Friday, May 31, 2013

What is the Most Important Component in Education?

This entire text was taken directly from the post, "The single most innovative concept in education is at least 100 hundred years old" by Bobby George and June George.

(What do you think?)

"In this wonderfully candid interview, conducted in 1995, (Steve) Jobs was asked, “Some people say that this new technology may be [the most important thing in schools]….” He responded:

'I absolutely don’t believe that. … I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I [am] absolutely convinced that [it] is by no means the most important thing.'

What is the most important thing? Well, for Steve Jobs, no less than Maria Montessori, to be sure, it was another person. As he goes on to explain, “The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Letting the Finns (+1 Insightful German) Tell You the "Secrets" Behind Finnish Educational Success

Over the past 5 months I've been interviewing the Finns about teaching and learning scientific problem solving - well, it started with scientific problem solving and it became a project about problem solving in general because ... I found problem solving EVERYWHERE.  Stay tuned to hear what's happening in Finland!  I've enjoyed this journey and I think you will, too.
Included in these interviews:
Primary students
Lower secondary students
Upper secondary students
Primary and secondary students who have studied in both American and Finnish schools
A vocational student
Student teachers
Primary teachers
Lower secondary teachers
Upper secondary teachers
University professors and researchers
Finnish National Board of Education
Pasi Sahlberg, CIMO, Finland
and a special appearance by
Andreas Schleicher, PISA at OECD, Paris

A Finnish Summer Cottage, a.k.a.,"Why You Should Start Planning Your Visit to Finland"

I don't have any words for Finland other than "Spectacular."  You need to visit.  Period.

Kari Sormunen from the University of Eastern Finland is waving from the deck of his summer cottage.  The smaller building in front of you?  That's a Finnish sauna.  :)

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Interview with Pasi Sahlberg: "Speaking as a Father"

"I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be."
- Pasi Sahlberg -  

Over the past two days I have had the pleasure of getting to know the warm, reflective Pasi Sahlberg. On Tuesday, Pasi, Anjali Vyas and I drove the few hours to and from the Nordic Comparative and International Education Society (NOCIES) conference in Turku, Finland and during the ride Pasi spoke about being a father to his sons, the life and educational work of his "grandfather's grandfather's father," the lineage of educators in his family tree, and what drives his passion to improve children’s education. These conversations helped me learn about Pasi's depth and authenticity, and it helped me understand how to talk with him the next day when we sat down for a formal interview.

Our interview did not start smoothly. We decided to conduct the interview in his office and as he worked at his computer I set up my equipment: I took out the camera, lights and audio equipment and they worked fine. I was ready. I invited Pasi to come sit down, he attached the microphone to his tie and tucked away the black wire; I turned on the lights. 

"Please say, 'one, two, three,'" I said.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven," he replied with a small grin.

When I checked the audio, the playback came back with static. (What?) Only static. 

I checked the settings on the audio recorder and the microphone and tried again.

"Please say, "Yksi, kaksi, kolme." 

He responded just as enthusiastically in Finnish, "Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljã, viisi, kuusi, seitsemãn, kahdeksan."

Three more adjustments.  Three more tests.  Only static.  (This was my 45th interview in 5 months and this has never happened.)

Pasi decided he would check with the South Korean reporters who were waiting in the next room for their interview. While he was talking with the South Koreans I made another adjustment to the audio recorder and thankfully the adjustments worked; the audio was clear. 

Game on!

Pasi returned to his office and we began.  I told him I would like him to think about responding from the perspective of a father - as if we were talking in the Finnish tradition - over a cup of coffee; it was a discussion of warmth, friendship and interesting conversation.  Even now, I wish I had more time to talk with him.

I recalled last evening when we were driving back from Turku; it was pouring rain and Pasi was hurrying home to spend time with his son before his son went to bed. Pasi’s wife had called to tell him his son was looking forward to seeing him – and Pasi was enthusiastic about getting home.  When he got out of the car to head home it’s as though he couldn’t move fast enough – sure it was raining, but it was clear that he didn’t want anything to stand in his way of having his evening time with his family.

I decided the best way to begin the interview was to ask Pasi to describe the schooling he would like for his little boy. He smiled, reflected, and said, “I wish the school would help my son become a passionate learner so that when my son leaves school he would say, 'I want to learn more about the world, I want to learn more about the people who live here, I want to learn more about nature and (I want) to learn more about the countries.'  If my own child would like to continue learning and if the school can help him to understand who he is then I can say that school has been successful."

