Saturday, February 28, 2015

Finnish Education

Many of my friends have been asking me questions about the Finnish education system so I thought I would devote this post to what I have learned so far. Finns think very highly of education. The most important feature of the Finnish education policy is a commitment to a vision of a knowledge-based society. Not only does Finland put a lot of resources into their education system for children, but they also have a strong education system for adults. Comprehensive education is free. That means that school books, meals, transport and health care are provided free of charge. Furthermore, there is no tuition for college and advanced studies. The goal in this country is to promote educational equality and they don't believe that a person's economic status should prevent this. When I think of the school loans that my sons are weighted down by, I have to admit I am jealous and envious of Finland's approach to education.

All children must attend school from first grade to ninth grade. First graders are seven years old (one year older than our students). Most children also attend pre-school and day-care which is offered through their municipality.
6 and 7 year olds visiting the forest
5th Grade class learning about seasons

2nd graders learning about bones

The school day is much shorter than ours in the US. Children start school at different times depending on their schedule. Some at 8:00 and others around 9:00. In addition their day can end anywhere from 12:30 to 2:30. Part of this is because while the schools have music, art and PE, if the student has a real interest in these things they participate in classes or activities offered through the community. In other words, a student will go to school and have basic classes but then after school they might go to a sports club or an art or music school. Very different than how we provide things.

However, because of this Finnish youth are very independent. I have seen children as young as about 9 years old taking buses and subways by themselves. They go to these activities alone or go home, often to an empty house.

After 9th grade, if the students want to continue with their education they can go to either a vocational or regular high school. However, they have to apply to these schools. That means that while they have attended their local primary school in their community, they may not get accepted to their local high school. The acceptance of students into high school is based on their previous grades. This is mostly just true when they are in a city like Helsinki that has a lot of schools. Typically country schools would only have one high school so this wouldn't be an issue for them.
High School Students, Grade 12 in physics class

Grade 8, Physics Class
At the end of high school all students take a final matriculation exam. This exam is not only for graduation but also for entry into a university. This is the only national exam that is taken. They have nothing like our NECAPs or smarter balance or the multitude of exams that we submit our students to. In fact, all the testing that many countries, like the US does, goes against the Finnish philosophy. They focus on providing excellent teachers, good solid curriculum, providing resources and then trusting their teachers to teach the students what is important!!

Now the last thing I want to talk about are the teachers. All educators in Finland must have a masters degree. Many teachers I have met, no matter the grade they teach, have doctorates. Teaching is a highly respected occupation. In addition, it is very difficult to become a teacher. Universities only take top students into their programs. In order to apply into a teaching position (grades 1-6) a candidate must pass a test on assigned written material and an interview. It isn't just about grades, but also about an individuals characteristics that would make them a good teacher. In grades older than 6 they must be qualified in at least one subject area, and most often they are qualified in at least two. So they study their area of expertise for three years, have one year of pedagogical studies and the last year for a master's thesis. Lastly, special education teachers must be classroom teachers first. Then they apply to the special education program and if they get in, they take further studies.
This is a science methods course that I audited at the University for pre-school and kindergarten teachers.

So I hope this was a good overview of the Finnish education system. They must be doing something right because not only are their PISA scores very high  but the variation between schools is the lowest of all the countries that participate  That means it doesn't matter if you go to school in the city or way up north in Lapland, students have the same access to good education.

Now, I didn't talk about everything so if you have questions please let me know. Also, your questions will help me make sure that I am getting all the information I need while here. I think that we could learn a lot from the Finns. Hope to hear from you. 

Oh I almost forgot the Finnish word today is  "koulu"  It means school.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Arctic Experiences

The northern most part of Finland is called Lapland. This is the largest and northernmost region which borders Sweden, Norway and Russia.
Lapland is a must see if you get the chance to visit Finland. My husband and I traveled there by overnight train. After 13 hours we arrived at our destination. The train ride was horrible. The seats were uncomfortable and the bright lights are on all night. However, the destination was worth the trouble.  Our first morning we were picked up and driven north to do a husky tour. Both my husband and I got a chance to drive the dog sled for about an hour each. I have to say it made my top ten list of the most fun things that I have done.

Husky tours are a great way for locals to make money as they are very popular with the tourists. 

Another big tourist draw is Santa's village. You see Santa actually lives in Finland and his work place is in Rovaniemi at Santa's village. Children come from all over Europe for a chance to meet Santa Claus and let him know what they would like for Christmas. Santa actually speaks many different languages. Visitors can write postcards and have them delivered on the next Christmas. Santa's Village is also located right on the arctic circle. So many go here just to say they have crossed the arctic circle.

Lost my reindeer!

This is the building where Santa works.

The other big business in Lapland has to do with reindeer. While there are some wild reindeer, most of the reindeer live on farms. They are raised for meat. During the majority of the year the reindeer are allowed to roam freely. I have been told that it is hard to drive around without coming across reindeer on the road. Unfortunately, since we went during the winter, the reindeer had been rounded up and were kept in enclosed places. We went to a reindeer farm where we could feed them. Some reindeer herders also offer reindeer sled rides.
Reindeer sled at Santa's Village
Me feeding reindeer

I loved Lapland. The area was harsh but beautiful. The sun didn't get high in the sky and the daytime was short, but the air was fresh and crisp. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see the aurora borealis, which was a total bummer, but I have never seen so many stars in the sky.

Unfortunately, climate change may change these arctic regions. NASA research has shown that in the last 166 years the Northern Hemisphere have increased in temperature by .93 degrees C. However, Finland has increased by 2 degrees C. In fact, Finland is the fastest warming country in the world. I know that all winter everyone has been telling me that the weather has been changing. We had a very warm winter here with very little snow. Quite different than what was experienced in New England!

