Friday 16th of August 2013
My goodness, what an absolutely amazing day I have had today visiting Finnish Schools.
What did I learn, the way the educators work collaboratively with each other and across schools. I learnt how independent the children are and I saw how they usually found their own way to school by bike, walking or bus. I heard about WILMA that is a Finnish Educational Internet Portal. Parents receive information on matters concerning their child’s education through this Internet portal. At the start of the year students’ guardians receive their own pupil-specific user ID for Wilma.
I visited Jyvaskyla, which is about 3 hours North of Finland. I spent a night there so that I could have a whole day of visiting schools.
How did this all come about. Last year I had the privilege of attending a talk by Pasi Sahlberg. I had already heard and read about the amazing Finnish education system and by then I had received a TeachNZ sabbatical for education.
I asked Pasi if it was ok to connect me with some educators which he promptly did.
With my principal’s blessings I began making connections.
Online I started watching out for Finnish Educators and because I follow Pasi I began to observe who he was speaking to and who was responding.
So via twitter I made connnections with Timo Ilomäki (@Ilotimo) who began broadcasting for me.
Then I added Finland to my places of visit.
As my time in Helsinki grew closer I made contact with Timo who suggested if I made the trip to Jyvaskyla from Helsinki he would make school contacts for me. So I did.
Once I researched the location of Jyvaskyla I learnt that it lay in the heart of the lake district therefore I added an extra day on to do some sight seeing and a lake cruise. I was hoping to have a lake swim.
Arriving in Jyvaskyla was an adventure in itself. Teachers you will be pleased to know I found my way without using a simm card on my ipad. I even relearnt to follow a paper map and make F2F contact by asking people for directions and sometimes using sign language to be understood. For example I had a haircut in Jyvaskula and was able to get a cut and blow wave and pay for it communicating as best as I could in single word Finnish and a lot of laughter.
My hotel was a self-service hotel know as Omena Hotel in Vapaudenkatu. No reception, no booking in, no people to greet me on arrival. All codes and cameras.
I went for a long walk to the lake and around a little bit and decide to take a lakeside cruise the next day. However other plans were for me as I woke to a day of rain and wind. So I took the opportunity of visiting the Jyvaskyla City library where I met the Director of libraries for the region.
Her name was Seija Laitnen- Kuisma and she informed me that there were 14 branches of library in the area with 3 mobile library units. The libraries in the region serviced 80% of residents. Each resident took out an average of 18 books per year and visited their local library 10 time. She also explained that their website was visited 20x per annum per head of population. From data gathered people who used library Internet services also had Internet at home. People who did not have Internet at home did not necessarily use the Internet at the library.
The libraries experience 2,000 visits per day.
Now for the library education information and generally schools do not have a school library or if they do school libraries house generally small collections. The schools are encouraged to use the local libraries and they do. The libraries offer a library certificate that the children can work for depending on their reading level and the criteria involved. Yes children from as young as 7 years old right up to young adults earn their awards. I was shown around the library and two areas jumped out at me. The library caters for the language learners in their communities offering books, and translated pamphlets into several community languages. The library also offers e-learning training and the most popular courses include Facebook and how to book travel online. The courses run almost weekly and the 16 places are generally booked out.
Having been a teacher with library responsibilities I was grateful for the time and patience shown me with all my questions.
After visiting the library I venture out into the poring rain and visited the local Town Church known as Seurakunta. The church has 100,000 members and is the largest parish in the Jyvaskyla region.
From there I made my way to the Craft Museum of Finland or Suomen Käsityön Museowhere I visited the area where the National Costumes of Finland are housed. I only wished that I could purchase a doll from the area as I have been collecting dolls in national costumes for ever. The museum had hands on areas where I could make and create a sampler using tools and resources readily available.
I loved seeing the felt handmade boots and see the tools made from deer antlers.
Later on I had a wonder around the Forum mall and saw similar items for purchase as we have in New Zealand and some very different items too. However room in my suitcase is an ongoing challenge.
Near the hotel I found a Finnish hairdresser who agreed to give me a haircut. Something I desperately needed. On par with New Zealand similar prices. Lampka did a great job and in addition gave me an amazing head massage and hopefully this will last me until I see my own hairdresser again.
I picked up a local salad with bread and returned to my room for dinner and a little communication catch up.
School Visits the following day
Timo picked me up early the following day. I heard how when he was at elementary school that he had the same teacher for six years but that was slowly changing. Sometimes the students have the same teacher for about three years. The school we visited had a kindergarten area attached. I was struck at how many bikes I saw. We arrived as the last of the children were arriving for the morning on their bikes.
Our first stop was to meet their school principal, Pasi. The school did not yet have WIFI but they were working on it and currently the elementary school internet system was controlled by a central ICT company. Pasi said that their school had about 10 % migrant population with mostly Russian immigrants and a few from other countries. He explained that schools were self managing but more and more there was a movement towards central governing. I found out that each class had two standalone machines and a school lab for other ICT work.
Next we visited a class of 9 year old children where I was placed in front of the 9 year old children and they asked me questions about New Zealand.
Some questions included what were our national sport, animals, and temperature and about the school I worked at. When I told them that in Auckland the temperature was as low as 14C in the winter, they repeatedly asked if that was minus or plus. When I explained that our winters were not cold enough to freeze water and that I loved to play hockey, I could see confusion but did not make the connection that hockey to them was ice hockey. I only realised after when I visited a high school with a strong Ice Hockey Team. When I got home I followed my twitter friends and some shared that in winter it was -20C. I cannot even begin to imagine the temperature being that cold.
