Changing Education in Finland: Phenomenon Based Learning

Recently there was an article in “The Independent” that discussed the new reform movement in that country called, “Finland Schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’ as country reforms its education system.”

When I visited Finland last year, this idea of Phenomenon Based learning was a topic of one of our visits to the Helsinki Education Department where we were able to hear from its developers, Pasi Silander, and Pasi Mattila. They explained that the national curriculum was being changed in 2016, and would be based on phenomenons (aka “topics”), rather than subject based learning. Also, starting this year, all students will be required to keep an e-portfolio, of which the final examination out of the Upper Secondary School, would be based on the e-portfolio. As in the United States, a range of schools and sophistication of pedagogy and technology used in Finland is vast and wide. Variance is wide inside schools as well. Similar to what we see in the United States, Silander explained, “the quality is dependent on teacher skills, and attitudes and beliefs.”

While we were there last year, Pasi gave us some data about the Helsinki Schools, which may vary a little to current data.

Helsinki is the capital of Finland, and has the most public schools. 123 municipal schools, with 46 thousand students. They spend 9,100 Euros a year on students, around $13,000 per pupil in the US. At the Upper Secondary Education level, the number of students who are in need of special education services is lower, and class sizes are bigger. Costs at the HS are less and on average they spend 7000 euros per year per student on the Upper Secondary schools. 95% percent pass the final exam and the drop out rate is low.

In the vocational education track at that time there were about 10,535 students and the cost per pupil was 10,720 Euros. Each student does an apprenticeship, and during this time, the company pays the salary for the student. A small fee is paid for by the school to the company. This is for students 20 years and up.

During the discussion Pasi Silander made the case to build a new pedagogical culture within education. He and Pasi Mattila discussed the development of E-Learning via computers and mobile devices. One interesting point that these two researches made was that if we want to change the practices, and pedagogy of teaching, we need to change the way we lead… how we lead the teachers, develop and train them, and the pedagogical practices we expect to see. These men explained that they have been working within the Helsinki Schools for 4 years, training teachers, and changing pedagogy in the schools. They have approached teacher training differently, in a more hands-on team based fashion, promoting the development of learning communities. In other words, all the training that was done happened in teams of educators that included Principals.

Pasi explained to us that the way we learn is through information processing, not by listening to a teacher. We learn by doing thinking activities. So he has been working on developing tools that promote students thinking processes to be used in schools. Examples of this were to have students solve common tasks, or problems collaboratively, to create an environment where students “own” the thinking, and where there is collaborative learning. In Helsinki High Schools under the new model, many learning tasks are done by teams, and the tasks are problem based. Pasi made sure to emphasize that they don’t give the text to the students, and ask questions, or read a book and have them answer “stupid” questions…

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 7.14.47 PMInstead, he explained that they flip the process, where students first are given the questions, or presented with a problem, then given the references. From there, they build their own answers to those questions or problems. According to Pasi, it changes the process of learning.

The Finnish national curriculum is being changed in 2016 and will be more based on this type of phenomenon based learning.

Doesn’t this happen in the US? Well, there are some schools that have experimented with this type of approach. Not in it’s exact form, but similar. It’s laid out in a new book: “Deeper Learning, How eight innovative schools are transforming education in the 21st Century.” It’s inspiring, and definitely worth a look.


Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Achievement… A Conversation

My husband has been on my case lately to get back up on my blog.. And, I don’t know if that is because he needs me to find another outlet to have my educational talks, or he thinks I have some good things to say and should get out there.. 🙂

I am going to believe it’s the latter, and thought I would start with a presentation given from my department, and some interesting reading I’ve done on some other blogs.

So, this week, the Math Department presented an update on some significant changes that have taken place in the last 8 months in the Cambridge Public Schools. It was an honest exchange and sharing of both quantitative data, and anecdotal information on the roll out of the new Math in Focus program, as well as the implementation of the new Accelerated Math Pathway.

