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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?

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A 2nd grade classroom at Innokas Koulumestari

By: Paul Solarz

Completely realizing and understanding that one cannot just take the Finnish model of education and place it in an American classroom, I want to explore what it might look like if I did!  Using the Innokas Koulumestari philosophy, a Grades 1-6 school in Espoo, this blog post will outline some of the changes that would have to be made in my classroom to look more “Finnish,” a concept that is generally discouraged by Finns!  So, no disrespect intended!

Children in Finland somehow seem to be happier than children in America.  I think it has something to do with all of the independence they are given – they are allowed to grow up to become who they were intended to be instead of being heavily influenced by family members.  Schools immediately trust their students to follow expectations, but when a student slips up, their consequence is that they are not given so much freedom.  I will need to monitor students’ happiness in my classroom, despite the fact that there are few ways to measure it.  I will also need to remember to give them a chance to grow up without too much influence from me.

Another observation made is that children here are more comfortable and treat their school like their home.  Students don’t vandalize, mistreat school materials, or litter in their schools.  I feel that this is at least partly due to the fact that teachers try to create an environment that mimics their home as closely as possible.  For example, students take their shoes off at the door, use their cell phones for educational purposes, and sit everywhere around the school on couches, pillows, and rugs.  Curtains isolate areas of the hallway to make intimate work areas that eliminate unnecessary distractions.  I would want to utilize as many of these ideas as possible in my classroom to help my students feel as though the school is an extension of their home.

At Innokas Koulumestari, they are using the team teaching approach, along with staggering start and end times of school in order to best differentiate instruction for their students.  Although I couldn’t allow my students to come to school late or leave early, I could offer opportunities for them to come to school early or stay late and then perhaps offer “comp time” for students in the form of additional breaks throughout their day.  Many schools in Finland offer regular 15-30 minute breaks between periods.  This could be a way to make that happen!  If I could incorporate the team teaching idea, by just combining two classes, I could have access to two classroom teachers (me and one other), a special education teacher, and an assistant.  With four adults, more grouping opportunities can exist if we coordinate our schedules effectively.

The way we saw teachers coordinating schedules was through a weekly collaboration meeting with all adults.  They “plugged in” all of their appointments, meetings, absences, etc. for the week on a shared Google Calendar and then determined what they could get done in that time by consulting long-range planners that they had created prior to the start of the year.

Teachers are given 2-3 hours per week to have meetings and collaboration time during the school day.  Some of it is while students are at religion and gym, while other times are available by not having students start early or end late on a given day.  The school day goes from 8:00 to 3:00 for teachers, but students go for one hour less (they either come early or stay late, but not both).  Teachers are not expected to come much earlier than 8:00 or stay much later than 3:00.  In addition, many teachers we talked to report not taking their work home with them or working much during their summer holiday.  By planning that collaboration time into our weekly schedule, I can imagine much of our workload decreasing!

Finnish students are actually in school for six hours every day at Innokas Koulumestari, even though it is commonly reported that they spend four hours being instructed each day, the disparity comes from all of their “break time.”  After each lesson, students receive a 15-30 minute break.  Lunch is 30 minutes as well.  During some break times, students are encouraged to get outside and move around.  Those who wish to stay inside may create “clubs” that others can join.  These clubs have a purpose and a goal in mind.  Teachers oversee these clubs but often allow students to work without supervision, except in the case of gymnastics and other clubs that might experience injuries.  It would be easy to schedule break times into the schedule by staggering the start and end times of lessons and utilizing the extra adults wisely, and possibly including parent volunteers more effectively.

In Finland, parents are extremely supportive of teachers and their school’s initiatives.  Parents don’t send emails to teachers, call them, or ask for conferences very often, because they feel that the teacher is a professional who knows what is best for their child.  There is no real way of replicating this in America.  The truth is, Finnish teachers are much better prepared for their profession than America’s teachers.  If America only admitted 10% of the applicants into their teacher education programs, worked meticulously to create college programs that were innovative and rigorous, and required a master’s degree before beginning a career in education, I feel that things might be more similar.  The only thing I can do is be up-front and honest with my students’ parents at the beginning of the year & be completely transparent so they see what we are doing!  I can share the amazing things that we have done in previous years and plan to do this year.  After that, I just have to hope that they support me!

