Here’s a quick look into the school, where I currently work as a subject teacher. It’s been rather hectic lately, that’s why the lack of new blog posts.
In Finland’s system of basic education and high school grading is in general carried out numerically from 4 (disqualified) to 10 (excellent). Although most elementary schools give grading as verbal evaluation until certain age. Still, most students start receiving numerical grades latest from the end of elementary school around the age of 12 onwards. Vocational schools give grades from 1 (worst) to 3 (excellent) and universities apply grading from 1 (worst) to 5 (excellent).
Grades hold great power on the students, even as far as in terms of identity building. Actually in Finland there’s a gender-specific concept of ‘ten girl‘ (kympin tyttö) suggesting females are better students as well as the highest grade 10 is an ideal norm everyone should pursue. Grades are therefore a means to categorize students to ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones. Consequently, some students start pursuing after the highest grades with mixed motives. That begs the question have grades become an end itself and has actual learning become secondary?
Another dilemma with the paradigm of grading systems lies with their motivational aspect. They’re constructed upon the idea of external motivation since grading is enforced through curriculum, which students usually have minimal impact on. My ongoing concern with the current grading system is due to students not caring for school not aiming for better grades either. Are there ways of motivating students more evenly?
Perhaps there is. Lately I have been reading a book about ipsative assesment (Latin: ipse, “of the self”) by Gwyneth Hughes ‘Ipsative Assessment – Motivation through Marking Progress‘. It’s an inclusive and individual assesment method originating on internal motivation, in which students set the evaluation criteria themselves. That can be a learning goal, numerical grade or whatever one prefers. Also one’s performance isn’t compared to others – only on their own (setting it apart from the basic self-evaluation). I’m not proposing the current grading system to be scrapped per se, but instead complementing it with advanced and individual grading mechanisms. Sure, implementing them takes time and effort from the teacher/educational staff, yet may yield in better learning results.
Additionally, one could wonder perhaps the root cause isn’t grades itself but the way they are applied by teachers. Ideal scenario is that teachers review students’ performance through tests, essays, portfolios and so forth. And based on those curriculum-set criteria they evaluate each student individually. Problems arise however when:
1) Students don’t know exactly how they are evaluated
e.g. how a grade is formed and how to improve it?
2) Teachers assign grades arbitrarily
e.g. is there a pedagogical reason for a student to gain a higher grade? Is someone favoured?
To conclude, there’s much work to be done in creating truly transparent and motivating evaluation mechanisms 😉
Perhaps we’ve all been there. Getting swept into the world of internet and its infinite-appearing sources of information and media for countless hours – while the rest of the world awaits. Due to their ease of use, availability and cost-effectiveness smart devices are these days de facto method when connecting to multitude of sources and people.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as is evident by an article e.g. from The Sydney Morning Herald titled ”‘Schools need to react quickly’: Education expert urges smartphone ban“.
Let’s inspect the smart device phenomen more in depth.
For some students smartphones and tablets offer a way to shield oneself from the noise of the classroom. One may even escape reality. Additionally, listening concentration music while carrying out an assignment appears common. Some just play games during a lesson for the fun of it. There are certainly times when teaching can’t compete for the interest of a student.
Others search information with a smartphone when their laptop’s/tablet’s (or vice versa) battery has run down, but even then one has to question the ergonomics of a 5″-6″ screen compared to a device with double or triple the screen real estate.
In my experience teachers are divided into two camps on how to deal with the matter. On one hand there are those who ban mobile devices for the duration of the class. They have for instance trays in which everyone can put their mobile device. I’d say these teachers are in the minority.
On the other hand there are those who simply accept the existence of smart devices as part of the students’ everyday life. In this case, they’re the majority. Both camps might however utilize the devices in teaching if there’s an academic reason for it.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to ban smart devices altogether. At least it depends on the school. There are always teachers who somehow would slip from the agreed policy. Especially in Finland where teacher’s liberty is in particularly high esteem (pedagogical freedom). Also a lot of time and effort is consumed when trying to prohibit the use of smart devices.
Is it all in vain?