I explained about how small Newmarket School was and how fascinated I found that many children in Finland rode to school independently from a young age. I told them about New Zealand children taking their own lunch to school, how many of our children are driven to school and the hours of schooling. They were surprised at how little break time we had. They wanted to know how many languages were taught in primary school and did the children get much homework. I also said how different I found their houses because they had no eaves. The children wanted to know if we had a kindergarten on our school site and if we had a playground. I told them that soon we would loose more playground as our school was increasing in size and how lucky they were to have such a large playing area. What struck me about the discussion was how engaged the children were in my conversation even though I was answering their questions in English and their teacher was translating for me and for them.
The next school involved a trip to Muurame to the Upper secondary school where I finally met Aki Puustinen @apuustin Headmaster of Muurame High School. Aki helps facilitate #finnedchat and is easily found on twitter sharing his knowledge of entrepreneurship, etc and you can read his leadership blog at Leadership Think Tank blog.
Aki, myself and Timo my twitter buddies.
Aki showed me his school and what struck me was how different the staff room was in comparison to ours in New Zealand. The staff room were made up of two areas. One was for eating and the other was where teachers worked and had their own personal shared space.
The school had stand-alone machines but the hard drives were in the cloud. Another idea included a space for teachers to hang their coats and exchange outside shoes for inside shoes.
This school leader shared how each staff member had an ipad and their environmental goal was to reduce the use of paper in their school. Each Grade 1 and 2students were given a school owned ipad for the duration of their time at the school. Teachers were encouraged to use double sides when photocopying. Parents were invited to information evenings about 4x time per year. Aki said that teacher use of Facebook has been an amazing resource to develop collegiality and sharing between teachers both within school and across schools. He said that when they had staff meetings student representatives joined in teachers staff meetings but left if personal information was discussed. There were few migrant students in the school but they did have some exchange students.
Muurame school had won their sustainability certificate and Aki explained the process for accreditation via the OKKA foundation. He showed me how all teachers learning is transparent and how the areas of targeted learning are placed publicly and teachers add their name when they have undertaken a course, or professional learning and date it. I saw this idea again further on in my journey but using google Docs so the information was always live.
Wandering around the school I saw my first glimpse of clustering of desks and an experimental area. The learning space had different seating to what was in the classes including beanbags, a circular feel and a space for creative discussion.
I thought at how minimalistic the classes look with wall displays compared to our classes I had recently left in New Zealand but am aware that this is the first week back for the Finnish new school year. In New Zealand we are more than half way through the year and our classes take on the busy look.
Timo took me back to his school Voionmaan High school with 540 students with a focus on sports achievement where we had traditional Finnish porridge for lunch and I joined the queues with students and teachers to receive my hot lunch. The porridge was surprisingly good and was sweetened with a fruit syrup.
Teachers pay a daily minimal lunch fee but the children eat free.
Timo showed me his office space and it looks similar to mine with equipment and machines operating. I asked about the student Management system and he showed me WILMA on the inside. This is a central funded management system that tracks students timetables, attendance, is like a messaging system with their teachers, parents and each other, but is not a portfolio. Other online tools are used such as blogger and drop box and sky drive. Timo said as a parent he is able to see how his own son is doing at school and how WILMA is a great tool for home school communication. Here is the link if you want to read more about WILMA.
As a user, you can ask the office personal to show you your overall information and WILMA allows the user to identify gaps in their learning and to target their next learning goals.
Timo showed me the Voionmaa school facebook page and explained how wonderful it was for home school communication and to engage with the wider school community. He showed me that their school Facebook page had the biggest group of users with currently 1645 likes. Even when students left, how they still followed the pages and gave feedback and likes on the different events. One popular section was mini videos of past students sharing their career choice. Timo discussed with me how they have a closed teachers group for their school and teachers are communicating their inquiry on the closed Facebook section and giving and receiving feedback from their colleagues.
In the classes I noted that the teachers desks were always situated to the side of the front of the room. I saw rows of desks and some classes beginning to have grouping happening. However sometimes this changed as the school was cleaned for the day and often chairs and tables were returned to rows.
All students had lockers for keeping their books and sports equipment.
The next school I was taken too was a ‘normal’ school near the University of Normaaliloulu. The school took many teachers who were training and worked with them. I met Hannah a colleague of Timo’s who explained how closely all the schools in the area worked together. She also explained how her classes worked and that she had the same group of students for 6 years. The first two years involve regular face to face classes and as they become older the contact became less and less. The students were expected to plan their own next steps and when they met with her they had their WILMA profiles up-to-date which always speeded up the process of discussion.
One neat idea that I heard about was similar to what I saw in Timo’s school. This was the call back of past students to present to current students about their career choice or discussion about the best pathways to take and which courses to plan for and get credits in.
Another idea I picked up was that different schools had different strengths and sometimes students enrolled in a different school to fulfil their credits. EG; If they wanted to take French and there was no French, then during French period they attended a different school.
Timo picked me up and took me to meet Ari who was the national President of Finnish Principals Federation. I had a quick look around his school and then was taken back to catch my train for Helsinki.
In all a lot to take in and reflect on.
The good stuff, children being independent, respectful of each other and the environment.
Having the same teacher for more than two years in a row. Testing of students did not begin until the children had been at school for several years. I saw some inquiry and some creating. I noticed the second teachers working in class alongside the classroom teacher at the primary school level. I had a chance to see a little of WILMA their student management system and the best of all was meeting Finnish educators face to face and hearing their learning journeys.
I just missed meeting @Timdwalk.