Where’s the fun in schools these days?

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New year celebrations — this year has begun hecticly, but insightfully.

During the autumn term I taught mostly in the upper secondary school, but I also participated in team teaching in elementary school (method that was pioneered by J. Lloyd Trump in 1952, more about this in future posts!). Long story short, based on my observations elementary school pupils (and teachers) seemed happier — something that might be totally obvious to you also from your personal experience. Elementary school lessons appear more fun and engaging whereas in upper school levels learning becomes more serious and uneventful. But why and should it be like that? 

Reasons behind why school becomes ‘more serious’ originate for instance in human psychology. First of all, let’s inspect the stages of psychosocial development one in general goes through during adolescence, according to Erik H. Erikson (1959). During early school ages 6-11 a child compares ones worth to others, for instance among pupils in a school class.
As such one questions: How do I fare compared to others?
Learning might feel then so fresh and exciting, yet the opinion and acceptance of others is regarded as highly important. Erikson stresses that a teacher should be aware of this phase and make sure that children wouldn’t feel inferior.

However, learning becomes more complicated the older one gets. During ages 12-18 a child might face identity and role confusion (even an identity crisis). Information is pouring in lightning-fast speeds and processing it all takes more and more time and effort. One might ponder then: Who am I? And when puberty hits one might come across depression and black and white thoughts might invade anyone’s mind. As teachers we should recognise these phases and wonder:
Are we demanding too much in school?
Are we sensitive enough for the needs of each individual?
Do we really know how the students are doing?

Moreover, especially in history topics like wars have traditionally taken a lot of class time. And those topics are tough to comprehend. It’s no wonder if students get depressed if they already go through an identity crisis and we keep pushing wars and conflicts upon them. We shouldn’t avoid difficult topics, but especially subject teachers should broaden their mindsets and surpass their respective teaching subjects.
A teacher I deemed wise explained to me that it’s sometimes not of utmost importance if students don’t learn everything from the specific subject(s) one teaches — rather it’s more important if they learn skills to cope in life. And that’s perhaps the greatest lesson of them all…

Weak political discussion culture in Finnish schools?

According to a survey conducted by the Finnish Board of Education (2011) there’s a weak discussion culture related to political and social issues in Finnish schools. In fact the aforementioned has called for the society as a whole to provide prerequisites for building an identity that allows positive encounters, interaction and democracy between people. Even according to teachers, student opportunites to participate and have their say at school should be improved (Eränpalo & Karhuvirta). Students of all age should be able to form and voice their opinions safely in a school environment – what better legitimate forum to foster argumentation there is than schools? In my opinion a more open discussion forum also advocates inclusion, something that every teacher should ultimately strive for.

Another study made by International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (2009) suggests that young Finns have exceptionally good level of civicsknowledge internationally. Worth noting here is that young Finns actually evaluate their skills to be significantly worse than young people in many other countries. Low self-esteem or lack of self-knowledge perhaps? In any case while young Finns seemed to have proper level of civics’ knowledge in international comparison they weren’t interested in politics and participation (though similar results were also found in Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia).

Finland is relatively open-minded and a democratic society.
But are teachers unable (or unwilling) to evoke discussion inside a classroom?
And why brilliant civics’ information levels don’t equate to higher participation rates?

Couple of aspects come into mind. Let’s inspect them.

  1. Finnish tradition has been consensus and authority driven.
    Individual opinions have been secondary.
  2. Albeit discussion culture was vivid during the 60s and 70s especially among leftists, political activism seems to have dried out (in comparison). Did extreme level of political participation translate to saturated political thinking?
  3. It’s ‘easier’ to teach when you avoid conflicts and different opinions. It’s a case example of teacher’s survival strategies.
  4. Behaviouristic teaching methods have their place, but perhaps there’s still too much memorising facts instead of practising actual skills in Finnish schools?
  5. Finnish civics’ education focuses on formal political sphere (high level of policy-making) whereas young people are interested also in the unofficial and down-to-earth ways of influence. We should find ways to bridge the former and the latter.