He continued by talking not only about his son, but every son and every daughter – because schooling is not just about “my child” or “your child” - it’s about every child and their right to be educated. "I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be,” Pasi continued. “We should not have different expectations and hopes for our own children than (we have) for the others. I think the problem in education oftentimes is that we speak about other children’s schools and other children’s education and we think about schooling and education for our own children as a very different thing. I couldn’t say anything about anyone else’s children that I wouldn't say for my own."

I thought about our culture in the United States and wondered if we, as a people, could ever consider the rights of other people’s children as the same as our “own.” Unfortunately, the idea of “equality” has become more “survival of the fittest” for our children, not a system that's striving to provide equality and opportunity for all.

Some people are trying to make substantial changes in American education – or should I say, many people are trying – and some are looking at the education-for-profit model. Pasi addressed this potential change in the American system: “I see the value of public education system as a fundamental element of our democracies: a free world, a free mind - and I see clearly enough the dangers and risks that come with seeing a school education as a private good and something you can purchase - if you think of it as something you buy for your kids - if you can afford it. I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be and the older I get the more I see my own view/ideal of school education at risk.”

Ouch.  Isn’t that what is happening in America? The affluent areas have more financial resources for their schools and the underserved areas have less.  We send money to these impoverished areas and it helps, or it doesn’t, and then we move on to other issues and hope everything will work out.  This is not a sustainable and meaningful solution. (3,000,000 American students dropped out of high school this year.) We need to look to other systems that are achieving equity for their students and learn from them.  We can learn from others.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned while in Finland came at a price – in fact, I was a bit offended – but it was a valuable lesson.  I returned from a school visit and was asked about what I had experienced.  I said something to the effect of, “It was wonderful.  The teacher engaged her students, etc., etc.”  This person stopped me and said, “Quit it - not everything is good.  Americans have the tendency to say everything is ‘Good!’ but that’s not true. Finns want to hear what’s not working, too.”

I thought about what he said, and I thought about it some more, and I came to the conclusion that he was right.  In asking other Finns about this same conversation I was told, “It’s boring to hear that things are always good; it’s much more interesting if you tell us the other side, too.


Is this attitude toward evaluation and discussion one reason why Finns fare so well on many of the international measurements? Imagine their key stakeholders sitting in a room and saying, “Let’s talk about what’s working, what’s not working, make some compromises about what can be done and then make some decisions about how to move forward"... and then do it.

Perhaps all of us have to make compromises to “fix” our education system.

At this point I asked Pasi how he might proceed: "If you were to invite ten people into a room whose job it was to 'fix' American education, whom would you choose?"

He paused and replied, "That's an interesting question. Only ten?"

"Yes," I said, but of course there was no reason that the number be ten, only that having a limit makes one's decisions more critical.

He listed the first and second people rather quickly, he paused at the third, went more quickly through numbers four through six, and it wasn't until number seven that he included, "teacher."  I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to mention a teacher, and honestly, my heart broke every time he listed a person who was not.

All I could bear to squeak out was, "Only one teacher?"

Pasi then held up the "mirror" and I was forced to look at his reflection of me:  he asked, "Whom would you put at the table?"

I answered, "A primary teacher, a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, and one from an inner city school, a typical school, and an elite school."  My rationale was that if you want to improve education, you involve the people who are doing the work with students.

For the past four and one half months I have been visiting Finnish schools and learning how Finnish teachers teach problem solving to their students; there are no bureaucrats in the schools, no business people, no parents, no lobbyists, no textbook publishers - only the teacher and his or her students.  Of course there should be teachers at the “table” for important decisions.
"So, six out of ten people would be teachers?" he questioned.

(I sat there dumbstruck - realizing I had put myself in a corner.)

I said to him, "My big concern is that teachers (in the United States) are typically undervalued (at that level) and aren’t put at the decision-making table for educational policy. Based upon the policy decisions being made, American teachers are then told, "This is how fast you should be going (with your teaching), this is where you should be (in the curriculum), this is what you have to do (to keep your job), and these are all the things you have to teach."  The problem is, this model doesn't fit with how children learn.

Maybe this doesn't sound substantial so I offer an imperfect analogy:  imagine your job is to bake cakes in an assembly line (for our purposes the cakes represent content you're supposed to teach). You mix the batter, you pour the batter in the pans, and you put the pans in the oven. In the middle of baking your cakes you are told to take them out of the oven so you can start baking different cakes (for this example it would be more curriculum you need to teach).  You exclaim, 'But the cakes aren't done.  This isn't going to work!'  But the decisions have been handed down to you to and you must hurry up and put more cakes through (and more and more curriculum).  At the end of the day you are evaluated on how well you baked your cakes (they're not fully baked) and then you are critized for doing a poor job. Forcing students to learn too much curriculum in too short of time and with very little depth is one of the reasons many experienced and valuable teachers are quitting the profession - their cries are not heard and the students are suffering; the teachers simply cannot do it any longer.

