June 12, 2013 - For the past ten years, Finland has ranked number one in the world on a test that measures the competency of high school students in math, science and reading.
Last month, Oakwood Elementary Principal Kristy Spann traveled to the Scandivanian country to learn the secrets of their educational success.
The Brandon educator was able to take the trip as a participant in the Gerstacker Fellowship, a 1-year program run through Saginaw Valley State University for which she and 11 other educators from across the state were selected last fall.
"It's a capstone event placed in the middle of the fellowship," said Spann of the trip. "SVSU has a focus country each year, where the country is recognized for excellency in education. Part of the fellowship is taking a good look at who is doing great job and what they are doing that we could be doing."
Spann was nominated for the fellowship by Brandon Superintendent Lorrie McMahon and after an interview, she was notified in November that she was selected. Each month, she meets for four hours on a Friday and eight hours on a Saturday with the other fellowship members to grow their educational leadership skill set, including communication, ethics, finances, human resources, politics, and organization, all while keeping a global perspective.
"I am surrounded by 11 other educational leaders who are intelligent, visionary, conscientious people who are looking to make difference in education," she said. "By spending time with them as well as the SVSU faculty for various topics, we are able to grow ourselves together."
The group is assigned homework and works together cooperatively as well as alone, having conversations on preparing students for the global workplace, as well as policy and writing effective grant proposals. The group members were assigned to read "Finnish Lessons" in preparation for the fellowship's annual trip. Finland was selected this year because they have ranked #1 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2003. The test, developed by the Office for Economic and Collaborative Development, assesses the competency of reading, math and science in students who are 15-years-old. Teens are tested in roughly 37 different countries, including the United States, although Brandon students do not take the test. Finland students have finished first every year since 2003.
Well, Spann notes that between 1970 and 1980, Finland made a lot of changes to develop "perskoula," their school for grades 1-9. In Finland, mandatory education begins at age 7, a year later than the U.S. While Finnish students attend school for the same number of days and the same number of hours as U.S. students, they have frequent breaks throughout the day. They also do not take standardized tests until they take the PISA at 15.
Spann was in Finland with her Gerstacker Fellows from May 11-19, and visited the capital, Helsinki, as well as Turku and Hyvinkaa. She noticed many similarities.
"The same way we try new ideas, they do that also," she said. "We have specialized schools, magnet schools that concentrate on arts or technology, and they do, too. They have some of the same problems—students struggling with poverty. Although they don't have the amount of poverty we have, but they still have 50 percent of parents divorced, parents who fight for custody, the same struggles with parent involvement. While the government supports the schools, they are coping with economic decline. Their teachers are unionized. Their curriculum is changing just as ours is."
In Finland, teachers do not begin instructing students until they have earned their master's degree, however. Another difference is that Finland does not have the issues of diversity that the U.S. does, Spann said. Their population is 92 percent Finnish, 5 percent Swedish, and 2 percent immigrants. She noted that the Finnish have a homogenous background and by and large the natives identify religiously as Lutherans.
On the trip, Spann visited a preschool (the U.S. kindergarten equivalent), two peroskoulas, a high school, a vocational educational program, an international school, and the Finnish equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education.
Her personal observations are that there seems to be a more relaxed atmosphere and more relaxed relationships between students and teachers.
"The kids call teachers by their first names, the teachers have lunch with the kids, the kids run around in socks," Spann noted, adding that the children are very respectful and are obviously engaged in learning and working hard.
Lessons that are 45 minutes in duration are followed by 15 minute breaks. Kids go outside whether it is snowing or raining.
The arts are also revered in the country, and the value placed on them is abundantly evident, with examples of calligraphy, woodblock prints, clay and paintings everywhere. Even the door handles and wrought-iron gates are works of art.
"There is something to be said for that," said Spann. "The arts play an important role in thinking and creative problem solving… We value arts, but we have it once a week for 40 minutes, music once a week for 40 minutes, and PE once a week for 40 minutes."
Also as part of their journey, the American educators visited the Chamber of Commerce in Helsinki to hear from the business community and whether they felt the Finnish graduates were prepared for the world of work.
"Interestingly, the world of work doesn't necessarily feel the students are as prepared as they should be," Spann noted. "So while these kids perform well on PISA tests… the business world is not concerned with how kids do on standardized tests, they need people who can be part of a global workforce, can solve problems creatively, take initiative and assume risks. Our trip affirms that the world needs a workforce that has these skill sets. When we take a look at what educational systems are doing, we need to make sure we're striking balance between a knowledge base that serves people well, but we also need to be working on life-worthy skills."
Spann believes the U.S. public education system addresses students with special needs better, and her Finnish counterparts agreed. They are seeking to learn from the U.S. and integrate their special needs students, who are currently separated into special schools.
Spann plans to share details of her experience in Finland at Oakwood and districtwide, with discussions of the balance between work and downtime, as well as the value of the arts in all disciplines and ensuring teachers and students are not driven by standardized tests.
"It was really affirming that all of us in Finland and the U.S. are passionate about doing what's right for children," Spann said. "We have the same struggles and the same dream—we really want our youth to grow up to be happy, successful, responsible citizens."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville