It has been almost three months since our trip to Finland yet every day I am reminded of the Finnish people, their love of children, belief in education and hope for the future. I want to thank Kati Sormunen, Minna Kukkonen and Tiina Korhonen for their posts this week on PennFinn13. This prompted me to return to my journal and share jottings and lingering reflections. Observing schools earlier this spring, several themes rested between the pages of my notebook.
Back in March after leaving my Pennfinn13 colleagues in Helsinki, I headed to northern Finland with my daughter. Flying into Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle, we were welcomed by window paintings of a fox on skis,
bears in canoes, reindeer on the airport roof and owls, Arctic tern and polar bears lounging in the center of the baggage claim area. A mannequin Santa greeted us. Clearly this is the real home of Santa Claus (Joulupukki). In town, several men looked like Santa, with a twinkle in their eyes and a long white beard, although none were dressed in a red suit.
While in Rovaniemi I asked everyone I could about the schools. Did you go to school here? How are the schools? What did you think? Although my sample size was small (eight people) they all shared similar information.
“Yes, the primary schools are very good. You go to the school nearest your home. They are small schools. When you get to the secondary school, the preparation is maybe not as strong as other schools in the south near bigger cities. Sometimes it is hard to find teachers in the rural part of the country. Very few people from Lapland are accepted into the difficult university preparation programs like the one to be a teacher.”
Two adults shared that in Rovaniemi on one side of the river immigrants live who have sought political asylum in Finland. One woman said, “My friend’s parent is the principal of that school and they have some challenges.” She did not elaborate. I spent some time looking through the Rovaniemi and Finland immigration website and discovered there are about 1400 immigrants in this northern city and about 240 arrive each year from the middle east and Africa. There are a multitude of services available. As I read I was impressed with the perspective on welcoming newcomers to a country. I began to think about the multilingual educational approach in Finland and I wondered how this translated to immigrant children in the cities.
When I read the post by Katy, Minna and Tiina about Knapp Elementary, they describe school documents that are translated into many different languages for students and their families. This got me thinking about how in Finland students take exams in various languages. Being able to communicate in your mother tongue is essential to learning.
American writer Teresa McCarty (1993) researched Navajo children where the school is working to maintain the home language and culture. She notes that, “educational, linguistic, and cultural self-determination are inextricably linked” and shows an example of a Native American school that respects the home language and uses this to teach their children, “schools have the potential to silence or give voice to identities rooted and mediated in the local language and culture… no child should be forced to accept … identity at the expense of his or her own” (McCarthy, 1993).
In Lapland, the Sami people live next to individuals who speak Finnish, Swedish and Russian. We were told that Finnish students are able to take matriculating exams in their mother tongue. Depending on where you are in Finland this may be Russian, Swedish, Finnish or Sami. I wonder how educators in Finland embrace multilingualism beyond the European languages. For immigrants to Finland, I think it will be challenging for schools to maintain current educational beliefs and practices as the country embraces a more diverse population. As all countries become a global citizenry acceptance and change will necessitate new thinking. The Finnish have it correct — where children take a test in their mother tongue. If there are immigrants who speak multiple languages, the greater the diversity of languages, the more difficult it will be to make accommodations to the various languages.
I enjoyed learning about the language, food, cultural events and resource centers of the Sami people in Lapland. Three residents with whom I spoke talked about how the small rural schools only go to a certain grade and then students on the outskirts of the city have to travel far to attend their secondary or vocational education. Some people travel from Inari to Rovaniemi. The rural nature of northern Finland poses some interesting challenges.
What do these rural schools look like? We rented a car, left Rovaniemi and travelled to a more rural part of Lapland. As we drove I stopped to take photos of Koulu (Schools) enroute. I noticed a few things. We were there over the Easter holiday break so I was only able to peek in the windows and observe the outside of the school. First, they all had outdoor hockey rinks, and outdoor ski and bike racks which were lit up at night. One had a wood fired heating plant just outside the school, similar to the ones in Vermont. In Vermont we store our skis inside the school and use them as part of our physical education class. In Finland in three rural schools I visited there were skis stored outside the school ready for their next use. Residents shared that students skied to school.
