The Blog

Finnish Teacher Training: Masterful and Commanding

Helsinki, Day #5 - We spent the entire day immersed in the Finnish teacher training system, visiting teacher training centers in the morning and the University of Helsinki in the afternoon. One of my colleagues in the US entourage, Mary Cathryn Ricker from St. Paul Federation of Teachers, captured the experience width this post on her blog. Thank you, Mary Cathryn!

Potential teachers are chosen after two or three years of undergraduate preparation through grade point average, test scores and a make-it-or-break-it interview. Ultimately it is the interview that is used to choose people to study to become teachers. The interview is conducted width content teachers, content-area professors, and an education professor. This group is looking for a virtual single-minded motivation to be width children as the priority.

Olli stressed that the role of teachers and teacher education are important to the now famous Finnish success that we are here to study.

Once chosen, these potential teachers are paired width master teachers at a teacher training school, like the secondary school I visited. To be a master teacher you must have at least two years of experience but Olli said the reality was that these teachers had much more than two years and a tremendous amount of value was placed in finding master teachers who had advanced degrees beyond the initial, mandatory Masters degree required to enter the profession.

Read the full blog post from Mary Cathryn Ricker.

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Finnish students on "path to self-actualization"

Today, I spent the morning at Helsinge Gymnasium in Vantaa, a suburb of Helsinki. Helsinge Gymnasium is a comprehensive high school width 150 students, 15 teachers, a nurse, a social worker, and a psychologist. After leaving middle school at age 15 (end of 9th grade), students can choose either a comprehensive high school or a trade school. Although we were told that class sizes could approach 30, I never saw more than 19 students in a class and observed a lesson in an Algebra class width 13 students. The teachers and students referred to the school as a "small school," unlike the  "large" high schools in the big cities like Helsinki. When asked about the typical size of a large high school, a representative from the Ministry of Education told me that they range in size between 550-600 students.

I find myself wondering, sometimes right out loud, what it would be like to teach and work in a setting such as this where the necessary resources are always readily available and where the focus is as much on the inner growth and development of the whole child as it is on the academic achievement.

As I've already stated before, I continue to be amazed and impressed by the ability of most students here to manage their own behavior, direct their own learning, and gather and utilize the resources necessary to complete work and projects. There is an ambiance about the learning environments here that connotes confidence, collaboration, and community. Students and teachers alike appear relaxed and ready to learn. We were told that students who choose to attend the Gymnasiums are typically university bound. 92% of the graduates from this school last year went on to enroll at the university.

It must be noted that, even though we were visiting during the second week of a new school year, and much of the teacher-student interactions were introductory in nature (class processes, protocols, routines, etc), as well as review, we did have the opportunity to observe teachers in instructional settings. The teaching I observed did not seem to be anything special or out of the ordinary. In fact, it seemed that the teaching methods here are more traditional than what we might see in most classrooms in California, and methods were relatively consistent from classroom to classroom. That being said, the teachers' belief in the students and their capacity to think and work independently is obvious and pervasive.

At this point, I find myself wondering, sometimes right out loud, what it would be like to teach and work in a setting such as this where the necessary resources are always readily available and where the focus is as much on the inner growth and development of the whole child as it is on the academic achievement. I suppose that much can be learned from the premise that students on the path to self-actualization, routinely engaged in developmentally appropriate material, and encouraged to work collaboratively width their peers and teachers can and will exceed expectations. I really do believe that California educators and support staff believe it wholeheartedly. The challenge, of course, for all of us, is to help those actively engaged in education reform to develop the same sensibilities.

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Finnish School Goals: Fairness, Tolerance and Individuality, Sense of Community, Appreciation of Learning and Working, and Responsibility

This is the first thing you see when you enter the school, the cafeteria, sunken a few steps, width the view upward to the 2nd and 3rd floors.

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Taking a look at pre-primary education in Finland

Today I visited Kungsgards Daghem, a pre-school and kindergarten in both Finnish and Swiss languages. All children have the opportunity to receive pre-primary education free of charge during the year before their compulsory education begins. Childcare/pre-school is also available for all children, beginning at one year old, width the state covering up to 85% of the cost.

I was impressed by the manner in which the teachers at the school worked so hard to nurture the creativity of the children and then, after identifying their specific interests, structured the environment to facilitate cooperative work and determined effort. As the lead teacher said, "Our primary responsibility is to learn what the children can do and help them to grow as opposed to finding out what they can't do and remediating." Each child has an individual learning plan developed jointly by the teacher and the parents.

The teachers believe and, indeed, demonstrated that their best efforts serve to build confidence and sustain it as the child develops and grows. The level of independence displayed by the youngest of the students (2-3 years old) was apparent in everything they tried.  Also, it appeared that all students were actively engaged in some sort of meaningful, relevant work, width adult supervision visible but unobtrusive, assisting when necessary but leaving much to the child to discover, intuit, figure out. The adult to student ratio is set statutorily at 1-7. The children do not leave the Kindergarten and move into Grade 1 until seven years of age.

When asked, "What are the expectations of the teachers in the primary school? What do they expect their incoming students to know," the most common response was variations on "to be curious, to think and act independently, to love learning, to be socially adaptable, to be able to listen to each other, etc." And, the primary vehicle for said preparation? Play.

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What is Finland doing that makes it a world leader in educational equity and excellence?

Sponsoredby the Education Funder Strategy Group and the Stuart Foundation, I am part of a group of educators and policymakers visiting Finland to observe their public school system, which is one of the top-performing systems in the world. I will be in Finland from August 19-25. Here is an overview taken from the introduction to our agenda of the work I'll be doing while I'm in Helsinki.

What is Finland doing that makes it a world leader in educational equity and excellence? We will explore that question across the continuum of early learning, comprehensive schooling (grades 1 to 9) and secondary education. We will focus on system drivers for achieving high student outcomes, focusing on how teachers in Finland are trained, how they teach and assess learning, and how Finland’s investment in early childhood education and intervention is closing achievement and opportunity gaps. We will also examine how Finland’s tertiary education system serves both students and the country’s economic aspirations. Throughout the week, expect a full schedule of school and campus visits and meetings width education officials, principals, teachers, and students as well as top leaders in the Ministry of Education, Parliament, the National Board of Education, the Chamber of Commerce, business, and education trade unions, among others. The background materials will provide detailed information about the Finnish education system. Throughout the week, we hope to engage width our hosts on some key questions of relevance to both of our countries, including: What is the theory of learning that guides the design of Finland’s education system? Or, is the system animated by multiple theories at the municipal and school levels? Does the science of learning and research on child/youth development inform classroom practice in Finland? How does the Finland approach to pedagogy and instruction compare and/or contrast width the U.S.? How is the school system dealing width increasing inequality, income disparities, and immigration in the context of Finland’s core commitment to equal opportunity for all students? What is next for Finland? How do policymakers and educators envision the future of learning and process of educational innovation in a rapidly changing world?

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