By: Paul Solarz
As a fifth grade teacher with Finnish ancestry, traveling to Finland has been at the top of my wish list for many years. For personal reasons, I have always wanted to see the country where my great grandparents lived. The family stories that have been passed down tell of hard financial times, but happy people. But going to Finland also represents the opportunity to see, first-hand, what the highest performing school system in the world looks like! As a teacher trying to implement best practices, this experience can really help to clarify the ideas explained in Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons and help me better understand this thing some call the Finland Phenomenon.
Now in my 14th year of teaching, I am spending much of my time these days learning how to integrate 21st Century skills into the lessons that I lead. I wonder how these 34 skills come into play in the Finnish school system. Are they taught explicitly? Are students expected to utilize them in a typical school day? At what ages are students displaying these behaviors most? As I observe students, I will use a checklist to document evidence of these behaviors.
Because of my desire to create a collaborative environment for my students to learn, I want to examine Finnish students’ opportunities to work with their peers to solve problems, create products, and share their learning. How much of the day is spent working in isolation or as a whole class? How much of the time is spent interacting with their peers?
Since the school day is shorter in Finland than it is in America, I wonder what it is that might be missing compared to our programs. Is it that Finnish educators and students spend more time on task than their American counterparts? Do they accomplish tasks at a higher rate of speed than us? Or is it just that they focus on fewer goals?
In America, teachers are being given more and more responsibilities, paperwork, and expectations, but few responsibilities are being removed. There simply isn’t enough time to do it all. Some districts have responded by creating PLC (Professional Learning Community) time instead of staff meetings, and others have initiated early release or late arrival plans for students to allow for more collaboration and work time for teachers. How much time do teachers in Finland spend collaborating, working on professional responsibilities, etc.? Is this time self-initiated or are there expectations put on them from higher above?
I think I know the answers to some of these questions, but I am excited to find out for sure in the coming days. My goal is to observe, ask questions, understand, and record what I see, hear, and experience while in Finland. Upon returning to the states, I look forward to reporting my findings to the staff at my school and seeing what we can use in our work environment. We can’t keep using the excuse that we are different countries with different problems. We need to identify what aspects of the Finnish educational system can transfer to our schools, and we need to find ways to make it happen. I look forward to being part of this process!
I want to sincerely thank Joe Mazza and the entire PennFinn13 Team for including me in this amazing cohort and letting me take part in all of these great experiences. I hope that the teacher perspective that I provide will add something positive to the group, because I know that I will be coming away with so much!