At SYK, this teacher workroom is the quiet space designed for teachers. It lives next to the staff lounge and staff computer workroom.

  • Cab drivers wait for you to come back while you go into a structure. If I was in Philadelphia, the untrusting tone begins when I pull out a credit card (which takes more time to process) versus the cash the cabbie was hoping for.
  • The Minerva Plaza (pictured below) was requested and approved less than 24 hours in advance for use on a global panel conversation sponsored by Edutopia that included students, parents, teachers and leaders from the United States and Finland. If the same request for such a cutting edge educational arena would have been made in the United States, it would have been met with red tape, a serious of approvals, meetings and delays. Those at the University trusted us to make good use of the space, and it turned into a great opportunity for those who attended virtually and physically.
Minerva Plaza inside the University of Helsinki's Teacher Education Department

Minerva Plaza inside the University of Helsinki’s Teacher Education Department

Develop deep relationships, have self discipline
  • Transportation is relatively quiet. People talk, but it’s not a party, Nordic people are active listeners, and look you in the eye when you speak without distraction. I didn’t meet anyone this week who spoke without purpose, reflection and pause.
  • In preparing to visit a country where we had never been, there are a great deal of questions that come up in the month’s leading up. School and University staff responded to at least twenty emails, Skyped multiple times and tweeted resources and ideas. They truly cared about us in terms of maximizing the depth of our visit and helping us understand the culture behind the education system and the country.
  • Two of Finland’s finest connected educators, Aki Puustinen and Timo Ilomäki, drove three hours to be a part of our one hour global panel. I have been connecting and learning from these educators for almost two years. Leaders like Tiina Korhonen, Pasi Sahlberg, Jukka Tanska and Olli Määttä are constantly seeking more from both themselves and others around the world, now matter what timezone these resources come from. Find them on Twitter at #finnedchat, #pennfinn13 and #edreform. For a full listing of Finnish connected educators we’ve begun gathering, follow this link.
Think, talk, model innovation by default
  • Creativity and imagination is nurtured at an early age with the preservation of play and free-time. This flies in the face of taking away recess and the Arts in American schools. If you look at the breakdown of what’s valued during the school day in Finland, you can see these components deeply embedded throughout.

Comprehensive School Breakdown of Daily Subjects – University of Helsinki Teacher Education Department

  • It’s evident that these safe environments for students AND staff in schools are created to foster risk taking and abstract thinking.
  • When we saw students in classrooms, they were the ones in the front of the room presenting and taking control of their learning. The teacher often sat to the side of the classroom prompting higher level thinking.
Teacher is off to side as the facilitator of learning. Student leads the class.

Teacher is off to side as the facilitator of learning. Student leads the class.

  • Transparency is evident everywhere in the Finnish schools we visited. The amount of glass I was immersed in allowed me to sit in one setting and understand what the spaces around me, and how it all connected to teaching, learning and leading. Pre-service teachers are part of a supportive cohort to harness the experience and expertise in the room.
It’s not about the accolades or being the #1.
  • For holding such a distinction, there is no celebrating going on in Finland. One of the many reasons our team chose to travel to Finland on our own dime to investigate the educational system was because of the recent PISA scores that placed Finland ahead of the rest of the world. Native Finn and educational leader Pasi Sahlberg has been touring the world sharing the recipe on how students, teachers, parents, leaders and Finnish society make it all happen. He, along with the educators I had the privilege to get to know, understood that the economy, the country’s demographics and other challenges were ahead, and the investment in learning more from the rest of the world was very apparent in their thinking, reflecting and continued interest in working deeper through our conversations.
  • We might not be able to change our own educational systems as quickly as we want to, but the online conversations around education can certainly be shaped. I follow some real rock stars on Twitter that I have learned a great deal from since I joined in 2010 . I interact with most, but I’m noticing that some are using the tool more to broadcast their new book, an article about their school or organization or just to let you know where they are presenting in the world versus building relationships with others in their PLN. This piece worries me the more educators take to Twitter as a means of support and professional development. The underlying core values of using social media for educators are that it be collaborative, transparent, support ongoing relationships and serve as an online 24/7 mentorship to grasp perspectives from all areas of the edusphere. I’m going to relook at the ways I use Twitter, and I hope my global colleagues do the same. With 1000s of educators joining our PLNs each each day, it’s never been more important to keep the “online society” or social media “culture” strong and what’s best for kids, not adults.