Inevitably, the question came up about the persistent and stubborn achievement gaps we continue to see in our schools.If you are able to watch the presentation, at the 1:11 minute mark, I spoke to how teachers are provided time through our new professional development framework, to support the development of new knowledge and skills to take courses in math as part of their 10 required hours. Professional Development and expanding the toolbox of teachers will be key to addressing the vast range of student learning needs. When asked by Mr. Osbourn, “what do we do about it,” my response at the 2:49 minute mark was that we need to explore a variety of best practices to target and provide supports for under-performing students, to provide teachers real time information, and monitor student progress, to re-teach in a focused and deliberate way, use relevant material to engage students, and to collectively come together, as a professional community to change course. In the math presentation members of our team stated that we are in the process of revising the screening tool that they use at the elementary level to identify individual student strengths and weaknesses, and are putting together a K-8 math task force to unify efforts across grades and schools; all this to ensure equity of outcomes for our students. Regarding the upper schools, particularly the gaps between subgroups, I stated, “it is a major area of concern at the school department.”

So, what are we going to do about it? We must have a relentless focus on instruction, by supporting teachers in continually improving their craft. One example of this is the Highly Effective Teaching project, and cultural competency work, which is helping administrators, and in the future all teachers in Cambridge continue to develop their practice around high quality instruction for all. Research is clear, that the highest leverage improvement strategy is addressing the instructional core. This is the interaction between students and teachers in the presence of content, and addressing the rules of the core: which is, if you change one, you have to change all three. For example, just giving professional development to staff, and not changing content – you will get no change; just changing content and not supporting the development of educators – again, no change; and just changing engagement or the role of students in learning, without addressing the other two, is futile. What we don’t want to see are students entering special education, not because of cognitive disabilities, but because they are curriculum casualties. Therefore, we need to ensure that teachers have what they need in terms of high quality materials, and time to work together, as well as supports and interventions during the school day. This is one role the curriculum review cycle plays in the district: to align our work at the instructional core level.

One of the major conversations happening nationwide is the amount of testing we are doing. Do we test too much? I think we all know the answer is “yes,” but I want to take it further. We need to change the conversation from “testing” to “assessing.” Assessing for learning, assessing to give us information on a students journey towards mastery of a skill or standard, or simply that they have it already and we don’t need to bore them with the same material they already know. Assessment tells us that this child is ready to move on, and it allows us to differentiate our instruction based on their needs. We want to be sure to not add more assessments, but only give the ones that will ensure we have the information we need to personalize learning for our students.

One of the strategies taken by the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment is to implement a balanced assessment system that includes a variety of ways for students to demonstrate mastery of a standard. It could be a performance-based assessment, a constructed response, a multiple choice, a fill in the blank. But it has to be a process that 1) allows them to show their learning in a variety of ways, and 2) leverages the power of common formative assessments across our district.

Why is this important? First, not all children show mastery on one type of test. So it’s important that they are provided options. This is another reason that standardized tests are not the only data we should be looking at. Also, assessments that are “common,” ensure equity of access to the same level of expectations of mastery. And formative means that it is informational, and timely, so teams can respond to the information at hand. Let me give an example.

Here is a standard in mathematics: Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems. 6.RP

The 5 questions below as outlined in “Driven by Data,” by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, are ones that could be asked of your child simply by taking the standard as written, and these could be varied from teacher to teacher, or school to school because there are a few ways to assess whether or not students have mastery of a standard, and each of these questions vary in terms of levels of complexity. This is why teachers need time together, to define the standards and set common expectations for learning. Our hope is that the curriculum review cycle will set them up to be successful in this endeavor.

So let’s see how, and look at some examples of problems that address this standard: Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems. 6.RP

Problem 1: Identify 67% of 81

Problem 2: Shaw got 7 correct answers out of 10 possible answers on his science test, what percent of questions did he get correct?

