Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning to Flex

Today I saw something beautiful.

I'm talking rainbows and unicorns beautiful. Unexpectedly beautiful.

Several times I had to hold back the tears because in the eyes of Hannu Koskela's students I saw my own students, my beautiful students who want so badly to be successful in school but the way schools are currently designed with our mandates, they simply can't be.  Hannu's students can be successful because Hannu is allowed the freedom to be their teacher.  He listens to them, he understands what they need,  he teaches them.  Very simple. There is beauty in this simplicity - he provides what the children need and they learn.

The education system in Finland allows for students and Hannu to be successful because there is trust, there is time, and the teachers have the freedom to teach students the way the students learn, the time to address student needs, and the creative space to engage the student interests.  (The Finnish way reminds me of the freedom we had in the U.S. in the 1990's and earlier - before No Child Left Behind.)

In America we have the tendency to say, "Well, if the students just worked harder they would do well."     I'm sorry, but if a child - a child - is failing - we need to be the adults and figure out how to help them BE successful. After all, they are a child.

If we have a disenchanted student in school, there's probably a reason.  If the child has given up, there's probably a reason.  If the child doesn't see a reason to come to school, there's probably a reason. Or perhaps, more than just one reason. And with more than 3,000,000 high school students dropping out a year, their needs need to be addressed. Maybe, just maybe we need to make some changes in educational policy with the child at the center of the discussion and successful teachers at the forefront of the decision-making process.

Imagine yourself the student in a class where everything seems to be moving too quickly, there is too much commotion in your class of 32 (or 36) students, you want to learn, you want to be successful, but the teacher is teaching so many topics and there is so much work you simply cannot keep up.  Or, your father is sick and your mother is working two jobs to pay the bills so you're having difficulty concentrating.  Or, you've only been in the country for four months and there are so many things you're trying to learn about living here, that having six classes in a row with six different teachers and six books, a locker, and you don't quite understand the language - it's just too much.  How are you going to be "successful," in the traditional sense, with all these challenges?  Your grades are low, not because you aren't trying, but the challenges are overwhelming.  You go to tutoring but this is only for a few hours a week.  What about the other 30 hours you're struggling with in class?

Maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't with you.  Maybe the school can't meet you where you are in terms of how you learn, what you need to learn, and what conditions you need to help you achieve your best.

Schools in American are designed to educate the masses.  The students who are highly successful - the top 10% or so - are traditionally the ones who learn a specific way - by reading and writing and remembering the correct answers to the questions the teachers choose to ask. They're the ones who end up going to college.  No problem for them, perhaps, but what about the other 90%?

Hannu describes how he "meets" the students where they are in their learning, and then helping them be successful in school so they can remain a vital student in the school environment.  To Hannu, this class shouldn't be called, "special education," it should just be called, "education" - all students deserve to have teachers who understand how to teach, what to teach, the freedom to teach, and how to reach the needs of their students.

When I visited Hannu today we went a few steps out of our way to pick up his students at the pool table on the way to class.  As he motioned for them to join us he said, "If they wait to come to the classroom when the game is over, it will be too long." There were only a few students in his class during this period and they readily joined Hannu as we walked to the classroom.   Inside the classrroom were a few computers, a couch, some tables, some chairs, and some student projects on the walls.

"The first thing we will do is make you the student - and the students your teacher," Hannu said.  He put some tables together and each of us had our name at our seat, including me.  One of the students created a rule sheet for a card game that we would be playing that helps the students practice math skills. Hannu told me this activity helps his students adjust from the lunchtime environment to the "thinking" environment - he eased them into it and they enjoyed it.  One boy stayed at the computer and worked on a geography project where he compared North and South Korea.  Two girls stayed in the hallway outside the classroom and worked on their genetics project. Another boy worked on creating a test on human sexuality.  

