Home » #StuVoice
Category Archives: #StuVoice
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
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
Fair, Dedicated, and Inspiring.
I am a seventeen year-old IB high school student in my penultimate year from Helsinki, Finland. Embodying a kind of bicultural identity, I am a product of two different cultural upbringings, Finnish and American. Having spent a few of my years of elementary school in Seattle, Washington, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of both school environments, and what effect they have had on me as a learner.
I feel honoured to have been invited by the PennFinn13 team to share my ideas and insight on education in Finland and the United States. As a result of pure serendipity on my half, I met the group a few weeks a go when they visited my calculus class on a Wednesday morning. I was able to participate in the Edutopia event held in Helsinki and get accquainted with the issues and points of interest of this project. Joe Mazza and the entire team were so warm to me and encouraged me to join the movement by contributing with a few blog posts. I truly value my school environment; to me it is like a safe harbour where I can feel respected, valued, and relaxed, learn, and mingle. Therefore, I am extremely interested in this project and hope to inspire people around the world to form these efficient and comfortable learning environments.
As a dedicated high school student, I demand a great deal from my teachers. I have often discussed the qualities of an effective teacher with my peers, and we have agreed that the importance of equality between teacher and student should be evident in many fields.
The stereotype of a Finnish teacher is built up with a master’s degree in teaching or one’s field, a calm and collected mindset, a relaxed teaching style, and above all, elevated expertise in one’s field. Many of my teachers do fit this mold, however it is unrealistic to imagine that each teacher will reach their degree of excellence with this pattern. In reality, the brilliances of different teachers lay on all different points of the spectrum.
When I sit back and evaluate from who I learn best from and what qualities does this teacher embody, I conclude in a set of features that I believe can be applied to any teacher-student relation for best results.
As I previously mentioned, the importance of respect and equality is crucial. Naturally the teacher is a superior authority figure in the classroom, but what I believe is the magic ingredient in this recipe is the humanization of the ’teacher figure’. By this I mean that he/she exhibits passion, dedication, and personal engagement in his/her teaching. If I feel that the teacher is truly passionate and excited about what is being taught, I am directly inspired by that joy of pursuing knowledge. I am certain we can all confirm that inspiration is contagious; listening to someone speak passionately on a topic with great expertise lights a peculiar glow inside us to learn and experience more in that field.
We must meet at halfway. As a student, I feel that the time and work I put into learning something is very valuable. The knowledge that the teacher is equally engaged on his/her work fulfills the first goal that I would like to emphasize. If I know that I am not the only one putting in my 110 percent, I am further inspired to apply myself even more. By demanding a lot from each other, both teacher and student are able to improve.
This translates to my next goal; fairness and equity. I believe that to teach well at this level, one must demand a great deal. Avoiding excessive lenience, or putting too much effort into ’being the student’s best friend’ can be counter-productive, and lead to discouragement in the student. Naturally excessive severity can be equally as discouraging: in this case humanizing the student comes into play. The fact that the teacher recognizes the workload and limits of students is very important. The value of the student’s mental and physical wellbeing must be emphasized, especially in rigorous academic programs. Setting demanding, yet fair deadlines and workloads is essential for maintained motivation and success in school. Students at my school also value clarity; being clear about what is demanded and how that can be achieved helps the student to visualize the work that needs to be done.
In addition, we all need a push; giving clear, honest, and useful feedback on how to develop is vital on the path of improvement. This should be naturally coupled with active encouragement. The degree of encouragement and belief in the students abilities directly correlates with academic performance. The value of encouragement and clear guidance is of utmost importance and I find that a teacher that shows light on the unknown path of success for the student is of my favorite kind. To quote Robert Frost;
’Two roads diverged in a wood,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
The importance of compromise between ideal and real is very significant. It is equally quixotic to assume that each student is as motivated, driven, and talented as the next, as it is to imagine that each teacher fulfills my personal educator ideals. Each educator is a personality, a dynamic figure of unique variables, that flourishes in new, fascinating ways, and it is impossible to set identical goals for everyone. Often the element of surprise can be an even stronger initiative for learning. If there is a certain mystery between the nature of the teacher, it can inspire students to work hard in order to reveal more and more about that educational relationship.
In our world there are a range in varying school systems; from non-existant to high-perfoming, each is different and operates under the umbrella of different circumstances; financial, habitual, atmospherical, ideological, and political. I believe that the best we can do for any school system is to foster growth.
At my school, the teachers are always asking us how we can improve the class. By working together as a team and giving the students a voice in how they are treated and how things are handled in class is one of the reasons that the education system in Finland is so successful. Demonstrating genuine interest in what we, the students have to say, definitely has an impact on how interested we are in what the teachers have to teach us.
by Brandon Wiley
Whatever language you speak, the “magic number” when is comes to languages in Finland seemed to be three. That is, every student I spoke to shared that they speak at least three languages. Most usually, students were conversant in Finnish, Swedish and English. In addition, we found many students who could speak French, German, Russian and at one school, Latin was still an offering. I must admit that this wasn’t much of a surprise to me, as I have come to learn that many students outside of the United States develop fluency in multiple languages, especially throughout Europe. Throughout our conversations (in English, I might add), I tried to get a better understanding of why the acquisition of multiple languages seemed to be an important part of the Finnish education system.
