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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

Finland: The Lighthouse of Progressive Education and Divergent Learning


By Kavan Yee

It has been a number of weeks since my trip to Helsinki. In this time, I’ve had many opportunities to go over my observations of the Finnish school system. As I spoke more and more often about their pedagogy, I could not help but think about David Kolb’s Learning Styles Model and his Experiential Learning Theory. Tweet after tweet, blog after blog you can read of all the #pennfinn13 examples of how our Finnish counterparts put Kolb’s theories into practice. From the teachers, administrators, and students we spoke to, it resonated with me that the commitment to understanding the whole-student was an integral piece to development of the type of learners (or the type of citizens) they want to be. This was quite apparent to me when I visited Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (SYK) and noticed that one of the school’s core values was: “Learning by Doing”. At another school–Innokas Koulumestari–creating innovators is the goal where technology is purposefully integrated with team teaching to support the differentiation of their students. Vice Head Tiina Korhonen believes that “mobile learning is and should be personalized for everyone.” Kolb states that the divergent learnerlikes to gather information and observe everything around him. Because of these traits, the learner is viewed as someone who is creative, open-minded, respectful of other people’s perspective, and has a greater awareness of the perceived affordance.

It is from these examples, I am confident to believe that the principles of the Finnish education system are based upon the promotion of progressive values to create divergent and innovative learners. The true success of this system is not their PISA scores–high stakes testing of facts and statistics is not the goal. Their true success is to create educated citizens–a population that is curious, innovative, creative, open minded, and respectful. Friends, isn’t this the purpose of any educational system? The creation of life-long learners? A community that wants to help each other by solving problems and learning more?

In a previous blog, I questioned if the progressive model translates in the Finnish system– I believe it does. In a conversation I had with Pasi Sahlberg, Director of the Finnish Ministry of Education Centers for International Mobility, he agreed: “If John Dewey was alive today, he would see his words on child-centered and problem-based learning put into practice in Finland.”

Understanding the Whole Child and The Importance of Building a School Community

At SYK, every student in the upper secondary school is placed with an advisor. The advisor and the advisory class “loop” together each year until the student graduates from the school. The advisor acts as the liaison between the parent and the school, monitoring the student’s academic, social, and emotional welfare. The advisory class acts as a microcosm to the larger school universe. To help develop personal introspection and leadership, a Big Brother/Big Sister Program was installed to help with the mentoring of younger students in the primary school. The program begins in 7th grade when a student is paired with a 3rd grader. The relationship grows as the students advance each year together until the mentor graduates from the school. The mentee then becomes the mentor for another 3rd grader, completing the cycle to build a stronger and closer community. “It is so nice to see them grow and mature over time. It’s cool to see them in the hallways and they become your biggest supporters during your last year and at graduation.” – Maria Puolakkainen, 17 year old student at SYK

Development of experiential, hands-on, problem-based units that promote skills in communication and collaboration

“Learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience.” (Kolb, 1984, p.38). I saw examples of problem-based learning in all of the schools we visited. As a Science Curriculum Coordinator, one lesson in particular stood out for me. Calculus students at SYK learn the meaning of knowledge application by finding the volume of an oil spill–using the chain rule and determining the change in the radius with respect to time. Students were asked to question and teach their classmates on how to find solutions to the problem using a document camera.

In the hallways, student work was hung to exhibit the integration of thematic-based units: easels of oil painted cell structures, 3D bird models that show adaptations of evolution, and clay figurines of Angry Birds created in math to help with a lab in physics. At Innokas, popsicle stick homes designed in an architectural unit were first used as the framework to teach students a basic understanding of electrical circuitry in their homes. From this, the application of skills and knowledge promoted some innovation by asking students to design products that would improve their lifestyles–-making a shoe with miniature electrical fans to prevent sweat or lining the inside of a purse with LED-lights to help find objects (which my wife could really use). Students then created ads in iMovie to convince their fellow students to buy their products.

Trust in Our Educators

Establishing an environment of trust was the predominant theme throughout my visit. In the book, Finnish Lessons, Sahlberg speaks of curriculum driven by teachers and students, collaboration between teachers, cooperation between administrators and parents, and the shared leadership of teachers and administrators as the driving forces to create or sustain the trust in a school system. He believes that teacher “isolation and competition contributes to the promotion of a rented policy– prescribed curricula focussed on a standardized test.” Sahlberg suggests that the current American accountability policies pits teachers against each other to create “lemmings racing to nowhere.” In Finland, teachers are given the opportunity to create lessons (or even textbooks) to promote the best practices in thinking and learning for their direct and diverse audience. Sahlberg continues to say that “the irony of education reform is to standardize and make everything uniform. We are doing exactly the opposite, we’re individualizing for our students. How? We invest in creating competent teachers that know how to encourage individual responsibility and promote students wanting to ask more questions.”