This learning environment is called a Flexible Classroom, and even though the students are still enrolled in their regular academic classes, like science and geography, they are released to work with Hannu because they need something different than the other students - Hannu thinks that many of them may simply need more quiet than the typical student. In this "flexible" class, the students get a personal approach from Hannu and a modified curriculum.  Sure, they aren't capable of earning the same grade as the students in their normal academic class, but they are doing better than if they were in that traditional class and they are STAYING IN SCHOOL. This is considered a special education classroom, but not in American's traditional sense of the phrase.  To Hannu, if a student is struggling due to behavior issues or health issues, or home issues, or anything else, they need an intervention and he provides it. If students with these issues stay in the traditional classroom with all the other students, they would probably fail; a failing student doesn't show we're being tough and making our children accountable, it means our system needs to be reworked to make sure our children get educated. In this flexible environment, the students' needs are met, they are learning, they are productive, and they aren't dropping out.

What Hannu told me is that in order for the students to be in his class the students had to be "committed to the program"  and they had to agree to be "honest and frank." He didn't accept every student to the class and their participation is optional - they can be with him as long or as short as the student feels it's necessary.  An accommodation for a student might be where a student comes to Hannu for extra help, he designs modified assignments so that the student learns the core material and then Hannu assesses the student's work.  With Hannu, the student may only earn a 6 or 7 out of 10 as a grade, but they still get the grade, they're writing, they're reading, and they're learning. By the way, as a rule, Finnish students typically don't fail - with the freedom and time Finnish teachers have to teach, they seem to find ways to help their students learn so they don't fail.

Before I left for the afternoon, his students Aku and Atte did some research for me and found out the names and contact information for schools I could inquire about visiting in Lapland.  When I talked with the two girls about being in this "flexible" learning class I told them I had seen nothing like this in the U.S.  Their response, "WHY?"  They told me this class was more personal, more relaxed, and it allowed them to do their work.

Just this morning Richard Moore shared this article about Common Core tech requirements.  Even if you skim the article you can surmise how much money is going into the planning and implementation of these requirements, as well as the actual assessment.  Why isn't this money going to students instead of  testing companies?  It's just wrong.

By trying to make an efficient, data-driven, content-manic system maybe we have "tried too hard." Maybe the idea of the assembly line and industrial efficiency has gone a wee bit too far, miles or kilometers too far, and we have left our children by the side of the road.

Have we forgotten what it's like treat a child like a human being in a time where our country is trying to be "superhuman?"  In our struggle to be "the best,"  have we forgotten how to help our children be their best?

I think so.

A failing child is a failing child.  A child who is nurtured in an environment that addresses their learning needs, whether it be intellectual, behavior or emotional, is everyone's success.  Society benefits.  Not just the student.

Expensive?  Consider the alternative.

Note:  Hannu said much of the original work on special education programs such as this were done in the U.S. in the 1960's and 1970's. He quoted the names of Tom Skrtic, Gerald Coles, and Thomas F. Green (Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, 1980).

Hannu Koskela is a teacher at the Joensuun Normaalikoulu, the teacher training school adjoining the University of Eastern Finland.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Just Another Extraordinary Day

In Finland the teachers are trained at schools attached to the university and they are called "Normal" Schools.  Over the past two days I've been spending time at the Joensuun Normaalikoulu, which literally means, "Joensuu Normal School."

Tell me if you think this looks like just "another ordinary day" at school.

Children in early primary school (grades 1-2)  using saws and power drills to make boomerangs and miniature wooden hockey rinks - complete with plastic sticks for the children to use in play. (I love the orange nail polish.)

A library that is open and inviting and colorful - with a fireplace in the corner,

Fifth grade students working on building simulated bridges, hair dryers, washing machines, and rocket ships on classroom iPads, followed by building chairs with gigantic Lego-type sets.  (Teacher: Sampo Forsström)

Paintings of the Finnish "twilight forest" where the students had to combine the colors to make their own brown for the trees. 

 I realized that my project on learning how Finnish teachers teach problem solving is much bigger, and more inspiring, than I had originally anticipated.  I needed clarification.  