Taking the Finnish education system back to America might be an impossible task, but regardless of the level of difficulty I contend that there are take-aways.  If you can do any of the above at your school, great!  If not, see what you can do to instill a community of independent and collaborative learners who you trust with more responsibility.  You just might be surprised with what you get!  Thoughts?

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!

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!”

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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.

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

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

Are Finnish Children Better Prepared for the 21st Century?

By: Paul Solarz

In America, it has become apparent that some children are graduating college without the skills and abilities that they need in order to be successful in today’s rapidly changing work world.  Businesses are putting pressure on universities to prepare their students better.  Those colleges, in turn, are putting pressure on high schools, and the trickle-down effect is hitting elementary schools.  The traditional lecture, skill-and-drill, worksheet-style classrooms just aren’t acceptable anymore.

It has long been known that skills instilled at a young age are more likely to become habits, so it makes sense for schools to teach these immediately as children enter kindergarten.  But the question I’m considering is, “Do Finnish teachers need to spend time working on the same skills that American students need to?”  This blog post was inspired by the following quote:

“I especially like your notions on 21st century skills. As educators we realize them to differ depending on whose list we’re quoting. How does my list look like? And yours? Have you designed a set of skills collaborating with your students? Does our mindset allow us to reshape the objectives according to what we as teachers see happening during the class?”

– Olli Maatta, Language teacher, Teacher trainer, Head of International Relations at Helsinki Normal Lyceum

The truth is, Finnish children seem to be developing some skills earlier than American children.  For example, when children walk themselves to school in the morning at the ripe old age of 7 (several kilometers, through snow & ice, and uphill both ways, of course) do they really need to focus on independent thinking in the classroom?  Students are known to come home after school and remain unsupervised for several hours until a parent returns from work.  These kids live independence!

As I watched parents and children on the streets of Helsinki, in stores and restaurants, and in schools, I noticed that children here are pretty much allowed to be themselves and do anything they want, but they don’t seem to ever take it too far!  I never saw parents interfering with their children’s behaviors.  I imagine that when they do, it’s a much bigger deal to a child than in America where the impact is minimized by overuse.

When I compare them to my fifth grade students, Finnish children never seemed to take their misbehaviors to the point where I would have to give a consequence.  They seem to know where the line is and they seem to respect that line.  Could this be because adults correct them so infrequently and the behavior expectations remain the same at school and home?  Do we as American teachers and parents create misbehavior by our constant redirection and control?  Are we squelching children’s ability to monitor their behavior naturally?

Although we only visited three schools during our stay in Finland, I feel that I was able to observe students using 21st Century skills both in class and during their “break time.”  At Innokas Koulumestari, translated as Innovative Master School, students are allowed to spread out all over the building to learn in the “best environment for their learning style.”  Teachers occasionally walk around to assist those who need it, but they are unsupervised for long stretches.  I don’t get the feeling that teachers walk around trying to “catch” their students misbehaving.  I feel as though they would truly be surprised to find anyone off-task beyond what is acceptable here.  Children seem to know that they have a task to complete, and appreciate the independence from the classroom.  They work hard to avoid losing that independence.

At Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (HYK), a grades 3-12 school, students have a block schedule, which allows them 15 minutes between classes.  In these 15 minutes, students are encouraged to use the bathroom, hang out with friends, and can go anywhere in the school to hang out.  Somehow, when the teacher walks into the classroom, all of his students walk in with him, the door closes (and locks), and instruction begins.  A polite-sounding bell system helps with this, but students manage their timeliness on their own.  Could American students be trusted to walk to class on their own, not to mention get there on time and without incident?

At Helsinki Normal Lyceum, a high performing secondary school with tough admittance requirements, students took time out of their day to talk with us about what their school was like.  These risk-takers were able to explain what they felt was the ideal educational environment in English, with amazing vocabulary!  They told us that they enjoyed classes and teachers that allowed them opportunities for collaboration with their peers and inquiry-based learning.  They craved opportunities to be creative and show their learning through technology.  If we listen to students, they ask for 21st Century skills to be used as a means to learning!

I guess it’s hard to say whether or not Finnish children are better prepared for the 21st Century than American children, especially since I only have a surface understanding of what is really going on here, but I have a feeling that the independence provided to children points them in the right direction.  What do you think?  Start the conversation in the comments below!

What about leadership?

