By: Paul Solarz
In America, it has become apparent that some children are graduating college without the skills and abilities that they need in order to be successful in today’s rapidly changing work world. Businesses are putting pressure on universities to prepare their students better. Those colleges, in turn, are putting pressure on high schools, and the trickle-down effect is hitting elementary schools. The traditional lecture, skill-and-drill, worksheet-style classrooms just aren’t acceptable anymore.
It has long been known that skills instilled at a young age are more likely to become habits, so it makes sense for schools to teach these immediately as children enter kindergarten. But the question I’m considering is, “Do Finnish teachers need to spend time working on the same skills that American students need to?” This blog post was inspired by the following quote:
“I especially like your notions on 21st century skills. As educators we realize them to differ depending on whose list we’re quoting. How does my list look like? And yours? Have you designed a set of skills collaborating with your students? Does our mindset allow us to reshape the objectives according to what we as teachers see happening during the class?”
– Olli Maatta, Language teacher, Teacher trainer, Head of International Relations at Helsinki Normal Lyceum
The truth is, Finnish children seem to be developing some skills earlier than American children. For example, when children walk themselves to school in the morning at the ripe old age of 7 (several kilometers, through snow & ice, and uphill both ways, of course) do they really need to focus on independent thinking in the classroom? Students are known to come home after school and remain unsupervised for several hours until a parent returns from work. These kids live independence!
As I watched parents and children on the streets of Helsinki, in stores and restaurants, and in schools, I noticed that children here are pretty much allowed to be themselves and do anything they want, but they don’t seem to ever take it too far! I never saw parents interfering with their children’s behaviors. I imagine that when they do, it’s a much bigger deal to a child than in America where the impact is minimized by overuse.
When I compare them to my fifth grade students, Finnish children never seemed to take their misbehaviors to the point where I would have to give a consequence. They seem to know where the line is and they seem to respect that line. Could this be because adults correct them so infrequently and the behavior expectations remain the same at school and home? Do we as American teachers and parents create misbehavior by our constant redirection and control? Are we squelching children’s ability to monitor their behavior naturally?
Although we only visited three schools during our stay in Finland, I feel that I was able to observe students using 21st Century skills both in class and during their “break time.” At Innokas Koulumestari, translated as Innovative Master School, students are allowed to spread out all over the building to learn in the “best environment for their learning style.” Teachers occasionally walk around to assist those who need it, but they are unsupervised for long stretches. I don’t get the feeling that teachers walk around trying to “catch” their students misbehaving. I feel as though they would truly be surprised to find anyone off-task beyond what is acceptable here. Children seem to know that they have a task to complete, and appreciate the independence from the classroom. They work hard to avoid losing that independence.
At Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (HYK), a grades 3-12 school, students have a block schedule, which allows them 15 minutes between classes. In these 15 minutes, students are encouraged to use the bathroom, hang out with friends, and can go anywhere in the school to hang out. Somehow, when the teacher walks into the classroom, all of his students walk in with him, the door closes (and locks), and instruction begins. A polite-sounding bell system helps with this, but students manage their timeliness on their own. Could American students be trusted to walk to class on their own, not to mention get there on time and without incident?
At Helsinki Normal Lyceum, a high performing secondary school with tough admittance requirements, students took time out of their day to talk with us about what their school was like. These risk-takers were able to explain what they felt was the ideal educational environment in English, with amazing vocabulary! They told us that they enjoyed classes and teachers that allowed them opportunities for collaboration with their peers and inquiry-based learning. They craved opportunities to be creative and show their learning through technology. If we listen to students, they ask for 21st Century skills to be used as a means to learning!
I guess it’s hard to say whether or not Finnish children are better prepared for the 21st Century than American children, especially since I only have a surface understanding of what is really going on here, but I have a feeling that the independence provided to children points them in the right direction. What do you think? Start the conversation in the comments below!