Prakticum: practical education with a Swedish twist

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.

FullSizeRender-22My 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! Continue reading

SciFest field trip

I recently had the opportunity to tag along with a busload of primary school students for a three-day trip to attend SciFest in Joensuu. The students, who were from Koulumestari and Vanttila schools, were attending the festival to compete in the RoboCup Junior Finnish Nationals.


SciFest is a yearly festival that features activities and workshops for students and teachers. This year the festival celebrated the UNESCO International Year of Light. While this made for some interesting activities and displays, it also meant that the building was too dimly lit for easy photo taking! The festival included many booths with activities on topics such as computer programming, 3D printing, color mixing, light bulbs, lenses, colorblindness, and environmental issues. Many of the booths were run by students, ranging from university graduate students to those in middle school. Continue reading

Exchange year in Finland

DSC_4010What’s it like to spend your junior year abroad at Vaskivuroen lukio, a high school located near Helsinki? That’s what I wanted to know when I talked with with Blossom, a student from the small town of Vernon, Texas. She’s here through an organization called Youth for Understanding and is living with a host family in the city of Espoo. We got together over pastries at a cafe, and I asked her about her experiences over the past eight months.

Why Finland?

I knew that I didn’t want to go somewhere that everyone else went. I wanted to be different and not go to Germany or Spain, and I also wanted to go somewhere where I would feel safe and where there was a good education system. So I was thinking one day, and I thought, “Oh, Finland!”

What did you expect before you came?

I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew about saunas, and I knew it was going to be cold here. I knew that the education system was going to be good, but I didn’t realize how different it actually was, with a whole different culture. Continue reading

Teacher training in Finland

One of the unique aspects of teacher preparation in Finland is the use of teacher training schools. The University of Helsinki works in cooperation with two local public schools, Viikin normaalikoulun and Helsingin normaalilyseo, where students do their practice teaching. I previously tried to schedule a visit to Viiki using a teacher contact provided by my advisor. After getting in touch with the teacher, I was contacted by a school administrator who said I’d have to pay 350 € per day to observe classes! I understand that they must get swamped with requests for visits. But I’m placed at the University of Helsinki for my grant, and it’s a school where students from the university are trained, so it was a bit surprising to be asked to pay for access. The challenge of arranging school visits is a common topic that comes up when Fulbright teachers get together.

I am taking a course on the Finnish educational system, and the professor arranged for those of us in the class to visit schools in small groups. Helsingin normaalilyseo was one of the options, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go there without having to do the legwork (or pay). We were only able to observe one class (English), but we did have some time to ask questions about how teachers are trained.

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Space & innovation

Over the next several years, my school will be hit with a huge increase in enrollment, and there is a bit of anxiety about how we’ll expand to accommodate everyone in time. Some of the Finnish schools I’ve visited are having similar issues. One is the Metsokangas School in Oulu, which educates 800 students in grades 1 through 9. The campus started with one building, expanded to two, and is now building a third. I spent two days touring the facilities, observing classes, and talking with the vice headmaster about the expansion plans. I wish I would have had more time, as I feel like I only got a taste of all the happenings there. The teachers and kids had such positive energy and everyone seemed to enjoy being there. This super music video made by some of the kids (in English) gives you a taste of what it’s like. The song will also stick in your head for ages.

I spoke to a few classes about school and life in the US, and then the students practiced their English by asking me questions they had prepared in advance. My favorite was whether I had visited Springfield, home of the Simpsons. Students start studying English in 3rd grade, and I was impressed by how well the 4th graders could speak. They put me to shame when comparing my Finnish to their English!



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American education in the media

Two aspects of Finnish education that are commonly praised are the lack of standardized testing until the high school matriculation exam and the freedom teachers are given to teach as they want without interference. This article in today’s New York Times gives some insight into the extreme measures American schools sometimes take to ensure that their students perform well on state exams. It’s quite an interesting read for anyone who wants to learn about the impact of high-stakes testing on the school environment and the job of a teacher. Yes, the kids in the profiled school are quite different from those in the typical Finnish school. But can we not find a better way to educate disadvantaged kids than to stress them out so much that they wet their pants? It’s sad that parents are lining up to get their kids into this type of school, as they see it as the best chance for their kids to gain access to higher education.

