Good Evening All:
It’s late here in Berlin. Tonight I got to see some interesting aspects of this city, which was fun. Anyway, you will see in this blog post that there are many similarities and differences between the Finnish Secondary experience and our own in the states. However, it’s important to remember that the below description is that of an elite High School in Finland, and not as typical as one from the city of Helsinki. After attending a innovative session today with Pasi Silander, it seems that the city schools are undertaking a pedagogical transformation, which I will highlight in a future post. He shared that almost 50 percent of Secondary Staff in Helsinki has been trained in this new Phenomenon Pedegogy, which is a new type of problem based learning. They will also be pioneering new virtual learning systems, e-assessment portfolios, and national assessments in the next two years. Exciting stuff. I hope you enjoy the pictures and hearing quotes from the students themselves. As I stated in my post yesterday, Upper Secondary School in Finland occurs after the compulsory 9 years of schooling. It generally takes students 3 years to complete, and some do it in 4 due to taking a year for study abroad opportunities, etc. I also visited a Kindergarten School today as well, more on that to come.
Each year, the Etela-Tapiola Upper School gets 125 new students. The day starts at 8:15 am and is a five hour school day. There are three lunch shifts at the school. Building community is a very big part of the culture there. Students generally take a Math, 1 or 2 foreign languages (either Swedish and English, or Chinese, etc). They also have opportunities for social studies, science subsets. In this school, they do offer art and music to students, but they aren’t as popular here. Physical education is a compulsory course at least two times during their first year. Then, it becomes elective course. The periods are 75 minute long in both schools. The picture is one student’s schedule for the year, broken up into 5 terms.
It is a real time of change in Finland due to technology. The Principal shared that the fact that students can access information makes the need for teachers to change their way of instructing. He told a story of how when he was in school the teacher was the center of information. Now he said that there needs to be a shift to make students think critically, work collaboratively. He said he is working with teachers to change their mindset and say to students. “Here is the problem and let’s discuss how we can solve it.”
The principal said he encourages students to study together and challenge each other. He said about 25% of teachers in this school have shifted to this way of teaching, and others are still very traditional.
So after a short session with the Principal, we got to talk to the students. In our first session, we had four students, 3 boys, and 1 girl speak to us. The first student, a last year student, who only had 1 course left shared that he had been an exchange student to the US in a Detroit area school for a year last year. He says he currently has 1, 75 minute course in the morning at Estela, and then spends the next 6-7 hours per day studying independently for entrance exams to University. “I am studying for matriculation exams… and entrance exams to university. People say it’s a piece of cake to pass high school but the real test is passing the entrance exam.” Throughout the time we were in the country, everyone shared how stressful the matriculation and entrance exams were because they were extremely difficult.
We asked him, “what are the differences between the US schools, and your experience home in Finland?” He replied, “ This is no disrespect, but there are so many differences in the two countries. In the US, you feel like you are in a factory there. There are a thousand of us, and everyone is forced through the same molds, it’s strict what you have to take, you have very little electives or choice. Here we have more freedom of choice and take subjects that interest us. The minimum core is 45 courses and total of 75.. So we have some freedom. I would say it is better here.”
He was correct in the sense that there was much more freedom and downtime in the Secondary programs we saw. Students had time between classes, some also had skip periods where they didn’t have a course and could sit with friends and study, or socialize while they waited for their next class. It felt more relaxed.
The female student shared that she has a longer school day, about 4-5 lessons per day. She likes it because she can choose what she wants to learn. In the third and year final year, students take 4 courses per day, or are in school 2-3 hours per day: 2 math courses, one English and one social studies course. One boy shared that he had already taken the English matriculation exam, but it didn’t go well so I need to take it again
Another boy, who was also the student body president shared that he would be done in four years, although we only have to take 75 courses, he was going to take 90. He also shared that he was “kind of lazy.”
We asked the kids, “How do you feel you education has prepared you for working with other cultures.” One student replied, “We are exposed us to many other culture, we learn many languages, many people speak and it’s useful to know them to connect with people, we also have many opportunities to study abroad, and many of us take advantage of those opportunities. Another said, “We have quite many study trips for a week of a time. Ex Belgium.. Students pay for the trip. In fact, one student went to shanghai for a youth science expo, and Canada.. It’s not mandatory to be active but a lot of opportunities for it..
We asked them, “How much homework do you get?” They replied, “It depends on the subject. Level one math- you get a lot of homework, an hour to two.. Same with advanced languages chemistry and physics… But you can decide. 1-2 hours a day for homework is about average.” This is very comparable to a high school student in the states.
