A couple of weeks ago, I had been invited to attend a workshop in Helsinki for educators that included a couple school visits. Unfortunately, I had other commitments, but I managed to arrange for visits to the two schools and I visited one of them on Monday.
There have been many, many visitors to Finnish schools in the past few years from all over the world. I imagine some people are curious like I am and I imagine that some people are desperate to find the panacea to fix their systems back home. Some schools around the country cater to international visitors resulting in students and teachers being aloof to a gaggle of educators watching them. And most schools might not have specific programming, staff members, and fees associated with international visitors, but offer a warm, encouraging welcome when asked.
Monday's visit was to a school in Espoo that sees quite a bit of international foot traffic. In fact, I joined a group of 50 or so teachers from Tartu, Estonia who were entirely lovely and enthusiastic. The day was structured and precise, cuing us into what this school does well. It was an inspiring view, kindling that feeling of wonder/envy/ excitement that I can only express as, "I want to teach here!" It's a feeling I've felt in a couple of schools here, for different reasons. In this case, I can't lie, I'm attracted to the gorgeous school facilities. The building is gorgeous and designed with the values and ambitions of the school in mind. I know that the walls of a building are not the heart of a school, that amazing things can happen in the most unextraordinary of places and underwhelming learning can occur in palatial settings. Coupling a solid educational experience with creative teachers, visionary school leaders, and a wonderful environment - and money, I really can't leave that out of the equation; I want to, but I can't - well, you've got a very special place.
The National Curriculum will be evident in any school you visit or attend in Finland. Each of the municipalities might add to the curriculum to enhance and localize the educational experiences for children. Then the schools interpret the national curriculum and municipal enhancements through their school-based lens that might be a specific focus, theme, or set of values. The teacher then has an incredible amount of autonomy of how to teach the curriculum. I'm gleaning that, in most schools, teachers have very few mandates; i.e. teachers aren't going to be told to take on a particular project or forced to collaborate with other teachers. Collaboration can be encouraged and it can flourish among mutually engaged persons.
This school hires for teachers who can and will work collaboratively and for teachers who embrace a transparent, fluid way of teaching and learning. The school employs windows and open doors to illustrate that learning does not only belong in the classroom and is not only delivered by a teacher. Take a look...
In almost every school I've visited, I see spaces in the hallways and foyers where students can work, socialize, rest, play, and be. I love these spots with tables, cushions, benches, ping pong tables, and chairs. This school has designed many of these spaces including a common area outside of each group of classrooms where students can work without direct supervision because they can be seen through the large windows. Beyond this, the teachers employ the idea of a circle of trust - the more trust-worthy students are, the larger their circle of autonomy becomes, extending to where students may choose to work.
There's also a great deal of flexibility inside the classroom - stools, chairs, balls, couches, pillows, standing - it appears that students have some choices about how they participate in lessons like those delivered directly by the teacher.
Innovative spaces and access to materials and technology can be breeding grounds for exciting learning, like this awesome lesson in a 4th grade classroom. Students were making documentaries with iPads to showcase their learning about the anatomy of fish.
Yes, indeed, I was inspired.
But, I need to tell you this...on most days, as a teacher in the US, in NM, in Albuquerque, at the sweet little school I've taught at the past 7.5 years, I am inspired. I see the essence of what I saw in this state-of-the-art school -- skilled, creative teachers; flexibility and innovation; dedication to engaging children; moving children into the world and the world into the classroom; and community. I saw these traits in schools I visited and through teachers I met in Bogotá and Cartegena, Colombia.
You don't need a beautiful building (although, it certainly wouldn't hurt) to have beautiful learning. I think I loved visiting this school -- and visiting most schools, really - because I see the places I love and the places where I teach mirrored in the classrooms and halls and playgrounds in these dear, sweet schools in Finland.
You can read my capstone project - Global Learning: Fostering knowledge, attitudes and skills for global citizenship - here
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This blog represents my point of view only and is not associated with the U.S. State Department or the Fulbright Program.