Smartphones etc. do offer ways to improve learning. It’s just that sometimes we don’t even fully understand how to utilize them more effectively. Case in point a company called PhoneLabs (see the short video) and their take on learning physics. Even though it’s not only about showing an application, it’s also equally important to teach how to use it (following the lines of Vygotski’s famous and often quoted ‘zone of approximal development‘).
If teachers only approve smart devices, without any indication of trying to utilize them in learning, their potential is wasted and in the process their causes for distractions maximised.
In the end these questions reflect the changes in our society. Today’s parents might be avid gamers, hyperactive social media users and keen music fans – and it all centralizes around a smartphone. Kids copy the aforementioned behaviour concept (transfer effect) and eventually display it in schools as well. It’s our job to seek a balance of smart device usage, be it in school or anywhere.
Let’s take a look on two most influential theories that have affected today’s learning and teaching styles.
- Behaviorism (theory related to ‘passive mind’)
-Teacher teaches while the students remain relatively passive
(interaction is limited)
–Teacher tells ‘facts’ which are then linked with students’ earlier knowledge (memorazing facts is also promoted)
-Learning happens individually in the classroom as a teacher-led process (80 % of the talk in class originates from teacher)
-Teacher knows everything
–Making mistakes isn’t encouraged, in fact mistakes are quickly overlooked so that they wouldn’t leave a permanent memory trace
- Constructivism (theory related to ‘active mind’)
-Teacher supports an active learning environment
(where students work together and discuss)
-Learning is based on understanding what has been learnt and processing that information
-Learning happens inside or outside the class
-Teacher as an expert, who encourages learning
-Teacher guides students to find solutions to problems
(main responsibility of learning lays with the student)
-Emphasis on learning strategies and creating new knowledge
Finally, many teachers combine these approaches. Based on the situation both of them prove useful in teaching – trick is to find the suitable balance 😉
Empathy is an important skill in todays interconnected and interdependent world with vast cultural diversity. Understanding others helps one to define oneself as well. That’s why teachers should emphasize empathy skills during teaching — also subject teachers, who in my opinion ever so often rely too much on their respective subjects.
In best-case scenario teaching empathy…
- Prevents exclusion and enhances team spirit (you become aware about how no-one should be left alone)
- Prevents bullying (you don’t feel the need for bullying because you realize how others feel about it)
- Improves multiperspective thinking and broadens cognitive skills (you learn to inspect e.g. global phenomena on multiple aspects)
- Develops anti-violent behaviour (e.g. naturalistic first-person shooter videogames blur the lines between fact and fiction and don’t usually pose moral questions for the players, but practising empathy helps one to see the deeper question of cause and effect)
How to teach empathy? Some examples:
- Practising emotions and how to express them
The first step is attaining self-knowledge through inspecting one’s emotions. Too little time is spent dealing with various emotions inside a classroom. Especially those as a result of a conflict. In any case, knowing yourself preceeds the greater understanding of empathy.
- Historical empathy
For instance teaching about world wars is difficult, since in many ways they remain distant – even story-like – for youth of these days. But if we include microperspectives and let students investigate world wars through a historical character (farmer in Soviet Union, young woman in Nazi-Germany) we can actually bring the world war reality closer to the students.
- Writing a letter
Students can write letters e.g. for immigrants (could be fictional characters) and share their perspectives. Writing something is always a useful exercise and also helps to develop abstract thinking due to the fact that there are no model answers.
Simulations offer a venue for argumentation and empathy. One can organize e.g. a United Nations simulation in which students need to represent someone else or another country and perhaps see things differently, through an unfamiliar ideology (also prevents xenophobia).
Last year I introduced ‘the most modern school in Finland‘. However, the variety of schools is broad so it might be interesting to check out another kind of a school –
one I deem to represent more generic school environment in Finland. Let’s go!
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…
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, 2012). 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 civics‘ knowledge 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.
- Finnish tradition has been consensus and authority driven.
Individual opinions have been secondary.
- 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?
- It’s ‘easier’ to teach when you avoid conflicts and different opinions. It’s a case example of teacher’s survival strategies.
- Behaviouristic teaching methods have their place, but perhaps there’s still too much memorising facts instead of practising actual skills in Finnish schools?
- 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.
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.
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 😉
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!