Side bar

One issue that I’m still having trouble with is the belief that “the investment in creating competent teachers” leads to creating equality between ALL the schools in the country. University of Helsinki professors at the School of Education believe that there is no competition between schools because “they are all the same”. In a utopian society, this would be ideal– all of the students receive the same education because all of the teachers are highly skilled, selected, and trained “the same way”. It’s hard for me to believe that this is possible. If all the schools want to hire the best teachers, the best professionals go to the best schools. The “best” schools can be determined by many x-factors: school mission, administration, tradition, student admission requirements, etc.. So these best schools produce the best students and gain public attention. With publishing houses in Helsinki reporting school rankings, neighborhoods and property values begin to change. Families begin to move to these top ranked school communities to gain access (or increase the chances for admission). Better neighborhoods have the better schools that send their kids to better universities to prepare these students for a “better” life. Isn’t this what we’re struggling with here in the U.S.? The best education can only be obtained by a select few? I completely believe and agree with placing the trust into competent and well trained teachers– teacher autonomy proves to produce more creativity and differentiation for the students they work with. But I always struggle with absolutes.

Democratic Values: Validation of Student Voice and Choice

Students at Innokas were encouraged to form clubs based on their passions of interest. At the start of a term, students would propose “Innovo Clubs” to gain peer interest. Proposals were presented with the integration of communication and technology skills. If a minimum number of interest was reached, a faculty sponsor and a budget was provided to the group. Time was reserved each week for the clubs to meet, discuss or work on their choice. Interest groups ranged from traditional Finnish weaving to watching the Simpsons. At Helsinki Normal Lyceum, students call their teachers by their first name to eliminate the mystery or superiority of their teachers. It is understood that teachers are viewed upon as “professional experts” of their subjects. However, mutual respect is gained not by a title or name, but by the actions of each individual. Creating a safe and respectful environment that allows for the validation of ALL voices promotes the comfort to take risks and share individuality and thought.

It saddens me to read a few weeks ago that the voices of 8th graders in a South Bronx middle school were oppressed. Students protested the excessive practice and act of taking standardized tests with a peaceful demonstration and signed petitions. According to the petition, they are sick and tired of the “constant, excessive and stressful testing” that causes them to “lose valuable instructional time with our teachers.” School Administrators instead of using this as an opportunity for learning (on many levels) decided to place the blame on the student’s social studies teacher for “actions [that] caused a riot at the school.”

More than 160 students in six different classes refused to take last Wednesday’s three-hour practice exam for next month’s statewide social studies test. Instead, the students handed in blank exams. Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

“We’ve had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year,” Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. “They don’t even count toward our grades. The school system’s just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams.”

School administrators blamed the boycott on a 30-year-old probationary social studies teacher, Douglas Avella.

“They’re saying Mr. Avella made us do this,” said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. “They don’t think we have brains of our own, like we’re robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests.”

Several students defended Avella. They say he had made social studies an exciting subject for them.

“Now they’ve taken away the teacher we love only a few weeks before our real state exam for social studies,” Tatiana Nelson said. “How does that help us?”

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/bronx-8th-graders-boycott-practice-exam-teacher-ax-article-1.330981#ixzz2R9DG2Azq

Is this how we promote democratic values? Is this the “robotic” society we’ve become? Is this the new formula on how to create innovation with oppression? Does a three-hour practice for a standardized test promote critical thinking? Who are we accountable to–-the students or the companies that make the exams?

In Closing

As you can tell, I left Finland with so many take away thoughts and questions. If we are really interested in changing the U.S. education system, we have to move from this prescribed philosophy of industrialized education. We are living with an educational model that is supposed to teach “common information” at predetermined grade levels to produce what?  Little robots that can recall information without any sense of how to use or to apply that knowledge? Lemmings racing to nowhere? How is this approach helping to create individuals that are passionate about learning? A population that can think for themselves? If Sir Ken Robinson taught us anything about Changing Education Paradigms, it is that we need to rethink our educational model. We need to take the risks of doing something different. Maybe we should follow Finland’s lead. Finland has become the beacon of light, signaling us to embrace the ideals of student-centered learning and creating a society of caring, respectful, citizens. Because of this, I will gladly follow.

