Kiitos (Thank You), Finland!

Yesterday (or maybe it was today…jetlag), I said goodbye to Finland. The things I’m taking away from the experience are not things I could have learned in a book, read in an article, or watched in a movie. It is, however, the unexpected, the small exchanges, and the slight observations that will stay with me long after I fly over the Arctic Ocean, into Reykjavik, back to Denver, and up the mountains to the place I call home. I could have learned from reading that the development of Finland’s curriculum is a lot like ours starting with a common set of standards, leaving it up to cities to layer on their own goals for students, and ultimately, giving teachers the autonomy to decide how to support students with those goals. But by being in in Finland with real people, having real conversations, I was able to see how the autonomy in how to teach, this one gesture, made teachers feel so respected, so trusted. I could have read an article about the pathways for students and studied the diagrams, but being with kids in the vocational program and watching them prepare a meal for 25 people and serve us all while the food was still hot was proof that kids in Finland are thriving on the choices they are given after 9th grade. They are eager to do well in “Basic Education” (grades 1-9) because their choices for what they do after that are relevant and for authentic purposes. And, if they choose wrong (and some do), there are no dead ends. They just choose another path and are supported like they were the first time. I could have read about Finland’s focus on technology, but going there showed me that the technology Finland uses is in the hands of the kids (not the teacher), and very often, the devices kids are using are their own.  I could done some research, made assumptions (see the last blog), and left it all alone because we are certainly not Finland and we couldn’t possibly apply anything they do to our context.
But, instead, I went there to have them tell it to me straight (and, believe me, that’s not an easy task in a country that doesn’t like to talk much). And what I found was a lot that we could try. A lot we could apply. And a lot we simply just need to keep doing. And, maybe even most important, I found that I am so proud of the work we do in Eagle County Schools and the teachers we have that I wouldn’t be surprised if Finland starts to turn their heads in our direction.
See you soon, ECS!

I went to Finland with a lot of different thoughts swimming in my head.  What if the naysayers were right and we can’t learn from the Finns because they are so different from us in ways we cannot control?  What if the supporters were correct and we can find ways to learn from them….or worse, what if I wasn’t able to recognize those things?  As we took off a day later than planned from Denver, it was these thoughts that weighed heavily on my mind.  However, when we got our boots on the ground, and I got into the schools and saw kids and teachers and all the surroundings I am familiar with in my day to day life in the mountains, like backpacks and pencils, students laughing with each other in the halls, and teachers joking with them, I could exhale. I was in my happy place. 
I’m not going lie.  They are different from us.  They are reserved (seriously, the lunch room is even quiet) and what we would consider less diverse country, but there are a lot of similarities, too, and with that, some areas I believe they can help us to grow. 
As I compiled days of notes and conversations with educators and students alike, I felt that in Finland, the “carrot” or motivation for students to learn is closer than in the states and ever present in student’s lives.  It’s not from high stakes testing but from the knowledge that they will be given options, time, support, and equal opportunity to obtain any goal they set for themselves educationally throughout their lives.  I spoke with students that voluntarily took tests and whole courses over again so they could simply understand the topic better because learning it and mastering it meant something to them personally.
Support came to students in the form of respect.  Respect for their home languages, respect for their need to get more breaks in their day, respect for their feelings and ideas in the schools such as being part of the hiring process for new teaches, helping to set the school lunch menu, or meeting as a student parliament to vote on other school issues and given a budget to use as they saw fit.
I am so proud of the work we have been doing in ECS because it was impossible to be in Finland’s schools and not see similar structures in areas we have been working on such as dual language, RTI, global-ready skills, and the instructional core. 
We are on the right track.

We will be sure to share more of our thoughts and recommendations on this blog as we get back to reality and start the real work…stay tuned!


Middle School Math

Will you be doing a presentation open to the public? I teach at Stone Creek Charter School and would very much like to hear all about your trip (I have read all your blog entries) Please contact me