The Blog

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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