Monday, April 29, 2013

A Conversation with Andreas Schleicher

I'm interested in how national testing impacts both teaching and learning in the classroom so I said, "How can one design an international assessment that doesn't entice people to focus on the test rather than student learning?" To many this question seems ridiculous, but as a teacher, I assure you, it is not. Mandated testing has the tendency to direct teaching away from what a child needs to learn, toward what is required to do well on the multiple choice test.

If a teacher is being evaluated on how well students score on a mandated test, of course the teacher will focus their teaching on reaching those goals. In contrast, if a teacher is being evaluated on how well the students learn to solve problems, the teacher will help students learn the processing skills to solve problems. As one Finnish student said about taking classes in the United States, "It seemed odd to come to school (in the U.S.) where I didn't have to produce anything;  all I had to do was choose from a list of answers." 

Andreas believes it is possible to combine learning with authentic assessment and so far I think he has been successful. Now that the international competition is in full swing because of the PISA test, I'm not so sure that countries won't be out trying to beat the system. I hope Andreas and the OECD are able to continue creating metrics to help all schools improve, and I hope it's done so that students achieve more, not less, in the process.  Andreas' intent is to achieve better education for all students; I sincerely hope he is able to do so.


Paris, France

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Coffee, Lunch and Conversations

Moomin coffee mug (link to their website)

To any Finn who visits me at my school in the United States, I promise to buy you coffee and a school lunch.  I owe you.  Any educating Finn.  I am so enjoying the compelling conversations we are having and they're almost always accompanied by hot coffee, milk and sometimes a school lunch.  Someone paid for this food and drink;  I have to fill out a piece of paper for the accounting office - but I am almost never allowed to pay the price myself.  Kiitos - for the sustenance and the conversations!

For those of you who don't already know, every Finnish child gets a "free" school lunch  - at a total price to the Finnish people of about 4 euros per child per day, including labor.  Here's a sample meal from my day at Aurora koulu (primary school):

Spinach cakes, lingonberries (I think they're lingonberries - they taste a bit like cranberries), mashed potatoes and cabbage salad.  A glass of milk.  Everyone here, even adults, seems to drink milk...and when I said to a Finn, "Most American adults don't seem to drink milk like Finnish adults do," his response was, "Yes, but they drink soda, don't they?"

Hmm... good point.

The U.S. may not have free lunches for all students but Finnish classrooms look very similar to American classrooms, albeit far less students, and the students they do have are far better behaved.  There are marked differences in what is occurring in the classrooms, however, and this isn't revealed until one has long conversations with the teachers and students.

The conversations are priceless, and they are almost always accompanied by coffee and/or lunch.

I should include, however, that when I see great teaching in Finland it is comparable to the great teaching I've seen in the U.S.  Both countries have great teachers (and not-so-treat teachers) and the Finnish teachers who have visited the U.S. tell me, "U.S. teachers work much harder than Finnish teachers!"  It's true!  U.S. teachers work so hard - so what is the problem?  For one thing, U.S. teachers have many more students in our classrooms - I taught about 170 students/day before I left in December and a typical Finnish teacher might have 40-80 max;  we also have far more content we're mandated to teach. Try talking to an American teacher at the end of the day - you won't get much conversation.  They have nothing left to give because they've had to push their students so hard to get their content covered...and handle the discipline problems along the way.

But there is a lot of hope.

We should all be asking, "If U.S. teachers are working so hard, and we have great teachers (and not-so-great teachers) just like Finland, what are we doing wrong?