Lessons from halfway of the teacher studies

Having reached halfway of subject teacher studies in Finland it’s time to compile my experiences of the autumn semester. Spoiler: It’s been magnificent!

In the beginning

I was expecting a hectic season, but never realized how much the studies actually entail. I have had to divide my resources quite a bit. Stress levels have been high from time to time.

I was nervous whether I’d remember students’ names (in Finland we call students by their first names), but that process went like a breeze in the end.

I’ve been most surprised with

How much time it takes to craft a proper lesson. But as time goes by, it’ll get quicker.

Troubles tablets cause. I seriously doubt their practicality in profound learning.

The fact that however ‘modern’ Finnish school system might be, there’s quite a lot structural conservatism.

I have developed most in

Becoming increasingly aware and sensitive. And in fact, I find theory related to teaching fascinating. Perhaps one day I’ll teach teacher students as well?

Expanding my selection of teaching methods.

Fostering creativity and reforms.

I enjoy

How well and quickly students learn. Sometimes I feel my instruction for an assignment could have been better, but students surprise me with their skills and adaptability.

Immeadiate reactions one gets from the students. And I actually prefer direct feedback.

The constant need for improvization. Lesson plans always change somehow.

How well theory gets connected to actual teaching. And teacher studies include lots of interning!

Freedom on how to teach.

We should have more

Instructions on how to deal with challenging students and about teacher’s duty of secrecy.

I look forward to

Teaching in English as well as about the history of international relations. I need more challenge 😉

Finland’s 100 years of independence

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In celebration for Finland’s 100th birthday many locations featured for instance light installations in blue and white (Finnish flag) colors.

Today Finland celebrates its centenary. I thought it appropriate to look into some important Finnish basic education reforms made in the course of the past 100 years.

  • 1921 was the year when the law for compulsory education came into effect. Previously there had been a four-year ‘Volkschule’, an elementary school variant that didn’t realize equally in the countryside and cities. Some went into school, but many didn’t. But after 1921 each municipality was enforced to found and maintain a ‘Volkschule’, which expanded to a 6-year school. Therefore, basic education started gaining more ground and become available for wider section of people.
  • 1948 school meals started becoming universal in the sense that every pupil would receive one school meal free during each school day. However, it took a couple decades until free meal was reality in every school level. Yet, Finland was actually the first country in the world to serve free school meals.
  • 1956 was when free dental service expanded to cover most of the pupils (universal on 1972).
  • 1971 school week changed from 6 days to 5. No more Saturdays spent in the school.
  • 1972 was the year when first primary schools (peruskoulu in Finnish) were introduced in Finland, starting from Lapland and reaching Helsinki region in 1977. Primary schools made basic education essentially equal and further extended basic education: from then it lasted 9 years. Dividing into 6 years of elementary school in which class teachers give most of the teaching. And 3 years of upper level, where subject teachers give all the teaching. Mainly the same primary school institution exists today as well.
  • 1974 teacher training had previously been in the hands of ‘teacher seminars’ (sort of boarding schools), but now teacher training was transferred to universities that still train all the teachers.
  • 1985 first national basic education curriculum was released. In a sense it was a governmental instrument to guide teaching, but its purpose wasn’t to be identically transformed into a universal curriculum. Rather each municipality was meant to take cues from the national curriculum and based on it draft their own curriculum. From 1985 onwards new national basic education curriculums have been released every 10 years, the latest being from 2014.

Happy independence day Finland!

Pedagogical freedom — secret to Finland’s success?

Perhaps one of the most differentiating factor that makes Finnish school system unique, is the way of allowing teachers autonomy and pedagogical freedom (also called as didactical freedom).

It means that teachers in Finland possess a wide liberty to design and carry out school lessons. While the curriculum gives instructions on what and how to teach various topics, it doesn’t mandate time limits that for instance a civics teacher should give 2-hour lessons about European Union for high school students. Instead it’s taught as much as seen necessary by the teacher, in the appropriate course naturally.

A teacher may also choose what kind of textbook/ebook one uses and which teaching methods are applied with a certain class. That’s mainly because what works with some, might not work with others. Since each pupil is an individual and their development phases delicate as well as diverse, it’s best to tailor the teaching to suit different needs.

