Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finally tackling the Finland thing

It's been three months since I was in Finland and this is a post I've been meaning to scribe since I arrived back in Canada after the trip. The fellowship ended, work resumed, and here I am now scribbling out some thoughts.
The Grade 5 class (our third concert of the school visit)
The Canadian Journalism Fellows had the opportunity (at my request and insistence) to visit Oulunkylän ala-aste in the City of Helsinki on April 14, 2011. Apologies for the link in Finnish, it was the one we were provided with. The school is home to approximately 600 students in Grades 1-9, who attend one of three campuses. The campus we visited hosts the younger students as well as the school's musical option. Once students start attending this school they can qualify for an instrumental and voice music program starting in Grade 4, upon completion of an aptitude test.

We were spoiled on this visit, given our musical tastes, as three separate classes played various pieces for us and displayed a musical talent far beyond my own (this isn't very hard to accomplish). We also toured the entire school, met with a gaggle of teachers over recess to have a Q&A and even had lunch in the school cafeteria (wiener soup-- or a vegetable-based soup with cut up hotdogs). I felt so fortunate to have a full morning in this building, soaking up everything that my little mind could absorb. We do like to tout how well Finland does on international rankings and depending on which side of the spectrum you hang your hat you salivate over the no-standardized-testing reality in that country. Or you realize that Finland is an extremely homogenous country (five million people total, only five percent are not of Finnish origin, one of the highest standards of living in the world, etc.) where the other foundational societal investments do much more than the specific what's and how's of classroom management to determine how well children there are learning.
Anyway. Things that struck me, in no particular order:
  • This school of 600 has a full-time principal and part-time teaching vice-principal over three campuses. In this case, that teacher was the school's special-education resource teacher. Most schools of this size in Ontario would have full-time principal and vice-principal. We also don't do the multi-campus thing, for the most part.
  • As we observed classrooms (and we visited every grade), the physical spaces looked and felt like many, many other classrooms I've been in.
  • Teachers in Finland must have a graduate degree (ex: Masters) in order to even qualify for teacher training. The training program itself lasts longer than eight months.
  • Curriculum guidelines are set by the federal department of education (which we don't have in Canada), what teachers actually teach is, in some cases up to them, in others has the additional input from their local city school board or principal. On the face of it, this isn't that different than in Ontario-- the province sets curriculum expectations. How the curriculum is taught is still, essentially, up to the individual teacher-- though Ontario's Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ministry of Education, school board program departments, teachers' federations and principals also shape much of how a teacher chooses to teach in her/his classroom.
  • There are no standardized tests, but teachers and schools still use the same variety of assessments that are used in our classrooms. Students still get grades. Interestingly, given how standardized-testing opponents latch on to this, Finland still participates in the PISA testing regime, which I would note is a form of standardized test.
  • Finland is an extremely literate culture. It has among the highest newspaper readership / media engagement in the world. Due to the uniqueness of the language (its closest linguistic cousins are Hungarian and Japanese), Finns read a lot in their own words. We asked different people for their thoughts on this literacy rate and received a variety of answers. One that stuck out for me was that the language is written very phonetically-- ex: what the word sounds like when spoken is what it's spelt like in Finnish. Another was that due to its small population, many of the TV programs are still subtitled, so in order to understand their Saturday morning cartoons they have to read well (this one I don't buy as much, given there are other nations where plenty of TV is subtitled that don't have the literacy rates the Finns do).
Now admittedly we were shown a school chosen by the Finnish foreign ministry. Given the competing wide array of interests we were trying to touch in a short five-day visit in Helsinki a morning was a massive amount of time and I was able to get a lot of information in my little head as mentioned above. I did ask about school financing and I know I was told how it works but for the life of me and without notes I don't remember the details.
Just like my visit to the school in Berlin, I was happy to leave the school with the feeling that there was no magic at work. There was no visible "one thing" or group of things even, that could tell me in a morning why this school system is so admired. Like in Berlin, I was reassured, assuaged, etc., in seeing a lot of the practices I've witnessed in many of the schools in Ontario that I've visited.