This is the second part in a series of blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

Before leaving for Finland I read articles and blogs, and watched videos like Pasi Sahlberg’s TED Talk  and “The Finland Phenomenon” (http://vimeo.com/32210434). I wanted to learn about all the amazing teaching and learning going on in Finnish schools. I arrived expecting to see engaging, dynamic lessons that would blow away anything happening here in the US. I was expecting Finnish schools to look drastically different than American schools with thoughtfully designed creative learning spaces, and state of the art classrooms. I was expecting to see classes full of focused, attentive students, actively participating and producing awe-inspiring projects.

That’s the problem with expectations. They are used as a measuring stick to evaluate what we see. “This exceeded my expectations.” “That did not meet my expectations.” Expectations put an ideas in our heads and focus our attention to look only for certain things and not notice important details that fall outside that focus. My colleague Janet warned me not to let my observations be skewed by expectations, but rather to go in without any expectations at all and see the teachers, schools, and students for what they really are. I’m thankful for her advice. I’ve now had several days to process what we saw, heard, and talked about.

The Finnish schools I saw did not look that much different from schools in the US. Desks, chalkboards – yes I said, chalkboards. Student artwork decorates the halls. What I noticed is how clean and well maintained they were. Students walk the halls in socks – they are trained to leave their outside shoes by the door to prevent tracking in snow and dirt. I didn’t see an abundance of technology. The school in Ivalo had a computer lab not unlike those at many US schools, and the school in Utsjoki had a distance learning room equipped with a SmartBoard, but overall they were not equipped as well as many schools here in the states. Now I admit, we were visiting rural schools 200+ kilometers above the arctic circle, but Janet informed me that while there are some schools that feature some pretty innovative learning spaces, most are what we would recognize at typical schools.

Finnish teachers I met know their students personally. The schools I visited were small rural schools but I was told that even the largest schools in Finland don’t have more than several hundred students. This allows teachers time to build relationships, and develop an understanding of individual student needs. Teachers stress less about themselves and all they are required to teach, but focus more on each student and what they need in order to learn. Isn’t that what differentiation is all about?

One major difference between Finnish and American schools is that these teachers do not have all the standards we do. In fact, they don’t have “standards” at all. Instead their national core curriculum has “objectives”. These objectives are a lot more open-ended, like essential questions, and allow teachers to design lessons and activities that get students asking their own questions, thinking critically, and solving problems. Individual schools are in charge of their own curriculum and teachers are free to decide the best methods for teaching their students.

Here are a few examples of their objectives:

Biology (Grades 5-6)

  • learn to move about in the natural environment and observe and investigate nature outdoors
  • come to understand that people depend on the rest of nature in their food production
  • take responsibility for their own actions and take others into consideration

Physics (Grades 7-9)

  • learn to plan and carry out scientific investigation in which variables affecting natural phenomena are held constant and varied and correlations among the variables are found out

History (Grades 5-6)

  • understand that historical information consists of the interpretations of historians which may change as new sources or methods of investigation emerge
  • learn to identify the continuity of history with the aid of examples
  • learn to present reasons for historical changes

Math (Grades 1 -2)

  • learn to justify their solutions and conclusions by means of pictures and concrete models or tools, in writing or orally; and to find similarities, differences, regularities and cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena
  • become practiced in making observations about mathematical problems that come up and are challenging and important from their personal standpoints

Source: http://www.oph.fi/english/sources_of_information/core_curricula_and_qualification_requirements/basic_education

If you look at their national core curriculum you’ll see, listed under their objectives for each subject area, core contents to be integrated into these objectives. The emphasis appears to be on practical examples, real world experiences, problem solving, and critical thinking rather than lists of facts to be memorized and tested. I encourage you to check them out for yourself.

The Finnish teachers we saw don’t take home stacks of homework to grade. The teachers I observed check to make sure homework is done, but that homework has little effect on students grades. Proof that students understand and meet the objectives is determined by assessments and student projects.  The don’t send home progress reports, but do communicate to parents when students are struggling.  I mentioned in my last post that students are trusted with more personal responsibility. This translates to a greater personal responsibility for their own learning as well.

Finland doesn’t have standardized testing like we have in the US, but that doesn’t mean they don’t test. They have one standardized test that all students take when they are 15 years old. They also have a matriculation exam to check and see if students are ready for upper secondary school and another one to determine if students go to University or Vocational School. The National Board of Education also randomly selects a sampling of basic and secondary schools for testing each year. Here’s the big difference. Those test are developed and administered by the National Board of Education, not private for-profit testing companies, and the purpose of those tests is to see how schools across Finland are doing as whole. These standardized tests are not used to evaluate individual teacher performance or rate schools as good or bad. Schools and teachers are not in competition with each other.

The Finnish teachers I met seem to have great respect for American teachers. In fact, many lesson and projects ideas used in Finnish classrooms come from American teachers. They feel that American teachers are among the best, hardest working teachers in the world, yet they are stuck in a system that is broken. A system that emphasizes picking correct answers over producing products that demonstrate student problem solving and critical thinking.

Wonder what might happen if you took an American teacher and a Finnish teacher and let them switch places? Here is what Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg thinks: “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” The last three paragraphs of the article answer the question. I’m thinking this might make an interesting TV Show for next Fall: “TeacherSwap”. This is a reality show I might actually watch.

5 thoughts on “Expectations”

  1. I’m so glad you had this experience!! Teacher swap would be amazing. Your article was really informative. Thanks for Sharing!

  2. Nice work DENnis. You do a terrific job of painting a clear picture.

  3. DENnis,

    Once again you have done a fantastic job of articulating important, cogent points from your observations. As I read through this, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities to some of the STEM Magnet schools we just visited in Ohio. Students have access to lots of technology (some are 1:1 laptop schools, but not all), yet there was not an overt emphasis on it in the classroom. Very few interactive white boards, for instance. In fact, one of the student docents leading us around a particular school was quick to point out that they all have laptops, but they rarely use them in math class. As a 1:1 iPad school, we are quickly coming to that conclusion ourselves. Over emphasis on technology can mean under performance.

    What an awesome experience you had!

  4. I am finishing my masters after 20 years of teaching. It has been a true learning experience filled with self-examination and a challenge of my teaching ideas. I have always steered toward projects and not just standards, so this year’s transition to common core standards has not come as a shock, but as a relief. When we were introduced to the “Finnish System,” there was blow back from staff, but as I understood it better, I realized that it sounded like my class experience. Rather than cram facts into student brains, they are presented with scenarios and are expected to navigate their way through “Choose your own” types of adventures. The results? Well, if I say X,Y,Z Affair, the students may not know the year, but they recall the situation and whether or not they reacted the same way as John Adams. Relating to the problems faced by a Founding Father: Priceless!
    Thanks for this article.

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