Teaching in a diverse class

What are aspects to take into consideration when teaching in a class with lots of diversity?

Let’s check out.

  • Parents
    Sometimes a person’s primary source of sosialization (to what one identifies with) is with one’s parents. Various cultural conceptions and values might hinder learning. That’s why it’s beneficial for a teacher to get somewhat aquainted with parents. But a question lingers: How well should a teacher know students’ parents?
    In any case if parents don’t appreciate education that might severily hamper one’s learning process, and in ideal case a teacher should be aware of those kinds of obstacles. That’s why it’s crucial parents work for the same goal as teachers: to provide basis for learning.
  • Diagnostical evaluation
    A teacher could perform a diagnostical evaluation initally to determine the base level of a multicultural student (actually this should be done with everyone). Especially a new teacher lacks knowledge about students’ reservations and can not direct teaching optimally for individual needs. Though in a sense ignorance is a bliss, since new teachers also make observations with different bias than seasoned teachers.
  • Majority or minority?
    For instance in history teaching one needs to ponder the balance between ‘national’ and ‘international’ history. If the history teaching is excessively focused on national thematics, it could lessen the interest and make one feel exluded. Teaching involves identity-building and that should not be tied only to national interests.
  • Language difficulties
    In my opinion reading and writing difficulties are the biggest common denominator among students across age. Subjects such as civics entail plenty of concepts that might feel abstract and distant, that’s why much attention is needed that concepts are explained thoroughly and through practical examples. Students might feel scared to bring forward their learning disabilities, but a teacher should be sensitive to these issues.
  • Avoiding conflicts
    As noted in previous blog posts, discussion culture in schools is at times problematic. Students are undemonstrative when it comes to expressing their opinions publicly, because they are cautious of ridicule and judgment (perhaps a sign of times, where public opinions are sometimes quickly judged online?). Special challenges arise when there’s particular diversity in the class. Each individual is somehow different in terms of learning. Therefore it is essential that discussion skills as well as expressing and interpreting emotions are practised.

My new school

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.

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My new classroom with a smartboard. Currently I’m streaming content via Chromebook to it. Additionally, I emphasize group-work.
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Students have decorated many of the walls, so that it doesn’t look so mundane. Good inclusive initiative for students to improve school atmosphere with art and knowledge.
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Colorful public space for students to read, discuss and hang out.
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This is where students can spend time between classes and enjoy playing pool or drinking coffee.
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The concept of gender neutrality hasn’t reached these toilets 😉

Power of grades

 

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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 😉

Another glimpse on schools in Finland

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!

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Lobby featuring lockers. Nothing too fancy 🙂
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‘Welcome’ in various languages. Internationality is valued here (at least it’s prominent).
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Second floor is equipped with a ping-pong table to encourage activity during recesses. The picture doesn’t tell, but it seemed very popular.
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Art (not sure if it’s student-made). Plus pictures of a few old Finnish presidents. Modern art meets classic portraits?
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Recycling point for bottles and cans (very common to recycle those in Finland). Also bins for carton and energy waste.
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No smartboards etc. found here. This school isn’t on the edge of the newest digital trends (should it be is another question) 🙂
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Teacher’s table. Document camera is a very common instrument in Finnish schools. It’s practical when displaying paper images and written texts to the whole class.

 

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, 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 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 – retrospective look on educational reforms

 

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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…

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 🙂