I continued, "In Finland it's lovely because it's the pace of the learner, not the pace of the teaching that determines what happens in a classroom; that’s a substantial difference. Finnish teachers are told, 'Here's an objective; take your students on this (intellectual) journey and that's what they do." I recently asked a Finnish physics teacher how he decides when to move to the next lesson and he said with a smile, "When my students stop asking questions." Finnish teachers have the time and the freedom to work with topics that interest their students and they challenge them to solve problems.  I observed problem solving taking place in every content area in Finnish schools, and they were not only solving problems, they were doing so in an unhurried, relaxed environment.  It was a pure joy to experience. This is the freedom we need for our American teachers and students so that our students can excel. American teachers and students are just as capable but they need the permission to do their creative work.

I said to Pasi, "This disconnect (between policy and practice) is why I keep saying, 'Why aren’t the teachers at the decision-making table?' because if we don't have the teacher voice at the policy-making table we'll continue having the same problems we’re having now!"

He acknowledged my words, looked straight at me and replied, "There is a saying ... that 'war is too important to be decided by the military people' and it's the same with education. I think education is too important to be decided by teachers - and this has nothing to do with undervaluing teachers' expertise - but their view is very different to education. I think teachers should have a say to these issues - exactly what you said - how to decide the teaching, how you set the standards for your own kids, how you organize your school work - this should be left to the teachers. I think too often we intervene in the wrong areas of education - we try to control what each and every teacher is doing in the classroom. We should leave those things to the professionals.  But the broad issues, the big issues, the principles of education should be based on a more balanced view and that's why I would only have one practitioner in the room and divide this voice more equally to those who are the key stakeholders, (including) parents and the community members - not necessarily just those working or teaching in the school."

I replied, "I've seen that community-driven, cooperative approach in Finland and it works.  I agree with you." 

He continued, "I think in general, particularly in the United States, you like to standardize - and in some ways I appreciate that you set standards - you set expectations for something - but I think if you look at the entire education system in the United States you seem to be standardizing things you should not standardize and you are not standardizing things that you should standardize. This is a kind of interesting thing. I think that me or somebody else should not be seen as somebody who is against setting standards in education.  I think we should be seen as people who probably think that standardization should focus on different things than it does now and that's why I say that teaching and learning and teachers' work should be left more to be decided by the professionals there (in the classroom and schools). The thing you do not standardize at all in the United States is school funding - you don't have a national standard for how the money should be allocated to schools because it varies from one community to another; you have 15,000 different ways of doing these things. In Finland and in other countries we have just one way and we're careful we standardize how the resources are allocated to our schools."
I asked him, “Would you agree with the phrase, ‘America is trying so hard to be great that they’re forgetting how to be their best?’ (Leena Semi, Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching, Finland, 2012)

(Laugh) "Yeah, probably.  This is another thing. I’m often comparing countries like the United States and Finland and it seems to be the American way to say that if you say anything about setting your goals for (your) school system in 2030 that almost automatically this phrase comes out that you want to be the best in the world. And that is something that would never come out in Finland - Finland would keep repeating this same mantra that we want to have a good, a great school for all our children - although we are now in the situation where most kids in Finland already have a great school - but we still keep repeating that we want to guarantee that each child has a great school and teacher.  These are very different goals and people don’t often realize how different the implementation of these two goals looks like (in a school) 1) if you want to be the best in the world, or 2) if you want to have a good school for your children. If you go and see what the teachers and the districts and the leaders are doing when they are trying to help the government achieve these goals they are very different. I would encourage the U.S. to rethink if they can find a smarter way to reset the target for education - (rather) than being the best or trying to beat the Asian countries or Finland - I think that’s the wrong goal.”

"If you are American and listening to this conversation,” he said, “I always want to say that there are so many powerful things in your country that you can rely on as a way forward. Too often I see people who say everything is bad and nothing is working and that we have to reinvent the whole thing; I think that’s not a good way to think about it.  For example, when you think about math and science education in the United States, you have some of the best examples and models to teach science and to teach mathematics - not only to one class or one school, but several of them. (I would wish) that people would not go into this business of blaming teachers and blaming schools by saying, 'if only you were a better teacher things would be in a different way.' It takes much more than that. I think your challenge is more than getting stuck in this debate of bad teachers and good teachers; it should be how you can help the entire system share what they are doing now and how you can make sure schools cooperate rather than compete and that the districts in the United States would share what they have learned rather than try to hide it because they are competing over resources and funding. That’s the kind of hope there is and I think there is always hope as long as things are as they are right now.”

