Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What now?

I have been home now for six weeks. It has been a whirlwind time for me including things like taking my oldest son to his final chemo treatments (he will be fine, Thank God), enjoying time with my youngest son who was here for two weeks from Paraguay where he is a Peace Corps Volunteer and jumping back into school which included final lessons, the 8th grade class trip to New York City, report cards, graduation speeches,  cleaning my classroom and attending workshops. Whew! Throughout this time I have had quick conversations with many friends and colleagues and the most common question is, "Now that you have been to Finland, a country which has the reputation of having one of the best education systems in the world, what would you change here if you could?" Great question! I have been thinking about this a lot and have come to the conclusion that I wouldn't change just one thing but I would like to start with five things. So here are my suggestions:

Ellen's Top 5 Recommended changes for Education in New Hampshire generally and Deerfield Community School specifically.

1. Less Testing and Evaluation
Finland schools do not participate in all the testing that we do in American schools. In fact they feel that this testing is detrimental. Teachers know where their students are by closely monitoring their progress daily (something that American teachers do as well). If a student is falling behind they get them immediate help. Every school has trained special education teachers. Some of them co-teach in the classroom, and some have pull-out groups, but all support the classroom teacher in helping meeting the needs of their students. Another important point is that around 90% of the special education teachers were classroom teachers first. I think this is an important distinction because they understand what it is like to be a classroom teacher and how best to help them.
The other important factor in this discussion is that the children don't need to be tested every second because  there is trust that the teacher is doing the best job that he or she can do. There is no competition between schools and the principal doesn't evaluate the teachers. (Quite frankly an administrator does not need to be in a classroom to know if a teacher is doing a good job. Students and parents talk!). Given the amount of time that I have lost my students to testing (One year I didn't see them for 3 weeks!) I have to agree that the time would be better spent in learning.

There is one other big difference in this testing environment. While Finnish students are not subject to NECAPs, NWEA and Smarter Balance, to name a few of the yearly tests they take, there is a final test at the end of 9th grade. Education in Finland is compulsory to the 9th grade (about the equivalent of our sophomore year in high school). If students want to continue their education after 9th grade this test helps determine their placement because they must apply to go to high school. This causes students to be more serious about their education and take more responsibility for their learning. Students can also repeat 9th grade if they need another chance to do better on the test. I believe that fostering this sense of individual responsibly is often lacking in our education system.

2. Recess
The average Finnish school schedule includes 15 minutes recess after 45 minutes of instruction. Some schools will combine two 45 minutes classes and then have a 30 minute recess or a few different variations, however, recess is an important part of the school day right up through ninth grade.

This chance to be outside and be active is very important. Studies have shown that recess decreases acting out behavior, and improves attention, mood and working memory, especially for our students with Attention Deficit Disorder. In addition, allowing social time helps students develop their social skills.

A couple of years ago we started allowing recess within our forest at the edge of the play area. Students started working together to build things like dams and forts. The teachers in one grade level commented to me that they saw their students develop collaboration skills and they had less behavior issues in their class.

So why then don't we have more recess in our schools? This is not wasted time!! I know that in the middle school recess has been pretty much eliminated and I hope that maybe I can change this.
Students at recess in a city elementary school in Helsinki

3. Looping
Looping is the concept of teachers following students through multiple grades. I found this to be a common practice in Finnish schools from first through sixth grade. (Teachers often teach 7th through 9th grade so while this isn't a traditional "looping" they often have the same students in these three grades) Several teachers in the elementary grades mentioned to me that they had the option of following their students to the next grade level. In some schools teachers might just loop with the students from first grade to third and then a different set of teachers looped from fourth through sixth grade. However, I was very impressed with one school I went to, where the philosophy is to loop all the way from first grade to sixth grade. Here each grade level has two teachers who stay with the class for 6 years and co-teach the group. I have been told many times that research has shown that looping has several advantages. While I have not actually read any of this research (I plan on doing this this summer), I have experienced advantages when I started looping my own students from 7th grade to 8th. I have found there to be a strong advantage in having my students again the next year. I save a lot of time the second year because I already know their capabilities, I know what they have studied, I can build stronger connections with the curriculum, and I build stronger relationships with the students. I also believe that an advantage of looping is that the teacher gets a better understanding of the curriculum and how learning progressions work with the child's development.

First Graders who will stay with the same group of teachers through the 6th grade.