Part of Finnish success is their inherent desire to have discussions that include countering points of view.  Personally, I have found very few times in American education where successful teachers are included as a meaningful part of the educational policy decisions.  Crazy, I know.  Teachers are included in the process but their opinions are oftentimes dismissed.  Why?  I think it's partly because everyone has been to school so they think they know what teachers should be doing.  The problem is, being a teacher is very different than pretending you're a teacher.  Leading a classroom is very different than making decisions for the people who have to actually manage the dynamics of that classroom. In my conversations in Finland, there is a different culture around education, educational policy, and how to build successful schools for their children - they listen - and act on - the input of their teachers.  Finns want critical analysis, not just window dressing by saying that teachers are part of the committee.  I have found that if I don't give my Finnish colleague or friend both sides of a situation, they will ask me for it.  I LOVE THIS!  It makes for much more interesting interactions.  When I first arrived in Joensuu a colleague was quite frustrated with me because when he asked me about my school visits I was pleased with my visits... every time... and I told him so.  His response was, "Quit being so American! Not everything is good! Tell me what isn't good!"  

That made me think.  

As Americans, we do that, don't we?  Many of us let emotions take us over, we're afraid to cause conflict in our personal interactions, and we oftentimes generalize our opinions.  Well, I've learned my lesson and every time I find myself generalizing my observations I stop myself and say, "Excuse me, let me try again."  Then I add detail:  "What I found interesting was .....  What didn't work well was ....  Something new to me was...."  

I interviewed Tiina Tahka from the Finnish National Board of Education and she told me that Finns want to hear what is working and what is not working so if they need to fix something, they can.  I wonder if this approach is true in fields other than education;  I know as American workers we're sometimes hesitant to say what isn't working to our bosses because they may not like it.  Or think we're judging them.  (That would be bad.)

When I visited Timo Takko and his 6th grade class, his students were debating the pros and cons of energy resources - and he told me he wanted to make sure his students had a point of view... and they did!  I was quite impressed with the students' confidence in "arguing" their opinions, and when I interviewed these 6th graders on video they talked to me in English.  In English! Sure, they helped each other a bit with uncommon words and grammar, but overall, they communicated their thoughts in a meaningful manner - and English is their second or third language.  (They also study Swedish.)

The video interviews I'm collecting are more like discussions over a cup of coffee and I'm looking forward to sharing this compiled story with you. I hope it will will help you see why the Finnish system is working better than ours. At this point I have interviews from the following stakeholders:

Primary students
Lower secondary students
Upper secondary students
Primary teachers
Lower secondary teachers
Upper secondary teachers
Student teachers
University professionals
Finnish National Board of Education

I will give you different points of view as I take you through this trip through schools ...respectfully addressing the good and the not-so-good from my point of view - because I wouldn't be respected by the Finns if I did otherwise.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More Lovely Finns

More Finns have participated in my Fulbright video project and I am overjoyed with what they are sharing.  

Here are a few more -


Einari Junter, 18-year old student at Mikkelin lukio

Sonja Honkanen, 18- year old student at Mikkelin lukio

Jukka Kohtomaki
Chemistry, physics, and mathematics teacher, Rantakylän koulu

Mikko Korhonen
Physics teacher, Mikkelin lukio

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tears in Finland

I can't tell you how many times I was brought to tears this week;  I have fallen in love with the depths of Finnish culture, its people, and its natural beauty - and I think it took the winter, and the emergence of spring, to understand its effect on me.

And it took the music.

I had tears when I heard the children sing in Terhi Oksanen's music class.

I had tears again when I heard the lyrics students had written for the songs they composed themselves.

I had tears again when I realized what education could be, and what it isn't, for most of our children in the United States, and the tears continued when I told myself that as hard it is to believe, we have the ability to improve it on a large scale.

I had tears that evening when I heard a concert by Maria Ylipää as she sung the music composed by Anna-Mari Kähärä. The lyrics to the songs were the poems by Onerva,  a feisty Finnish feminist from the early 1900's.

And today I had tears when I walked the harbors around Helsinki and once again felt how fortunate I am to be learning about Finland, its people, and its education system.

I hope I have the words, and the video and pictures, to accurately share this experience; I am terrified that I won't be able to do it justice.   But like the students in Terhi Ohksanen's music class, I will try.  I will try.