Problem 3: J.J. Redick was on pace to set an NCAA record in career free throw percentage leading into the NCAA tournament in 2004. He made 97 of 104 free throw attempts. What percentage of free throws did he make?

Problem 4: Redick was on pace to set an NCAA record in career free throw percentage leading into the NCAA tournament in 2004. He made 97 of 104 free throw attempts. In the first tournament game, Redick missed his first five free throws. How far did his percentage drop from before the tournament game to right after missing those free throws?

Problem 5: J.J. Redick and Chris Paul were competing for the best free throw shooting percentage. Redick made 94% of his first 103 shots. Paul made 47 out of 51 shots.

  1. Which one had a better shooting percentage?
  2. In the next game, Redick made only 2 of 10 shots, while Paul made 7 of 10 shots. What are their new overall shooting percentages?
  3. Who is the better shooter and why?
  4. Jason argued that if Paul and J.J. each made the next ten shots, their shooting percentages would go up the same amount. Is this true? Why or why not?

As Bambrick-Santoyo (2010) points out, “Standards are meaningless until you define how you will assess them,” and define them in common with colleagues. And also define what it means to meet the standard. That is why collaboration is so important, within schools, and across schools within a district. Because it shouldn’t matter who your teacher is, or what school you attend, a child has the same rights to high expectations, and opportunities as any other, anywhere. Many teachers have said to me, “we don’t need a common curriculum, if we just teach the standards, we will be fine.” This isn’t necessarily so. Timothy Shanahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago the other day shared his interesting hypothesis of standards implementation in schools and why we haven’t seen the promise of it in 30 years:

This is why we put in place a system and process for curriculum review and development, and why we need to have teachers collaborate around standards and instruction, and why we need common assessments: to ensure equity of access and outcomes. And rest assured, Standards Based DOES NOT mean, Standardized. We have amazing teacher who simply need a common roadmap, and destination, but have unique ways of getting students to the same place.

Would you as a parent be alarmed if the expectation or problems your child has access to was left to chance? Either because of the understanding of what the standard was asking, which varies in many places amongst educators, or maybe even the belief that a child couldn’t do problem 5? I only ask that question because in many schools across the country those decisions are left to chance and is one reason I hypothesize that we have gaps in performance. Many times, it really comes down to the access and opportunities we give to students. This is why common assessments are one way to ensure that all students have the same opportunity to show what they can and can’t do, so we can target and ensure that eventually they all wind up in the same place.

I think another thing that is inherent is Leadership, and the work of strong teacher teams, in Learning Communities who in collaboration with their Principals, take the lead on ensuring that ALL children succeed. We as a district are working hard to ensure that these learning communities are being fostered and receiving the needed supports.

Here is an example of a Principal, and teams of teachers who did just that. And as the article points out, this isn’t new… it’s been done before and well documented in the research. But somehow we haven’t been able to bring it to scale. Can we close the achievement gap? Absolutely, but we have to start with the opportunity gap, the belief gap, the leadership gap. We need to redefine what is fair, because fair does not mean equal. Equity is not equality. So please take a read and be inspired at what could be. If there is anywhere in this country, Cambridge is the place to get it right. We have all the right ingredients to be a leader in the field of education, and the time is now.

Next Entry, we will take a close look at the critical friends groups, and professional learning communities developing across the city. It’s an exciting time in Cambridge and I look forward to sharing all the great happenings in Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Professional Development, and all that our TEAM in CPS is doing to ensure the success of our students

Until Next Time.. 🙂

Educating Students in a Global 21st Century: Shared Challenges and Significant Questions

ImageWe are leaving Europe today to head home. I’m really excited, but have so much to write about regarding Finnish and German education overseas. First, I want to say that we as Americans should feel good about what we do for children on a daily basis. We are faced with a myriad of regulations, and intense accountability. With that said, we have great room to improve. And I think most of you will find it interesting and comforting that the many of same challenges we face in educating ALL children, is shared by countries all over the world. This includes motivating students, relevancy of currently learning institutions to the lives of information age children, inclusion education, closing achievement gaps, leveling, tracking and combating outside of school factors. This leads to questions like:

  • How do we educate students to be competitive in today’s global marketplace?
  • What is the right balance between college and career readiness, and how should our education systems reflect that?

