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In this school we are a family – Visiting Knapp Elementary School

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

Caring for youngsters – A Visit to Science Leadership Academy (SLA)

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

#StuVoice Finland Shares the ‘Characteristics of an Effective Teacher’

Fair, Dedicated, and Inspiring.

Nice to meet you! I am Maria Puolakkainen, an outgoing high school student from Helsinki, Finland. I am a dedicated student and my principle academic interests center around politics, economics, and philosophy. I am also passionate about languages; with English and Finnish as my first languages, I am fluent in French and am a beginner in Swedish and Italian. Making a difference in the student community is very important to me; I am the vice president of the Finnish International Baccalaureate Society (FIBS) and a member of the chairing board of the Finnish Upper Secondary School Student Union (SLL). As a passionate singer, dancer, and debater I try my best to balance between academics and extracurriculars.  Any questions? Contact me at maria.puolakkainen@gmail.com

Nice to meet you! I am Maria Puolakkainen, an outgoing high school student from Helsinki, Finland. I am a dedicated student and my principle academic interests center around politics, economics, and philosophy. I am also passionate about languages; with English and Finnish as my first languages, I am fluent in French and am a beginner in Swedish and Italian. Making a difference in the student community is very important to me; I am the vice president of the Finnish International Baccalaureate Society (FIBS) and a member of the chairing board of the Finnish Upper Secondary School Student Union (SLL). As a passionate singer, dancer, and debater I try my best to balance between academics and extracurriculars.
Any questions? Contact me at

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.

My classmate leads the English lit class as the teacher                                                                                          has left us to converse openly on a given topic.

My classmate leads the English lit class as the teacher
has left us to converse openly on a given topic.

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,
and I,
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.

Three Is A Magic Number (In Any Language)

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 cofinnishamericanme 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….

Inspired by Finland – 5 Goals I’m Setting Now

Our morning wait at the bus stop en route to Finnish schools

The #PennFInn13’s team waits for the morning bus en route to Finnish schools

By Joe Mazza

Last week on my the flight out to Finland, I was lucky enough to sit next to a higher up in the Swedish educational system. The takeaways from that conversation were transitioned into my first post of the #PennFinn13 trip, entitled Six Swedish Lessons, One Flight. Little did I know that seven days later on the way back home, I’d sit next to a non-educator who would be just as thought-provoking, articulate and open to helping me continue unpacking my week in the Finnish schools. I’ll start with a quote that stuck out from this conversation:
“I’m on my way back from an (international) engineering conference in Sweden. In terms of conference takeaways, the trust, support and autonomy given to engineers only three months on the job really caught my attention. Back in North America, competition for jobs affects the level of support you receive within these roles, especially as a new employee.” – Canadian engineer on flight back to the United States
And then it clicked. My week in Finland was not just a break from American education, but from the culture where I was raised in the land of red, white and blue. Knowing full well that Nordic people are individuals like everyone else, and that painting any “culture” with a broad brush is risky, I’ve witnessed enough cultural consistency across various lenses to express in detail my week of conversations with students, parents, educators, leaders, store clerks, taxi and bus drivers, strangers on the streets, restaurant servers, airline personnel and city workers in the northern part of Europe.
The following are a few broad claims with real examples of what I experienced this week in brief stays in Sweden and Norway, as well as in the schools and city of Helsinki, Finland. What I’ve witnessed goes much deeper than just a prestigious education system, and I believe we can learn a lot from Finland’s overall culture to be a better society now matter what country we live in.
Don’t be wasteful.
  • 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.

    Kids and adults are responsible to put liquid and solid wastes in their proper place now matter at school or in public places.

    Kids and adults are responsible to put liquid and solid wastes in their proper place now matter at school or in public places.

  • 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.
Develop trust in one another – from child to senior.
  • 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.
At SYK, this teacher workroom is the quiet space designed for teachers. It lives next to the staff lounge and staff computer workroom.

At SYK, this teacher workroom is the quiet space designed for teachers. It lives next to the staff lounge and staff computer workroom.

  • 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.
Minerva Plaza inside the University of Helsinki's Teacher Education Department

Minerva Plaza inside the University of Helsinki’s Teacher Education Department

Develop deep relationships, have self discipline
  • 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.
Think, talk, model innovation by default
  • 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.

Comprehensive School Breakdown of Daily Subjects – University of Helsinki Teacher Education Department

  • 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.
Teacher is off to side as the facilitator of learning. Student leads the class.

Teacher is off to side as the facilitator of learning. Student leads the class.