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

Edutopia’s Global #PennFinn13 gHangout on Finnish Education (Video Archive)

Special thanks to Edutopia for providing the online forum for this global conversation. On Wednesday, March 28, 2013 a Google Hangout took place at the University of Helsinki’s Teacher Education Center (Minerva Plaza), bringing together US and Finnish students, teachers, parents and leaders from multiple timezones to articulate the core beliefs behind the Finnish Education System.  Follow the panelists on Twitter

When the inquiry trip to Finland was designed, the #PennFinn13 team made a conscious decision to make our learning as transparent and interactive as possible. We’ve been utilizing social media to bring our experience to a wide audience to create opportunities for people all over the world to “join us” as we learn. We’re proud that one of our partners in helping to share this learning experience is Edutopia.

Edutopia provides an array of online resources and expertise to help drive innovation and reforms in learning. Aside from hosting our Google Hangout chat yesterday they have also hosted several blogs posts that you won’t find on our #PennFinn13 sites . Please consider visiting their site to read more about our experiences in Finland and to take advantage of the truly impressive resources they provide to educators around the world!

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: How We Value Our Teachers by Brandon Wiley

Does Student Voice Translate in Finnish? by Brandon Wiley

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: A Journey of Inquiry by Joe Mazza

Penn-Finn Learnings 2013: Setting the Stage for a Global Conversation by Joe Mazza

Honestly, I’ve seen these “Finnish Lessons” before…

Pictured from left to right: Aki Puustinen, Jennifer Botzojorns, Timo Ilomäki

Pictured from left to right: Aki Puustinen, Jennifer Botzojorns, Timo Ilomäki

By Kavan Yee

Honestly, I’ve seen these “Finnish Lessons” before… everyday in Chicago, New York, LA, DC, etc. I’ve observed some of the best teachers, students, administrators, and school communities all over the world. Putting aside cultural differences and priorities, the only difference between the Finnish Education and the American system is consistency. Throughout this frozen country, you will find warm hearts and passionate minds. You will find devoted trust and commitment in their professionals towards the development of the whole child. You will hear common vocabulary spoken from every facet of the institution. I spoke with an administrative assistant today about how she feels “just as much as part of the school as the teachers. The teachers trust me as much as I trust them.” The description of their values, practices, and community all resonate the theme of mutual respect of an individual’s development.

Tonight, I had the pleasure of sharing a forum with Finnish students, parents, and educators. My new colleagues Timo Ilomäki and Aki Puustinen drove from the outskirts of Helsinki to spend just an hour with us– “You travelled thousands of miles to be here, the least we can do is drive 3 hours.” This consistency of sacrifice was not only exemplified by this gesture, but it is quite evident in the passion each “cog in the wheel” displays daily in their system. A quote that stood out for me this evening was: “We don’t want to be #1, we just want the best for the development of each child.” That belief is the mantra I’ve been hearing over and over again. Do I believe in this? Do you? Of course we do, that’s why I’m here and you’re reading this! But for an entire nation to believe in this, that’s what stands out for me.

Questions or observations I’ve received consistent answers to:

Do Finnish schools have challenges? Yes. Are they affected by budget cuts, core standards, and social issues? Yes. Do they have high stakes exams? Yes (Upper Level and IB programs). Do they believe in a child-centered approach? Yes. Do they instill a safe environment that promotes taking risks? Yes. Do they believe in protection of play and free-time? Yes. Do they find the importance of compulsory art, music, drama, and physical wellness? Yes. Do they believe in differentiation? Yes. Do they trust each other? Yes. Do they think their doing anything special? No. Do they want this attention from the world? No.

In Students We Trust


By Kavan Yee

Trust is deeply rooted in the Finnish culture. From trusting their citizens to enter a trolley car and pay an automated machine; to the trustworthiness of cab drivers waiting patiently for a customer to withdraw cash to pay a fare; to the devotion of parents trusting in the professional training of every teacher to provide their children with the appropriate skills of learning and development; As a skeptical American, it’s hard to believe that Finns are (in fact) really trustworthy.

Trust must exist in schools. If progressives believe that the purpose of school is to develop citizens to participate in a democratic society, then the schools themselves need to model what democracy should look like in society. Ivan Krastev posed this question on a recent TED Talk: Can society exist without trust? I believe it cannot– that’s why Lincoln wrote that government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people”. So I ask: Is our human right to have a voice based on the principle that one must trust others to feel safe to say it? Pasi Sahlberg told me today that to support innovation and creativity, schools must “create a safe environment to allow an individual to take risks.” If we are given the responsibility as educators to do this, then we need to trust our students. No, really, trust our students: Trust them to make their own choices; trust them to make mistakes and learn from them; trust our students to take responsibility for their own learning; trust them to help make school decisions; in the words of Spike Lee, trust them to “Do the right thing”.