For example, in Germany they have a dual track system, which I will talk about in more depth soon: a pathway to University, and a vocational pathway. I walked away with a lot of questions about this system such as: what is the right age for a child to choose which pathway, and even thought it is said students aren’t stuck in one pathway, should it be as difficult (almost impossible) to change their minds once they are in? But on the flip side, there are merits, so that leads to the question, should we have a dual system like this?

Another question that has arisen is:

  • What is the value of a liberal arts education? Does it have the same meaning anymore in the 21st century?

These are all important questions that came up when we met with the new Ambassador to Germany, John Emerson. He wasImage an awesome guy, who was very approachable and personable. The embassy is located in “no man’s land,” which was pretty cool to be in the middle of such rich history.

As I sat there yesterday, I wondered about other visits to schools we’ve had and the sentiments of teachers who struggle with student motivation and engagement. So that led to the question:

  • How does the curriculum, and delivery of instruction need to change in order to better engage our students? In both Finland and Germany we heard from teachers and students that our current model is just irrelevant and disconnected from their lives and competency needs outside of school.

So how do we engage students in ways that are relevant to their information rich lives outside of schools? This struggle with disengagement here in Europe, and in the states is real, and something that we can do something about. We have the power and control to change this!

ImageAs we came to an end of our visit to the American Embassy, the ambassador said, “you can’t find a more important relationship moving forward in the 21st century than the one between the US and Germany.” In the past, the relationship was more about “security.” He shared that in the future, his hope is that the relationship would evolve into one that was more about “mutual prosperity.” He said that what he’s experienced here in Germany is an, “unbelievable warmth and welcoming spirit, particularly of older Germans. They are incredibly gracious and thankful for the United States helping them during the cold war, and bringing freedom and unity to Germany.” The challenge moving forward, he explained, is that “there is a whole younger generation that doesn’t understand the Cold War and doesn’t see us as a nation who helped bring down the wall. They see us through a different prism. What they see is hypocrisy in the US… but at the same one they love our music and want to vacation there.” Moving forward, Ambassador Emerson explained that his job is to build these bridges, and said, “the best way to do this is through exchanges,” so he encouraged us to encourage our students to go abroad.

I hope you have enjoyed this week with me. There is so much more to come.


Early Childhood in Finland and Berlin

WhImageen we arrived in Berlin, one of our first stops was at the German Olympic Stadium, which was home to the 1936 Olympics. Remember, the one Jesse Owens ran in and won 4 gold medals; the controversial one that was held in Germany at the start of what would emerge into the Second World War? I have to say, Germany is a living museum. No matter where you go, there is some reminder of their history, remnants of the holocaust, the war… even some of their hills are actually leftover remains of a city once destroyed.

It’s been a busy last couple of days, of which I have days worth of material to share with you, but today I will focus on early childhood education comparing the Finnish American Bi-Lingual school, with the Auenland Kindergarten in East Berlin.Image

On Wednesday, our last day in Finland, we visited an early childhood center started by the Finnish American society. It is one of three bi-lingual kindergarten schools in Finland. There are 42 children in the school. 7 teachers, of which there are 2 Americans 2 Australians, a Finnish, and a Russian. It is a very international staff that works in four groups of students, ages 3,4,5 and 6. The ratio is 1:7 for classes. This school is more academic than other pre schools in Finland. Three year old’s get homework. To help them learn English and recognize words and sounds.