"It’s more typical in the United States to think (in terms of) 'my children' and 'my school' and 'my classroom' rather than 'our children' and 'our school' and 'our classroom'” he said. “Like in many, or probably most, places in Finland, people think about children in their communities as everybody’s responsibility."

"We should not have different expectations and hopes for other (people’s) children than we have for our own."
- Pasi Sahlberg -

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When "Silence" Means "We Care"

Look at this building!

You're looking across one of the busiest areas in Helsinki: in back of you is Kamppi, the main bus terminal and on the other side of the yellow building is the main Helsinki Central Station.  Thousands of people walk through this square every day. (You can see the brown building far to the right.)

What is this oddly-shaped building doing in such a prominent spot?

I heard about this building from Lindsay Whorton, another Fulbright grantee, who came here to experience the atmosphere and simply enjoy the peace and quiet.  She told me this building has another purpose -  to provide social services to anyone who needs it - right here in the middle of the busiest part of town.  Free.

Seriously?  I needed to see it for myself.

When I arrived (in a room adjacent to this space), there were four or five people standing around interested in my arrival but busy in their work.  They were of varying ages and looks - one looked conservative, one looked edgy, one was young, another was middle aged. I asked the edgy, middle-aged man if I could enter the, "Silent Church" and he said, "Sure.  Go ahead."

I walked into this room - this exquisite room - and it was silent.  Of course.

I didn't sit.  I just observed.  And enjoyed it.  

It was fabulous. 

 I've learned throughout my travels that Finns realize that most people, if not all, need help at some point in their lives, and this includes not only physical and financial help but psychological and spiritual help, as well.  When I walked back to the outer room I approached the man "with the edge" and asked him about how they provide social services here.

He said they provide time with social workers and/or church workers for anyone who walks in the door and needs it.  Sometimes people need short conversations and sometimes they need longer conversations, but the interactions (and assistance) are always free, one never needs an appointment, and the person in need may remain anonymous.  The conversations can be as long as the person needs them to be. 

Right here, in the middle of town - open 365 days a year  - the help is here even when everything else in Helsinki is closed.

Thank you for setting a new standard for excellence in mental health care, Finland.

This building is affectionately called the "Silent Church," or, Kampin Kaapeli, and in 2010 it won the International Architectural Award.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Intrepid Mushroom Hunters

Christine, Tuula, Leo and I went mushroom hunting today.  It was not just any mushroom hunt, but a hunt for the special, poisonous "ear mushroom," or translated into Finnish, the korvasieni. 

This mushroom is quite tasty but it contains neurotoxins and must be carefully cooked in order to eat it. I was told that kovansieni must be cooked twice, in a lot of water, to make it safe to eat and that many people choose to cook it outside because even the vapors can be harmful and cause headaches.  Why hunt the korvasieni?  Because it's delicious (and Tuula and Leo know what they're doing)!

This area is where Tuula used to hunt mushrooms with her mother when she was a child, and Tuula brought her children here when they were young.  She knows this area well and knows about its ability to produce mushrooms, blueberries, lingonberries, and strawberries.  Christine is also quite skilled in the hunting of mushrooms.  They heard that the best time to find the korvasieni is when the new leaves on the birch trees are about the size of a stamp and the leaves are about that size right now.

These mushrooms are close to what we are hunting but the "ear mushrooms" are more crinkled and actually look like the shape of a human ear.

These aren't the right ones, either.

So we continue to hunt.  

Leo likes to go quickly through the forest and so the three of us went one way and Leo went another - along with his compass and phone.

I have to ask about every mushroom I find because I don't know what I'm looking for.  Tuula told me these mushrooms are old and from last year.

 We didn't find anything, so we did what all good Finns do - we had coffee.  The Finns are very good at stopping what they're doing several times a day to sit and have coffee.  (I absolutely love this tradition.)

Leo returned and said he had found three mushrooms.  

The one in the upper right is the poisonous mushroom we are searching for.  

(Here's a close-up - see the shape of the ear?)

The other mushrooms look similar to the ones we found at the beginning of the hunt.  

After coffee, Tuula served us a traditional Finnish lunch.  Very delicious, I must say.

