Monday, July 15, 2013

Not Quite Utopia, But Still Pretty Great

I found this great little café in Jyväskylä that sells Skittles. I knew we would have a beautiful relationship over the course of my time here the minute I tore the wrapper to my beloved candy. This place, Tea and Coffee Lounge, is also connected to a tattoo shop where I have had a friend get a tattoo, but I haven’t ventured around the corner yet. It is quirky and so are the people who come through there. For me, it has been a place where I have done a lot of thinking during the past 7 months. 

A couple of months ago, I was sitting at what has now become my favorite table to work at. I was happily eating some Skittles when one of my favorite 17 year olds came through the door with an exasperated look on her face. She plopped down in front of me and starting telling me all about her horrible, terrible, no good kind of day in school. The conversation went a little something like this:

Me:  Hi! It is great to see you! How was your day? 

Her:  Horrible. What are you working on?

Me:  Oh no! I am working on my project and trying to figure out what to write about Finland and education. What happened?

Her: You should write about how Finland’s education is no utopia.

She then launched into the details of the rough morning she had just been through. The highlights included the normal complaints- group members who didn’t do their job, teachers who don’t understand and a project that is a waste of time. 

It was in that moment, I realized two things:

1. I love teenagers and their tales of how unfair group work is. Young people are the best storytellers and you have to resist being sucked into their orbit in order to keep perspective and not break out in giggles. I miss these conversations. Mainly because by the end of the story, the world is usually right again without me uttering a word and the horrible injustice of the day has been set right. Wouldn’t it be great if it always worked that way?

2. Finland isn’t a utopia. It is pretty great, but it isn’t perfect.

When I was in the Helsinki Design Museum, I heard a quote that sums up my time here in a lot of ways. The video playing in the background was an interview of someone talking about the Finns. The man said, “Maybe I like the Finns because they get it right the first time.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Keeping the Goal in Mind 

Reforms here are really well thought out and always has a long term goal in mind. There isn’t the same rapid fire change that the US approaches education reform with. But that means that new ideas and innovation take time to develop in national policy. Finland is doing wonderful things in education, but I really think that it is time for them to step it up again. The system here is designed to make everyone and every school equal. That is an amazing goal that the country has accomplished and should stand proudly behind. However, I think it is time to push some of the gifted students further than just the equal middle ground they are standing on. I have met some very talented and gifted students that if given the right atmosphere and push they could be innovators. The equal playing filed here provides limited competition in schools. Which for the most part is amazing, but a little competition might spark a whole new series of innovations and ground breaking work for this generation.     

It's Not Just About the Basics

There has been tremendous work done with the compulsory schools and providing an amazing basic education to students. This type of foundation is what I dream of for US students as they enter into high school and eventually find their way to my classroom. However, from my opinion very little is written and globally discussed about the upper secondary school system. Systematically, it is like no other system.  Students truly have no dead ends to their education and can pursue their interests and career paths as they see fit. This is becoming more and more true as society's view is becoming more open to all the possibilities. Upper secondary schools (and universities) are now facing the problem that because students can always go back for more education they are short on spots and money to support them. I think that with the same focus that fueled compulsory school reform, upper secondary schools can find a solution that provides the appropriate funding with the vision of the equal, free access for everyone. Plus it might help ease the sense of entitlement that is creeping in because of such a supported structure.

Good Teaching is Good Teaching

I expected to see outstanding teaching every time I walked into a Finnish classroom.  That just didn't happen. I saw wonderful innovative teachers at work that have developed classroom culture that is focused on student centered learning and creativity. I also saw a lot of high school classrooms where the teacher lectured and students took notes all period. It is clear that when students are engaged in their lesson, they remember more and have more fun. Teachers work hard both in Finland an the States, but is a good reminder that we can't let students off easy when it comes to learning. There are ways to make teaching fun and innovative where students often forget they are learning while they are pushing their minds into higher level critical thinking.

High Motivation

When I make the claim that vocational students are more motivated, I get a lot of pushback from Finns. The follow-up question that no one asks, is motivated for what?  Vocational students have a clear sense of why they are in school- they want to get a job in a field that interests them to start earning money and then decide about further education. High school students don't always have the same clear path they are headed on which often makes them less motivated (keep in mind that less doesn't mean not motivated at all). There is also new research coming out that suggests Finnish students don't like school, but they value it and see the purpose to it. I wish I could stay another 7 months to dig into this area and truly understand what it is about. But if Finland is wise, they would spend some time listening to young people and make some adjustments to keep students engaged in this wonderful system.

So even though Finland's educational system isn't perfect, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the US system in so many areas that it feels wrong to be critical. As my days are winding down in this country and I start to think of coming back home, I think that it is important for me to remember the areas of growth I see here and that I see in the States.  Neither place is perfect and in both countries teachers are working hard to provide the best education possible for our students.

I have had an amazing chace to see the seasons change here in Finland- I arrived in snow (lots of snow!) and am leaving on a beautiful summer day.  I guess, change isn't always so bad...

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