Pedagogical freedom also tells us that in Finland teacher’s expertize is quite trusted. After all, every qualified teacher from elementary school onwards holds a Master’s degree. No need for extra surveillance and strict mandates on how teaching is to be carried out (that’s left for the parents ;)).

Teaching is seen as a complex set of interactions. Improvization, lightning fast reflexes and adaptation to new circumstances are absolutely needed in teacher’s profession. That’s why pedagogical freedom gives room to manouver in ever-changing times…

9 myths about evaluation

Dianne Newman and Robert Brown (1996) have inspected myths related to ethics. Let’s delve straight into the topic by checking out these myths.

  • Personal ethical perfection precedes serious ethical thinking
    But that’s simply impossible, so one shouldn’t expect to become ethically perfect ever
  • Ethics is just valuing one’s values and all values are equal
    Some values are better and more universal than others
  • When crossing with conflicts, direct guidelines are found in professional ethics
    Professional ethics doesn’t present answers to every dilemma
  • Ethical ponderings belong to committees, authorities and so forth
    Nope, anyone can and should chip in
  • Some are just more ethical than others
    Anyone can learn to be ethical, it’s not a skill you’re just ‘born with’
  • Large problems are most important due to the fact they bring up ethical discussions into limelight
    But large problems start from smaller ones, so in order to be anticipatory one should stay alert and be willing to intervene in ethical misconducts — whatever the magnitude
  • Ethical evaluation means that people are first and foremost evaluated 
    Not necessarily, since also programs or any material component could be evaluated (people are now and then sensitive when it comes to evaluation, so it’s important to let them know about the procedure)
  • There’s no time for ethical pondering
    Sometimes it’s merely an excuse for walking away from responsibilities
  • Ethical vs. practical
    Ethics is somehow pitted against of being practical, while in reality both may exist at the same time and ethics should be seen as important for evolution’s sake

About evaluation principles

Newman and Brown (1996) have presented a helpful principle for evaluation: Evaluate as you’d like to be evaluated yourself. Let’s check out more of their principles for evaluation.

  1. Autonomy. Normally autonomy is seen as a negative right, right? 😉
    But autonomy can also be seen as positive, right for something. In a way, autonomy of pupils is greatly damaged in school evaluation: They usually don’t have say are they evaluated or not. Yet, by developing self-assesment, we can offer a path for pupils to have an impact on how they are evaluated
    (more about this in future posts).
  2. Avoiding harm. Teacher, especially in a school environment, has a lot of pedagogical power. Thus, teachers should avoid unneccessary side-effects of evaluation by weighing which evaluation methods maximize positive impacts.
    And one should keep in mind that pupils’ mental harm, stress wouldn’t rise too high as a result of evaluation(s).
  3. Doing good. Evaluation might feel cruel and repressive use of power. Especially since pupils are only just developing their self-esteem. Some pupils have the notion that a well-performing student equals a ‘good’ person. And through evaluation teachers might label someone as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
  4. Fairness. Equal, non-favoring and multiple angles incorporating evaluation is the key.
  5. Loyalty. Teacher should be trustworthy and accountable, that’s a given. But one might question loyalty when considering expectations of a pupil, parents, community, country etc. Where should teacher’s loyalty first and foremost lay?

Important values in evaluation

Evaluation is an extremely important aspect of teaching. That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate next few posts to the theme. Let’s start with important values in evaluation according to Race, Brown and Smith (2005). Evaluation should be:

