10 Decisions Finland Makes In Schools That Can Directly Inform Our Post Pandemic Response

Cross posted from Learning Sets

When  Finland was recently crowned happiest country again in 2020, we reached out to our Finnish colleague to check in and see how he and his country were faring. Two and a half years ago , we had an opportunity to co-design and take a tour of Finnish schools with  Educational Leadership Consultant Mikko Salonen.  We recently corresponded with him and he wrote:

At the moment, we are making plans of opening the society after the pandemic, and how to repair the damages on learning and how to mend the learning deficit. We have gone through a very hard period of remote teaching and learning in basic education, high schools and universities.  Also we have a big concern about how to help those who are suffering with mental problems, loneliness and other problems caused by the pandemic. 

The political decision makers are working on these issues in close cooperation with the professionals (education, health, etc).  I believe that we will be able to tackle this challenge by doing multi-professional cooperation, but it will not be easy and there is no quick way out. We are very proud of our country and the achievements we have reached as a society. Our society functions well, is safe, clean and sustainable, and we can trust both each other and those who have responsible positions in the society. 

As Mikko suggests, Finland’s story continues to be one of reckoning, resilience, and future-forward thinking. To be clear,  Finland hit the reset button beginning in  the 1970’s when their education system and economy was struggling.   Their education saga has been nothing short of  extraordinary (aka the Finland Phenomona). As we continue to be responsive to what our right now learners need and how we can become more agile in our curricular and structural choices, we reflected on lessons that could help fuel fresh possibilities for any school around the world.

  1. Teachers work in teams with the same group of students over several years providing not only community but increased opportunity to know each child and apply consistent support for growth.   Research on long-term grouping points to the benefits of sustained continuity with a group of teachers in contrast to the loss that occurs when student continuity is broken each school year with a new teacher and a new group of students.
  2. Teaching teams have a sizeable degree of autonomy on managing daily and weekly schedules which allows for highly responsive instructional approaches to student learning.  Flex-time is key in order to take a deeper dive with learners who need support and to explore questions and possibilities with learners.
  3. Phenomenon-based learning is an integrated part of the curriculum.  The national guidelines ask that each learner have at least one substantial learning experience based on emergent and relevant real-world applications.  These are definitely interdisciplinary in design and fully engage learners in the process of relevant inquiry.
  4. Teachers and teaching are highly valued in the country.   Teaching is one of the hardest professions to enter given requisite high standards.    Statistically out of 8000 applicants for teacher education certification programs offered at the university level, only 10% are accepted  (according to the Kantor Education Policy Group ).  Highly educated and highly capable teachers collaborate throughout their professional careers are central to the success of the Finnish education system.
  5. Universal pre-K is essential to school readiness.  With a system that supports families with one year of maternity/paternity leave and universal pre-K in a rich environment supporting social and academic development.   Formal school begins at age 7 buttressed by this national commitment to support families providing equitable learning experiences.   Children are ready for school.
  6. Every teacher is entrusted to support every learner.   Whether it is working with new immigrants or students with special needs, each teacher has both the training and expectations to work with every child. There is an emphasis on working with students through both early prevention and detection to identify needs and attend to them. In addition, mental and emotional health and wellbeing is tended to through curricular programs as well as part of the tiered levels of support.
  7. The intentional use of formative assessments to grow the learning and the learner. There are limited pressures to finish work at the end of the class period. Encouraging learning — drafting an idea, making mistakes, and growing from feedback — is the dominant a way of thinking and working. This becomes the basis of the feedback cycle with teachers and students as they regularly conference to examine progression and determine next steps.
  8. Relaxed environment to grow autonomous learning.  When students are at ease and feel supported they step up and take increased responsibility for their own learning.  Finnish students are expected to be accountable for their own actions,  demonstrate their learning, and share how they feel about their learning.    The physical learning spaces provide outlets and opportunities for interaction such as ping pong tables, comfortable seating.   Students and teachers enjoying spending time together as they are working. This relaxed environment is also anchored by student self-directed tasks (e.g., cleaning the tables in the cafeteria, focusing on assignments).
  9. The leader’s role is to grow the capacity of the staff through strategic and compassionate approaches. Instead of taking a more aggressive approach through formal evaluations, building leaders acknowledge teacher emotions but work to change or grow their pedagogy.   Cultivating the relationship of teams is grounded on the concept of the circle of trust and is central to the leader purpose.   Teachers are committed to using their freedom wisely as they interpret National Curriculum and design learning experiences.   Leaders observe and consider how professional pedagogy and emotional support can be enriched through coteaching, flexible scheduling, or focus on a building-wide narrative (e.g., flipped learning, cultural competence).
  10. Clear national goals that commit to preparing every learner for the world we live in right now. The goals of the national curriculum are: growth as a human being and membership in society; knowledge of requisite skills; promotion of knowledge and ability, equality and lifelong learning. Every child is important to the society.

