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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?

Are Finnish Children Better Prepared for the 21st Century?

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!

Filling in the Blanks in Finland

Image Credit: berryberryeasy.com

By: Paul A. Solarz

Not speaking Finnish can make learning somewhat difficult when observing lessons at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum, a grades 7-9 school led by Markku Pyysiainen and Olli Maatta.  During a recent chemistry lesson, I had to think critically to determine meaning and use the resources around me to ask for clarification to “fill in the blanks” regarding what I didn’t understand.  Those are just two examples of the 21st Century skills that today’s students need to develop before entering the work force, and those skills are what I am focusing on while studying the education system here in Finland.

Here is the complete list of 34 skills that I focus on in my classroom.

For me, one of the most valuable “take-aways” that I got from today’s observation was the use of a coaching team to improve instruction.  I was able to observe a student teacher conducting a lesson on how medicines are made and how to use them safely.  At the back of the room sat the actual chemistry teacher (mentor teacher) and four additional student teachers.  All five were taking notes, discussing what they saw, and watching the students’ behavior.  The mentor teacher was my translator and gave me some background on the students and the lesson itself.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay to hear the post-observation discussion, so I have decided to create that discussion, making sure to suggest how one could integrate 21st Century skills into the lesson!

Sample Post-Observation Discussion:

Always start with the end in mind.  What are your goals?  What do you expect your students to be able to do on their own after today’s lesson?  What do you want your students to understand and be able to apply independently to new situations in the future?

Based on my observation, I believe that these were the Content Objectives that the teacher focused on during instruction:

  • Know that some plants can be made into drugs, both legal and illegal.
  • Understand that drugs can cause side effects.
  • Read and understand a prescription drug label.

I see that there are a few 21st Century skills that can be integrated into this lesson quite seamlessly.  Here is the list.  See if you can identify where each skill is utilized in the lesson below (an explanation of behaviors associated with each skill can be downloaded from this page):

  • Communicate clearly
  • Collaborate with others
  • Think Interdependently
  • Apply Past Knowledge to New Situations
  • Think Critically
  • Make Judgments and Decisions
  • Solve Problems
  • Reflect and Synthesize
  • Access and Evaluate Information

With these goals in mind, what assessments could I create to see if my students met each goal?  What formative assessments can I use to inform my instruction throughout the lesson?  What summative assessments might my students be ready for?  Here they are:

  • Formative Assessment(s):
    • Whole class question: What are some plants that can be made into drugs? (Low Level)
    • Whole class question: What are some side effects that drugs can have? (Low Level)
  • Summative Assessment(s):
    • A blog post in response to the following questions (see a sample blog post for a different activity here):
      • What did you learn from the activity?
      • What do I want you to transfer to real-life from this lesson?
      • If possible, capture a portion of your process on video or photo & upload it to your blog entry.

What activities will the students participate in during the 75-minute period that will lead them to achieving our goals?  Here is what I would do:

  1. Prior to the lesson:
    1. Create scenarios where students are given a list of symptoms they are experiencing, prior conditions that they have, and the prescription drug label of the medicine that has been prescribed for them.  Purposely create some that will be safe for the patient and some that are unsafe based on the factors you want the students to understand.
    2. Post scenarios around the room – spread them out so that students can’t overhear each other’s conversations.
    3. Create a form online or on paper for students to fill out as they circulate.
  2. Inform students of the goals for today.  Let them know that their learning will be monitored and that their success is important.
  3. Consolidate the information that needs to be presented to the students down to 20 minutes of lecture and note-taking.  Be sure to walk around the room while talking, and check students’ understanding by asking the following questions. (An engaging way to have students respond would be to create a Today’s Meet page where students can post their answers for all to see.):
    1. What are some plants that can be made into drugs? (Low Level)
    2. What are some side effects that drugs can have? (Low Level)
  4. As a whole group, have the students brainstorm all possible safety concerns regarding medication.  If they can’t come up with all of them, teach it to them.  I would imagine some would include: drug interactions, misdiagnoses, etc.
  5. Tell the students that they will be looking at scenarios where they have been prescribed a drug, but that some of the prescriptions are unsafe for the reasons identified moments ago.  They need to determine which prescriptions are safe and which are unsafe.  Share with them that being an informed patient can protect them even though doctors are normally correct (to ease any worry).
  6. Explain remaining directions to the group and check for understanding.
  7. Partner students up randomly or heterogeneously to research the safety of that prescription for that patient using the pre-selected materials that were used in the original lesson and any additional resources that students deem necessary.
  8. Circulate and assist with directions, but not with critical thinking.  Allow students to struggle and use their resources.
  9. If students finish early, ask them to make new scenarios with their partner that you can use in future years.  Be sure that they determine if the drug is safe or not and to cite sources for you to double-check their work.
  10. For those who have fallen behind, it’s ok if they don’t get to all of them.  Check their understanding and monitor their attention.  Assist with confusion or re-direct if necessary.
  11. Once most students are done, go over the answers together as a class and explain why each prescription is safe or unsafe.
  12. Depending on time, students will blog about the following questions now or for homework:  What did you learn from the activity?  What do I want you to transfer to real-life from this lesson?  (If possible, allow students to capture a portion of their process on video or photo & upload it to their blog entry.)

When this lesson in complete, students should have remained engaged for a 75-minute period, created long-term understanding of the established goals, and developed the 21st Century skills that are necessary to be a successful member of _____________ (you fill in the blank).

Getting the Most Out of Our Finnish Experience

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.

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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!