Things that Might Surprise a Colleague

Not all is perfect in this educational landscape.  There are things we can share with our Finnish colleagues.

  • Several American situations seemed enviable to the Finns.  The Physical Education teacher at the Comprehensive school was wistful about the athletic programs included in American schools.  He had visited the states because a friend plays soccer in Florida.  He complained that the community teams in Finland are a  hassle.  Parents must ferry their children to practices after they get off work at 5:30 and 6.  Most of the coaches are volunteers and not paid professionals.  He wished it were part of the school and the kids would just stay on campus for their sport.  I had the sense that he felt personally gypped in his own athletic career.
  • Sanna thought our American high schools had a better sense of community because of the many extra curricular activities that keep them connected to the school.
  • The kids are not perfect.  I saw familiar archetypes in the classrooms.  The girls who lead our second tour in grades 1 - 7 could have been the book-reading girls you see anywhere.  In the "drop-out" class the group looked familiar--weirdly dyed hair, nose rings, and black hoodies pulled up to show their disdain for school.  When one student volunteered an answer in English it was clear the rest of the group was mocking him in Finnish.  That's familiar.
  • Sanna complained that she did have slackers--her word.  These were students who showed up and did the minimum, hoping to pass the matriculation test by cramming with some purchased computer program at the last minute.  This was not usually a successful strategy.  She commented that tying teacher pay to student performance was "ridiculous."  Amen.
  • The teachers pre-score the national test before it is sent to the Matriculation Board.  This is a huge task for the teachers.  I think they might match scores with the board for final scoring (much like the College board does in their table scoring--two scorers who score separately but must come close for a valid score.  If they aren't within a point, it goes to a third, highly experienced scorer.)
  • The matriculation test is not required.  You can still go to university or the Polytechnic school without it.
  • Grades are deemphasized.  There are not A, B, C grades.  Students get a score from 4-10.  A 4 is failing but the teachers emphasized the scores were given primarily as feedback.  They are just beginning to include self-evaluation in some of the Phenomenon Based learning. (I think they can learn from us on some of this.)
  • Teachers are not paid as much as advertised.  They do make a good living wage but it is relative to their economy (mean income nationwide is $43,000).  They are certainly able to live off the salary.  Still, the profession is highly competitive--with many more teachers than openings.

Things my Colleagues would Love

Instructionally, I do not think my colleagues would feel all that out of place in a Finnish school.  However, there are many ideas it would be great to see in American schools:

  • Teachers need only be at school when teaching or participating in any collaborative groups they have joined.  This means teachers can show up later or leave earlier--or stay all day, as they did when teaching the Phenomenon Based module.  Secondary teachers must amass 18 "lessons" for a full time position but these can be condensed in some modules and spread out in others.  The flexibility is freeing.  Sanna indicated that she did not thing she could survive the teacher schedule she observed in Indiana.  She thought the weekly early morning faculty meeting was ridiculous.  At the Comprehensive school, teachers are there all day.
  • Students are taught early to take responsibility for themselves both in functioning in the world and as students.  One of our instructors, an immigrant from India, was counseled by the teacher to stop nagging his son about getting his homework done.  She felt he needed to learn independently that getting the work done was his responsibility. The father was told to let him be and he would eventually get the idea that he needed to take care of his own business.
  • When we asked about how they handled disruptions at the secondary school they stared at us blank faced.  Of course they knew what a fight was but that wasn't a problem.  Nobody had heard of sexting.  ("How do you know they are doing that?" they asked.)  Students had cellphones but the only oblique reference to that came from a principal at another high school in an aside: "If the student is on the cellphone they are soon going to realize they aren't doing well in the class."
  • Students got themselves to school.  There were a raft of bikes in the secondary school parking lot--even though it was consistently 20 degrees everyday we were there.  There were a few cars as well but it is not clear who those belonged to--but perhaps they were the faculty and the adults in the nursing class.  The Comprehensive school students, ages 7 - 14, walked.  Everybody dressed for the weather.  Everybody went outside a minimum of once a day.  This trust in the students pays off.  No one monitors their movements at the school.  Passing was orderly. The cafeterias functioned perfectly well without monitoring. Personal articles were left all over the place undisturbed.
  • Lunches are free for everyone at the school.  The food is nutritious.  There are no sodas or sweets, though pastries and coffee could be purchased at the secondary school.  
  • There are numerous breaks throughout the day, especially at the Comprehensive school.  This follows a philosophy called "spaced learning"--an attempt to let the brain rest and reflect before moving on to another lesson.  (Classes are called lessons.)
  • There is a communal coat rack everywhere you go--inside the administrative office at the Comprehensive school, inside the main entrance at the secondary school, on the ground floor at the University.  These are just hooks with some cubbies.  You hang your coat (or store your skis or motorcycle helmet) and it is there when you come back.
  • The teachers build the curriculum.  When we asked the two teachers at the secondary school what the principal did they had to look at each other and think about it:  they weren't sure. They did finally say he hired teachers and created the schedule--after they told him what they needed.  The Phenomenon Based teaching seemed to have been initiated by Sanna, who then gathered a team to work on it.  The teachers involved were still tinkering with it.
  • When the new secondary school was built they asked the teachers how they wanted to furnish their rooms.  And then they bought the teachers what they requested.
  • Teachers do not buy any school supplies for the students.  They are provided by the school.
  • The faculty lounge is a dream at the secondary school but was empty when we toured it.  Teachers have a shared workspace similar to those in our high schools but they are cross curricular.  Sanna shook her head at our habit of sequestering each curricular area off.  Unimaginable.