Thank you, Fulbright Program.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Do the Finns Have to Say?

I'm using part of my Fulbright experience to conduct video interviews of the Finns.  They have quite a story to tell!

A shout out to the following people for letting me interview them over the past few days.  Their voices will be added to my project!

Kirsi Vakkilainen, chemistry teacher

Kirsti is working on the LUMA Centre project to build curriculum so that chemistry comes alive (and more meaningful) in home economics classes.

Maiju is heading up the LUMA Centre's project for home economics and chemistry teachers.

Antti Lind, 19-year old student at Sotungin Lukio

Antti spent an academic year going to a high school in Miami, Florida -  and playing ice hockey.

Julia da Silva Goncalves, student at Sotungin Lukio

Julia spent an academic year at a high school in Mobile, Alabama.

Pasi Vilpas, biology and geography teacher at Sotungin Lukio.  Pasi works at developing science units that can be accessible by students in Second Life.

Iiris Sydänmaanlakka, 16-year old student in Finland

Iiris spent four months at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Otto Sydänmaanlakka, 12-year old student in Finland

Otto spent four months at Spring Hill Lake Elementary School in Greenbelt, Maryland.

What do Chocolate and Chemistry Have in Common?

Here in the kitchen, at Lapinlahdenkatu 3, Helsinki, the home economics and chemistry teachers are working together with the LUMA Centre to build curriculum.  The goal is to create lessons about starches, proteins, emulsions, pH, salts, crystals and foams so that these topics can be studied concurrently in the home economics and chemistry classes. 

Lisa Rautiainen and Outi Haatainen are working on making chocolate pralines...

and they're making the pralines from three types of chocolate.

Tempering is a way to control the crystallization of chocolate so that you get smooth, nicely-textured chocolate - not chocolate that is brittle or filled with white patches.

The centers of the pralines had a delicate orange taste - don't you just want to taste one?  or more?

Mari Hannula and Kirsi Vakkilainen are discussing with Anu Hopia how starch granules change their structure based upon how they are cooked.  Maiju Tuomisto is researching starch granules on the Internet to share with her colleagues.

In the experiment, the teachers tested four cooking methods for the starch.  In the bowl on the left, the starch was put into hot water and not stirred.  In the second bowl from the left, the starch was put into cold water and not stirred.  In the third bowl from the left, the starch was put into the cold water and heated until bubbles started to form.  In the bowl on the far right, the starch was put into cold water, stirred, and after the water boiled it was cooked for another five minutes.

The teachers took a sampling of the starch, dyed it with iodine, and looked at it under a microscope to observe the shape of the starch granules.

They were able to compare the shape of the starch granules with examples found on the Internet.

 Arja Ollila and Katri Mäkelä created fruit-flavored drinks.

They prepared the flavors from fresh fruit juices and carbonated the juice using the soda machine.

Each drink had a different level of acidity (pH).

Katri Leinonen and Mikko Metso practiced the method of caramelization and used the carmels to make muffins.

Sari Slawuta and Heli Molturi created different flavored salts and fried up some potato slices (and celeriac for fun) to dip into the salts.


Vegetable soup was one of the methods for preparing the salts, but they also baked vegetables, used chills, and ... I wish I took notes on the other types of salts.  Sorry.  But they were yummy!

Slices of celeriac

Soaking the celeriac before frying

Prepared salts

The remnants of the feast

Aila Vuorikoski and Riikka Sirén creating multi-layered drinks to demonstrate the concept of density.

She's showing you different fruit juices with different densities.  The liquid on the bottom is more dense than the liquid on the top.  I think the layer on the bottom is a berry juice and the one on top is apple juice.

Adding the foamy, less dense substance to the top of the drink. The drink in the middle has Sprite on the top.

Colleagues collaborating.  This group will meet one more time in September;  they hope to publish a book with their curriculum project.