Notes from a visit to Helsinki, August 2016
Tom Bielik, CREATE for STEM
Finnish people don’t smile when they walk past each other. That was the first thing I noticed upon arriving in Helsinki on a sunny and windy August day. Several of the Finnish teachers we worked with later confirmed this. It appears that Finnish people are much more ‘slow to melt’ (in their own words), and they appreciate keeping their personal space clear and minimizing their communication with other people. From my experiences later on, I could also add that they tend not to ask too many questions when in large groups, and also fail to provide any feedback unless strongly pushed to do so. This, however, greatly changes when you start interacting with them on a personal level. Once they feel comfortable, the Finns will happily share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. And then you discover that they are a warm, kind, and happy people – in their own special way. This is the background to my week-long visit in Helsinki as part of our work on Crafting Optimal Learning in Science Environments, an NSF-supported PIRE (Partnership for International Research and Education) project. Our work is a collaboration between a team of researchers from MSU led by professors Barbara Schneider and Joe Kracik, and researchers at the University of Helsinki. The goal of the project is to investigate optimal learning moments for promoting students’ engagement in high school physics and chemistry classes, both in the U.S. and in Finland.
Schools in Finland, as observed in the two high schools I visited during my week there, are not much different from schools anywhere else. Some students are at a high level while others have behavioral issues. Some classrooms are highly advanced and technologically-oriented; some look the same as they probably looked 100 years ago, with dusty portraits of former head principals hanging on the walls. The science curriculum in Finland, which is centralized and provided by the government, seems to focus on teaching as much content and as many skills as possible, peaking at the matriculation exams taken at the end of high school. The classrooms we visited seemed to be relatively small, ranging mostly from 15 to 20 students. However, the teachers claimed that most of their classes are usually much bigger, with up to 35 students. In most days, students have 3 periods of 75-minute lessons, with 15-minute breaks in between. In some classes I saw traditional teacher-centered, problem solving-oriented, content-based teaching. In other classes, however, a more hands-on, student-centered collaborative learning was practiced. Most students in these classes looked like they were happy and engaged in performing the experiments, and expressed satisfaction from their teachers and science lessons.
It might seem like the Finnish educational system is quite ordinary. However, there is an obvious difference in the teachers. Teachers in Finland are highly appreciated and very well respected and trained. They are considered to be professionals and experts in their field, both in the science discipline they are teaching and as educators in general. They have the autonomy to teach however they want, as long as they keep up with the curriculum requirements. The teachers feel proud of their work, and this is reflected in how they are viewed as trustworthy. The environment itself around the teachers also supports and empowers them. The principals, school staff, parents, and students seem to be highly respectful of the teachers.
Becoming a teacher in Finland is not an easy goal to achieve. Teachers are carefully selected, and only a small percentage of candidates are accepted to start their teacher training programs. Candidates must have at least a master’s degree in the field of science they want to teach. They study and train for many years before they are allowed to start teaching. Once he or she receives a teaching certificate and is accepted by a school, a teacher will usually stay there for many years, becoming an integral part of that school. School principals are selected from among the school’s teachers, therefore allowing opportunities for teachers to advance to other responsibilities and higher positions. This makes the profession of teaching science in Finland highly professional, respected, and rewarding, which enhances the level of teaching in the schools and contributes to high student achievement.
Visiting Helsinki and working with the teachers and researchers there was an eye-opening experience. The culture, the city, and the people are quite different fin some ways from those in the U.S., but they are also similar in other ways. Perhaps the Finns can learn from us how to smile more to each other, and we can learn from them how to make our teachers more professional and respected.