Being on the Arctic circle for a month it is totally dark so one resident explained that the lights stay on. In the spring there is a little more natural sunlight, but at dusk the lights automatically turn on, illuminating the bike racks and bike paths. Yes, they put studded tires on their bicycles, children ride to school, in the dark, in the light, in the snow, all year long,
There were winter outdoor playgrounds and igloos made by the children. A teenager shared that all children are allowed to go outside to play in the very cold, they just wear more clothing. Eric Barker, the Nordic ski coach at Mt. Mansfield Union High School has said to me many times that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Thinking about these schools, and the igloo, I was reminded of several times in Vermont when children are prohibited from going outside for fresh air in the winter when it is “too cold.” Perhaps in the United States we are a bit afraid of the cold. Why? I got the sense that the Finns felt they should embrace the cold as it was simply a part of life.
Whether talking about accepting and adapting to the cold weather, or accepting and adapting to a child’s mother language, as educators we must all try to move beyond what we have been taught. We must adapt to our environment and the people whom we serve in the environment. In doing so, we will find more success for our children and future generations.
Reference: McCarty, T. L. (2002). What if the children forget the Navajo language? A place to be Navajo: Rough Rock and the struggle for self-determination in indigenous schooling (pp. 179-191), Mahwah. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Recalling our trip this past March, I left our PennFinn13 group and headed north with my daughter. We rented a car and drove about four hours northeast of Rovaniemi, Finland to Inari. One would never know we were above the Arctic circle as the roads were in better condition than many roads back in Vermont on the 45th parallel. I wondered about the difference between hoar frost, permafrost and frost heaves. Thinking about the general construction and engineering of the roads, I figured I’d better leave this topic for another day. Suffice it to say we did not hit one frost heave. In addition to being great educators, the Finns seem to understand road engineering.
My daughter and I learned about the Kings Cup, a championship reindeer racing event. We wanted to watch the Sami athletes on skis being pulled behind reindeer. We stayed in a small cabin at a campsite with simple bunks, rented some skis and from then on skied everywhere. On the first day in Inari we met Carol Brown Leonardi, a British woman who had worked at the University of Rovaniemi, but was now at the Open University in Cambridge, UK. Her current research brought her to Inari studying the Sami people and local economy. With shivering hands and a notebook, she interviewed us about the impetus for our vacation and our thoughts about tourism and other general impressions. I asked her if she wanted to borrow my small hand held tape recorder. She was delighted by the idea so we skied back to the cabin and I bought her my tape recorder, the same one with sound bytes from my research from the schools in Helsinki. She put away her notepad. A day later I met her at the local hotel so she could download the sound flies to her computer.
The Kings Cup is a yearly event where the reindeer herders provide jockeys to compete against each other in sprints, relay races and a longer loop out on the ice. The jockeys are dressed in sleek Nordic or alpine racing suits. Some race on Nordic skis, some on alpine and one competitor chose telemark skis. The race organizers piled up snow to make a packed path lined with small branches on Inarijarvi (Lake Inari). Next to the course were booths with reindeer sausage and all manner of animal pelts, hats, jackets, and other sundry. The reindeer were corralled in a makeshift paddock on the side of the race course.
Over the course of the weekend, everyone laughed, smiled and wore lots of festive clothing. It was cold. The races themselves were spectacular. Reindeer are not large animals, but as they raced by their large tongues lolled and they gracefully sprinted. Once past the finish line they were corralled to their area and fed fresh clumps of lichen.
