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Above the Arctic Circle

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.

arctic circle

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,

fox on ski bear canoe


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.

fox on ski

fox on skiWhile 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.”


Outdoor hallway between classrooms in Lapland school


Outdoor signs for the science classroom, in four languages

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.

UID skis

Indoor Ski Rack at Underhill ID School in Vermont


Outdoor ski rack at Inari Primary School in Finland

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.

Hockey Rink at Camel's Hump Middle School in Richmond, Vermont

Hockey Rink, Camel’s Hump Middle School in Richmond, V


Hockey Rink at Inari School, Finland

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.

The Sun Sets Slowly in Lapland

IMG_0970Recalling 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.

reindeer waiting to race

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.

reindeer 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.

reindeer racingThere 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.

pelts on packOne 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.


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

Know the Neighborhood You Teach In

This week, Finnish educators from Koulumestari Elementary and Helsingin normaalilyseo (Normal School) are here visiting US schools, as well as learning about teacher/leader education programs at the University of Pennsylvania as part of our #pennfinn13 partnership. Below is the first post after today’s visit to Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

Visit to Penn GSE

In April we had visitors from University of Pennsylvania. They were trying to figure out what is special in Finnish school system. This week we have an opportunity to visit Philadelphia and meet some old friends and get to know new acquaintances. Goal of our visit is to find new ideas and create collaboration between Universities and schools. A very important issue is to collaborate in a practical student to student peer level.

Mural Arts - Philadelphia

Mural Arts – Philadelphia

Today we paid a visit to University of Pennsylvania. We met enthusiastic professionals that have same kind on ideologies that we do. There was one thing above all that we want to bring back to Finland with us. When you start your job as a teacher in a new area, you should get to know the neighborhood of that school. What kids do after school? Where and how they spend their free time? What is it like to be a kid today in area? How about students as experts making a tour in school neighborhoods with their new teacher? While getting familiar with each other a good idea is to discuss about the expectations vice versa.

Tip of the day: Knowing one’s surroundings, its culture and history, makes you commit to your own neighborhood.  See http://muralarts.org/

Kati Sormunen, Minna Kukkonen and Tiina Korhonen www.innokas.fi/en

For more in Koulumestari Elementary School in Finland check out these links.


#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.

Have you ever seen Math Graffiti?

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.


Have you ever seen math graffiti? Taken from a street in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Translation: 9 years of primary school.

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.  IMG_0633

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!

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 5.18.03 AM 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.

Actionable Items:

  • 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?

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?

Have you heard the one about the Finnish extrovert? Part II

By Mike Johanek

Link to Part One

We should never confound schooling as the sum total of education, Finnish or American.

An early mentor, US historian Lawrence Cremin, argued that to understand education anywhere, you need to see it broadly — comprehensively, relationally, publicly — across the variety of institutions that educate, schools among them.  Thus, no practices exist separately from their contexts, their histories, their cultures – even including how they define extroversion.

Try to understand education by just looking at schooling and you let the rest of the matter slip out through your fingers; you’re left to grasp futilely at incoherent fragments before they hit the floor.

To help us visualize the larger picture during our Helsinki tour, Pasi Sahlberg pointed out the significance of the Senate Square in the heart of the city.  Along each of its four sides, you have represented in massive structures the powers of the church, university, government and commerce.  The “Finnish way of steering” apparently works across these institutions, and the many civil associations of this intricately organized society.  Pasi claims that 5 million Finns hold more than 15 million memberships!  School improvement operates within this larger multi-institutional world, and we heard school leaders repeat their intent to give students voice in organizing themselves; primary students today were called “club owners,” with decision authority over their destiny.  Organizations apart from schools support them by providing sports, music and other “hobbies” for students, while extensive social and psychological services buttress sound student growth with annual check-ups and interventions.  Schools report into local municipalities, who supplement resources; the traditional culture, including a deep Lutheran cultural imprint, underlines a pragmatic and prudent design disposition;  universities assure a reliable professional base, imprinting research centrally within teacher development; and the business community voice assures vocational linkages, with the national government setting a generalized core curricular frame, the main plaza in which each sector interacts.

senate square helsinki

But what values does this collective “steering” support?  What values underlie the words and behaviors we experienced this week, from the quick sampling we gathered?  How have the Finns answered the same core questions we all need to face in our educational systems?