The shifts and decisions that Finland began to make over 50 years ago were compelled by a national commitment to the care and wellbeing of their students by aspiring to an equitable teaching and learning system for all. Finnish leaders continue to seek inspiration around the globe for fresh ideas to consider ways of thoughtful innovation while trusting slow growth to build expertise as they engage with complex problems, challenges, and ideas that are central to a creative economy.

Right now we are facing both the challenge and the opportunity to reset. Rather than simply admiring the Finnish system and their response to the pandemic, might we inform our decisions with insights from their extensive experience?   Our learners need us to step up and take purposeful action in contrast to going back to school.   They need us to move forward.

Cool Summer School: An Appalachian District Leads The Way

Cross posted from Learning Sets

Headlines announce and policies pronounce that 2021 will be the mother of all summer schools.  With schools and districts scrambling to make up for learning loss due to the pandemic, dollars are being thrown at summer schools to lift up students in order to prepare for the start of the upcoming academic year. Summer enrichment and remediation programs will get at least $1.2 billion.  “As schools approach the end of a full year of pandemic learning, however, summer school is being reimagined and broadened into what is likely to be the most expansive — and expensive — summer programming in modern history.” (Washington Post -Joe Heim, Valerie Strauss, Laura Meckler)

Yet, summer school often has a reputation for sluggish engagement with limited impact at raising the performance of struggling students. It is often viewed by students themselves as punitive. “I didn’t make it during the school year so now they are going to take my summer from me.”  Given the overwhelming numbers of students who have slipped precipitously during the school year it is understandable to want to use this particular  summer for in person teaching and learning experiences.   Is it possible?  We think that a school district in eastern Tennessee is showing creativity, rigor, and smarts in their approach.

Super Cool Summer School 

Carter County School District has a PK-12 student population of 5100 students located in the Appalachian region. Under the visionary leadership of Superintendent Dr.Tracy McAbee, a leadership team designed a 4-week experience “seeking to engage and to motivate learners this summer by making summer school cool and relevant.” The district is taking full advantage of their location to provide both an academic program with the remarkable resources of the outdoors that their location provides.

With imagination and a commitment to an integrated curriculum , Supervisor of Curriculum, Dr. LaDonna Boone, notes, “Our students K-8 will be fully engaged in exciting, language-rich programs each day that culminate with a full day Friday field experience.  We love living right  in our beautiful Applalachian mountains and we intend to make full use of them as a motivator for our students.”

The summer school is a purposeful link to showcase the integration of the sciences with language arts.  The program will run from 8 AM to 2 PM Monday through Thursday with a rich array of activities for learners in support of building up their skill levels and their confidence.   Friday, students will board buses for the nearby mountains for their guided nature experiences that will be planned in conjunction with the curriculum during the week. Working with a lead science teacher, Tyler Chambers,  Dr. Boone hopes not only to get students hiking and interacting with nature  as young scientists but to bring back their observations as the basis for their language and math program during the other four days of the week.

There is more at work here, the district leadership is looking to develop interest and engagement in the sciences for the students in Carter County moving forward for the long term.   “We have a very strong athletic program and our students are motivated.  We want to engender the same in the sciences and see that our summer school in 2021 can be a launch for renewing those efforts.”

Lessons from Carter County 

With the fatigue and demands of the pandemic on teachers, students, and families this past year, the last thing we need is a frustrating re-entery into on-site learning that smacks of listlessness.  Students are going to want to enjoy their summers as are their teachers. As the recent Summer Learning Report from the Spencer Foundation notes two recommended guiding principles for developing summer programs should be to provide creative, inquiry-based forms of learning and to build from students’ interests and to take a whole child approach to their development.  Here are a few lessons from Carter County District as well as some additional ideas we have been picking up from other districts faced with this challenge:

  1. Interview and listen to your learners as soon as possible  before the start of summer school to obtain their ideas and interests so that your teaching staff has time to include in their planning.
  2. Look for community learning opportunities to integrate naturally with your academic program.
  3. Emphasize language rich experiences not only through academic vocabulary but sentence starters to help students share orally and discuss their experiences.
  4. Field trips built into the routine of the week will likely prove most successful.
  5. Encourage media making for students to document their experience.

Carter literally is looking in their own backyard for inspiration and engagement. Not all of our schools are located near beautiful mountains, forests, marshlands, or beaches. Yet, the possibilities for direct integration into our communities can serve as a spark to create summer experiences that can ignite interest, a touch of summer camp, and purposeful learning.

The school curriculum has stopped breathing. Let’s bring it back to life.

The school curriculum has stopped breathing. Let’s bring it back to life.

Watch Heidi share her insights on what we need to do now in this video from Big Think. 

Learn skills from the world’s top minds at Big Think Edge: https://bigth.ink/Edge

Ephemeral, Aerogel, Plinth: 6th Grade Vocab on State Test

Cross-posted to ASCD EDGE.