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

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

By Susan Feibelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Look I’ve Most Certainly Seen Before

“The young cherish people and places from which they receive the skills and the emotional support which enable them to make it in the world or to meet their basic human needs”  -James P. Comer

Yesterday we visited an elementary School in Finland, a small learning community focused on innovation. From the moment we entered the learning community we could see that the environment was organized as a space respectful of the stakeholders who would call that particular facility “home”. Through focused observation we gained a sense that we were in the midst of a child centered community taking note of some of the same promising practices we observed during our Finish school visits.

Our experience was peppered with exemplary examples of intentionality, highlighted by a professional learning community focused on student achievement by way of targeted teacher development. There was tremendous “buy in” from all stakeholder groups as one interviewed parent expressed her allegiance to the school, its mission and the faculty members who worked committedly to ready her child for collegiate study and a productive life thereafter. This was an awesome school with a culture designed for learning and once again a place where “trust” was an essential component of school development. However, even in the most successful of places, we find that challenges exist and during today’s visit, one particular challenge spoke loud and clear.

While observing what I considered to be an innovative activity highlighting the intelligences of participating students, I became somewhat distracted by a young girl whose face looked somewhat different from the many faces I observed throughout the past four days. Uncertain as to whether my observation was justified, I proceeded on with my note taking but couldn’t help but continue thinking about the young girl’s face and the question of inquiry that followed me over four thousand miles, from New York to Finland. How does race and culture (among Finland’s minority) factor into this now understood culture of Finish “trust and tradition”. Is life the same for students who look, sound and think differently. Enter a young Finish student named Aira. She hesitantly walked across the room and initiated a conversation. This young sixth grader struck up a conversation with me about New York City, Times Square and her desire to “one day see the bright lights.” I decided at that point to take the opportunity to informally interview the young 6th grader to gain a perspective that had only been afforded me on one other occasion during my tenure in Finland. Similar to the young ninth grader I interviewed the day before, Aira was of African descent. Her mother was from Finland and her father from Central Africa.

During my time with Aira we talked about school and her feelings concerning her teachers and her peers.  She affirmed her teachers as she described the degree of support she receives from them.  Unfortunately, according to her, the same could not be said about her peers. “I don’t have many friends”, she expressed. I immediately asked, why?  It was at that moment she looked down at the floor, pointed to her skin and whispered something which fell short of my range of hearing. I asked Aira to repeat what she said, she looked up, surveyed the room, and with “that look of shame” on her face (of which I am all too familiar), she pointed to her skin once again and said, “my color”. At this time multiple thoughts raced through my head.  I’m not exactly sure why, because it was a question I had on my mind since first reading Finish Lessons. I proceeded to restate what I thought she expressed while simultaneously pointing to my own skin and she signified with a quick and definitive “YES”. I subsequently asked Aira to sit and there began a conversation that reciprocally served the both of us throughout the day. We talked about the friends she does have, her interests in dance and music.  We talked about her travels abroad. We discussed her being a highly expressive individual in a place where “that’s not good”. She mentioned that all too often people interpret her behavior as loud or rude. I couldn’t help but enjoy Aira’s smile, her openness and energy throughout our conversations.  She was that same individual that I see in my school each and every day whose desire is nothing more (whether pre-adolescent, adolescent or adult) than to feel a sense of safety, belonging and acknowledgement. It was clear to me that this was something Aira was in need of attaining. Unfortunately, her reality left her far from her desired destination.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow shared his theory of a hierarchal order of needs. As such we have become clear that there are certain physiological and psychological needs that must be addressed if we are to experience an affirming affect of self-belief, self-trust and ultimately self-actualization. There are millions of Airas in schools throughout the world who are not on course to experience personal actualization simply because they are not engaged in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to them. They are not receiving the requisite support needed to embrace that feeling of belonging. If it is our goal as educational advocates to ensure high levels of achievement for all learners, it behooves us to remain ever cognizant that there is a prerequisite work that begins with first seeing our students as they are and subsequently creating and developing environments that address the most basic of our student’s needs. Years ago, I remember viewing a TED talk hosted by Ken Robinson.  Prior to completing his talk, Robinson shared a story of a young girl who found herself on the right side of misunderstanding. This position which was taken by teachers and ultimately her mother could have ended in misdiagnosis ultimately leading to a life unfulfilled.

As a current Principal I wholeheartedly understand the danger in drawing definitive conclusions from a one day visit, however that look that I observed is universal and the conversation, quite the same. I must however, commend my Finnish colleagues of the school as during my exit conversation with administrators we discussed my findings (as they themselves observed Aira continuously seeking me out throughout the day).  We talked about the creation of a formal structure/forum that would extend to students like Aira opportunities to express her thoughts and feelings. We further discussed the importance of extending efforts beyond the one day celebrations highlighting cultural foods, garments, etc. as a result, we are forging a partnership where my school, Riverton Street Charter School, will engage their school in a Skyping collaborative so that Aira and the members of her community can enjoy authentic opportunities to converse with children of different backgrounds, interests and experiences.

In the final analysis, our work to develop global citizens begins with helping children feel good about themselves and others.  All stakeholders have a role in ensuring that students develop holistically across physical, cognitive, social-interactive, speech-language, ethical and psychological pathways.   I’ve observed many examples of healthy development during my week here in Finland.  It is clear that school leaders are beginning to work intentionality/strategically to address the holistic needs of their students as evidenced by the structuring of child welfare teams, tasked guidance counselors, social engagement facilitators, etc. However, as in America the question of “all” continues to surface and according to my observations and discussions this week, I believe there’s much work to be done developing cultural competencies here as well.

iTrust 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 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 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!”

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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 their teacher what they can do with their mobile devices. If the students and teachers are developing these ideas together, then we can concentrate on collecting data to organize the training for teachers to 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.

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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

The Voice of the Finnish Parent

2nd Grade Mom, FINLAND

2nd Grade Mom, FINLAND

By Joe Mazza

“I deeply trust the schools here in Finland.” 2nd Grade Parent, Koulumestari Elementary

One of the areas I’ve noticed written about the least in Finland’s education system is how schools engage families. As someone who is constantly looking through this lens, I was anxious to get to Helsinki to look for answers from students, teachers, leaders AND actual parents sending their children to school.
The videos embedded below (apologize for video quality) is a two-part interview with a 2nd grade parent at an elementary school we visited this week. It’s important to note, that like reflections on all of our team’s posts, our visit to Finnish schools was very exploratory in nature. Our takeaways come strictly from what we saw, heard and experienced walking around the schools for a week in Finland.
Part 1/2
Part 2/2

5 Things that have me thinking…

  • Trust: “We have it pretty easy,” said the parent.  Trust is embedded throughout. It is ubiquitous. Student, teachers, parents, leaders, policy. You do what you need to support what’s best for kids without all the red tape. The teachers spend a great deal of time with the students, even eating lunch with them each day. The parent went on to say, “When my husband and I trust the teachers, my children trust the teachers”.  Schools are safe. Many schools are KiVa Schools, but generally students were very well-behaved, and bullying of any form was not tolerated. I came away feeling like I was leaving a warm and caring family’s house.

  • Home-School Communications: Varied and not one size fits all. WILMA and other varied communications are offered to families to support face to face relationships. WILMA is much like many student information systems (SIS) back in the US. Parents can log in, see performance, attendance, behavior, etc.

  • Parent-Teacher Relationship: What kind of people they are. What do they think about education, pedagogy, our children. They are very qualified. Proud and know their profession very well. I can always contact them, and email them.

  • Overall Goals: It’s so important that parents and teachers get together regularly and build relationships with each other. We learned of things found in the US like parent nights, parent-teacher conferences, volunteer opportunities. The mom we interviewed shared her hopes for her child’s future: 1) Finds his way of living. 2) Finds his career and what he likes. She hopes he goes to the University and graduates. 3) The most important thing is that he trusts himself and knows what is best for him.

  • Homework: The elementary classes we observed received homework almost everyday mainly in the form of writing and math. However, there were no more than 15 minutes expected of homework. The 8th grade calculus class we observed ended with two words, “no homework.”  In another school, an upper secondary class spent 10 minutes of the 75 answering student questions on homework problems, so we know that it is given. This further illustrates the fact that there are a range of approaches with much of what goes on in schools here in Finland, but little homework seems to be the default.