This American Life, my favorite radio show, recently produced a story about two different schools located three miles apart. One is a pricey private school, and the other is an underfunded public school. You can listen to the podcast here to find out what happens when students see the difference firsthand.

They’ve also produced some other shows about education that are worth a listen. One is a two-part series (part 1 and part 2) about Chicago’s Harper High School, which has lost many students to gun violence. Another is a story about what happens when the allocation of local school funding goes astray.

Choices, choices, choices

Compulsory schooling in Finland ends at grade 9, when students are 16 years old. At that time, students can apply to an academic high school (lukio) or a vocational school. Vocational programs last three years and include an internship. Course requirements in high schools are also usually completed in three years, but it is possible to finish in two or to stay for a fourth year. As there are no dead ends in the Finnish educational system, students may apply to a polytechnic or to a university after completing either type of secondary education.

Source: Finnish National Board of Education

This week I visited two schools that provide vocational education as well as an academic high school. Like many high schools, the one where I observed classes offers specialized programs in addition to the general academic curriculum. There are schools that allow students to concentrate on visual arts, performing arts, sports, media, languages, or sciences. Continue reading

An astronomical week

Despite being in the center of the city with lots of light pollution, I was able to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights on Tuesday. Once I realized what I was seeing, I rushed to grab my camera and tripod and headed toward the water, hoping to find a darker location than my apartment building. Unfortunately the intensity faded quite a bit by the time I located a somewhat dark spot atop a rock outcropping. It’s quite crazy that after trips to Iceland and Lapland, my first viewing would be this far south, but in a way it was better that it was a bit of a surprise. I also made the mistake of forgetting my remote shutter release and a flashlight. So I’ll call this a learning experience. Hopefully my next encounter will be in a spot where I’m not fighting against ambient light that makes long exposures difficult.



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Circuits and the Arctic Circle

Despite studying Finnish for over a year, I had never learned the word piiri, which translates to “circuit” or “circle.” During my trip to Lapland to visit the Ylikylä School in Rovaniemi, I became familiar with both translations.

arcticcircleArriving during the weekend, and armed with a rental car wearing studded tires, I had the opportunity to be a tourist. On my way from the airport to town, I made the mandatory stop at Santa’s Village. I finally figured out that all the signs for napapiiri were not directing me to a town of that name, but rather to the Arctic Circle.

My original plans didn’t include dogsledding, thinking it to be the touristy Lapland equivalent of a Central Park carriage ride. But another Fulbrighter highly recommended it, so I decided to give it a try. I’m mighty glad that I went, especially as I had the sled to myself and got to drive for the whole 2 hours through snowy forest. My dogs were crazy fast, so I had to stand on one leg the entire time and hover the other leg over the brake. It was nice to finally find a real-world application of all those tree poses I’ve done in yoga class. Unfortunately the guy driving the sled behind me wasn’t similarly skilled. He somehow fell off of his sled, leaving his dogs charging toward me as they pulled his wife and 2 kids, who only stopped when their sled hit a snowbank and a tree. Continue reading

Walk, bike, ski, or sled?

With Helsinki being rainy and gray at this time of year, and missing all of the snow heaps my friends at home in Boston have been enjoying, I had to head north for a taste of winter. I traveled to the cities of Oulu and Rovaniemi to visit two schools. I’ll be writing some posts about the lessons I observed, but first I’ll share what I saw kids doing when they weren’t learning academic subjects.

It’s possible to take an overnight train to Rovaniemi, but I opted for the much faster plane ride.

Upon arriving at the Metsokangas School in Oulu, the first thing I noticed were the skis. It looked like I might be at a cross country ski center in Vermont. But then I saw the bikes. I’m 100 miles (160 km) south of the Arctic Circle, and kids are biking to school in February. Wow. It was quite a warm day, hovering right around freezing, but most bikes in the US at this time of year are stored in garages or basements, covered with a layer of dust, and in need of a tire pump. Most American elementary school students don’t even bike to school when it’s warm out. And the streets and sidewalks in Oulu were were sheets of ice flanked by huge snow piles.

Skis for gym class

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