Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Finding Similarities in Our Differences

I went to two classes at the secondary school yesterday – in the morning I attended an English class for 16-year olds and in the afternoon I went to a science class for 17-year olds. 

In both classes, the students were well behaved, attentive, and doing their work with respect.  When it was time for the science students to get their microscopes, they did so without problem.  When the students were asked questions they did so with focus and intent.  They were relaxed, and participatory. Several students had their shoes off with their thick woolly socks poking out from under the desks.

At 15-years old, Finnish students are done with their compulsory education and can either continue with secondary school, go to a technical/vocational school, or not go to school at all. Any or all of these choices is acceptable but they are encouraged to participate in some sort of continuing education.  The young people can change their minds later – even much later in their lives. The students I observed were in secondary school by choice; they had the goal of continuing their academic education, and, I imagine, going to the university for further training.

I wondered if students felt pressure to go to college like they do in the U.S. and I had the opportunity to ask a 23-year old man this same question. He said no, he couldn’t remember ever being pressured to attend a university but he always felt he would pursue a higher degree.

Clearly, the American education system and the Finnish education system, and cultures, are quite different.  Many people have asked if what I learn here in Finland can be transferred to the American system of education; it’s a very good question.  

What I observed today is that the teachers had time to teach their concepts in a relaxed environment, they had time to work with their students and they did not focus on rote memory; the teachers used a high level of comparing/contrasting to get their students to learn new information. I also sensed an underlying (almost intuitive) commitment on the teachers’ part to get students to learn the knowledge in ways relative to the students’ own lives. 

Here are two examples:

In English class, the students were asked not only to learn vocabulary words in their English class, but to determine how these words and meanings are used differently in British English and American English, an important distinction in the European Union. They also read a story about Amelia Earhart and how she found the courage to pursue her dreams.  The teacher was emphatic about telling the kids that they should feel good about themselves and pursue their dreams and not to be shy about it - which is not typically Finnish. She encouraged them to go about getting their dreams by "going through the gray wall!"  (What is the gray wall? I didn't know so I asked her about it later; she said it refers to a very important Finnish story called, "Sisu," which is about using perseverance and doggedness to accomplish one's goal.)

In science class, the students evaluated what would happen in a lake environment if the pH level in the water changed over time due to acidification. They studied not only the causes of acidification, but also what would happen to the individual plants and animals within that ecosystem if acidification increased.  What would survive, what would die, and what would happen in their own local ponds and lakes?  I would not be exaggerating to say the teacher used 8-10 different charts and graphs with scientific data to discuss the concepts from many different angles - and each chart was given substantial time to discuss the concepts. 

When the students left the classroom, not all the chairs were pushed in and several students chose to leave papers on their desk and not clean up after themselves.  

After school, there were students smoking just off the school campus and others in the school hallways clearly rebelling against the system. I've heard these students would more aptly be the 7th and 8th graders - those who were here still completing their compulsory education.

In many ways our children are the same but the conditions they are in are quite different.  I'll be sharing more in the days to come.


  1. Will you have a chance to visit a technical/vocational school?

    1. Hi Richard! I'm going to make a point of it. There are MANY technical/vocational schools in the area and I'm curious to see them, just like you. We were driving into town the other day and I saw a large building with large windows and it looked to be a design center... but no, it was a vocational school! And the next building was just as big with windows that showed lots of polished chrome and pans hanging from the ceiling - another technical school. Quite different and wonderfully refreshing to see.

    2. Too bad we can't send Huell Howser over. You'll have to do his work.

      Decades ago my dad wrote the grant for the Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance. We were always so proud of that place and the opportunity to gave to kids who wanted to work. http://www.scroc.com/about/about.php

  2. Janet, there is an interesting piece of false information in the beginning: there is no compulsory exam for the 15 years old. They simply leave school, everything that is compulsory is done, no exams required. If they choose to continue their education at a vocational school or a high school they apply for it. In most cases students are accepted based on their GPA, some schools arrange qualification tests of their own. The only compulsory national test is taken after high school, called the matriculation examination and students are 18 at that time.

  3. Thank you, Anonymous, for your comment. I have fixed the error.