Tag Archives: teaching

12 Questions about Finnish Education answered

25 Mar

Two weeks ago I provided some answers to a colleague, Angela Watson, who maintains The Cornerstone for Teachers website and blog. She asked several questions about education in Finland and I am posting the Q&A here in my Notes as well:

1) Pay is not the answer. Teachers in Finland are not paid like doctors.  Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland.

2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.  Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD.  Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.

3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.  The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives.

4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.  The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.

5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing.

6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.  The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.

7) Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.

8)  About private schools: Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools.  Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.

9) Parental involvement is not required. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.

10) Teacher’s Unions:  more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive.

11) The often heard claim of Finnish children doing better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower is a heavily loaded question and the answer is anything but simple.  The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well.

12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.  No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated.

Successful learning experiences

24 Nov

Defining success is not easy, and sometimes we get tangled in details and want to define students’ success as mastery of a single subject or unit, or course. Often applying unnecessary power over students is also disguised as success – but do students really need to perform according to minor details, or should we emphasize understanding the concepts and entities, so that the learned skill is transferable? In contemporary education negotiating meaning is more important than ever before, just to be sure that we are talking about the same concept/word/idea – and the word “success” certainly has several different connotations.

To me student success means simply making myself unnecessary as a teacher by empowering my students become autonomous learners, who can work independently and who know where to find the information and guidance they need. This requires handing over the tools for learning to students, and trusting in their motivation and drive to get their learning done, but having open and honest interactions with students to be able to help if needed.

Many schools aspire to empower their students to become life-long learners, and that is great! This is the true paradigm shift we need in education! But, it is not enough if we say this aloud (or write it on the visions and missions of school, or publish it on the school website), this goal must be integrated into everyday teaching practices as well as to the assessments.  Students’ perception matters. We need open and honest communication to remain believable so that our students understand and feel their success and learning being important for us.

Students’ perception creates the emotional learning environment of the classroom or the entire school. Please note, though, that I am not talking about entertaining students. My intention is to describe a learning environment where students cooperate and are accountable for their own learning.  In Finland one measurement for successful education is “kouluviihtyvyys”, which approximately translates to school enjoyment, or school satisfaction, but actually has some deeper connotations[1]. School satisfaction is seen to be built of several components where  school conditions create one part, social relationships another part and means for self-fulfillment in school the third crucial part – following the categories of having, loving, being by Erik Allardt[2]. I cannot but see the equivalence to the 3Cs: constructive tools used in cooperative way to provide cognitive connections.

Classroom management and curricular choices belong to having/school conditions, and often are the most emphasized component in student success. However, no matter how constructively you build the conditions, the two other components must be present to complete the picture of successful learning experiences.

Cooperation falls into social relationships/loving – part of school enjoyment, and it covers school climate, teacher-student relationships and all interactions – also those with students’ homes and family members. Cooperation increases students’ success in all levels starting from informal peer tutoring among classmates, covering anything and everything that happens during a school day, but also reaching to professional collaboration between education professionals (yes, I am against to Race to the Top or any other competitive attempts to improve education). Loving is a strong word for me to use about social relationships at school, but I do see how well it fits here.

Being/the means of self-fulfillment cover many important areas: value of work (no busywork!), creativity (students and teachers are so much more than parts in a machine), encouragement (feedback about learning process), and having opportunities to practice making good choices. Knowing how I learn is essential for becoming a good learner, and this is why metacognitive tools should be an essential part of each and every teacher’s toolbox. This is also why I am so sceptical about standards – when learning is an individual process, how could it be measured with standardized testing?

To me well-being in schools as defined above is an essential measure of providing students with successful learning experiences. What do you think? And how can you increase student success by improving having, loving or being in your school?

World Teachers’ Day 2012

5 Oct

“Take a stand for Teachers” is the 2012 slogan for World Teachers’ Day.

UNESCO calls on everyone to consider undertaking a special celebration for World Teachers’ Day:  “Teachers… ultimately determine our collective ability to innovate, to invent, to find solutions for tomorrow. Nothing will ever replace a good teacher. Nothing is more important than supporting them.”

On the UNESCO page there is another statement I liked very much:

Teachers are among the many factors that keep children in school and influence learning. They help students think critically, process information from several sources, work cooperatively, tackle problems and make informed choices. 

Isn’t this the essence of good quality education? Making informed choices outlines well the other highlighted skills: thinking, processing, cooperating and problem-solving.  Emphasizing these skills leads to deep and meaningful learning. Building a cooperative learning environment where students can practice choosing empowers them to think and share, and also helps students to understand how learning is an individual process.

Please note how teachers are rightfully recognized as one of the many factors that keep students in school. We should always remember not to ask teachers produce miracles, because every teaching-learning situation is constructed from many different pieces.