In summary

As I sip some strong coffee brought home from Finland, I’m inspired to want more from my own society and educational system.

Connected students, educators, leaders and parents around the world have both opportunity and responsibility to learn and share from each other using today’s social media tools. Finland is a country of only 5 million people. The ability to be completely transparent from directly inside classroom walls multiple timezones away shows us how easy it is to be more collaborative as a global educational society. This is my hope for the American Education System – that we rely equally on the human expertise around not only OUR country, but of that of OUR connected world when we are making decisions that impact how WE teach, how WE learn and how WE lead.

For more captioned pictures organized into our respective Finnish visits, follow our Facebook page. More takeaways will be forthcoming on this blog as the nine of us continue to transition back into our own organizations. Stay tuned.

What Might a Finnish-Philosophy Classroom Look Like in America?

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A 2nd grade classroom at Innokas Koulumestari

By: Paul Solarz

Completely realizing and understanding that one cannot just take the Finnish model of education and place it in an American classroom, I want to explore what it might look like if I did!  Using the Innokas Koulumestari philosophy, a Grades 1-6 school in Espoo, this blog post will outline some of the changes that would have to be made in my classroom to look more “Finnish,” a concept that is generally discouraged by Finns!  So, no disrespect intended!

Children in Finland somehow seem to be happier than children in America.  I think it has something to do with all of the independence they are given – they are allowed to grow up to become who they were intended to be instead of being heavily influenced by family members.  Schools immediately trust their students to follow expectations, but when a student slips up, their consequence is that they are not given so much freedom.  I will need to monitor students’ happiness in my classroom, despite the fact that there are few ways to measure it.  I will also need to remember to give them a chance to grow up without too much influence from me.

Another observation made is that children here are more comfortable and treat their school like their home.  Students don’t vandalize, mistreat school materials, or litter in their schools.  I feel that this is at least partly due to the fact that teachers try to create an environment that mimics their home as closely as possible.  For example, students take their shoes off at the door, use their cell phones for educational purposes, and sit everywhere around the school on couches, pillows, and rugs.  Curtains isolate areas of the hallway to make intimate work areas that eliminate unnecessary distractions.  I would want to utilize as many of these ideas as possible in my classroom to help my students feel as though the school is an extension of their home.

At Innokas Koulumestari, they are using the team teaching approach, along with staggering start and end times of school in order to best differentiate instruction for their students.  Although I couldn’t allow my students to come to school late or leave early, I could offer opportunities for them to come to school early or stay late and then perhaps offer “comp time” for students in the form of additional breaks throughout their day.  Many schools in Finland offer regular 15-30 minute breaks between periods.  This could be a way to make that happen!  If I could incorporate the team teaching idea, by just combining two classes, I could have access to two classroom teachers (me and one other), a special education teacher, and an assistant.  With four adults, more grouping opportunities can exist if we coordinate our schedules effectively.

The way we saw teachers coordinating schedules was through a weekly collaboration meeting with all adults.  They “plugged in” all of their appointments, meetings, absences, etc. for the week on a shared Google Calendar and then determined what they could get done in that time by consulting long-range planners that they had created prior to the start of the year.

Teachers are given 2-3 hours per week to have meetings and collaboration time during the school day.  Some of it is while students are at religion and gym, while other times are available by not having students start early or end late on a given day.  The school day goes from 8:00 to 3:00 for teachers, but students go for one hour less (they either come early or stay late, but not both).  Teachers are not expected to come much earlier than 8:00 or stay much later than 3:00.  In addition, many teachers we talked to report not taking their work home with them or working much during their summer holiday.  By planning that collaboration time into our weekly schedule, I can imagine much of our workload decreasing!