Let us peruse a list of words  featured on the recent sixth grade New York state exam:     




ominous situation 







Perhaps each of us should commit to using  these words today in our communications.  Surely one result would likely be alienation from our recepients. ( “Hey, how’s your aerogel?“)

Arguably there is universal admiration for a command of vocabulary, but the thought of eleven and twelve year olds wrestling with these words in a timed pressure cooker suggests an “ominous situation“.      What were these test makers thinking?  Perhaps they yearn to design those  SAT exams for seniors.  The sobering fact that the results will have a direct impact on how a teacher is evaluated points to a profound disconnect.   However, there is one phrase used in one of  the test items that is telling: “transitory moment of presence in a distinct location”.   Let us hope this is a transitory aberration.  

Against Technology (the word)

by Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Heidi-3-c-croppedUbiquitous in every sphere of education; the word “technology” is splattered loosely. No subliminal messaging here, the term is to mean that schools with wifi, tablets, one to one laptop programs, and smart boards are preparing students for the future. Simply having a computer doesn’t mean that the curriculum and instruction are contemporary and relevant. Students can be using the internet to research irrelevant and dated content. A word processor does not ensure quality writing competence. When a group of middle school students runs around campus with flip cameras, it is unlikely they will produce a first rate documentary. Perhaps there is some kind of magical thinking, that digital tools will prompt innovative outcomes.I share this concern as a firmly committed advocate for the modernization of learning opportunities.

laptopsMost telling is our current obsession with dated assessment forms. Teachers are not encouraged to innovate when their institutions are pushing time traveling to the past. Although mission statements are packed with phrases like “tomorrow’s school” and “careers of the future” and “global preparedness”, the truth is that all fifty states in my country value assessments that are basically identical in format to those used thirty years ago.Multiple choice, short answer essay prompts to de-contextualized paragraphs are the raison de vivre. Some national publishers are creating on-line testing, but the items are still the same type as those used when standardized testing first was developed. Certainly our learners need ACCESS to the global portals and dynamic applications available through digital media in order to become literate and connected, but access is insufficient.

We should pay attention to school faculties, leaders, and individual teachers who are actively and boldly upgrading curriculum content to reflect timely issues and problems and crafting modern assessments such as digital-media-global project based learning opportunities. Website curation, app design, global network research, and video/audio production are indicative of modern learning environments not only for students but for their teachers as well. What might happen if in our discourse we replace the loose use of the word technology with the phrase contemporary learning environments?

Cross-Posted to ASCD edge.

With Choice of New Leader, College Board Hopes to Extend Its Reach

Mr. Coleman has already said that he hopes to align the SAT with the Common Core standards, which could further alter the identity of an exam that was long ago conceived of as a measure of students’ abilities—and not as an achievement test. Moreover, he believes the standards provide a blueprint for helping more students succeed in Advanced Placement courses. “What the Common Core does in combination with the College Board is make it more realistic for us as a society to make sure that a kid’s educational life is richer and more rigorous every year,” he said, “so there’s not this sudden rise in challenge when it comes time to take an examination.”

Read the entire article here.

Reading In American Schools: Will Common Core State Standards Improve Literacy?

“As American students continue to fall behind foreign peers, 45 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a new set of academic benchmarks aimed at raising the bar for teaching and learning across the country.

But as John Merrow reports for PBS News, meeting the new requirements won’t be easy for many schools, as a long-taught reading curriculum for young children still learning to sound out words doesn’t comply with the Common Core’s guidelines for emphasis on nonfiction in literacy education…”

Read the entire article here.

City Instructs Schools to Expand Common Core Introduction

“Science and social studies classes could look a little different next year as all New York City schools gradually adapt to a new set of curriculum standards.

The standards, called the Common Core, are expected to be in place at schools across 42 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands by 2014, but New York City is introducing them gradually, increasing each year the extent to which schools must adhere to them…”

Read the entire article here.

‘Common core standards’: education reform that makes sense

“In June, a yearlong joint initiative by 48 states produced a set of uniform but voluntary educational standards in English and math. Urged on by the Obama administration, the initiative’s main purpose was to encourage states with low academic standards to bring their expectations into line with those of other states. Twenty states have already adopted the standards; 28 more, including California, are considering them. Texas and Alaska are the only states that declined to participate in the project…

California has among the highest academic standards in the country; the new “common core standards” would neither toughen nor weaken them appreciably. But the state still has something important to gain by adopting them: a more coherent blueprint for instruction that builds students’ skills in a clear and sensible way, and allows teachers to delve more deeply into each subject…”

Read the entire article here.

Advocates Worry Implementation Could Derail Common Core

“Now, the standards face what experts say is their biggest challenge yet: faithful translation from expectations on paper to instruction in classrooms.

The implementation stage brims with possibilities both promising and threatening, depending on one’s perspective…

…Whether opponents’ nightmares come true, or advocates’ hopes are borne out, will depend largely on how the standards are put into practice.”

Read the entire article here.