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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.

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.

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!

Creating great schools begins with engaging great teachers

By Susan Feibelman

How do we define great teaching? What ingredients are essential for optimal learning to occur? What’s the perfect combination of qualities that we are all looking for when building a learning community?  Back in the US it’s hiring season in the independent school world and I have spent the past four days engaged in non-stop conversations with Finnish and US educators about our work as instructional leaders, connected educators, and life-long learners. Still I couldn’t stop thinking about the classes—students and teachers—I had the privilege to observe this week and the “demonstration” lessons I will be watching when I return to my campus. So I turned to my Finnish colleagues for their insights about building robust teaching and learning communities.

Olli Määttä –teacher trainer—from Helsinki Normal Lyceum‏  describes great teachers as being “warm, empathetic, and outgoing.”  Olli’s focus on the affective qualities of teaching reflected both his belief in the importance of teaching/reaching the whole child and his confidence in the Finnish system of teacher preparation—which combines a degree in a content area/academic discipline in addition to graduate course work in instructional methods, child development, special education and “teacher training” that includes an introductory and basic training period, followed by field work and independent, advanced practice.

Tiina Korhonen, vice principal, at Koulumestari School/Learning Center emphasizes the importance of fostering a school environment that encourages robust innovation and promotes relational trust amongst teachers, students and parents. Her consistent focus on what’s best for the individual child and building a great school for all children is another encouraging view. The question at the heart of the matter is what’s good for kids and Tiina describes this as finding the “fire” in each student. She touches her hand to her heart as she expresses this idea. The goal is for every student to learn what type of environment they best learn in and where their passions lie.

I believe we want the same thing for our students in US schools—to attract compelling, well prepared, and compassionate educators who want to find the “fire” in each student. So I return to my electronic file of resumes with this essential charge at the forefront of my search.


Student art work from Koulumestari School and Learning Centre Innokas

Adding Up Finnish Special Education

By: Marti Richmond

“We are 52 different learners” equals one take away.  A fifth grade comprised of four teachers – one special education, one classroom aide, 48 students- twelve who are special education equals according to one of the fifth grade teachers, 52 different learners. Although the teacher who summed up his classroom as 52 different learners represents one class in one Finnish School, the comment and model represents a model for aspiration for special education.

In many ways the Finnish special education model differs little from the United States: Recent  legislation guarantees special education services, many children are tested by psychologists,  a welfare committee works on generating interventions,  schools receive additional funding for special needs students, some students with more significant disabilities may be served in special classes not offered at a neighborhood school,  students may receive accommodations such as extended time on the few standardized tests administered in the country, and students receive ” personalized” learning plans that are reviewed every two years.  But, the classroom where the regular education and special education teachers work side by side and one of the special education teacher says, “you learn something every day when you are a team and you think of all the students in the class as ‘our’ students.”

Teachers are empowered to identify students and write personalized learning plans without needing a psychologist’s evaluation seem to exemplify what I have come to admire the most in my observations this week, the spirit of collaboration among teachers and the Finnish culture of trust.

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.

Supporting Pre-Service Teachers – A New Model

By Joe Mazza

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki, a 7-9 school in downtown Helsinki Finland. This school is unique, as it is owned by the University of Helsinki and serves as a teacher training school.

When a student teacher, referred to in Finland as a trainee, is working toward completion of practicum, they are placed with a teacher trainer from a University. The University of Helsinki is one of eight practice schools in the country of Finland, and has a partnership with the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki.

We arrived to the school at 8:45AM, and we were provided an overview of the facility by school officials. Then were sent off in three groups to attend 75-minute lessons in math, chemistry and English. Sure I was interested in what was happening in the teacher-student interactions as the lesson proceeded, but it was the back of the room that really got me thinking of some new possibilities.

Three trainees and teacher trainer watch on

Three trainees and teacher trainer watch on

#PennFinn13 colleagues Jen and Mike also sat in student desks to observe the lesson. When we turned around in our seats, there in the back of the room sat three student teachers and the teacher trainer/University professor. Each took notes on the lesson using a simple observation document. They watched on as the trainee proceeded with her lesson and engaged the students.

During various segments of the lesson, students worked independently at their desks and in groups. At these times, the adults in the back of the room got up and joined different areas of the room to offer support and guidance, providing a 5:20 ratio of adult to student within the classroom.

Multiple adults work around the room to support student needs

Multiple adults including trainees and teacher trainer work around the room to support student needs

At the end of the lesson, the trainee receives feedback from her three peers, plus her professor/teacher trainer. How does this level of support compare to that of a student teacher working with only one mentor teacher for a period of weeks?

For one, this trainee has the feedback of four adults at the end of her lesson, as opposed to only his or her supervisor or mentor teacher. The feedback form (pictured below), asks three questions. (Thanks to Olli Maata for tweeting me the translation mid lesson!)

Feedback Form

1) What did the trainee succeed with? (Mention at least three things)

Peer Observation Form

Peer Observation Form

2) What would you have done differently?

3) Other feedback or thoughts on this lesson.

Once the students have left the room, the teacher trainer meets with the trainee to process the beginning middle and end of the lesson, and offer ideas for growth. The three peer feedback forms are submitted directly to the trainee and are used to fuel dialogue about teaching and learning. The conversation continues until the lesson is thoroughly processed according to the teacher trainer.

[End of class period]

Now, if we were fortunate enough to have a school-University partnership in place back at my school, I’d look to change the look of one piece in place here. The teacher trainer should encourage the other three teachers to remain in the room through the post lesson conversation. Given a supportive culture set up by the teacher trainer, there is a good amount of collaborative and transparent opportunities to share ideas, while offering support and affirmation of the lesson to the pre-service teacher.

Much like many of today’s medical professionals, the teacher trainer has the opportunity to formulate a team of teacher trainees to learn together much like Bailey leads her “interns” on Grey’s Anatomy. They have conversations about their craft, covering concepts and working through challenges in a supportive and safe little cohort.

Image credit: abc.go.com/shows/greys-anatomy

Image credit: abc.go.com/shows/greys-anatomy

New teacher preparation is absolutely vital to the future of education in any country. We must constantly be in search of innovative ways to provide as much support to these students as possible. I’m certainly interested in exploring this model further, and feel it might offer a deeper level of ongoing support to pre-service teachers.

For more information on what it takes to become a certified teacher in Finland, check out this link. Many thanks to Normal Lyceum of Helsinki and the University of Helsinki for exposing us to your teacher trainer program.

Filling in the Blanks in Finland

Image Credit: berryberryeasy.com

By: Paul A. Solarz

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

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

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

Sample Post-Observation Discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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