4. Place-Based Education
As I have mentioned in past posts I was very impressed with the environmental education I saw while in Finland. People are truly connected to their environment. Approximately 86% of the population has a summer cottage. They are proud of the fact that it involves very rustic living, often without electricity but always close to nature. These summer cottages are sometimes on one of the many islands in the Gulf of Finland, or close to their surprisingly high number of lakes. However, they aren't all what one would expect. Before I left Finland my advisor invited me to her summer cottage.  It is right in the heart of Helsinki, but closed off by tall hedges and trees. No cars are allowed in and it is full of very small plots each with a tiny cottage. Each plot is surrounded by hedges, shrubs and trees and everyone has gardens. It was like this beautiful oasis closing out the city, but only a short subway ride from their main apartment.

I grew to realize that knowing your environment was a very important concept to the Finns. It is an important piece of their science curriculum and I had several professors mention it when I talked to them. However, knowing your environment isn't just about knowing trees and birds and other wildlife. It is about being aware of your surroundings. I had one professor tell me that it is important for young students to get themselves to school through either walking, riding a bicycle, or taking a bus. Even at such early ages as 7 and 8. This is because one is much more aware of their environment if they must circumvent it themselves. Think about all our children who take buses or are driven to school. I bet few even look out the windows much less could get there on their own. Lately, our society is making it difficult for parents to even let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school. This is crazy and we are losing an important connection to our environment.
Summer cottages in Helsinki

When I got home I read two of David Sobel's books called Place-Based Education and Beyond Ecophobia, both fantastic books that I highly recommend. David Sobel found that students need to learn their own environment and appreciate it first. If you bring up global issues too soon, children feel helpless and actually close down and become uninterested in their environment. Getting students to appreciate their environment is best done through place-based education. "Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. The first step, in children aged 4 - 7,  is to create empathy between the child and the natural world. They can play as being birds, butterflies or trees that live in their backyard. Exploring the nearby world and knowing your place in order to bond with Earth is the primary objective between the ages of seven to eleven. Social action begins around the age of twelve and hopefully extends into adulthood.
I realized after reading these books that this is what is happening in many Finnish classrooms.
3rd grade students testing the water quality from the estuary 1 block away Helsinki, Finland

1st grade students learning about their local forest (Savonlinna, Finland)

One might say that it works in Finland because of the cultural differences. However, it has been found to work in American classes as well:
          "A recent study of 40 schools across the nation indicates that using the environment as an integrating context (EIC) in school curricula results in wide-ranging, positive effects on student learning. The study found that EIC improves student achievement in social studies, science, language arts and math. Students, teachers and administrators also reported other significant effects including: development of problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills; increased enthusiasm and engagement in learning; and gains in summative measures of educational achievement such as standardized test scores and grade point average. (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998)
So I will be trying to implement place-based education in my school. I find it ironic that I went half way across the country to find something that works so well that has been promoted in my own country since the 90's!

5. Teacher training
The last issue and an extremely important one is teacher training. In Finland being a teacher is a very highly respected job. Many prospective students apply to become elementary teachers but only less than 10% are accepted. Students enter college in a teacher education major. They spend five years focusing on being a teacher and taking courses to that end. Lastly, to be a teacher you must have your masters.
Preservice teachers getting science training and the University of Eastern Finland
Preservice teachers practicing the dissection of a fish before working with 3rd graders, University of Helsinki

Here is a link to a presentation that I created which discusses in more detail science education in Finland: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/15CHHdHGLRbfyW8Xb208TM-cKTfQ8iEE6IdF3AjUE-BY/edit?usp=sharing
So this creates an atmosphere of trust between society and schools, something that is sorely lacking in the US. One might say, "But we can't change things here." I totally disagree. This wasn't always the case in Finland. They made this change in the late 70's and it wasn't always an easy sell. However, they can certainly see the advantages of it now! We should raise our standards for becoming teachers in the US, and decrease the number of students going into education (there aren't enough jobs anyway). If we made it very difficult to become a teacher, and the public becomes aware of this, I believe the perception of "teachers" will favorably change. Others might say that unless you increase the pay that teachers receive you won't get these good candidates. While I agree that teachers deserve good pay, I don't believe that this will stop dedicated people from wanting to go into education. And of course once the stigma of being a teacher is lifted you will get many more young people wanting to be teachers. We need to start somewhere and I hope that some states will get the strength to make these changes and show the rest of the US that it works.

So these are some of the major focuses that I will be working on for the next year. I would love to hear peoples comments and I will keep you posted on my progress.

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