Over time teachers are able to enhance the other pieces of learning,  especially when learning is viewed as a process, not as a product or performance.  Yet, too often it seems that teachers are expected to solve all the pieces of the puzzle at once. The teacher’s piece is important, because the star will not be there without the teacher – but other pieces are equally important. Each and every teacher in the world should know that they can choose how they teach: teacher centered vs. student centered way, viewing learning as a product vs. process, cooperatively vs. competitively, creating opportunities to practice choosing vs. expecting blind obedience, and so forth.   All these choices are available for teachers to use in any given system or while teaching any given curriculum.

These everyday pedagogical choices are made either instinctively or with awareness of making an active choice. Even deciding not to choose is a choice. My way of supporting teachers is twofold: to spread awareness about the fact that they can choose and then empower teachers to learn more about their choices.

We all as parents and teachers are trusted with great shared responsibility: to help next generation achieve their full potential. So, supporting teachers in their important profession should be an easy choice.

What can you do to support a teacher today?

Keep on learning!

15 May

An educator can never cease to learn – but what makes learning meaningful to us?

We know how important (free) play is for children and how much it contributes to their learning – I think the dynamic way of play is the main contributor there (don’t have any data about this, but to me it seems like common sense: being able to control the play and make sense of the sensory feed related to it).  And I assume that is what fascinates adult learners, too, the ability to connect ideas in a playful way.

Every day we gain more information about how learning happens: with imaging techniques researchers are able to track what areas in our brain are active during learning. We know how each brain is different, and how learning is individual, and how different people manage and manipulate the knowledge in unique ways.

How about teaching? Are we still using the same teaching methods that were common hundreds of years ago? Teaching and learning are like the two opposite sides of a coin – inseparable but opposite. We educators must learn to match our teaching styles with the dynamic view of knowledge, and find new ways for facilitating our students’ learning.

Teaching is about communicating one’s own knowledge and understanding of the subject to students who either absorb it as is, absorb it with internal modifications, or discard it. Learning is about constructing a worldview. Facilitating students’ learning means helping our students to construct their own understanding of the subject, and negotiating the meaning of the words and concepts with our students until it makes sense to them.

We teachers don’t like to have someone to come and tell us what to do. Very few students like that either. To have an effective educational system, we must understand that effective teachers are simply facilitators of students’ individual learning processes – and the ones who incite the spark of lifelong learning.

Of course, if you have lost the passion of learning you cannot transfer that to your students either. Facilitating our own learning is the beginning.

What do you need to do to find the old flame, and fall in love with learning again?

Choose your focus

14 Mar

Anything you pay attention to in your classroom will inevitably increase. It truly is as simple as that. The human perception focuses on things we expect. This is why verbalizing your positive expectations in the classroom will make a difference.

As a teacher you are externalizing your values and beliefs while you teach, i.e. communicate with your students.  So, if you expect students to hate learning…. well… that is what you will get.  And vice versa, if you expect every student being capable for learning and submitting good quality work, that is what you will get (sooner or later- be patient).

Focusing your communication on what you want to happen in your classroom creates the expectation for students. I am talking about the subtexts of the classrooms anywhere, on any level of education.  There are ancient and new studies about this issue, one of my favourites being the Pygmalion Effect, of course. And I know already visited this issue in the post about Hidden Expectations, but  I wanted to focus more on communication here, and emphasize its effects on learning. Or, not learning.

Every teacher knows how it is not only important what you say, but also how you say it and the non-verbal communication accompanying your message. These three are commonly referred to as verbal, paraverbal and non-verbal messages, and the emphasis of each of them changes a bit depending on the age of your students. The younger the student, the more emphasis you need to put on the para-and non-verbal messages. Often this is expressed with a triangle showing a small portion on the tip being the verbal communication, and the other two being the  over 90% majority of what children actually receive. For more mature students the verbal message is stronger, but the other two parts of your message still remain important.

But there is actually more to that. Your classroom practices must match with your communication. If your words (and expressions) are being positive but the undertone strongly negative, students will be following the latter. Having practices that promote initiative, autonomy and student accountability strengthen your positive messages in the classroom, and also strengthen students’ understanding about their own learning process – which of course makes giving positive feedback even easier.

Creating positive spirals in classroom is easy! It is also a choice each and every teacher has to make. It starts from stating positive expectations to your students, and then making sure your classroom practices match with your words.

What do you want your focus to be?

How to build student centered class environment?

25 Feb

Student centered teaching is a way of making teaching and learning better in the classroom. As this is a highly qualitative measure, it is sometimes hard to summarize the necessary changes or easily communicate the differences between student-centered and traditional teacher-led instruction.