Ylojarvi Secondary

Ylojarvi Secondary is a relatively new secondary school, only five years old.  And you can certainly tell.  Everything is clean and modern.  The preservice teacher who accompanied us explained in a side conversation that there is a big rebuilding campaign going on in the country due to the poor air quality of most of the existing schools.  She seemed to imply that this would be the standard for most schools going forward.

It does not look like a high school but rather like a building from a community college.  Which is probably not a poor comparison. Students choose to go to secondary school (still free).  They can also choose between a general academic program or a vocational program.  Both are housed in this school, which has not been the norm.  However, our teacher guide Sanna Leinonen explained that they have been trying to do some cross curricular programs between the two programs.  Either program allows students to choose to go to either the standard University or the Polytechnic.  All students must take the national Matriculation exam.  These exams are given much like our AP tests: all subjects tested on the same date and time across the nation.  Students choose which subjects they will test in from a menu of options.  They also decided when they will test--fall or spring.  This is the only required test in all of Finland.

Typically it takes 3 years to complete either program.  Some rarely finish in two years and there is an optional fourth year if a student wants to take it.  Sanna indicated that many athletes and musicians opt for a fourth year because all of the practicing takes up their time. Also, students build their own schedule, much like in a college setting.  They have required courses which meet for 70 minutes about three times a week.  Or a class could extend for three hours.  There was a lot of flexibility.

We only saw one school in process and it was a class for adults in the nursing program.  We were there in the morning and the class had about 20  adults taking the class in a room outfitted with hospital beds and baby and adult rubber patients.  By hand raise, about half indicated that they were preparing to change careers.  This adult education is also free.  

Our English teacher guide had just finished a four month Fulbright placement in Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 2017.  She made a point of showing us the faculty lounge.  I have a feeling she had seen the faculty lounge at Bloomington High School North.  The lounge is more like a suite, with couches, chairs, a full kitchen, a large conference room and individual, glassed-off offices and a wall of windows facing the bright out of doors.  Yes.  I think she had seen the lounge in Indiana.  We oogled appropriately.

We did not get to see a high school class but joined the students for lunch.  Earlier in the day, I had the impression that the building was empty, but there were at least 150 students eating with us.  Again, the lunch is free to all and a single menu for the day is offered with gluten-free, vegan, and lactose free foods.  I had a fish cake with gluten free crust.  This is the first fish cake I have eaten since my diagnosis.  It was good.

Sanna Leinonen is a teacher leader who has brought Phenomena Based Education to her school.  Just prior to lunch she had a colleague go through the program with us.  We would recognize this as a form of Project Based Learning.  Leinonen did say that a downfall of the Finnish Secondary program is that it is difficult to get to know your students.  Teachers have a new group of students every seven weeks, which is when each one of the 5 modules of the year begin.  (On the vocational side of the school, students work in 4 modules.  This has been a challenge to their attempt to collaborate across the two schools.)

The Phenomenon Based education is being experimented with for a variety of reasons. Sanna said that the students do not have the sense of community of American high schools because they are on campus at varying times and with varying students.  There are no athletic teams or other extra curricular programs at the secondary school that helps to build community among students.  She felt the team-based instruction--offered for one of the 7 week modules in the first year of secondary school--provided the students with this sense of community.  Also, the instructors are attempting to focus on incorporating 21st Century skills (collaboration and creativity).  Finnish education has traditionally focused on the individual rather than the group. Sanna and others are trying to change this.  This sounds very like the current push in American education.  We are not so different.

