Teachers talk Finnish education

CALUMET – Since a 2001 international report showing Finland to have the best public education system in the world, other countries have looked to the country to find out how Finland got there.

Thursday, teachers Ilona Leimu, Anne Shadrick, Ulla Tervo-Desnick and Tuula Scheinin presented on how Finnish teaching methods work in the classroom and elsewhere.

Tervo-Desnick, an elementary school teacher in St. Paul, Minn., taught in Finland for the 1995-96 school year. She compared first-grade schedules at her school and one in Vantaa, Finland. Compared to the U.S., Finland’s schedule is shorter, less uniform from day to day, and incorporates more play. The Vantaa school spends more minutes per week on science, crafts, art, gym and religion. St. Paul has more of its schedule on language arts (nearly triple the amount), math and music.

But the most striking imbalance was at recess, where Vantaa students spend 270 minutes – 19 percent of their week – on recess, compared to 75 minutes at 4 percent for the Americans.

Tervo-Desnick pointed to research showing play stimulates the maturation of the frontal lobe and cerebellum. The period during which the cerebellum grows the fastest, ages 3 to 7, also coincides with the period in which children play the most. Deficits in play have also been linked to problems such as lagging development in social skills and behavioral problems.

Tervo-Desnick played a video in which students made use of a too-long jump rope. They found a solution. Using the rope as a slingshot, they sent a student running off to knock down several others – a live-action “Angry Birds.”

“That’s what happens at recess, which I think is one of the most important parts of the school day,” she said. “That’s how you get to make decisions, that’s how you get to solve problems, you get to help your brain, be active and learn, you learn to get along. You also learn to be creative. Those are the things you read about, a skill set we need to teach our kids these days.”

Play also helps the children regulate themselves, Tervo-Desnick said. Students can use bouncy balls instead of chairs in her classroom, allowing them to blow off some steam before refocusing on their work. Tervo-Desnick showed a video of students performing yoga, leaving the forum attendees audibly wowed at their orderliness.

“They take it very seriously,” she said.

Yoga is also a tool used by Shadrick, a third-grade teacher at the Finnish Language School of Minnesota in Farmington, Minn. Others include a spooner board, on which students balance or rock. Shadrick said the motion can also help students learn.

“The boy who’s sitting, he could not sit and read, he could not focus,” she said. “But when he’s on the spooner board, he’s very involved in his book. He actually shot his reading grades up by huge numbers after I got the spooner board for him. Then they got one for home, too.”

Teachers got a taste of Shadrick’s methods Thursday. She showed the room a video of her students performing a routine called “Boom Snap Clap,” in which they did chest thumps, snaps, and claps with a partner. The teachers in the room try to learn the routine (though admittedly at a much slower pace than the third-graders).

She also uses activities such as knitting. Unexpectedly, she said, it’s a bigger hit with boys.

“The girls like it too, but maybe they get to do it more … the boys ask for it,” she said.

Scheinin, an elementary teacher at Helsinki’s Ruoholahti Comprehensive School, said Finnish education had three main goals: Preparing all students to meet future challenges, giving them the capacity for lifelong learning, and instilling the knowledge and skills to fully participate in society.

“We want everybody to participate, to be an active part of society,” she said.

Finland’s current education system took shape after a series of massive reforms in the 1970s. The schools are marked by flexible school-based curriculum development, emphasis on a broad knowledge base and trusting teachers to judge and assess student growth.

“The first time they are really national-level graded is the matriculation examination,” she said. “We don’t have national tests at all. We evaluate the children all the time, when they are learning. The teachers have a great autonomy.”

Finland also has a strong commitment to providing the same educational opportunities to everyone regardless of income or location, Scheinin said.

“If you move 600 kilometers to the north, you can continue to the next class, because you have a nationwide curriculum,” he said.

Finland does have some difficulties ahead, Scheinen said, including educating a growing immigrant population and meeting growing curriculum demands.

“If the teachers in Finland get to decide what to put in the curriculum, students should be in school 72 hours a week,” she said. “It’s not going to happen, but we’ll need a lot of compromises in a few years.”

She also cautioned against adopting Finnish methods wholesale. She noted Finnish education expert and (Wednesday FinnFest speaker) Pasi Sahlberg’s advice that Finnish reforms relied not just on the classroom but on other facets of the society.

“It cannot be transferred to another country,” she said. “You have to ask your own questions and know your own history and make your own goals.”

Ilona Leimu, an elementary teacher at the Hollihaka School in Kokkola, Finland, played a video in which students involved in woodworking or textiles gave their own thoughts on education. She was struck by the cooperation between the students, and the closeness between teachers and students. Like many Finnish teachers, Leimu teaches the same students for two classes for two years.

“I like to do my craft lessons in the afternoon,” she said. “It’s so relaxed then. We can sit and talk and do things.”

The lessons also foster creativity and aren’t subject to standardized tests, Leimu said. She had been surprised Wednesday hearing about the demands placed upon American teachers.

“I was almost feeling bad when I heard this,” she said. “It’s so different. It’s so weird for me. I really can’t imagine what it’s like.”

Local teachers responded enthusiastically to the presentation, reacting to many of the Finnish practices with applause or wonder.

Sarah Dandelet, a teacher at Horizons Alternative High School, said while teachers are supported at the local level, the presentation covered things she’d love to see instituted at higher levels: less to no standardized evaluation, more trust in teachers and more support in areas such as arts and technology.

“It was excellent,” she said. “I’m kind of speechless.”

Jenny Rautio, a first-grade teacher at C-L-K Elementary School, said the presentation affirmed a lot of changes teachers would like to see made.

“It gives hope with them sharing what they shared that others will jump on board,” she said.