Finnish students are actually in school for six hours every day at Innokas Koulumestari, even though it is commonly reported that they spend four hours being instructed each day, the disparity comes from all of their “break time.”  After each lesson, students receive a 15-30 minute break.  Lunch is 30 minutes as well.  During some break times, students are encouraged to get outside and move around.  Those who wish to stay inside may create “clubs” that others can join.  These clubs have a purpose and a goal in mind.  Teachers oversee these clubs but often allow students to work without supervision, except in the case of gymnastics and other clubs that might experience injuries.  It would be easy to schedule break times into the schedule by staggering the start and end times of lessons and utilizing the extra adults wisely, and possibly including parent volunteers more effectively.

In Finland, parents are extremely supportive of teachers and their school’s initiatives.  Parents don’t send emails to teachers, call them, or ask for conferences very often, because they feel that the teacher is a professional who knows what is best for their child.  There is no real way of replicating this in America.  The truth is, Finnish teachers are much better prepared for their profession than America’s teachers.  If America only admitted 10% of the applicants into their teacher education programs, worked meticulously to create college programs that were innovative and rigorous, and required a master’s degree before beginning a career in education, I feel that things might be more similar.  The only thing I can do is be up-front and honest with my students’ parents at the beginning of the year & be completely transparent so they see what we are doing!  I can share the amazing things that we have done in previous years and plan to do this year.  After that, I just have to hope that they support me!

Taking the Finnish education system back to America might be an impossible task, but regardless of the level of difficulty I contend that there are take-aways.  If you can do any of the above at your school, great!  If not, see what you can do to instill a community of independent and collaborative learners who you trust with more responsibility.  You just might be surprised with what you get!  Thoughts?

It’s the Coat Racks!

The Baltic Sea winter climate of Helsinki necessitates hats, mittens, gloves and warm coats, every day — even at the end of March.  At breakfast my first morning, I noticed the coat racks.  In Vermont, on a cold, raw, snowy or rainy day, we do one of several things with outer clothing.  The first is we stuff them into cubbies.  If they are wet, they stay a little clammy all day.  Alternately,  we might stuff the mittens and hat into the sleeve of the coat, so they are not lost or forgotten, then we hang our coat.  As a third option we might put mittens or hats on a heater that is slanted (not made to dry clothes) in the hopes of achieving dryness, but they slide off or need repositioning.

Check out a coat rack from the cafeteria at the University of Helsinki dormitory.  Notice the  efficient, practical, aesthetically pleasing places to securely rest mittens, gloves and coats so they dry.

coat racks

During my visit to three schools in Finland I noticed use of building space, educational teaching devices, storage and schooling that exuded a message of practical, efficient and aesthetic.  Even the University classroom had a coat rack provided for boots, coats, hats and gloves.  The inanimate physical attributes provide an ability for the people in these schools to focus on learning — without the subliminal frustrations from impracticalities that dare I say might distract our ability to focus on education.

In school lunchrooms I visited, there were sinks, efficiently placed first in the lunch line in the cafeteria.  The Finnish children washed their hands before they ate.  Message: we support health and cleanliness, right here, front and center in the cafeteria.

In the lunch lines, children served themselves, the food line was at little person level, just the right height for a child.  Are our lunch lines miniature and child focused?

IMG_0662When done with the food and trays, the children put away their plates, compost, trash, and silverware into the racks and receptacles, making clean up efficient and easy.  Do your children take responsibility for cleanup and help the cafeteria staff by sorting?

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The lunch rooms were decorated with cloth table runners, bright colors, art, and centerpieces on each table.  Many of the tables had bright grass sprouts in a bowl. Are our cafeterias pleasing to the eye, relaxing and soothing the inner child.

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Take a look at your school cafeterias, lunch lines, clean up areas and procedures in your school.  Are they institutional?  Do they promote self sufficiency, aesthetic pleasure, responsibility, trust and independence?

grassWhat do you do with the coats and shoes of your young scholars?  Are they stuffed in cubbies in rooms, or is the learning space reserved for learning and the coat efficiently drying outside the room?

cubbies

In one elementary school, the children removed their shoes as they entered the school.  They learn in their stocking feet and the teacher had on a pair of hand knit, felted wool deep purple socks.

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Even the classrooms had practical features. The erasers for the chalkboards were on long handles, so erasure of information was instantaneous, clean and practical.

Perhaps learning is not the little classroom efficiencies, coat racks or the way that children are expected to put away their dishes. However, from these three schools I observed respect for children to make their own decisions, enjoy their meal time and focus on learning.