As part of the national core curriculum, a strong focus is placed on developing the “mother tongue” language skills and exploration of literature. Additionally, students are expected to focus on an A-language starting in grades 1 – 6 of compulsory education. A B-language is studied starting in grades 7-9. Often, English is taught during the early grades and is woven throughout coursework, with some classes taught exclusively in English. Despite the fact students do not start school until age 7, some families make an effort to begin this education prior to age 7. For example, we came across a ‘Finnish American” school that allows families to start students earlier than grade 1 and begins a focus on language acquisition at an early age.
Students seemed to understand the importance of learning multiple languages, especially English, and shared their views on the importance of learning different languages. Some of the perspectives shared were:
“We all need to learn English because it is the international language of business and law. It’s just necessary to learn it since it is used by so many countries, including, of course the United States.” - Grade 9 student
“I think it’s important for us to learn different languages so that we can be competitive and have an advantage in the future” – Grade 10 student
“Learning languages for me is really hard, but I think important. I want to travel some day and need to be able to speak to people.” – Primary student
“We incorporate world languages into our curriculum to help students understand the different cultures of the world. The curriculum is not simply to learn how to talk to others, but to better understand the way people live, work and think. Language is what binds us and connects us. But, if you aren’t fluent, it can also separate us.” - high school World Languages teacher
Understanding that the study and acquisition of languages plays a major role in the Finnish education system caused me to reflect on how this compares to the US system. Why does this matter? To my mind, it matters on two levels. First, I was once again struck by the Finnish emphasis on the “whole child” and providing a well-rounded curriculum and experience. In far too many American schools, world language is reserved for middle or high school coursework, with relatively few language immersion or early childhood language programs. In increasingly difficult economic times, more and more American schools are making cuts to world language programs or severely limiting the languages offered. It seems that it is more likely for U.S. schools to focus on helping students meet the minimum amount of language instruction necessary instead of thinking about how to maximize the number of languages students are fluent in before graduation. For a country as diverse and “cosmopolitan” as the United States, this stance seems very parochial and outdated. Through the study of languages, students engage in the study of cultures, customs and beliefs held by those different from themselves. Language instruction helps students develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives, history and expression. When students can master languages other than their native tongue, it opens a world of opportunities, helps overcome geographic and cultural barriers and generally makes interacting with others more enjoyable. In my last three trips outside of the United States, I did not speak the language of the host country I visited. I regret this and wonder how the experience could have been even richer had I been able to communicate authentically and fluently. In the spirit of developing the “whole child,” I wonder what would happen in the United States if language instruction was viewed as a “core content area?” (Answer: we’d probably test it to death.)
The second reason I think a focus on world language instruction matters is the competitive advantage it will give students in the 21st century. As graduates enter a highly competitive global world, they will be vying for admission to the same colleges/universities and applying for the same jobs. Even if all other things are equal, having limited language proficiency outside of English will be a competitive disadvantage for many American students. This focus on language instruction isn’t just happening in Finland. In a recent trip to China, I visited a school with over 5,000 students, all of whom were working hard to master their English speaking and writing skills. Their goal – attend U.S. colleges and universities beyond high school. Students around the world are developing language skills, yet the policy and funding in the United States seems to be lagging in this area.
As a side note, I’d like to give credit to our PennFinn13 colleagues, Jennifer, who spent several months leading up to our trip learning Finnish. She was an invaluable member of the team due to her ability to get us important information about bus schedules, menu options and basic interaction with the locals. However, we quickly learned that most everyone we encountered, whether in restaurants, grocery stores or on public transportation, spoke English extremely well. Jennifer spent time listening to podcasts in her car as she drove to/from work and longer excursions before departing for Helsinki. (Rumor has it that she could be seen talking to herself in Finnish at times!) Not only was her commitment to learning the language impressive, it made a real difference in our overall experience in the country. She has inspired me to study another language now and look forward to the challenge and benefit it will bring to my life. Stay tuned….
By Joe Mazza
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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?
“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.
By Joe Mazza
“I deeply trust the schools here in Finland.” 2nd Grade Parent, Koulumestari Elementary
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.
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
By: Brandon Wiley
For the past several years, I’ve had the unique opportunity as the Director of Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, to interact with schools throughout the United States and other countries. Each time I visit a new school or have an opportunity to learn about different educational approaches, I’m convinced that the key perspective or voice that should be sought is that of our “clients” – the student. I’ve made the case previously that if you really want to know what happens in a school, the most honest and insightful perspective comes from the students.
Over the course of the next week, I’m exited to learn more about the Finnish education system from the “inside.” Having read about their high performing education system for several years, our team will attempt to collect different perspectives and experiences from teachers, administrators and community members. For my part though, I will be attempting to focus on the role student engagement and voice has played in shaping the learning experience in schools throughout Finland.
One of my interests in joining this research team is to learn more about the learning experience of students in Finnish schools. In particular, I’m interested in learning more about the ways schools engage students in things such as decision-making, school governance, curriculum design and assessment of learning. By discussing their perceived role and position in the school, I would hope to ascertain to what extent students believe they have a voice and influence in their learning. Inherent in my study will be an exploration of student-teacher roles and relationships and what formal or informal school structures contribute to the development of those relationships. Much has been written about the trust and autonomy Finnish schools provide teachers, but I would like some firsthand examples of how that autonomy extends to students having freedom or involvement in the learning process.
Some of the questions I’m hoping to research this week include:
- What do students in Finnish schools see as their main role or purpose in the education system?
- In what ways do schools provide students a voice or ownership of their learning?
- How does the learning experience of students in Finnish classrooms differ from their peers in the United States?
- How do Finnish students characterize the relationships between student and teacher?
- In what ways do students believe their schools prepare them for life beyond high school?
What other questions would you like me to add to my inquiry around student voice and engagement?