Today, I observed a school that instills this type of trust to all of their students. Helsinki Normal (grades 7-9) fosters an environment that allows students to express their individuality, take appropriate risks for growth, and feel independent while still feeling supported. When I asked a 7th grader what she felt was the “best thing about her school”, she replied: “The teachers of course. They’re chill. They are approachable and they don’t just tell us what to do.” As evidence of how teachers provide trust, she gave me the example of their “free time”. Throughout the course of a day, students will have 4 break periods (including lunch) in between 5 classes. It is at these breaks, students are allowed to roam freely throughout the school without supervision. During the lunch hour, students can elect to eat their lunch within the dining hall or in the hallways. This at first sounded really scary and dangerous for my conservative views towards student safety. But as she continued with her explanation, I realized that the teachers had laid a lot of groundwork or established expectations to reach this community of trust.

“If you start a fight, leave school, or go into the elevator, you get into a lot of trouble!”
“Well, what happens when you get in trouble?”
“If you always get into trouble, they first tell your parents. If you get into big trouble, then you have to go tell why you got in trouble in front of other students.”
“You mean a peer review?”
“A what? Yeah, peer review.”
“What happens there?”
“They tell you that you have detention.”

I asked Olli Maatta, our host and Language Teacher, to clarify the process. He explained that the students are trusted to act as “human beings” and when they make mistakes, they need to “take responsibility for their own actions.” Peer reviews were established by the students and for the students to recognize appropriate and fair consequences.

At Lowell, we provide our students with the same safe and supportive environment that Pasi is talking about, but I’m having a hard time with letting go some of my “traditional” practices of teacher-student relationships. Can I trust my students even more than I do? My Finnish lesson for today is: kokeilla, to try. If I believe in promoting democracy amongst my students, I must trust them.

Do I Have The Correct View of Progressive Ed.? Does Progressive Education Translate in Finnish?


By Kavan Yee

“The activities in Finland will be hosted by University of Helsinki’s School of Educationand will allow participants the opportunity to investigate U.S. educational leadership issues through the lenses of Finnish school leaders.”

The way that people like to use the word “lens” has always been interesting to me. Throughout my life, I have understood that light or images can pass through in all different directions, depending how the “lens” is shaped.

The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Tom Little, President of the Progressive Educators Network (PEN). Tom was visiting Lowell School to observe how we view progressive education through our own “Lowell lens”. Over the last seven weeks, Tom has travelled across this country visiting over 40 progressive schools, trying to collect data to answer questions such as: What does progressive education look like in 2013? How do we define progressive? What are the stereotypes of progressive values? Can the progressive approach be successful in a national education system that demands accountability through high stakes testing? Can we transfer what has been typically successful in private schools to public?

I hope that Tom found his visit helpful for his research. The timing of his visit was, in fact, serendipitous: As I set to embark on my own journey to Finland–“The West’s Education Superpower”–I can only wonder if their country’s success is due to the same values or approach that any progressive educator would want to uphold:

  • democratic values: validation of student voice and choice
  • creation of integrated-thematic based units
  • experiential hands-on learning
  • understanding the whole child: academically, socially and emotionally
  • development of problem-based units that promote skills in communication and collaboration
  • commitment to differentiation and child-centered learning
  • opportunity of shared leadership amongst the faculty
  • importance of building a strong community between parents, faculty, staff, and students
  • trust in our educators: teacher autonomy

All of the articles and research I have read thus far about Finland’s education policies sure leads me to believe that their approach to teaching and learning is similar.

Pasi Salhberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, states that in Finland “the main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.” I see this policy practiced every day at Lowell amongst our faculty and staff. This commitment to modeling collaboration is what I feel makes my school so successful. It’s unfortunate that our national system has created this competition between private and public, public to public, and even private to private.


If Sahlberg is correct that “there’s no word for accountability in Finnish…accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted”, how does this translate in our society where there’s “no child left behind”? Do Finnish school leaders create accountability by adding progressive values? Do Finnish school leaders share the same lens as progressive leaders in the U.S.? Are we asking the right questions? Can the progressive movement help lead the U.S. to success?

For my personal journey: Do I have the correct understanding of progressive values or is my lens mis-shaped? Am I looking through rose-colored glasses? I hope that my view of progressive education has been shaped correctly and does have a correct translation in Finnish.We shall see…