We drove to a second location, all the while scratching our heads and trying to determine why we couldn't find any special mushrooms. Here are some tadpoles Christine found in a pool of water by the parking lot.

These aren't the correct mushrooms,

and neither are these,

but this was so pretty I had to take a picture.

These aren't the right ones, either, and they're actually left over from last year.  Tuula said they're the type of mushroom that sprays its spores "like smoke" if kicked.

Some beautiful forest ground cover.

 Evidence of the last glacial period.

This isn't the right type of mushroom, either.

We found some frog eggs in the tracks of some heavy logging equipment.  These eggs had apparently been laid when there was still water in the tracks but the water had evaporated and left the eggs intact.  It's possible the embryos are dead. 

If there is a chance they are alive, their only chance of survival is if they're back in the water.

We didn't find any of the elusive poisonous mushrooms and usually in this area there are plenty.  Leo returned with just a few more mushrooms in his bucket.

We returned to the car and had coffee.  

Perhaps it's a little early to be hunting these mushrooms; we'll try again next weekend.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Rakastan Sinua" Means "I Love You"

I'm starting to think that every day is beautiful on this journey but I know that's not true.  Some days I am lonely, but when I get myself outside and interact with the Finns, interesting things always seem to happen.

In  the late afternoon I took Tuula's bike out to see if I could take some pictures of the new green leaves.  Just this morning, Dennis sent me the link to the song, "Good Day, Sunshine" by the Beatles so there it was, again, rattling around in my head.  (Click on the link and play it in the background for the full effect of this blog post.)

So I'm biking along the trail, singing this wonderful song and thinking to myself, "This isn't very Finnish to be singing out loud like this" but I couldn't help myself.

I hummed, and I sang, and then I hummed the words I didn't know.  (I did know the chorus, however.)  I passed a Finn or two, and then ...

I rode up behind two older people walking through the forest; she had her walking sticks and he walked alongside. 

 I passed on the left and kept humming, knowing that it would probably fall upon ears not accustomed to hearing singing in the forest.  

 About 30 meters in front of them I found a picture I wanted to take with my camera so I pulled over, got off my bike, and took it.  The couple walked up alongside me and she said something in Finnish that I couldn't understand.  I smiled and replied in my very limited Finnish, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Finnish.  Do you speak English?" 

She looked at me and said, "No."

She smiled and looked at me again, and said quite sincerely in English, "I love you," clearly referring to the fact that I had been singing and riding a bike in the forest.

I smiled back, and said, "I love you, too."  I paused, and said, "That's all that matters."  I reached out to hug her; she hesitated...and hugged me back.

We smiled, and smiled again, and parted ways.  I rode off on my bicycle and they continued their walk.

Another beautiful and surprising day in Finland.


Earlier that morning I went with Auli Pulkki to Hammaslauden School in Hammaslahti, about 30 minutes outside of Joensuu by car.  We visited the teacher Anne Karttunen and her class of children with special needs, aged 7-13.  What I enjoyed about this class was the relaxed atmosphere and how the students seemed so comfortable in their school and their classroom - they were attentive and ready to learn.  The teacher had obviously been doing valuable work with and for her students.

The class worked on a project that helped the students understand facial expressions and content by using pictures, not words.  It's a program called Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment and many non-traditional learners struggle with either reading or the ability to read expressions - both of these challenges can make it very difficult for the child to communicate with others.  

The teacher showed the top of a picture and gradually revealed it from top to bottom.

As she revealed the face, she asked them questions about what they saw.  At this point the children said they thought it was a dark-skinned person,

and that it probably wasn't someone who lived in Finland.  

When she asked where they lived, they said the person probably lived in America or Africa.

She asked them to tell her more about what they saw from the forehead and his eyebrows but unfortunately I don't remember what they said.

When she revealed this much of the face, the students said they thought he was happy because of the curve of his cheeks.

After they discussed the picture of the man, the teacher asked the students about a second picture and what the child felt about being lifted up by the man.  

At first they said the child was glad, but that it was also possible that the child was in danger, or even in trouble.  
The Feuerstein method seemed to be a valuable way to help these children learn in non-traditional ways and the children's questions and statements, perceptions, and even potential errors in judgement could be discussed in the open.  I should say, however, that the children were spot-on, and showed no indication of prejudice or tendency to judge someone for their skin color being different than their own.  (Or if they expressed it, it wasn't translated to me.)
Auli and I had a chance to talk with two of the students and they were delightful.  It reminded me of how much I miss my own students!  :)