The following is a guest-post from Sarah Applegate, an NBCT teacher librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey Washington. She is passionate about quality information literacy instruction, working with teachers to provide a wide range of resources for students, and dark, bitter Finnish licorice.
I have a confession. I am a “Finnophile” (“one who loves all things from Finland”) and a “ChauvaFinn” (“one who displays excessive pride in Finland”) yet I hold an American passport. My friends and colleagues will tell you that since I returned from a Fulbright study in Finland in 2011, I have sought out every opportunity to reflect upon and share what I learned and observed during my research on the Finnish education and library system. Some might say I sought out TOO many opportunities- during casual dinners, on long runs, and while watching our kids at the park, to share memories, insights and observations from my time in Finland. While embracing my Finnish obsession, I have continued to reflect on what I observed while in Finnish schools and libraries. I have constantly considered how schools in Washington could learn from Finnish education practice and translate them into Washington state settings.
On September 21, I was finally able to make connections between what I had learned and observed in Finland through a Finnish Education Conference, funded by the US Department of State with support from CSTP and WEA. We gathered 50 teachers from Washington to hear and think about what makes Finland’s education system work and how their approaches could be used in Washington state schools. I brought together four US Finland Fulbright teachers, as well as two Finnish teachers, to speak on how Finland organizes their education system, designs and delivers instruction and trains their teachers. During the morning, participants were able to learn about Finnish education practices and in the afternoon, teachers a chance to “translate” what they had learned to their own teaching context and plan for potential implementation of Finnish practices in their Washington state setting. What we translated has some promising implications for us in our schools - read on to see what we cooked up.
While the dreamer in me wants to tackle the system -Why can’t we provide a free, quality hot lunch to all students, everyday? Why can’t we subsidize early childhood care and education so that all students arrive to kindergarten prepared and ready to learn? Why can’t we provide many amazing and free vocational opportunities for students when they are 17?...like Finland does- the pragmatist in me says “teachers are the ones who can translate change at the classroom and school level…” Rather than getting bogged down in the very different social systems that exist in the two countries, the goal of this conference was to share what we learned with classroom teachers, the ones who do the work and make the difference for students every day.
The good news is that there are many things that Finland does that we can do at the classroom and building level here in Washington, and many of them are free and mainly require a rethinking of our roles as educators. Here’s my elevator speech!
- Outside time: in Finland, students are required to go outside every 45 minutes. Unless it is colder than -25c. They run around, play and get their ya-yas out. Every teacher I talked to said “I couldn’t teach them if they didn’t have this time.” The side benefit? Teachers have 15 minutes to debrief, connect with each other, even go to the bathroom. It’s a win-win.
- Looping: Finnish schools typically loop for 3 grades and sometimes up to 6. Teachers described themselves as “elementary teachers” not “2nd grade teachers” and talked a lot about how they know the students’ skills and student’s families well enough even after summer break, they are able to get right down to business, with less catch, remediation and figuring out individual needs.
- Teacher Training: Finland has a very rigorous and competitive teacher training program (only 9% of applicants get in each year) and they also have dedicated teacher training lab schools closely connected to the teaching universities. However, their supervision of student teachers is something I think we could model. Student teachers team teach lessons and the master teacher is always in the room observing their instruction. The idea that teachers need to “make it on their own” is not acceptable and when I asked master teachers if they ever leave the room, they looked very confused and said “But how would I know how they are doing if I left?” The 15 minutes of outside time is also a great time for student teachers to get feedback.
- Principals teach. Principals are part time teachers, teaching lessons to classes throughout the day and week. Teachers and principals alike felt that this built camaraderie in the building and increased trust between principal and teacher, not to mention kept instructional skills sharp.
I could go on and on (trust me, I could…or ask anyone I work with!). The good news is that Finland does have an amazing educational system, one that has become stronger with slow and steady initiatives and a keen eye on what is best for students, teachers and society. The better news is that we CAN learn from them- their teachers are not superheroes, and their kids are not from Lake Wobegon- and we can integrate strategies and structures that will help our students learn, our teachers thrive and perhaps, we can tackle the whole “free lunch thing” in a few short years.