We also asked if students have a voice in developing school rules. They unanimously said, “We do. We have the ability to have discussions with administrations. I’m sure we have rules somewhere but I’ve never seen them. We don’t need them. It’s about being a regular human being and respecting others. We are expected to behave. Not having rules makes students feel like they aren’t being watched over.”
The Principal also added, “We have had serious talks with students but we hasn’t needed major, discipline. Tardiness is something we have to deal with.” Across the school, it was evident that it was well run, students were respectful of one another, both inside and out of the classrooms. Some classes had 38 students in them and they were all attentive and engaged.
The state overall has a small percentage of students who drop out, but this school in particular works hard to keep students in school. “Drops out we don’t tolerate at all. Some of students don’t work and very soon they learn to work.” The Principal.
We asked students if they are engaged in their communities and they responded, “The government does most of the social security system so it’s hard to get into community activism and volunteerism. We are all very active. But in this school we are above the average. But the culture here in Finland with the government having a bigger role in the welfare system there is little opportunities and time for HS students to be active in our communities, whereas in the US there any many Non-Profits who do charity work. The Principal added that the school is looking to send students to work with senior citizens and do some community service once a week.
Finally, we asked what they felt the future of learning should look like, and if they could make a change in their school, what would be most responsive to meeting the needs of a 21’st century learner?
The students responded by saying, “Enhance the amount of the computer skills we get. Technology is more important. We should add some more social media stuff in our learning. In life outside of school you don’t need to know everything but we have friends and we share opinions. We work collaboratively in school now, but we can enhance it more. When we worked with Microsoft and learned about their programs, that was relevant, so doing more project work. The female student had a little different view. She said, computers are important, but I like writing with my hands, with a pen so I hope we don’t forget that. The boy who had been in the US agreed with the other boys. “I agree with the others, “I have no idea was HTML is… At some point in our education we should learn what is a computer. We learn a lot of things that were useful in the 80’s for instance, we don’t know how to fill out a tax report. Things that are relevant now are not in our schooling, like how to be a citizen how to pay your taxes, plan your economy.” Students were allowed to be on their phones during skip periods, and just hang out as you see above.
We asked, “How typical is this school to other schools in Finland? One replied, “we are the same.. in terms of the program” Another said, “our school is unique in terms of communicating with administration and we have high GPA’s here. Some in our group said this school would be equivalent to our Phillips Andover Academy. We did see SMART boards in every classroom, and students in some classes were using formative assessment clickers to work with students.
We also asked about the role of their parents in decision-making and how active are they in choices they make? One student replied, “For me, my parents have done nothing in regards to my decisions. They are not on my back. I hope other students’ parents are the same way, that they let them make decisions.”
Another student replied, “My parents out a lot of pressure on me from elementary school, and have eased the pressure as I got older, and are not as active now. They count on me to do well.
The female student said, “My parents have gone to University and have done well in life and I want the same.” The final student said, “My parents have no idea what I’m doing”
Students at this age in Finland are very independent. Parents are active and supporting the school very much and the principal is very happy to cooperate with them. And when they have a criticism he encourages them to call. The students all said they have really good relationships with their teachers. They can talk pretty freely. “Here, if I see a teacher in the hallway I can go and ask for advice and If I don’t understand this or that, they help me. They are helpful here and if someone needs support, they give it. We call our teachers by their first names. It’s free, it’s respectful, and there is still that teacher-student relationship
The student who had been on the exchange to the US said, “When I was in the US, I really didn’t know how to get that support, many times I thought, where do I go? There was less time for teachers to help me in the US. Here there are 15 minutes between classes, you can go to the teacher and get help for anything.
Lastly, we asked the students about risky behaviors amongst their peers such as drug use, and alcohol, and sex. They responded, “All that exists. There is teen pregnancy, there are drugs and alcohol, but we have health education in schools, so we talk about drugs and pregnancy, and alcohol in school. Outside school they do and risk sometimes. But at school you don’t see drugs or alcohol. These aren’t big problems and we have a zero tolerance for bullying here and we don’t want that so we don’t tolerate it. In upper secondary schools there is less of it, because it is our choice to come here and we choose this school so why would we come and make our workplace bad? Some schools, are more into sports and science and social students and because we want to study and want to be good.
Another student said, “I have never seen a fight in school here. The culture of the school is strong.” And as such, students can sit, and congregate within the school, socialize, etc. However, there are very high expectations for them, and they seem to be very intrinsically motivated to achieve.