  • 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.
It’s not about the accolades or being the #1.
  • 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.

In summary

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.

For more captioned pictures organized into our respective Finnish visits, follow our Facebook page. More takeaways will be forthcoming on this blog as the nine of us continue to transition back into our own organizations. Stay tuned.

What Might a Finnish-Philosophy Classroom Look Like in America?


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?

iTrust in Mobile Phones?– Leaning into my discomfort

By Kavan Yee

“The need for laptops is decreasing and the use of smart phones is increasing.”Janne Nissinen, 5th Grade Teacher@Innokas Koulumestari

As a middle school teacher and leader, the thought of allowing our students to use their cell phones at school is not only foreign, it causes me an enormous sense of anxiety. My mind only races to the worst possible scenarios of gaming, bullying, texting, cheating…the list can go on and on. But why exactly do I feel this way? Is it my own distrust of our students or is it the distrust in myself? Am I afraid to set up the expectations or have the conversation of how to use a device that is used daily in their lives? If we are to be promoting 21st century skills then shouldn’t we teach about the proper use of technology or proper “netiquette”? Shouldn’t we be integrating our student’s familiar forms technology natural tools for learning and engagement?

One school here in Finland has challenged me to lean into my discomfort. Innokas Koulumestari (translated as Mastery School of Engagement and Enthusiasm), is one of 60 schools in the country that promotes creativity and innovation through the full inclusion of technology. The Innokas staff believes that their creative and versatile use of technology encourages and models for students to apply of 21st century skills to problem solve and innovate. The lesson plans are designed to view the school building and it’s surroundings as “an entity as well as a network of learning environments.” Tiina Korhonen, Vice Headmaster, feels that in order to “truly promote inquiry-based learning, the learning must happen everywhere.” From Tiina, I learned that the learning can happen anywhere with the use of cell phones. 2nd graders were given the assignment to provide evidence of that spring is arriving. Groups were given a smart phone device (Nokia Lumia 800) to take pictures during a walk through the outside campus. Students then presented their findings to their peers by displaying their pictures under a document camera. Did I mention that the students were in groups of 6? Yes, 6. “We don’t have enough money to have enough cameras, so we try to figure out creative ways to support teachers” says Tiina. “You cannot let not having money stop you and the students from learning. We have the same goals for both our staff and students– turn challenges into creativity and innovation.” I’ve encountered these budget problems before when I taught in the inner city of Chicago, but with 6 in group? No way. To my surprise it worked for this class of 48 as I followed them on a portion of their hike. The students were so excited to use the phone to take pictures, they literally ran from object to object, shouting for each other to “come see!”



The use of phones was also shown to me in Janne Nissinen’s 5th grade classroom. The class was currently learning an integrated unit about “Exploring the Sky”. Two students showed me how they used their phones during an evening trip to observe the constellations by using a Skyview App. Students held their phones up to the array of stars and the App would identify the constellation or planetary body. “Some students liked to use the Lumia phones for the activity, but others liked to use their own devices. We want them to be able to use their own devices so they can be familiar on how to use them as an educational tool. ” says Janne. As a school leader, Tiina felt that phones are an excellent opportunity to make learning both authentic and organic– empowering students to be able to collaborate with their teachers, in a sense changes the roles as they become the teacher: “The key idea is for the student to teach the teacher what they can do with the phone. When students and teachers are developing together these ideas of how to use these mobile devices, we at the same time are collecting data and research to organize the training for teachers to help them develop the best practices towards engaging our students and how to use the phones.” Janne added that “we don’t use phones just because it’s technology. We use it because we find it handy, it’s motivating, and we don’t use it for everything. Students are taught to use it when they need it and students are free to use it when they want to. Some students need to use the phone for note taking or data collection. Others use pencil and paper. Some use it as a reorder or camera.” The Innokas staff and Tiina believe that in order to reach all their students’ needs, they need to create different ways for them to learn– “If we continue to teach in our traditional ways, we will lose our new learners.”

None of this can happen without trust of course. Janne explained that “students earn the trust of using these devices from their actions. We’ve built a system for each student to prove that they deserve our trust.” Students are initially introduced to the proper use of their devices inside the classroom with teacher supervision and instruction. As each activity in a unit progresses, students sign up for different areas around the school to work. Teachers move around the building make sure the students are on task. If a student is seen off task, they lose the teacher’s trust and must conduct the next activity back inside the supervised classroom. The ultimate trust is to be able to work anywhere in the school, with any device, independently– “Motivation to learn increases when students feel trusted to know where and how they learn best.”