"It seems like 'everything' teachers do with their students involves the children in problem solving," I said.  "It's even in your art."  

"I don't think we think about it," she said, "it's just the way we do things." (Merja Kukkonen )


The primary school and the university teacher training school are closely aligned.  The primary school is on the right and the University of Eastern Finland teacher training school is the multi-storied building directly to the left. The training school for the secondary teachers is to the far left, just out of view.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lighting the Candle

"Isn't it interesting that America is based upon the value of the individual, but your schools are designed so that everyone is expected to come out the same?"

- Leena Semi, Finnish Fulbright Teacher -

There is a lovely tradition in Finland where they put candles out on their doorstep as if waiting for a guest to arrive.  I don’t know if this is true, but this is how it makes me feel.  One person told me that Finns do this simply whenever they feel like it because it helps to make the long and dark, cold winters feel better.  Whatever the reason, it is lovely.

When we arrived at the rural preschool/kindergarten there was a candle burning on the porch beside the front door.  It was 8:30 AM.

There was a dusting of snow on the toys and equipment but somehow it felt warm.

I was a guest of Sari Haru-Nuutinen and she is part of a European project studying the value of play for teaching science to preschool children.  Their project is called, "Creative Little Scientists" and she is visiting preschools to see how their teachers are engaging children in science. I was invited to come along.

We were visiting this school today because the teacher, Riitta Poikonen, is known for teaching her students science through play. Her students are wee ones, only 3-6 years old, and play is a great way to present new things - and the way we all love to learn.

This private, rural preschool/kindergarten is called Päiväkoti Hepokatti and it is surrounded by large forests, a lake, a field, and some horses for the children to ride. When the weather is warmer, this environment is used to help the children learn about science and nature. One might consider this the perfect mountain school.

There's a living/play room, another room where the children can draw and build and engage in  games, and an upstairs room for napping.

The school is filled with many things to inspire their imagination.

In Finland, children don’t start their compulsory education until the age of seven and any kindergarten or preschool before this is given with an understanding that young children learn through their natural desire to play, ask questions and work with other children in games.  Teachers believe in using the child's natural development as a tool to help them learn about society, rules, friendships, and problem solving.

Sari explained it like this:  "The role of the teacher is like being 'the leading car in a train.'  The teacher provides the environment and in this environment the children explore issues that inspire and engage them. The teacher increases what the child can do on their own.  Within this scaffolding, the teacher provides opportunities in science and math, and also uses language to help students be together as members of society and to learn that cultural issues are important to them."   Sari attributes this theory to the developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.

We were there to see Riitta work with her students on a science lesson.  She had authored an environmental book to help preschool teachers lead their children toward environmental awareness; this lesson was about learning to enunciate names of the local animals with proper Finnish pronunciation.

Although most of the children knew the names of these animals from fairy tales and living in the forest, many had trouble pronouncing their names correctly or enunciating them on the correct syllables.

During the morning the children read, played games, had guided lessons from their teacher, completed some math and science work, played with trains, danced, swung on a rope, played basketball, colored with pencils, worked with beads, and the sun was now up.  The children were ready for the warm lunch that had just been delivered.

By visiting this and many other schools I was starting to realize the deeply compassionate viewpoint Finns have for teaching their children.  For them, education is not about what score their children can earn on a paper and pencil test, it's about how their children develop as young people - with interests, insights, curiosities and societal awareness.  It is child-focused with the teacher as the guide - working with the children and recognizing what the child needs for him/her to develop - but it is also group-centered, where the children learn to relate as a group.  (As opposed to the Montessori style, which they told me has less focus on group dynamics.) For the Finns, it's about realizing that each person has developmental phases they will pass through and unique challenges each will face.  The Finnish teachers aim to engage their students' interests, align them with the learning goals of their curriculum and community, and structure their lessons so the children can be successful.  This continues until the end of their compulsory education; a  very different model than what we currently have in America.