What makes definition even harder, is the fact that student centered education is not really a method. It is a philosophy, based on the fact that each human being learns individually. What is taught in a classroom is not necessarily learned, because each student has a different perception of what was taught – and that is exactly how it should be, if we want to foster (critical) thinking skills. When we are asked to follow someone else’s thinking we will not create the same competence as while thinking it through on our own.

There are certain indicators for student centered teaching and learning. The three  main characteristics to define whether a learning environment is student centered or not, are the use of cognitive, constructive and cooperative tools in teaching and learning. One very simple “measurement” is to pay attention to the amount of open-ended questions (as opposed to questions that have just single one correct answer). The other measure is the amount of individualization used in the classroom, and the learning environment supporting learner’s autonomy in majority of tasks and assignments.

Open-ended questions cater for the cognitive growth of your students.  These questions also help your students grow as learners and understand the way their individual learning happens when they hear different correct answers to the same question.  Discussing about the different points of view leading to these answers helps students understand the connections between concepts, and thus caters for deep learning.  When you as teacher know how learning happens, you can easily guide students beyond rote memorization. The question to ask yourself while planning the lesson is: what will my students really learn about this?

Individualization sometimes seems like a bad word, or being something that only adds to the load for the teacher. But it does not have to be  that way. Constructive teaching is student centered and acknowledges the importance of building the content to be learned so that it meets the students’ increasing understanding about the subject matter. Of course,  introducing more complicated concepts after the basics have been learned is just plain common sense. But, the constructive way I have taught with also includes the idea of providing choices for students, so that the more advanced students can learn further on their own speed, while those students who may need extra time can review the content one more time, if necessary. This is not hard to do. And it still is basic common sense: keep the learning meaningful for all of your students. I used to assign different homework for students, too.

Learner’s autonomy requires cooperation in the class.  Only cooperative learning is student centered, because teacher-led instruction is based on the teacher telling students what to do. Cooperation must happen between students to provide deeper understanding about the subject. Sometimes the students’ choice of words makes it easier for another student to understand, because they share the approximately same language level, which is not the case between the teacher and student. Cooperation  in the teacher-student relationship takes away the unnecessary power struggle between teachers and students: why have a battle when we are aiming to a mutual goal? Providing autonomy in class empowers students to learn more on their own,  and makes them become more interested in things they learn at school. This of course decreases the need for behaviour management in your class, when everyone is engaged in learning. Seems like a win-win situation to me!

Teaching How to Choose

20 Jan

Making good choices seems to come naturally for some students while others need deliberate coaching to become successful learners navigating the educational systems. By allowing choices we support our students’ self-efficacy. With choices we are communicating our confidence in our students. It is letting our students know that we believe they can learn, and that we are always happy to help them.

There are things in the classroom that must be done without getting into negotiations about how and why, and we truly cannot let students rule and do whatever they please in the classroom. However, allowing choices makes it emotionally easier for students to agree with the mandatory things. Yet, this is not the main benefit of teaching how to choose. Only through making choices we can train our executive functions and create accountability for our own learning [1]. Learning to make good choices is a just another skill to learn. Knowing how to make choices contributes to our higher-level thinking.  We should not deny our students this opportunity by having too rigid rules that allow no choices.

Choosing how to teach has an absolutely essential counterpart: teaching how to choose!

How to add more choices into your classroom?  During a regular day we have many opportunities to allow choices, starting from choosing whom to work with. By asking students to choose a partner who can help them in this assignment you are also encouraging students to recognize the good study habits of others. By providing a variety of assignments to choose from helps students to better articulate their competencies. By letting students choose which task they want to start with helps them understand their personal preferences.  By unpacking how decisions can be made and what we might want to think before choosing is a foundational skill in early grades. By asking students verbalize the steps they took while making a decision makes the process of choosing more visible. I think the ways of introducing more choices in learning environments are virtually infinite, if there is the will to make the change to happen.

Balance is important. If there are too many choices, students may become overwhelmed [2]. Embedding all three parts of Teachers’ Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) framework to teacher training or PD is a way to ensure the necessary skills for fostering learning process by designing supportive instruction and assessment [2].When educators have enough knowledge of how to support students’ individual learning processes, embedding choices becomes much easier.

My personal credo about the best teacher being the one who makes herself unnecessary by empowering students become autonomous learners carries my values within it.  Our job is to help students to learn on their own, so that they can become life-long learners.

I believe, that only by allowing students to practice making good choices in an emotionally safe learning environment where their opinions or beliefs are never ridiculed, we can help the next generation reach their full potential and become critical thinkers. There is no shortcut to wisdom.

Other posts about choices:

Why choices are so important for learning process

Self-efficacy for deeper learning

Self-deternmination and learning process

Learner agency

🙂

Nina

[1] Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 134(2), 270.

[2] Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?. Journal of personality and social psychology79(6), 995.