As I sit here typing this blog on my iPad, listening and viewing the videos/pics/notes recorded on my iPhone, it’s really nonsensical to believe that my students should be learning in my classroom any differently.


My take away from this experience can be summed up in a simple equation:

student voice + student choice + establishing trust = the best practice of integrated-differentiated-experiential learning

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!

What about leadership?

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ describes innovative practices she has helped lead

By Susan Feibelman

When fellow UPenn doctoral student @Joe_Mazza hatched the idea that we should stretch our qualitative researcher wings and take to the road, Finland’s famed schools (thank PISA and Pasi) was the “just-right” destination.  Anticipating the trip, I knew I would use this exploration to extend my interest in the intersection of school leadership and social identity with in the context of Finnish schools. More specifically I was curious about our Finnish colleagues’ construction of leadership as a gendered endeavor. Coming from the independent school world where the majority of headmasters are Caucasian, male, and in their 50s, I wondered of more than 20 years of progressive educational reform might result in a different construction of gender and leadership for Finnish school principals?

After four days of non-stop conversation with Finnish and US educators about teacher preparation, student voice, curriculum development, special education and parent engagement, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I know so little about the habits of leadership that have grown out of Finland’s self-named education “miracle.” Did I not ask the right questions? Were my own biases and assumptions getting in the way of what I was hearing? Or—perhaps my lack of clarity is emblematic of the state of Finnish education when it comes to formal leadership roles Finnish schools today.

Throughout the week our Nordic colleagues have been quick to remind us that just like US educators, they continue to grapple with the complex work of building an equitable educational system. This includes wrestling with the responsibilities of school principals, as well as the ways in which school leadership is enacted by teachers and students across each school community.

I continue to be impressed by the value Finns place on education and the ways in which the role of teacher has been privileged. Not only is acceptance into university teacher education programs a highly competitive process, the autonomy, professional engagement of teachers is evidenced in their development of teaching materials, use of collaborative planning time, and the organization of professional spaces on school campuses (see Jen b.) Within this environment why would a teacher ever choose to take up the mantle of headmaster or school principal?  (Note to self—for the health and well being of all our schools we should be exploring the answer to this question!)

What I think I understand is Finnish teachers can choose to be educated as a school leader and PhD studies are not required.  Aspiring headmasters/principals emerge from the faculty of schools and must complete a series of professional development offerings from the Finnish National Board of Education:

A person is qualified as a principal, when he or she has a higher university degree; the teaching qualifications in the relevant form of education; sufficient work experience in teaching assignments; and completed a qualification in educational administration in accordance with requirements adopted by the Finnish National Board of Education or studies in educational administration with a scope of no less than 25 credits organised by a university, or otherwise obtained sufficient knowledge of educational administration. (Finish National Board of Education, 2012)

It also seems to me that as a result of educational reforms headmasters/principals are in the process of re-defining how school leadership is being enacted across the country. This re-framing served as the subtext for each of the conversations we have had this week:

  •  Thirty-five year veteran of upper secondary school leadership, Atso Taipale met with us at the University of Helsinki on Monday, thoughtfully described efforts to work side-by-side with teachers and emphasized his trust in their professional skills.
  •  Principal Jukka Tanska and Vice-Principal Jukka Niiranen at SYK http://www.syk.fi/info-en included the #PennFinn13 team in their Wednesday,12:30 faculty briefing on the day of our visit. Although I understood not a word being discussed, the mood was collegial and welcoming, giving us a lot to think about how we approach faculty meetings in our own schools.
  •  Vice Principal Tiina Korhonen at Koulumestari School/Learning Center http://koulumestari.fi/en/innokas-2/ not only described the collaborative culture of Koulumestari, but also modeled these principles as she worked with faculty throughout our day together.
  •  Aki Puustinen @puustin headmaster of Muurame Senior High School and Coordinator of Finnish Entrepreneurship and Social Media Networks drove for three hours with colleague and teacher-counselor, Timo Llomåki @llotimo to be with us at the University of Helsinki for Edutopia’s Global Hangout on Finnish education.  The two have undertaken a multi-year exploration of technology integration and both men model leadership as connected educators through their use of social media.

I want to believe we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our Finnish colleagues as we grapple with the ways in which school leadership is enacted in the US.  Certainly the inspiration for this practitioner-based inquiry to Finland is an example of what’s possible when like-minded educators make a commitment—based on mutual trust and collaboration—to interrogate their leadership practices.

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).