However, change in the arctic regions of our world have many people concerned. Obviously we are worried about animals that live in these cold places, like polar bears. But there are more concerns than that. Ice melting means less light is reflected back into space. Remember the albedo effect? More heat is being absorbed by oceans and land that once was ice. Also permafrost, land which has been frozen for at least two years, is defrosting. All the methane gas in the permafrost gets released into the atmosphere and methane is an even stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Lastly, arctic ice melting means that we are opening up parts of the ocean that have never been accessible before. People are starting to think about the possibility of natural resources, such as oil, that might be recovered in these northern regions and the creation of new shipping routes. 
Increased shipping and drilling for oil will add more environmental pressures, such as oil spills and boat traffic, into this already fragile environment. To try and combat this impact the eight arctic countries, USA, Canada, Russian Federation, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland formed the arctic council. (Question: Why do you think Denmark is one of the countries??) The purpose of this council is to address environmental protection and sustainable development issues in the arctic region. There are also six indigenous groups who hold permanent participant status and other countries who are observers. The council has six active committees and gets together every two years. If you are interested in more information about what they do go to this website:

However, there are several groups who don't feel that the arctic council is doing enough to save the arctic. This became obvious to me when I happened to ride a tram past the harbor and saw a Greenpeace ship moored there. I was very excited and told my husband that we need to come back and get a picture,

Greenpeace ship in Helsinki Harbor
You see Greenpeace is a nonprofit environmental group that started in 1971. I remember news stories about how they would try and get in the way of whaling boats so that the whalers couldn't kill the whales or taking movies of whales being killed and making them public. They are a non-violent group, but may go to places where they aren't allowed to be, so that they can gather information. They made the news a lot in my younger days and I was excited to see one of their ships.

Anyway, when my husband and I came back we found out that they were having an open boat day. We went on a free tour of the boat. It turns out that this boat, "the Arctic Sunrise" was designed as an ice breaker and is now a research boat for Greenpeace collecting data on climate change and the arctic region.  This boat had recently been in Russian waters and was boarded by soldiers with guns. This is a video of that happening.
The crew made the video while they were being boarded and one man quick ran to the computer room to upload the video to youtube. This is the door that was broken down by the soldier to get to him!
The boat was detained for 10 months and much of the equipment and all the small boats were confiscated by the Russian government. They were leaving the next day to try and stop ice breakers from helping oil exploration ships do tests for new oil resources.

Can you imagine being a part of this? It must have been very scary. Anyway, I want you to think about what you are willing to do for things that you believe in. And I am going to leave you with this video that I found on the Greenpeace website. Oh but before that I need to give you a Finnish word. How about "Karhu" it means bear. When I think of arctic issues I always think of polar bears. It breaks my heart to think that they may go extinct in my lifetime. I think they are such beautiful creatures. We may be left with....
These polar bears were on the Greenpeace ship

Please watch this video and think about how you would answer this question.

Greenpeace video, "What Would You Do?"

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Finnish History

How did the country of Finland start? Well this is an interesting topic and is actually one of the least understood of all European cultures. So far the archaeological evidence suggests that people from the Baltic Sea region gradually moved into Finland from 1800 BC to around 400 BC. There isn't a lot of archaeological information because of the ice age. However, it is believed that this migration came from Western Europe and Scandinavia. (Note: Finland is not considered part of Scandinavia)
Finland is a land of forests and lakes and early Finnish people were  hunters and gatherers, living in clans. It is thought that in 1157, King Erik of Sweden decided to tame the Finns and bring them christianity. In addition, owning Finland secured them with safer trading routes to the east.

Sweden was to control Finland from 1157-1809, nearly 700 years. During this time the eastern border of Finland was often in conflict with Russia (Today Finland and Russia have a border between them of  833 miles). In the last war between Sweden and Russia the important island fortress, Sveaborg  (later renamed Suomenlinna), surrendered to Russia.
Suomenlinna from the coast. The large tower is now used as a lighthouse.

King's Gate by the sea. This is where the king would land when coming to the fort.

Looking out over the battlements. Cannons cover the whole ocean side.
In 1808, Finland became part of Russia. In the 108 years that Finland was owned by Russia, they had five Russian czars. Each czar had different approaches to Finland and how much autonomy they wanted to give them. They changed the capitol of Finland from Turku to Helsinki since it is more easterly located. Many buildings in Helsinki are of Russian architectural design.
Helsinki Cathedral (built after the cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia)

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki (largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe)

During the time of Russian ownership, the sense of a separate Finnish Nation grew. Leaders started uniting the Finnish people and Finland finally earned their independence on December 6, 1917 after several revolutions.

Now that is a very short history and it misses all the really fascinating dilemmas and intrigue.  European history is so interesting. While we had pressures from France, Spain and obviously England in our US history, all these countries were across the ocean. Look at a European map and you see how close the countries are to each other. Think about how much this proximity to your neighbors can affect your future. Furthermore, there is a lot of influence by monarchies as well as religion. Kings and Queens of European countries were typically related to one another, and marriages were often formed to create alliances. In addition, there were many different religious pressures and religion often drove rebellions and wars.

So in the end, after hundreds of years of being owned by other countries Finland is an independent nation. Finland still maintains a close relationship with Sweden. After all many people in Finland are of Swedish decent. Swedish is the second national language in Finland and all students are taught it in school along with Finnish. (They also take a third language when they are older, about 9. So think about that if you are complaining about your language class!) All signs are in both Finnish and Swedish and all places have both a Swedish and a Finnish name.
Street sign near me. The top is Finnish and the bottom is Swedish.

 So that is it for our short history talk about Finland. I will probably show you more as I travel to other places. Meanwhile it is time for the Finnish word in our post. Today I am choosing "Suomi."
It means Finland and I for one am very glad that they gained their independence.