In the end, one of the coolest things about this inquiry trip is that as more native Finns followed the #pennfinn13 hashtag, they chimed in with their own thoughts, thus expanding the depth of our visit’s perspective.  One of the Finnish teachers tweeting us from another region of the country shared how she used a Facebook page and blogs to provide a snapshot of the week ahead for the learners, then post captured learning moments/accomplishments later. We’re so thankful that Finnish teacher Hanna Graeffe shared her Facebook page for us here. You can follow Hanna at @hannagrrr on Twitter. Through this medium, we also learned that aside from being a rock star Finnish teacher, she is also a successful singer.

Below are the tweeted takeaways relating to family engagement from Hannah and the rest of the Twitterverse during our visits to Finnish schools.

[View the story “Finnish Family Engagement – Tweeted Takeaways” on Storify]

It’s the Coat Racks!

The Baltic Sea winter climate of Helsinki necessitates hats, mittens, gloves and warm coats, every day — even at the end of March.  At breakfast my first morning, I noticed the coat racks.  In Vermont, on a cold, raw, snowy or rainy day, we do one of several things with outer clothing.  The first is we stuff them into cubbies.  If they are wet, they stay a little clammy all day.  Alternately,  we might stuff the mittens and hat into the sleeve of the coat, so they are not lost or forgotten, then we hang our coat.  As a third option we might put mittens or hats on a heater that is slanted (not made to dry clothes) in the hopes of achieving dryness, but they slide off or need repositioning.

Check out a coat rack from the cafeteria at the University of Helsinki dormitory.  Notice the  efficient, practical, aesthetically pleasing places to securely rest mittens, gloves and coats so they dry.

coat racks

During my visit to three schools in Finland I noticed use of building space, educational teaching devices, storage and schooling that exuded a message of practical, efficient and aesthetic.  Even the University classroom had a coat rack provided for boots, coats, hats and gloves.  The inanimate physical attributes provide an ability for the people in these schools to focus on learning — without the subliminal frustrations from impracticalities that dare I say might distract our ability to focus on education.

In school lunchrooms I visited, there were sinks, efficiently placed first in the lunch line in the cafeteria.  The Finnish children washed their hands before they ate.  Message: we support health and cleanliness, right here, front and center in the cafeteria.

In the lunch lines, children served themselves, the food line was at little person level, just the right height for a child.  Are our lunch lines miniature and child focused?

IMG_0662When done with the food and trays, the children put away their plates, compost, trash, and silverware into the racks and receptacles, making clean up efficient and easy.  Do your children take responsibility for cleanup and help the cafeteria staff by sorting?

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The lunch rooms were decorated with cloth table runners, bright colors, art, and centerpieces on each table.  Many of the tables had bright grass sprouts in a bowl. Are our cafeterias pleasing to the eye, relaxing and soothing the inner child.

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Take a look at your school cafeterias, lunch lines, clean up areas and procedures in your school.  Are they institutional?  Do they promote self sufficiency, aesthetic pleasure, responsibility, trust and independence?

grassWhat do you do with the coats and shoes of your young scholars?  Are they stuffed in cubbies in rooms, or is the learning space reserved for learning and the coat efficiently drying outside the room?

cubbies

In one elementary school, the children removed their shoes as they entered the school.  They learn in their stocking feet and the teacher had on a pair of hand knit, felted wool deep purple socks.

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Even the classrooms had practical features. The erasers for the chalkboards were on long handles, so erasure of information was instantaneous, clean and practical.

Perhaps learning is not the little classroom efficiencies, coat racks or the way that children are expected to put away their dishes. However, from these three schools I observed respect for children to make their own decisions, enjoy their meal time and focus on learning.

As I finish my post, I just used the restroom and noticed the shower drain.  I noticed a perfectly fitted, removable, three tiered slime catchment designed to easily prevent clogs.  Why waste time unclogging all of the University housing showers when you can design a catchment device that works?

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You can then focus on learning!  Notice the giant squeegee to efficiently schlop all the spilled water on the shower floor.

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As I write these last few words, my daughter opened the fridge (in the common area) to remove food.  It started beeping after 10 seconds.  Translation: you are wasting electricity, shut the door!

At the end of the day, critically look at the spaces in your school, the cubbies, the storage, the eating areas, the clean up places. Create practical, efficient infrastructural details so we can focus on education and learning — by saving time, and pleasing our aesthetic soul so youth will not feel subconscious distractions that drain emotional energy.  If our children have toasty warm fingers versus clammy hands on their way home, they might reflect on the successes of the day and plan for the future!  It’s the coat racks! They are the reason for the success of the Finnish schools!

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