I’ve now visited 18 schools in Finland. (Or 19 if you count the one in which I slept for two nights, as all I observed there were kids eating, sleeping, and playing pool.) Setting up observations has been easy when my advisor has given me a contact person. Other observations have taken a bit more effort to schedule, and I was never able to get into some of the schools that I would have liked to learn more about.
My final school visit was arranged through a chance encounter. I was leaving a building at the University of Helsinki when I saw a man trying to enter the recently relocated education library. I told him that the books had been moved to the main library, and I asked what subject he taught. Math and physics! Oh! So before I knew it, I was on my way to visit his school, Yrkesinstitutet Prakticum, a vocational high school for Swedish speakers.
Approximately 5% of Finns speak Swedish as their first language, a remnant of the hundreds of years during which Finland was part of Sweden. All Finns study both Finnish and Swedish in school, and signs, food labels, websites, etc. are written in both languages. Families may choose to send their children to either Finnish or Swedish language schools. I previously visited a Finnish primary school that had a Swedish school within the same large building, but I had never visited any classes there. I’m still struggling to learn Finnish, so I didn’t want to throw any more languages into the mix!
Prakticum educates a total of 1100 students, mostly age 16-20, at the main campus in Helsinki and a smaller location in Porvoo. Career options include auto mechanic, chef, electrician, media assistant, hairdresser, practical nurse, and many more. Each program is designed to to last three years, but students may stay for a fourth year if necessary.
My host, Edward, wasn’t teaching on the day I visited, so he was able to show me around and share information about the school and its students. I visited an English class where I spoke about education and life in the US. Having never had the opportunity to chat with a group of Swedish-speaking teens, I asked about their experiences as Swedish speakers in Finland. Students shared their frustration with the stereotypes that many Finns have about them.
I visited the recently opened school store and had lunch in the restaurant run by students in the culinary program. I’ve eaten quite a few school lunches, so it was a treat to sample food that was different from the usual fare. And there was dessert! The restaurant is open to the public and is a great value. I only wish I had discovered it sooner, as it will be closed during the summer.
As when I visited other vocational schools, I thought about my own students who would fare better in a school that had options beyond the academic track. While I understand the good intent of educating every student with the expectation that college is the next step, it is not the best path for everyone. A teacher at Prakticum remarked that many of her students did not do well in their previous schools but are able to be successful here. And after completing the program at Prakticum, students are able to continue their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree at a polytechnic.
During their studies, students spend approximately half of their class time in practical training and the other half in academic classes. While in academic classes, students are grouped by their study program; a teacher might teach English or French to a group of chefs or math to auto mechanics. This allows teachers to stress practical applications in the workplace. In English class, students who work in the restaurant practice translating the menus. Math problems involving volume can use examples of cylinders in car engines. In addition to time spent on campus, students spend one or two months per year working at a job internship.
One of the aspects of the school that impressed me the most was the language skills of the students. Those in the English class, school store, restaurant, and auto shop were all fluent when speaking with me. Keep in mind that the students speak one language at home (Swedish), a second language when out doing everyday tasks (Finnish), as well as English and sometimes a fourth language. In the US, students are lucky if they are able to study one language other than English for 4 or 5 years. And the solution for students with language-based learning disabilities is often to exempt them from studying a second language. There has been a great deal of research on the benefits of learning languages, yet language programs are often one of the targets of school budget cuts.
I ended my visit with a trip to the auto repair shop, a well-equipped garage that looked much more professional than most of the places I’ve had my car repaired in Boston. The students were one of the most talkative groups of teenagers I’ve encountered, and they spoke at length about their experiences in school and about Finland in general. It was clear that they were enthusiastic about the time the spent in the shop, learning by working on cars for outside customers. I’d definitely bring my car here for repairs if it weren’t 4000 miles away.
I admit that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about vocational education before coming to Finland, as it’s not an option in my school district. But witnessing teenagers make excited comments about enjoying what they are doing has sold me on the idea. I’d love to have a second Fulbright grant to do a more in-depth study of the learning that goes on in these schools. If you’re an American teacher reading this, consider applying for a grant so you can study this topic, and let me know what you uncover!