The school is open from 8:00- 5 pm.  At 9:15 the teachers start circle time with the students. There is a lot of movement and singing in the day. However, the kindergarten students have 3 hours a day of academic time. There is no nap-time, but kids can take a nap if needed. The children work and play extremely well and are very self-directed. The school promotes global awareness early here. In February, the students study all the cultures of the students in the class. A typical day consists of the following schedule:

Morning circle
Activity time- each group goes with their etcher for academic time.
Story time
After lunch is more creative time Image
Free play

After activity time students can go to activity board and choose a picture to do. Students stay more focused when there aren’t too many choices and more consistency.

Parents are involved! They have a brunch with parents, mothers and fathers coffee mornings, parents go on field trips, plays. They have an open door policy. The parents know what’s happening, so they don’t feel the need to come in and observe. Monthly emails are sent to the parents.

ImageIn Finland, the competition is hard to get into English speaking Elementary Schools. The Kindergarteners have to take entrance exams to get into these schools. Tests are hard and parents are very stressed. They don’t prep for the test. The most local English Elementary School called Restu near the kindergarten only takes 25 students per year

Students with learning needs are not necessarily accepted here. Physically challenged children can be accepted, and they said that they have some students with disabilities, but if it is too difficult, the students are not accepted. No English Elementary schools take special needs children. This is a challenge for international students who don’t speak Finnish…

The interesting thing was that the teacher shared that students who attend Esecola or the  6 year old pre-school leave being able to read and write in English. I asked why? Finish is a phonetic language, and here there is a strong emphasis on phonics instruction. According to the teacher, it’s the only way to learn Finnish. They emphasize phonics via in English. Their program is jolly phonics.  The teacher shared, “In Finland we try to make learning as fun as possible for 6 and 7 years old. To enter into English language elementary school from Esecola student have to take an entrance exam, which involves reading writing basic math listening comprehension and speaking. So we work very hard to make sure all students are prepared. There is a lot of formative assessment done during the year, as well as play. English instruction starts from day 1. Teachers are bi lingual… Students are immersed in English, but students speak to one another in Finnish. Their reading books are leveled and many are similar to books we use in the states. Another interesting thing is that the students get quite a bit of homework once a week.


On our first full day in Germany we visited the Auenland Kindergarten. Children in Germany can start Kindergarten at 5 and a half. 80 percent of German families send their children to Kindergarten, 80 percent of Turkish families do not. Compulsory Schooling starts in grade 1. Kindergarten is not required in Germany, and currently, the Berlin local government is discussing a plan of requiring everyone to attend compulsory kindergartens. In Germany you are guaranteed a place in Kindergarten somewhere, but Imagethere are lottery systems, and it’s very difficult sometimes to get the one you want, and there are few private options. Siblings get preference in this system. The curriculum has social and cultural competence, speech, music, art, basic math, working with parents. Every parent has to go to a training at the beginning of the year. In Germany half the kindergartens are Waldorf or Montessori based. All Kindergartens in Berlin have to follow the Berlin education program, and the government finances the schools..

This Kindergarten opens at 8 am. There are 40 children in the school; 2 groups of up to 21 children. When you walk in there, are cubbies for all the children. Then, you walk down the hall where there is a large room for meals and groups to play, and another room for children to play and sleep in the main area. At 8:30 morning circle time begins, but children come until 9:30 and then they have time for playing.

The Waldorf philosophy is one that is very focused on the creative and exploratory. It is much less academically focused and unstructured. Then children can do painting or handcrafts, but they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. According to the teacher, they think play and choice and developing naturally is important.” After that, the students have time for playing again, and handcraft and then lunch. They have a fresh meal everyday. No meat is ever served, only organic or vegetable.

After lunch the children go to bed. The youngest are two years old, so the older ones must be quiet. At 2-3pm the students do quiet things like painting and handcrafts such as weaving. At 3pm each day they have snack and then free time again outside.
Students are very creative with play, and that is encouraged. They are very good with interacting with one another. There is an academic curriculum they must follow, but it’s very loose. It is called the Waldorf Steiner curriculum is the program, and as you can tell it is very different than the finish. There is no clear pedagogy, and the academic piece is weaved into the day, as it fits, but Imagethere is no set schedule for academic focus.