Etela-Hervanta Comprehensive

The first stop in the schools tour was a Comprehensive Basic Education Primary school in the suburbs of Tampere.  There are about 900 students in grades 1-9.  In Finland, grade 1 starts when the student is 7.  So the students at the school ranged from age 7 to 16.  This is the only compulsory education in the nation.  However, all of the population are encouraged to continue learning (always for free) throughout life.  In fact, at Hervanta, they had a JOPO course which is designed to assist students who are considered "drop-outs"--the 5% of the student population who do not go on to secondary education. This school was also notable for its multicultural student population.  Fourteen languages are represented in the school and 30% are an immigrant population.  Our student guides were from Kosovo and Iraq.

Impressions of the school:  The classes were largely very small.  In the Home Economics, Crafts class (we would call it wood shop), and the Physics class there were only 12-13 students.  In the general content classes, students stayed together with a general education teacher for much of their schooling.  These classes were larger.

In the 7th grade (our 14 year olds) students had several classes that were offered in three-hour blocks. The daily schedule was variable and flexible. The three hour sessions included the home economics and the wood shop classes.  Later we were told that most Finns are quite handy and generally handle their own repairs, one can assume from this emphasis on taking care of the basics in school.  In the wood shop class students were making a large ladle used for pouring water on the sauna, a clock, or a candle holder--their choice. The home economics students were baking something similar to brownies.  The tables were set and everyone had their shoes off.

The school itself relies heavily on student responsibility for its management.  Students take a fifteen minute break after 45 minute lessons--and everyone goes outside for one break in the afternoon--no matter what.  We saw students of all grades mingling in the hallway.  And, yes, they had cellphones which did not appear to be a major distraction in the classroom.  Additionally, the students went to and from the lunch un-managed by adults.  But, because the lunch is free and offered to all the students, the faculty also ate at the same time but were unconcerned with student behavior.  The same menu was offered to all, was cooked on site (from real food!), and offered gluten-free, lactose free, and vegan versions of the day's menu.  There were no sweets or processed foods offered.  We, the adults, had a coffee break during the first student break and pastries were available then.

Students walked to school.  In some classes, shoes were not allowed, so children moved around in stocking feet.  Some ride bikes.  It was 20 degrees when we were there.   Some students ride bikes even in that weather. BTW, there was snow and ice everywhere and all were in school.

Emphasized throughout the visit was the autonomy of the teachers to make decisions about instruction in their classrooms--though we did not see any instructional methods we would not be familiar with in our schools.  Students in the grade 1 class we visited were reading from a basal, for instance.  The maths class was working in cooperative groups.  The 6th grade class (our 8th graders) described a unit they had done in the previous year where they constructed their own cardboard castle. 

In addition to their teaching duties, all teachers participate on committees--generally of their choice--that do some school wide planning.  At Hervanta, for instance, the 6 year students always take a trip to London.  They spend the earlier years raising money for this trip so that everyone can go.  The administrative team consisted of three adults.  These people act as managers of the building.  It did not seem that any of them interfered with the instructional practices of the teachers.

So what makes the Finnish schools so strong?  There are many factors.  First, the way schools are funded. The nation funds the schools and more money goes to higher needs areas--not property taxes.  Equity is a primary focus.  Secondly, though students get the traditional teacher created tests, there are no standardized tests. Third, the children spend their early years in training around social and emotional management.  Though  it is not required, most 6-year-olds go to the pre-school and are given extensive education in this area so they are ready to care for one another and manage their differences.  The school has a nurse, a doctor, a psychologist, and a dentist on site all day.

It makes a difference when these factors are in place.








No shoes at lunch.  


The painting room in shop.  

Helsinki and Beyond

We were tourists on Sunday, March 4.  

But first--breakfast.  It was awesome.  Just like in the states the hotel provided a serve yourself breakfast and there was little to want--everything from rolls and fruit to porridge and bacon and eggs.  But the coffee was the best.

The Finns like their coffee, and it is delicious.  Everywhere there seems to be a cappuccino machine that also offers espresso--just push a button. The headache went away.

We toured the city central.  The highlight for me was walking across the frozen Bay of Finland to an island with public facilities.  We could go swimming if we dared.  Later, across from the Presidents house, we saw people doing just that.  Swimming.  It was 20 degrees outside.

The walk took us past many tourist attractions, some of which we will visit when we return to Helsinki at the end of the week.  Our guide filled us in on some history.  Finland was part of Sweden starting in 1249.  The Finns who were there were pagans and the Swedes took it into their heads to bring some Christianity to the heathens.  Then the Russians had there chance starting in the 1800s.  (Helsinki looks like it is halfway between St. Petersburg and Stockholm--you can imagine the allure.)  When the Bolsheviks had their revolution, Finland took advantage of the distraction and declared their independence.  Just last year they celebrated their 100th anniversary.  Meanwhile, they had to play nice with the Russians (and the Nazis) during and after the war--hence the Soviet-style housing.  Interesting fact: lots of movies with a Russian setting have been filmed in Helsinki. (Gorky Park anyone?)  