During the relay races, one competitor would complete a lap, release the reins, ski over and tag the next member of the team and the next reindeer would be released from the start chutes. Some of the reindeer had a mind of their own and chose to trot across the ice and ignore the actual course. When another reindeer entered the vicinity the stubborn wayward reindeer would then gear up to race again, bursting onto the course to compete with the others. The crowds consisted of tourists and locals. The children at the Kings Cup wandered about, laughing and playing in the snow, free to be part of the festivities. There were no parents training them or barking commands, but all adults had a watchful eye and would gently redirect a child now and again.
There was broadband everywhere (A constitutional right for the people of Finland). After my daughter negotiated the price of some reindeer pelts, we got ready to pay and the Sami man took from his breast pocket a credit card wifi swipe unit, punched in the price, took my money and we were done. We strapped the pelts to our backpacks and headed out across the lake back to our cabin.
One difference between my home and Finland is it takes forever for the sun to set when you are on the Arctic Circle. In Vermont if you are at the summit of Camel’s Hump or Mt. Mansfield, you bundle up, feel the wind whipping over the 4,000 foot peak, sit down and wait for nature’s show. The sky lights up, orange red and yellow hues, then the sun sinks over Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks, it is over in about 20 minutes. In Lapland this takes about three hours. Think about it — the northern latitude and the rotating earth. With our reindeer pelts we skied out onto the lake which went forever. We kept going and then decided we ought to turn back, skiing into the sun we watched for a long time as the giant yellow orb slowly lowered itself to the horizon.
I am so very appreciative of all the Finnish educators who made our trip possible and to the PennFinn13 leader Joe Mazza and teammates. The reflections, insights, ideas and inspirations, like the sunset on Inarijärvi, linger on and on. I am not sure it will ever be completely gone, as the red glow occupies a little space in my heart for the beautiful people of Finland.
During our cross-cultural observations in Finland I welcomed the opportunity to visit math classrooms, interview several students and look through math textbooks. I noted small differences between three particular classes and teaching and learning I have observed in the United States.
At Helsinki Normal Lyceum I observed seventh graders studying geometry, computing the volume of cones, rectangular solids and cylinders. The class began with informal conversation among students. The teacher then gathered the class attention by asking about difficulties with specific homework problems (from what I observed, the notion that there is no homework in Finland is a myth). The teacher took note of the confusing points. Then students completed the correct answers, on the board, to four illustrative problems. While students wrote on the chalkboard, the teacher circulated throughout the room, checking that other students had completed homework. She made marks in her grade book. Students were looking at their own and their table partner’s homework, and checking answers on the board. When done with the homework check, the class noted that one of the sample solutions on the board was incorrect and the teacher, through asking the class questions, walked through the correct solution.
Once homework review was complete, one student from each table pair picked up an I-pad. Students used Socrative software to compute and then report results for four different problems – results appeared projected from the LCD on the screen. Once done, the teacher assigned about twelve progressively more difficult area problems from the text. As an example the students had to calculate the area of a slanted cylinder, or half of a cylinder disguised as a suitcase with a handle. Students needed to re-think the shape and apply the formula and perform an additional calculation such as doubling or halving. Students worked in pairs. At the end of the work session the teacher asked the class for attention and students were assigned homework. Almost all students pulled out their Nokia phones, got up from their desks and took a picture of the assignment which was projected via the LCD.
This class in structure, presentation and topic varied little from a typical class I have observed in the U.S. However, two differences were noted:
Textbook: The textbook was about a quarter the thickness of your standard U.S. book, and there were only formulas and problems. That is it. No glossy photos, connections to careers, historical facts, no bright bolded sections, tabs, outlines of notes, no step-by-step tiered examples walking students through prescribed process explanations of how to do the math.
Student Affect: The students were motivated and worked. They sought each other out. They laughed, they talked at times while the teacher talked, they asked each other questions. The room felt very relaxed, and there was no tension, competition, control issues or discomfort between the teachers and/or the students. Two students shared with me that they often had time to work in class, and they would all get through most of the problems. He said that if they decided to talk to each other and be distracted it was their own responsibility. He said if they did not do the work then they did not learn.
At Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (HYK) I observed an International Baccalaureate (IB) calculus class that was taught in English. Students arrived in the classroom at the same time as the teacher (teachers in this school did not have set classrooms, they simply used a rooms for a particular class). The door shut and locked, the teacher turned on the document camera and asked the students which homework problems they had trouble solving using the product and quotient rule. Then teacher then sat at one desk, facing the board, as various students came forward to solve problems—both the teacher and other students asked questions about the solutions. In two of the problems the students had solved the problem in different ways and they discussed how you can simplify/solve various parts of the equation in a different order, but the solutions end up the same.
The teacher then launched into the lesson which was about finding the volume of an oil spill- using the chain rule and determining the change in the radius with respect to time. The textbook was the same text used by the AP (AB) calculus teacher(s) at my home High School in Jericho, Vermont. The structure of the class was not that different in terms of review of homework, new material, discussion, notes, and the homework assignment. One student arrived late with a quiet knock on the door, he quietly said, “Sorry I am late” and sat down.
The students appeared in total control of their learning. They ran the review of the homework problems, and when a student had a question during the teacher lecture portion of the class, (about the use of inverse, reciprocal and negative reciprocals within the context of the chain rule) the other students explained to her, moving form English to Finish. It was not just one student but four different individuals chimed in, watching the confused student’s body language, seeing her perplexed look at the explanation by one classmate and adjusting to Finnish when filling in the details to complete the understanding.
Questions: how much learning and teaching is directed by students as motivated independent thinkers? How much is controlled or directed by the teacher? How do we create a space and culture in our schools that promotes students taking complete ownership of their learning?
My third classroom visit was a fifth grade math classroom at Innokas Koulumestari—the teacher presented how he used technology in the class, and two students, using a powerpoint and smart board, showed us examples. Later two other students showed us lego robots they had built as part of their exploration.
The learning was not divided into distinct content segments, but rather embedded. The teacher explained that there were also times when students received lessons and completed work from a workbook, but they did not do every assignment in the book. I took a moment to look through the math textbook sitting on the desk. First, the physical size of the book was considerably smaller than our Investigations books used at our elementary level. When I looked closer at the book, I noticed developmentally appropriate progressions in difficulty of the problems, and lots and lots of applications of fractions – number lines, pie charts and music. There were problems where musical notes illustrated and explained adding and subtracting. The teacher was a musician and he would use drum beats to teach fractions!
One can not make assumptions about math education in Finland based on these three observations; they merely provide a snapshot for reflections on teaching and learning in our own schools. In trying to summarize what was different, it occurred to me that what I was observing was the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. In particular, students were: making sense of problems and persevering in solving them, constructing viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, modeling with mathematics, looking for and making use of structure, and looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning. The teacher, however, did not articulate the need or value in these standards of practice, it was simply a part of the learning.
- Create school and classroom environments so that students own learning.
- Use multiple modes to teach math, bringing in interdisciplinary topics such as robotics, music and other applications.
- Allow for students to work through answers with each other, to answer each other’s questions, organically.
- Less is more: utilize math texts and resources that promote independent thinking and solving problems, not prescriptive lock-step methods.
- “Flip the classroom” supports some of the math learning I observed in Finland.
- Promote the notion of “80/20” — 80% of the time in the classroom the student is completing the work, 20% of the time the teacher is talking/presenting work. See Building School-based Teacher Learning Communities: Professional Strategies, By Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Joan E. Talbert.
On a final note, when I was walking on the streets of a small northern city in Lapland, I came across a section covered with graffiti. There was construction with plywood barriers and generators. On one particular generator there was a math problem, smiling face and peace symbol with the statement concerning nine years of primary school. What does this say about a culture when such pleasant graffiti, with correct math, mentions school?
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.
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?
When 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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
You can then focus on learning! Notice the giant squeegee to efficiently schlop all the spilled water on the shower floor.
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!
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.
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.
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.