Parents are a huge part of the community. They are responsible for helping do deep cleans throughout the year and everyone has a part of keeping the school running. It’s a big thing for the children to see the parents a part of it. Each set cooks a meal for the children once a year and the children look very forward to it. Menu consists of things like salad with fruit. Vegetables. Pasta. On Wednesdays the teachers make bread with the students.

There are no set readiness standards or expectations for students to meet to enter first grade. They learn a lot through oral language and the teachers don’t seem to think they have any issues being ready for School. Teachers don’t have to go to University to certify as a kindergarten teacher. It’s like a vocational training school for three years, or an individual can complete a Bachelor’s in early childhood. However, those people generally don’t teach in Kindergarten, they teach elementary. 

Throughout the day children can participate if they want, but the teachers are OK if they don’t. There are no conditions for them to be a certain way. No pressure.

There is a lot more to share everyone. Today I met with another European Educational Innovator, and there is more to come.

A day in the life of an Upper Secondary High School Student in Finland

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 Imagesubsets. 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 1Image 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.”

 ImageHe 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?Image

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 Imageand 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. Image

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” Image

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, Image“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.



The Finnish PISA performance Revealed… and the future of Finnish Education

Good Morning Everyone! So I’m on my way to Berlin, for the last leg of this educational exploration of schools. We will visit schools, and Friday we will go to the US embassy there. But the question that continues to be asked of me by folks back home is, What is the Finnish Secret, Jessica? Why do they do so well on PISA? Why do they get consistent results across their entire country? So yes, Finnish education Imagehas done well with PISA, they do academically well.

According to Pasi Silander, the leading educational innovator around pedagogy and technology in the country said:

We appreciate education in Finland. It is a tool for social climbing… In Finland the dream is achieved through education.

We also appreciate teachers a lot. All teachers have very good educations. HS math teachers are very highly educated in math… HS teachers have same qualifications of US university professors.

But the secret that has eluded us until today, is that Finish Education, is VERY Standardized education… As we knew, the FINS have national curriculum, which are in the form of educational aims for each subject area.…. All the skills are defined. All the schools have basic curriculums that are based on the national aims. All of this, we knew, and I put in my former post. However, what we didn’t know is that there are teachers manuals, developed by publishing companies, which also make their school books, but for the teachers.. teacher manuals are prescriptive, with advice on the methods, and “how the teaching should happen.” The curriculum is scripted in these manuals, along with incredibly high quality assessments, both formative and summative. These are of a high level, that every child is expected to do. Teachers aren’t forced to use them, but why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t a teacher use them,  when it’s been proven that all teachers can do well with the manuals, because it has expertly designed   curriculum, pedagogically, and assessments. The key is expertly designed. This has a huge pedagogical effect on the level of consistency across the country. And teachers use this as the floor and push students beyond this. But it’s standardization… that is the reason for their success. The curriculum is highly standardized. Who makes the materials? The same people who do the textbooks for students, the best teachers and experts in Finland…So yes, in traditional Finnish Classrooms we see traditional instruction. But it’s not the how they are teaching, it’s the what.

So the big question lies: How much of a myth is it that having a consistent curriculum across a school system, or even a country, limits teacher creativity, innovation, and autonomy? The FINS pride themselves on trust and autonomy… But they have the same, excellent, high quality materials and approaches being used in every classroom across the country. No wonder they have a 2% difference in outcomes across all schools nationwide. There is consistent, cohesive, and uniform approaches to Curriculum and Instruction…

But Finland is changing… BIG TIME.. The future of Finnish Education is very exciting. We had a special meeting with Finland’s Education Innovator, PASI, this morning. Buckle your seatbelts guys… Teaching, Learning, and Education as a whole will not be the same 20 years from now… It’s incredible.