After eating lunch at a restaurant on the top floor of a downtown shopping mall (not much different from the states here--mostly the same stores) we returned for our bags and walked to the train station.

The very modern and sleek train (Trump is right about that.  This train was way better than any Amtrak I have ridden) took us an hour northwest to the smaller city of Tampere.   More walking with suitcases, dinner, touring.

Total walking for today: 12.3 miles.  My Apple watch was very pleased with my level of activity today. 

Tomorrow we go to school.

Jet Lag is a Real Thing

First day in Helsinki was a bust.  We arrived in the city at around 12:30 in the afternoon. The outskirts looked very Eastern Block as we drove through a bleak grey and white landscape past Soviet-style concrete housing on the outskirts.  Of course it was 5:30 a.m Eastern Standard time and we had all been [mostly] awake since about 6 a.m. the previous morning.

In the city center the buildings were more traditional--Finnish National Romantic style and some Art Noveau.  It reminds me of the city center of Montreal. There are parks, cathedrals, and, is that a frozen lake?  It is hard to tell since everything is frozen and covered with snow.  After checking into the boutique Hotel Anna, most of just crashed.  A few hours of sleep did not take much of the edge off the long night, though we were all up for the welcome meal at Harald's--a Viking themed restaurant.  (There were no Vikings in Finland.)

Conversation lagged and then died as we all retreated into a zombie state, longing for a bed.  We walked about 9 blocks to and from the hotel in the 20 degree weather.  Good clothing goes a long way to making the walk comfortable--so long as the wind is not blowing.  Most of us looked just like the natives--sensible winter boots with every other part wrapped up in hats, gloves, and hoods that don't turn when you turn your head (watch out for the oncoming traffic.)

The real visit would start after shedding the traveling hangover.

Off to Finland

Three amazing instructors at Shenandoah University have created an overseas education course that takes place during Spring Break.  They, Dr. Karrin Lukacs, Dr. Lisa Pluska, and Dr. Cathy Shiffman, are letting me tag along.  We will be visiting schools, taking part in seminars, and soaking in the Finnish culture with food, spas, and tours.

I will update my blog as often as I can to record my observations of the schools, the culture, and the scenery.  Check back in here during the week (March 2-10) or come back later to see what has happened.

I've read the books, now I want to see some effective schools in action.


My current read is Thomas Newkirk's Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning.  I love how Newkirk has put the teacher/student relationship into the context of a learner's emotional life.  The text resonates with my own observations in the classroom where student motivation is ruled by the need to self-protect or save face.  Though Newkirk acknowledges that it is unlikely to remove all opportunities of shame and embarrassment from the act of learning, he addresses many motivational traps teachers struggle against.  Even our best performing students will resist taking risks if it threatens to tarnish an image.

There are lessons in the book for teachers, the lead learners in the room. Needing to continually adjust an understanding of our contextual classroom lives might sometimes mean asking for help--an admission of weakness many avoid. Those with the most experience are least likely to conjure the humility required.  (Guilty) Newkirk re-defines asking for help as an act of giving and challenges the hidebound to reconsider their stance and break into new territory.

There is more to read but already this book has much to think about.  Maybe an important step toward a long goodbye to the Skinner box and its requisite action/external reward philosophy of teaching?


If you are joining me in this space from my previous blog Walking to School, welcome! 

New readers are invited to visit the old site and browse through the postings which focus primarily on education policy in the 21st century United States--from the perspective of those on the receiving end: classroom teachers.

This new blog features teaching practice, with an emphasis on all literacy skills—but especially writing—for every student in every content.  I hope you find something worthwhile. 

Please engage!  The best learning communities are vibrant, with everyone learning from each other. Share your ideas and experiences in the comments section--and answer teaching practice questions that still puzzle us all.


Did you know that January is named for the Roman god Janus, the spirit of doorways?  He is depicted with two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward.  Isn't that fitting for this first month of the new year?  This little mini lesson is also an opportunity for providing time for a short reflective writing at the beginning of the second half of your school year.

Carve out a few minutes at the beginning of class for Daybook writing that asks students to reflect on where they have been in the last year and to look down the road to where they are going.  More than a set of resolutions, the students can envision goals for the New Year.  Kind of like a mini bucket list: what do you hope to accomplish in this new beginning?

Setting goals is an important part of achievement.  Without goals, students are merely wandering aimlessly down the road.  Provide frequent opportunities for students to set and revise goals. For some students, this is a skill that must be learned.

How do you help your students develop their own goals?