As I finish my post, I just used the restroom and noticed the shower drain.  I noticed a perfectly fitted, removable, three tiered slime catchment designed to easily prevent clogs.  Why waste time unclogging all of the University housing showers when you can design a catchment device that works?

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You can then focus on learning!  Notice the giant squeegee to efficiently schlop all the spilled water on the shower floor.

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As I write these last few words, my daughter opened the fridge (in the common area) to remove food.  It started beeping after 10 seconds.  Translation: you are wasting electricity, shut the door!

At the end of the day, critically look at the spaces in your school, the cubbies, the storage, the eating areas, the clean up places. Create practical, efficient infrastructural details so we can focus on education and learning — by saving time, and pleasing our aesthetic soul so youth will not feel subconscious distractions that drain emotional energy.  If our children have toasty warm fingers versus clammy hands on their way home, they might reflect on the successes of the day and plan for the future!  It’s the coat racks! They are the reason for the success of the Finnish schools!

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

Children need to be children, even in airports

By: Jennifer Botzojorns

En route to Helsinki, during our layover in Stockholm, I walked around the airport watching the parents and children.  Two very different play structures were embedded in the landscape of the airport concourse —  the first, a pirate ship.  In the below deck galley was a pig, cannon and a table strewn with cards and coins- all realistic, sturdy, and just the right scale for a little person.  Above deck was what one might imagine as the fore and aft of a seaworthy vessel. A little bit farther down, a tiny village structure filled a corner of the wide airport thoroughfare.  There were several little houses with intricate details from bowls to cupboards, a wood stove, gigantic mushrooms, several reading cubbies, and a mural of Ollie skiing and meeting King Winter (from Ollie’s Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow).

In both of these structures there were children climbing and playing, The children were creating animated dialogues.  I do not know Swedish, but I could tell from their words, hand gestures, expressions and tone that they were deep in their imagination.  They were engaged and interacting with their young world, imagining other ships on the horizon, scallywags in the galley, or on the other structure, a quiet time in a corner of the house with family, or a frolicking in the snow on a ski trip.

I then tried to recall an analogous play structure in America.  First, I do not recall a major airport with creative children’s activity blended in, as part of the landscape of the concourse.  Second, the play structures I recall in American public spaces are more gross motor romper-room type spaces, not detailed and creative.  Check out a sample American play structure.  The bright contrasting colors and physical play promote a frenetic, running, jumping behavior.  This creates a different world for our children.  Might play structures influence creative thinking and learning for our children?  What is important to think about when we develop play structures?

I then watched the parents.  They stood and watched their children, smiling.  They laughed and allowed the children to explore independently in the space.  Again I contrasted this with a set of hovering parents, directing their son or daughter’s actions, barking thoughts and behaviors on how to negotiate a play structure.  Granted, I am exaggerating, yet these images and their implications crossed my mind.

I reflect on what I have read about education in Finland.  Other Scandinavian countries have an emphasis on letting children learn at their own pace through play.  First and foremost they are young children, even in airports.

Small actionable item to consider back home:

  • Playspaces- think critically of the play spaces we provide for children.

  • Creative Structures: On our playgrounds, in our early grade play structures, create places for creative play, not just spaces for gross (and/or fine) motor coordination.

  • Intricate Details: Include details children have encountered in literature (such as pirate ships) or their lives (standard household items), so they have a social context for their play and can expand their thinking as they dive into their imagination while playing.

  • Child-Tough: Make the structures durable and to-scale for their busy little bodies.

  • New spaces: new faces: whenever a proposal for a new public children’s playground or space is up for consideration — in your school, library, park etc, become an activist and demand a creative space.  Share this blog post with parents, community members, leaders, and educators so they can reflect on the importance of creativity and play.

  • Classroom design:  It is not enough to have bright colored attractive playspaces.  The play spaces must inspire imagination.  If this seems too expensive or challenging, get some children together with handy parents to help you plan, there are hundreds of creative play space ideas online. Have a creative parent create/donate or build little scenes.

  • Let the children play:  In our classrooms and on our playgrounds, during play time, allow physical structures so children can imagine and learn.  Do not direct their activity as it stifles creativity.  Use your observations to inform teaching and learning.

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