[3] Sonmark, K. et al. (2017), “Understanding teachers’ pedagogical knowledge: report on an international pilot study”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 159, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/43332ebd-en

Finding the Balance for More Effective Teaching

28 Dec

Imagine a wheel, like a bicycle wheel. What would the ride feel like if there were bumps on the wheel? Yet that is how we tend to emphasize only one aspect of learning and teaching in our classrooms.

Finding a balance is not always easy. After all, we have so very many details to include to our daily classroom teaching that it is sometimes hard to keep our thoughts straight. Here is a very simple 1-2-3 tool for checking the balance. It covers the most important areas of classroom teaching, no matter what level or grade you are working with.

1. Co-operate. Provide emotional support in the classroom. It helps your students learn, because they feel safe and more comfortable (read Mazlow if you don’t believe just my words). Be aware of learning problems, as well as the social ones, and address them in timely manner. Emotionally safe learning environment is the first premise for good quality teaching.

2. Be constructive. Create or adapt a classroom management system which is compatible with your own values and ideas about good teaching. Having extremely clear expectations for students cuts down the need of behaviour management – when student know what they are supposed to be doing creates lots of opportunities for the teacher to compliment them for their dedication and participation. Maximize the learning time by providing autonomous learning choices after finishing a task.

3. Strengthen the cognitive learning. Cater for concept development by asking lots of open ended questions and teaching your students ask those questions, too. Make sure to stop to listen to the answers. Provide feedback during the learning process instead of evaluating only the end result. This is the most important single thing enhancing their learning. Only those mistakes that are allowed to be corrected can help students learn more.

These steps also empower your students to move towards autonomous learning, because they focus more on learning than on teaching. And that is how it should be. After all, we are in the classroom to help our students learn, are we not? And one part of helping could be providing them a bit smoother ride.

Meaningful Learning and Effective Teaching

27 Dec

Teaching is such a wonderful profession!

We are trusted with great responsibility. Teachers all want to positively affect the lives of the students they teach.  However, being a teacher is not always easy.

Learning and teaching are two different things. They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom).

If learning is seen as an in-built force within your students, the teacher’s job just became much easier in an instant. By remaining as a facilitator for learning and letting the students build their own knowledge, the teacher has taken a huge step towards utilizing the learner’s autonomy.

Students are led into the learning process and given freedom to choose (within pedagogically appropriate boundaries) how to construct their own knowledge and which learning activities to use in order to reach the mutually discussed learning goals (of the day or week – teacher should take responsibility for the larger goals). Ideally students are also allowed to choose the evaluation methods they feel being most suitable for their needs, but the teacher should lead the students utilize wide selection of assessment.

In the previously described learning environment learning is authentic, builds on higher level of thinking skills, new information becomes part of the students thinking process and the learning objective is comprehended as a part belonging to a bigger entity.

Thinking from the viewpoint of teaching things appears to be very different. It seems inevitable that the teacher must somehow capture and keep the attention of the students. So, in order to get and keep the attention the teacher must motivate the students to learn and probably even entertain them so that they will want to continue learning. Small rewards (and penalties) are utilized to focus students’ concentration into the desired learning objective, and students are led through a teaching procedure with the hope that it would change also there thinking and not just their behavior.

I can help teachers achieve high academic standards and provide tools for you to make learning and teaching more effective and enjoyable.  Send Nina a message and learn more. And click here to find Nina’s Notes about teaching and learning. I hope you enjoy!

 

The One Key for Being a Good Teacher

27 Dec

The key is teacher’s desire to empower her/his students to learn autonomously. Ultimately this makes the teacher become unnecessary. Of course, first you must convince your students that you are not a threat to them, but an ally.

Empowerment makes students want to learn. You can call it reverse psychology, or just avoiding the reactions of students when they are told to do things they might prefer not doing. Ultimately it is about teaching accountability, and doing things because they need to be done, not because someone tells me to.

The way empowerment is visible in the classrooms lies in the cooperative way of learning and teaching. We have a common goal. We work together towards reaching it. (This is so simple that I almost feel silly typing it down! – Yet, it still is too seldom practiced in our classrooms! Too many teachers engage in unnecessary power struggles every day.)

There is also a cognitive aspect in empowerment: unleashing your students intellectual curiosity. Helping and guiding students in their learning process is a non-threatening way to assess their learning, too. We all have different approaches to learning, and evaluating the process rather than the product gives much more information about how your students are advancing.

The constructive part of empowerment is helping your students make well informed choices every day. Small and big choices, but both equally justified – because it helps us understand why we do certain things. The important thing is to reflect back to previous experiences and build on the understanding we gained there. After all, we all helping our students to construct their own view of the world we live in.

Your life – your world – your choices.

I wish all students were empowered to know that!