We heard our Finnish colleagues, directly and indirectly, suggest answers at least to the following:

  • Who do we want to be, and do schools serve our shared public purposes? For Finns this last centry, now beyond Swedish kingdom and Russian empire, schools have aspired to meet individual interests, independent expression and playful exploration, evident in a broad primary curriculum, rich in arts and music, demanding in multiple languages, and with considerable leeway for flexible individual learning plans through secondary.  An effort to nourish independent thought seems a watermark to schooling’s design here, including its multiple modes of expression across academic and non-academic pursuits, in and out of school.  Get engaged and get working, play and persist, and as an elementary teacher urged today, “earn your trust.”  Our Finnish colleagues spoke of the societal trust embedded in school relations – among students and teachers, between teachers and parents, between administrators and local municipal authorities, and between schools and society at large, even amidst recent budget struggles.  Of course we trust the schools, seemed the message.  A parent today became just a touch emotional in describing her deep respect and appreciation for her son’s teachers – and we had just met her five minutes earlier.
  • How equal do we want to be?  Finland has chosen free education, eliminating tuition across institutions decades ago, for all, maintained apparently with rare exceptions.  Perhaps the most selective independent school in the country is free, and provides transportation for those who may find those costs a burden.  Everyone benefits from universal health care, pensions, and much greater income equality than in the US.  No Finnish school can charge tuition, even those not run directly by municipalities, which are few.  Only the few international schools can charge tuition.  We heard much pride especially in the free comprehensive (elementary) schools, an easily-offered assurance that every Finn can reasonably expect the same strong quality, independent of their background or location.   If you end up taking a vocational track in secondary, you can make a living wage in range of your fellow Finns.  Even with rising income inequality of late, Finland remains below most in the OECD, echoed in its commitment to evenly high quality primary schools across the nation.

Finland OECD inequality

  • Are educators professionals?  It was hard to discuss schooling for long this week without hearing of the high esteem given Finnish teachers.  Last year a Finnish magazine survey asked which professions were most popular, and teaching came in fifth.  One university professor confessed to introducing herself first as a teacher, as it conveyed a more selective status than university academic in many circles.  The oft-claimed 10% admissions rate to teacher education, at least at the University of Helsinki which we visited, attested to this understanding of teaching as a serious, university-based profession that one enters for the long haul.  We heard no hint of teaching as a few-year stint on the way to another career.
  • What role should the market play?  I was struck at the reaction to our inquiries into choice, into how parents might have more options to choose their children’s schools, or how private schools might be expanded to introduce more options.  A slightly perplexed “why” often slid out, with a suggested response implicit.  No, it’s just not something I’ve thought much about, confessed one parent; I’m so fortunate to have this wonderful school in my neighborhood.  While this seemed understood at the comprehensive/lower secondary levels, the competitive admissions processes at upper secondary seemed equally “natural” to the system’s landscape.  While entirely public in terms of support, and almost entirely public in governance, the “market” in which GPA’s served as currency seemed a merit filter consistent with a level provision of a rich foundation.  The need for a market based on real currency seemed an odd perversion to most we met, a distraction, a threat to this rather refined “Finnish way of steering.”

So, extrovert or not, and even if you look at your own shoes occasionally, you can still decide to walk together rather than separately, and certainly more equally than if left unplanned.  You can decide not to narrow who you might become to those aspects most easily measured.  You can even sift and sort by merit, given a clear enough fairness in starting points.  You can decide to refine the machinery of consensus across multiple layers of professional, cultural, commercial and political associations.  You can tweak your core decisions incrementally, consensually, as long as you keep your eye coolly on the shared value of free, diligent and independent spirits with whom you want to populate a still-young nation.

Somewhere here are the lessons to be learned from Finnish colleagues who took a modestly developed nation and made it a topic of international discussion in education.  Somewhere also is an invitation to consider how we in the US answer these same queries.

We return to revisit our own practices next week!