  • Ethically fair and just. While learning experiences among pupils aren’t similar, in principle each pupil should have the same opportunities to excel. A teacher ought to make use of various evaluation methods so that no group in particular would be favored and that everyone could find a way to prove their skills.
    For instance using oral exams, portfolios etc. not only written exams.
  • Valid and reliable. In this case valid means that teachers evaluate only what they really wish to evaluate. If we are evaluating problem-solving skills we shouldn’t focus on clerical errors.
    Relibiality means the ability to avoid chance. A pupil’s exam results can’t rest on how tired teacher was when checking the exams (easier said than done 🙂 ).
  • Transparent. Pupils should be aware of evaluation methods and those methods must be in line with the curriculum. No guessing is needed when the criteria is clear, and that means less stress for the pupils as well.
  • Motivate to learn more. Pupils shouldn’t be encouraged to memorize everything just exam purposes. Rather, to plan their learning ahead. Jointly with teacher, if possible.
  • Demanding and enable excellence. Finding the balance where pupils are expected not too little and not too much is tricky. A teacher should generate a great empathy level and understanding about the character and skills of each pupil. In any case pupils are so individual that differentiated learning is a good goal (naturally depends on resources).

Everyday life decision-making simulation — a case of inclusive teaching

I’ve been developing an idea concerning everyday life decision-making, to be executed in a form of a simulation during a series of consecutive school lessons. In general the dilemmas with simulations are, in my experience, that they offer a venue first and foremost for enthusiasts. For instance I’ve been a part of couple European parliament simulations in which we dealt with vast issues like youth unemployment and democratic deficit. Moreover, the simulations were thematically linked to an intergovernmental organisation that might feel distant to young pupils.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about a simulation that would be more ‘down to earth’ and better connected with the pupils’ everyday life. The grand idea behind this kind of simulation is that instead of teaching (or preaching) about the importance of various democratic approaches and voting in general level, we would offer pupils a chance to gather experience firsthand how decision-making could work — though a pragmatic case example.

How often you see a teacher asking what would the pupils like to be taught about? Teachers might teach the importance of certain ‘democracy’, but how much of that you see realized inside a class room? Teaching is still unneccessarily fixed on formal politics where individual’s opportunities to influence are quite limited. Therefore, through simulation we would be empowering individuals so that they might realize they have a say and an actual effect how things play out.

This particular simulation would aim to 1) create greater inclusion, 2) focus on practical issues, 3) improve empathy,
4) develop negotiation and argument skills.

Everyday life decision-making

  • Concentrates on practical issues, for instance deciding about something related to school or its surroundings
  • Something to ponder about: Could pupils design a lesson? How much freedom should pupils have?
    1st lesson
  • The simulation starts from selecting an everyday topic
    (if it would impossible to choose, teacher could help to choose a topic)
  • Lesson continues with selecting roles: each individual/pair etc. would either represent an interest group (empathy practice) or just be themselves (argument practice)
    2nd lesson
  • Then everyone would prepare arguments based on the choice made during the previous phase and gather material to help to form an opinion
    3rd lesson
  • We would discuss, debate, agree/disagree and perhaps ultimately reach a compromise on the agenda

Finally, I still argue that schools should do much more to improve inclusive teaching. Too many pupils feel left out e.g. when a teacher designs lessons. If we never include pupils in teaching why should they care to participate later on?

 

Here’s how the most modern school in Finland looks like

The Teacher Training School located in Turku has over 1000 pupils as well as teachers and staff around 140. Further, around 170 subject teacher students intern there yearly. What’s more, this school in particular is rather international since one can hear around 40 languages there.

Both Finnish and English are official teaching languages as pupils may eventually graduate with an International Baccalaureate degree. Due to its diversity with people and school levels, the school offers great experience for a subject teacher student. But without further ado, let’s take a look on the school.

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Sitting in pairs or groups is often preferred when teachers modify layouts for classes. Additionally, group-working is emphasized in order to enhance social and interaction skills. Tables with wheels mean that it’s easy to organize the class to one’s liking.
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Out with the old, in with the new: touchscreen-enabled smartboards are becoming de facto displays in each class. Teachers often use e.g. video material during lessons. Yet, notice the three kinds of boards from different ages — there are still options to choose from.
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Each floor has common areas where one may study, hang around etc. Also openness is appreciated as instead of wide walls some classes have visible glass walls.
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Common areas also include various tables where pupils may work on assignments. Instead of studying the whole time inside the class, with permission of teachers pupils may do assignments outside the class. Consequently, flexibility and a change of scenery is valued.

Comments and thoughts welcome 🙂