Stay tuned for 3-d platforms that promote collaboration amongst teachers, students, and classrooms. Augmented reality, Avatars, Authentic Problem Based learning and more… And it’s already begun here.

Special Education in Finland


According to Education Officials in Finland, an essential element of their comprehensive school is systematic attention to those Imagestudents who have Special Education needs. This comes from a core belief in equity, and providing high standards to ALL children. In Finland, special education services refers to designed educational and psychological services within the educational sector for those with special needs. They emphasize prevention in their approach. In other words, the common strategy internationally is to repair problems in primary and secondary education “as they occur” rather than trying to prevent them from happening. Here are the statistics of special education in Finland:

8.5 % of all students in the country are with special education needs
1st Level – 55% are integrated into normal classes
2nd Level – 30% are attending special education classes located in mainstream schools
3rd Level – 15% are in special schools

Dr. Pavi Portaankorva-Koivisto, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Helsinki said that the Finnish have a, “well organized special education program, and are always trying to make it better. Three or four years ago, they started a three-step special education approach… First, it begins with the premise of collective ownership. It is the expectation that:

“All teachers give some help… Teachers are required to do something. For example,  they have to look at how to change their own teaching look at themselves first, or provide students extra help either before or after school. The professor explained that “It’s hard with middle school because students don’t want to come for extra help. After school they have interests and hobbies they want to get to so it’s not always so easy.” Sounds like adolescents are the same no matter where in the world they are. They try to have them included. Special education training is included in every program to prepare educators for the work force.”

This was such an important piece to the puzzle. Every teacher is expected to both service every child, but they are trained in special education as a part of their undergraduate requirement. They said that up to half of the students in Finland who complete the compulsory education by age 16 have received some kind of assistance or support. But a student doesn’t need an IEP to get support services, and the intent is always to attempt the least restrictive environment, first!

The first pathway for providing special needs education is to include pupils with special education needs in mainstream classes, and when necessary, provide them with special needs education in small teaching groups.  They may get part time special education by a special needs teacher if they have minor difficulties in learning or adjustment.

 The student may have an individual learning plan if required, which can provide a plan for arranging education, whether it is integrated, partly integrated, or a special class, the goals, contents, support and principals of assessment. Students in Finland can complete their studies following a general or an adjusted syllabus, in one or more subjects. Pupil assessment will be based on criteria of the general syllabus or IEP.

2nd pathway: Resource support – In pathway 2, a permanent special educator provides instruction in a small group class in the student’s school. Interestingly, today when we asked about special education in the two schools we visited, which were both Upper Secondary, and a Comprehensive Upper Secondary, we never saw any. When asked, the school representatives both stated that there were a low percentage of students who needed intensive Special Education Supports. Students who needed Special Education took a math or ELA course in a separate class, but were included the rest of the day. In the other school, the students with learning disabilities, i.e. dyslexia were simply given more time. Inclusive education is clearly something that the country is working on, and they are committed to developing their work-force to address what seems to be a growing need based on the focus areas the Department of Education officials outlined.

3rd: For some students who have more severe learning disabilities, the curriculum is modified. The inclusive classrooms are very difficult. They may not take another language such as Swedish or the most difficult portion of mathematics.

 Alternate pathway: The severest students are not included, and they have special schools for them. This occurs only when the first two pathways aren’t feasible is an out of school placement ever a consideration. Parents, teachers, special educators all make this decision in collaboration with one another.

 Special needs students are expected to meet the same academic expectations of regular students. Also, Special education and secondary teachers get paid slightly higher in Finland.

 Other factors that attribute to their success in educating all kids:

  1. Teacher Quality and Capacity
  2. Early Childhood Education, which identifies early, possible learning and developmental issues and addresses them early.

The professors, and the Head at the Department of Education all said “its challenging, and very very hard work to be a truly inclusive educational system.” But they are committed to developing teachers and a professional culture that ensures equity for all. Teacher training is essential to achieving this mission.